Humanities Course Descriptions


The state of Virginia describes the Governor’s School for the Humanities as offering “opportunities to explore how modern society requires, encourages, and restricts individuals as they seek realization of their creative potential.” This year students will explore humanities in the digital age across a range of topics. Each year, however, we strive to develop programming around a unifying theme. This year’s theme is “Illusion … Reality … Perception.” Students will be enrolled in two of the following four-week courses:


Morning sessions:

Creative Reality – The Art and Practice of Documentary Film

Michael Meindl

Documentary films (and reality shows, televised news, etc.) are thought to be non-biased and “truthful.” An audience assumes that what they are seeing is an accurate representation of reality. However, the process of creating non-fiction media is one filled with choices that can manipulate material and affect the perception the audience has on the subject. This course explores both the theory and the practice of capturing reality through the art of documentary film.

During the four weeks, we will weave in and out between two threads. The first section of the course will look at the theory and history of documentary filmmaking with films from the late 19th century through the present. In the second thread of the course, you will learn introductory cinematic vocabulary and how to use basic audio and video recording devices and editing software. You will then work in small production groups to create a documentary that will be screened at the end of the course.


The Cultural Significance of Monsters

Dr. Paul Thomas

It’s not a flattering image, but when we, as a culture, flock to the latest cinematic incarnation of Godzilla, or when we shudder at the trundling zombie on our smaller living-room screens, or when we crack the latest New York Times best-selling vampire novel, we observe ourselves in these monstrous proxies. The monsters we create are signifiers of our deepest fears and anxieties. They are the blank canvases upon which we paint our nightmares. Our monsters revel in a collective dread of chaos, desperate grasping for order, fear of change, and hatred of the outsider. Monsters are snapshots of particular moments in time and serve as gatekeepers to the underbelly of history. You are invited to join my monster hunt. Help me shine light into the darkest fissures of the mind. We will drive monsters from their sordid lairs and interrogate these dread beasts with two simple questions, “Where do you come from and why are you here?”


Exploring the Medical Humanities in American Culture

Dr. Amy Rubens

When we encounter disease, we typically call on science to understand it: we identify pathogens, graph transmission rates, research and test cures. But what can the humanities tell us about the experience of being sick—and getting well? In this course, you’ll unravel this question by exploring the relationship among scientific, social, and cultural beliefs about illness and caretaking in the U.S. from the 1870s to the present.

To aid your investigation, you’ll use tools from several academic disciplines, including literary studies, creative writing, history, sociology, and rhetoric. You’ll apply those tools to short stories, graphic novels, documentaries, photographs, advertisements, historical documents, social media, and more. Topics may include:

  • Beliefs about expertise, consent, and medical decision-making, as illustrated by the Tuskegee Experiment and homebirth/midwifery practices
  • Ethics and effectiveness of disease “awareness” campaigns for serious or chronic illnesses
  • Contagious illness as “metaphor,” as illustrated by “Typhoid Mary,” HIV/AIDS, and Zika, as well as the “zombie” trope in fiction and film
  • Visual rhetoric of public health campaigns
  • Literary and autobiographical narratives by patients and healthcare practitioners

By considering the interplay among scientific, social, and cultural notions of disease and healthcare, you’ll learn about the varied ways people experience (and treat) illness. At the same time, you’ll also consider how illness shapes and is shaped by beliefs about race, gender, and sexuality, and influences guiding concepts in our lives, such as agency, authority, consent and privacy.


Constructing Reality: The Magazine Class

Leigh Anne Kelley

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics holds that journalists should “never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information.”  This course will examine how and whether publications follow that code. We will explore how editors’ choices shape our perceptions about the world and ourselves and consider how media consolidation, economics, the rise of digital media, and audience demographics influence what stories are told, and how. Through readings, discussions and content analysis, we will examine themes of “perception” and “reality” and analyze successes and failures in telling stories about different races, ethnicities, cultures, genders and age groups.

As student journalists you will have an opportunity to extend your understanding of content choices, visual communication and audience by working together as an editorial team to produce your own magazine. You will have hands-on training in creating editorial budgets, compiling content, selecting images, designing layouts, and using Adobe InDesign to produce a finished publication.


Superheroes – Myths, Morals, Power & Responsibility

Scott McDarmont

Mankind has long imagined tales of Gods, Demi-Gods, and even mere mortals capable of accomplishing astounding feats.  However, there was more going on here than just fanciful storytelling. These tales were intended as a means by which to understand the world, for even though they may not contain fact, the best stories always contain truth. Superheroes constitute a modern iteration of this concept. They give us ideals to strive toward and represent our deepest desires and darkest fears. And, with their continued box-office dominance, their cinematic interpretations have become an important and unavoidable part of the 21st century zeitgeist. Far from the simple morality of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” modern superhero narratives have evolved to encompass more nuanced subject matter.

The class will use superheroes as a jumping off point to discuss a variety of topics starting with their relation to the archetypes of the past. You will collaborate to examine the issues that we explore through the lens of ethical theories. You will also play a role in creating the course, exploring the subject matter in a manner that best aligns with your individual talents.


Mistakes Leaders Make: Integrity, Humor, and Reverence in the Exercise of Leadership

Dr. Tay Keong Tan

Leadership training has a critical role to play in realizing your creative potential and professional competencies. While many bright, young people aspire to positions of leadership, few are fully prepared for the difficulties and dangers that authority and power bring. So many public and corporate leaders falter and fall because they make mistakes in their professional behavior and personal conduct. Cyclist Lance Armstrong, Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, General David Patreus, and countless other leaders have paid dearly for their mistakes.

This session introduces aspiring leaders to the challenges of exercising authority and managing change. It uses interdisciplinary theories and tools to address three issues that commonly present difficulty and danger to leaders: integrityreverence, and humor. How a leader safeguards integrity, exhibits reverence, and uses humor will greatly affect his or her public persona, influence stakeholder perception, and ultimately shape the reality of the leader’s professional and personal lives.

We will use case studies from around the world, including Pakistani women’s rights advocate Malala Yousafza, Burmese politician Aung San Suu Kyi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, lawyer-advocate Michelle Obama, and actress-activist Emma Watson to illustrate how leaders approach the touchy issues of integrity, reverence, and humor to strengthen their authority, legitimacy, and effectiveness. The ideas presented are adapted from leadership courses taught at the Harvard Kennedy School and Radford University’s senior seminar, The Disciplines of a Leader.


Wrongful Conviction: The Causes, Consequences, and Responses

Dr. Margaret Pate

This course will use a case study approach to examine causes of wrongful conviction. The course will also address consequences of wrongful conviction by looking at life after exoneration and the resources available to individuals who have been exonerated. We will review both criminal and civil law to understand how the justice system can benefit or continue to victimize those who have been wrongfully convicted. Finally, the course will address individual and institutional responses to wrongful conviction. Responses can include things such as efforts made by advocates for policy change to allow more compensation to be given to exonerated individuals to efforts made by the justice system to punish responsible individuals when official misconduct is the cause of the wrongful conviction. We will review research conducted in the field of wrongful conviction as well as review case studies where different responses have been pursued. The goal of the course is to broaden the perspective of students who will potentially be in positions of power within the American justice system. 


Political Engagement and the 2017 Virginia Statewide Elections

Dr. Scott Dunn

Despite its obvious importance, discussions of political engagement are often based on myths and assumptions that may not have empirical support, and many questions are left unresolved. Are young people disengaged from politics because they’re apathetic or because politicians don’t address issues that matter to them? Are social media effective platforms for political engagement or just frivolous distractions? Do conversations about politics lead to constructive deliberation or greater polarization? Does the wealth of information available make people more informed or just overwhelmed?

Researchers have examined these types of questions and provided interesting findings, even if their results are not always conclusive. In this class you will explore a selection of these studies along with excerpts from classic works of political thought such as Plato’s RepublicThe Federalist Papers, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The topic of political engagement is especially salient during an election year, so class discussions and activities will include a focus on the 2017 races for Virginia governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and state delegates. Through these discussions, you’ll analyze illusions and perceptions that shape our understanding of politics and what the research shows about the reality of engagement. Ultimately, you will collaborate on evidence-based ideas to get young people more involved in the political process.


The Rise of Fake News: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in the Digital Age, and How to Find the Best Obtainable Truth

Joe Staniunas

All professions have had their share of hucksters, liars and fakes. The news business is no exception. A craft that aims for truth often falls short. Sometimes it’s because of a deliberate attempt to deceive, for fame or for profit. But often these failures come from the nature of journalism as it’s practiced today and has been for over a hundred years: the dependence on illusion … the “extravagant expectations” of just how much novelty the world offers.

Through readings, discussions and short projects, you will explore the importance of illusion in contemporary news coverage … the reasons audiences first came to expect and then even prefer false images and ideas to reality … the perfection of such illusions that digital media make possible … and exploration of ways to discern such deception, to learn how people can better separate fiction from truth — if they so desire.

The course will include a capstone project about what you have learned, using School of Communication equipment and resources.


In addition to selecting two classes that last all four weeks of camp, students will have an opportunity to explore a wide range of subjects through one-week workshops. Students will participate in four of the following.

Afternoon workshops:

Making Real TV

Joe Staniunas

If you’ve ever wanted to see what it’s like in the TV news business, here’s your chance. You’ll spend the week learning how to produce a basic news program, using the equipment in the new TV studio. You’ll be the anchors, writers, and producers, learning the importance of accuracy, speed and teamwork.


Contemporary Fiber Arts: The Art, Politics and Industry of Crochet and Knitting

Dr. Amy Rubens

An examination of the history of yarn crafts as a political act, from spinning bees during the American Revolution to the pink knit hats of January’s women’s march, with some hands-on experience.


Right-Brain Perspectives in a Left-Brain World: Cognitive and Affective Exercises for Creativity and Imagination

Dr. Tay Keong Tan

The right brain is our creative center while our left brain controls the logical functions. Our societies, including the education systems, are oriented toward left-brain functions and concepts. However, right-brain function brings a more holistic, intuitive, creative, imaginative, and versatile perspective to our lives.


Everything Bad is Good for You: Why Pop Culture Matters and Why it Makes You Smarter

Scott McDarmont

TV! Video games! Comic books! You've always been told the pop culture you consume "rots your brain" but is this really true? Sign up for a week of exploring how your favorite guilty pleasures may actually be helping expand your mind and broaden your horizons.


Truth and Justice

Dr. Margaret Pate

What does the research tell us about interrogations and confessions? During this session students will gain a better understanding of common interrogation tactics used by police, as well as issues with these tactics. We will also discuss different groups of individuals who are more likely to confess to crimes they never committed.


Lights, Camera, ACTION!

Michael Meindl

Want to feel more comfortable in group situations? Want to learn how Hollywood actors create award-winning performances? This workshop will explore what it takes to be an actor and will develop your ability to work with other people. The class will feature fun acting and improvisation games as well give students opportunities to appear on camera.


Exploring Inner Space: Finding Balance and Clarity through Psychology, Philosophy, Conflict Resolution and Mindfulness

Joe Wareing

In a world clamoring for our attention, it is hard to hear ourselves think, much less find clarity about who we are and what we want. This workshop combines psychology, philosophy, conflict resolution, and mindfulness to provide students with a small but diverse toolkit to help them find balance and clarity. This class is highly interactive and does not shy away from big questions.


What Matters? Cultural and Familial Bias

Joe Wareing

This workshop looks closely at meaning and purpose and the role they play in people’s lives.  With concepts drawn from positive psychology and philosophy, students will be asked to examine what is most important to them.  As they begin to wade through their own personal jungle of cultural and familial bias, they will look for the line where interpretation ends and reality begins. There will be activities, small group work, and discussions.


The Stories Bones Tell 

Dr. Donna Boyd

In this workshop participants will discover what forensic anthropology and archaeology can communicate about the human condition. Students will have an opportunity to examine human remains, as well as understand their role in crime scene documentation and search and recovery efforts. Following classroom exploration, students will travel to Selu to explore a “crime scene” and seek to uncover the story left behind.


The Economics of Advertising

Dr. Courtney Bosworth

What is the role of advertising in the economy?  Is advertising a cost of doing business, or is it an investment in a brand?  These are questions that influence advertising economic effects and how a company sets budgets, determines how to allocate money to communication, and invest in its brand.


The Psychology of Commercial Messages

Dr. Courtney Bosworth

“Just Do It” and “Open Happiness” appeal to and motivate consumers. Commercial messaging is designed to appeal to consumers’ need to fit in, their emotions, their need to be successful, or their need for love.  An ad can be emotional or rational.  What is the thinking behind each type of appeal? This workshop examines this aspect of psychology.


Politics and Pop Culture

Dr. Scott Dunn

From “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” to “The West Wing” to “Veep,” politics has always made for good entertainment. In this session, we’ll explore various ways politics has been portrayed in popular culture. We’ll examine research on the role that entertainment plays in the political process and the effects it has on audience members. Most importantly, we’ll dig deeper into scenes from TV shows and movies and take a new perspective on politically inspired music.


Cults: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Dr. Paul Thomas

In this session we will examine common cultural conceptions of cults. We will explore the meaning of the term cult, consider the cultural baggage associated with the term and examine alternative ways of defining these religious groups. We will also explore the concepts of brainwashing and deprogramming and the anti-cult and counter-cult movements. We will also look at instances of cult violence and abuse and will consider cult typologies.


Journalism and The Personal Narrative

Leigh Anne Kelley

Humans have always relied on storytelling as a means of communication. Now personal stories are finding their way into traditional journalism. In this session, students will craft a thoughtful, personal narrative that draws from real experience and explore challenges of this type of reporting.


Screen Comedy

Dr. Matthew Turner

Screen Comedy looks at some of the great comedies and comedians of the big and small screens.  We will examine why something is funny or not funny and how it relates to the historical and philosophical trends and theories in comedy.


World Cinema**

Ted McKosky

Using a historical framework, this journey will trace the global phenomena of the moving picture from its origins in sharing stories around a campfire to the multi-media spectacles of today. This journey is filled with innovation and colorful individuals. Students will gain a better understanding of the way we as human beings process the moving image and sound; the people, technology, politics, commerce and aesthetics that shape cinema; and how to critically analyze and recognize works of cinematic art. Students will explore the conventions, motifs and styles that evolved into movie genres. Students will be presented with the rubric s cube of actors, best boys, directors, cinematographers, engineers, key grips, musicians, painters, set designers, sound designers, writers, etc. and see how they all come together to make magic. 


Cinema of Horror**

Ted McKosky

An exploration of the evolution, aesthetic and process of the cinema of horror through the examination of films, filmmakers, techniques and critical thought thatfocuses on this genre of cinema. We will trace the evolution of the conventions of this genre through biological phenomena, folklore, literature and living theatre to arrive at seminal films of the silent and sound eras. Topics will also include influential directors like Bava, Romero and Hitchcock; actors such as Steele, Lee, Chaney and Price; special FX with emphasis on technological innovation; makeup; marketing; studios; and fandom.


**Throughout both these cinema courses, students will be able to directly experience critical cinematic artifacts as well as recognized works of cinematic art. Students will develop intellectual tools to help them recognize innovation, quantify and evaluate new cinematic experiences.