Humanities Course Descriptions

According to the state of Virginia, the Governor’s School for the Humanities encourages students to explore the ways "modern society requires, encourages, and restricts individuals as they seek realization of their creative potential. Students explore [the] humanities in the digital age through history, literature, philosophy, anthropology, political science, economics, sociology, psychology, and media." 

United by the theme of Being Counted, this year's multidisciplinary academic programming allows for both depth and breadth of inquiry. In the morning, students participate in two courses that last all four weeks of camp. Morning sessions encourage sustained study of specific topics. During the afternoon, students attend a seminar course, and topics rotate each week. Afternoon seminar courses enable students to explore an even greater variety of subjects while allowing them get to know more of their peers and program faculty.

Morning Courses for Summer 2019

Students participate in two morning courses that meet all four weeks of the program. Read more about the morning courses offered during the 2019 Governor's School in the Humanities below.

Being Counted in Democracy: Political Engagement, Media, and Gerrymandering

Dr. Scott Dunn

This class will focus on the role that citizens play in the democratic process, with particular emphasis on the various ways that people have their voices heard in the current political system. Students will explore questions such as the following: What responsibility do we have to engage with the political system? What kinds of participation are effective and appropriate? Do social media help people engage with politics? Why are younger people less engaged with politics than older people? What can be done to get young people more involved in politics? What is the best way to discuss politics with people who disagree with us? What is the relationship between political engagement and social capital? Is the recent upturn in political engagement the start of a new trend, or a short-term response to current events?

In addition to exploring the role that individuals play in the democratic process, this course will examine structural issues that may encourage or inhibit political participation. In keeping with the theme of “Being Counted,” the class will spend significant time exploring the issue of gerrymandering and how it affects engagement, as well as recent judicial and legislative efforts to improve the redistricting process. The course will also review recent research on political polarization and the role that it plays in political engagement.

Students will come away from this class with a better understanding of the political system and the role that citizens play in it. The class will also collaborate on ideas to get young people more involved in the political process.

Foundations of Moral and Political Philosophy

Mr. Mike Zarella

This course will introduce students to the foundations of moral and political philosophy. We will survey theories of justice, conceptions of rights and duties, the role of intentions and consequences in moral reasoning, the “is—ought” gap, and the relationship between individual happiness and living a moral life. We will also explore core moral and political theories, including Social Contract theories, Kantian deontology, versions of Utilitarianism, Nozick’s Libertarianism, and theories grounded by the goal of human flourishing. These core theories will be applied to contemporary moral and political issues, such as immigration policy, wealth distribution, and how humans ought to live with other species. Finally, we will engage with some of Nietzsche’s critiques of “Western” values. As we explore these ideas and issues, we will practice the methods used by philosophers to clarify questions and potential answers, including logical argumentation, Socratic dialogue, and (sometimes bizarre) thought-experiments. Students will receive guidance in developing an individual or group presentation that applies what they’ve learned to a moral or political issue that interests them.

From Hog Waste to Coal Ash: How Our Affluent Lifestyles are Destroying the Planet

Dr. Aysha Bodenhamer

This course will focus on Environmental Sociology as students learn how societies impact the natural world and vice versa. Through film, news, and academic articles students will be exposed to a variety of environmental problems of our time such as: 

  • Food production and consumption
  • Energy production and consumption
  • Climate change
  • Environmental justice

Friendly debates will ensue and better yet, we’ll discuss what we can do about the environmental problems we face. 

Game Studies: History, Theory, Culture, and Design

Dr. Jamie McDaniel

This course will focus on the history, theory, culture, and design of video games and tabletop (board) games. Students will develop game prototypes using a variety of game mechanics, examine the persuasive elements of “serious” games that use rhetorical strategies to make arguments, investigate the evolution of games in different countries, and explore the influence games have on representations of gender, race, and disability in contemporary culture. Activities will include:

  • Developing a game prototype using The White Box, a learning, planning, and prototyping tool for tabletop game designers co-produced by Gameplaywright and Atlas Games
  • Playing and analyzing serious games, such as the anti-advergame McDonald’s Video Game, which critiques the necessity of corrupt business practices perpetuated by international corporations
  • Comparing and contrasting game traditions in different parts of the world, such as Ameritrash and Eurogames
  • Exploring how games neglect to represent diverse identities or depict them in primarily negative ways
  • Examining events and texts in contemporary gaming culture, such as the recent Gamergate controversy as well as the popular blog Not Your Mama’s Gamer

Gender and Representation

Dr. Michele Ren

In late 2017, the #MeToo movement started a conversation in both Hollywood and Washington about gender and power, and in late 2018 “the most diverse congress in history” was elected.  Why were entertainment and politics the two industries most impacted by #MeToo? What’s the connection? Are there more connections that can be drawn? While the context of the 2017 #MeToo movement (started by Tarana Burke in 2007) will provide a backdrop for the course, in this class we will look at how men and women are portrayed in popular media and whether those representations impact how and why we decide which people and ideas will represent us politically. Does the diversity of the 116th Congress suggest a change has come? Or will the 2020 primary season show us that political leadership is still “seen” as white and male?

Our examples and discussions of gender and representation will include their intersections with other social identities such as race, religion, sexuality, class, age, and ability. Examples of questions we might discuss in the course include: does it matter if men are most often portrayed as tough and aggressive in films and television? Does the relative absence of women over forty in our most watched films and TV shows have any impact on our perceptions of women over forty elsewhere? If Latinxs are 17% of the United States population, should 17% of the characters we see on TV and in movies be Latinx? Should they also be 17% of congress? Do women have to be “likable” for us to vote for them? Do men?

By the time the class finishes, most, if not all, candidates for the 2020 election will have declared. Our final course project will be to analyze the ways in which gender (and its intersections with other social identities) shapes the ways in which they are represented.

Illness, Healing, and Caretaking in American Culture

Dr. Amy Rubens

When we encounter disease, we typically call on science and statistics to understand it: we identify and classify pathogens, graph transmission rates, research and test cures. But what can the humanities tell us about being sick--and getting well? To aid our investigation, we’ll use tools from multiple academic disciplines, such as literary studies, American studies, history, and rhetoric, to examine the representation of of illness, healing, and caretaking across a range of texts, including fiction, autobiography, documentary films, historical archives, photography, advertisements, and social media. Topics of study may include:

  • Beliefs about expertise, consent, and medical decision-making, as illustrated by the Tuskegee Experiment and homebirth/midwifery
  • Ethics and effectiveness of disease “awareness” campaigns for serious or chronic illnesses
  • Contagious illness as “metaphor,” as illustrated by “Typhoid Mary" and HIV/AIDS
  • Visual rhetoric of public health campaigns
  • Literary and autobiographical narratives by patients, including children and young adults

Significantly, through learning about the varied ways people experience and perceive illness, health, and caretaking in American culture, we’ll explore how the beliefs about the body intersect with notions of gender, race, and sexuality as well as conceptions of power and social justice.

Making Race Count: Racial Categories and Their Impacts

Dr. Gabriella Smith

Racial categories are generally assumed to be biologically-based, but research shows that they are socially constructed categories that vary from culture to culture and can change widely over time. For example, did you know that the concept of “Hispanic” was developed for use by the U.S Census Bureau in the 1970 national count? Or that “octoroon,” or someone with one great-grandparent with African ancestry, was an official racial category used in the census of 1890? Or that siblings in Brazil can be considered different races even if they have the same set of biological parents? In keeping with the 2019 Governor’s School theme of “Being Counted,” we will be exploring the concept of race and racial categories in different societies. Topics will include:

  • What does it mean to say that race is socially constructed when we base racial identity on physical characteristics?
  • How and why do different governments around the world have such different racial categories for people in their respective census bureaus?
  • Why is racial data important, and what controversies might be related to the collection and use of such data?
  • How do racial divisions relate to racial inequality in various societies, especially the United States?
  • What are some of the impacts of racial identity on people’s lives? 

We’ll explore these concepts through various readings, films, and other media. Participation in classroom discussions and activities will prepare students to create multimedia final projects, as well as move forward with better understandings of the importance of racial identities, both at home and abroad. 

Numbering the Nones: New Demographics of the Religiously Unaffiliated in American Culture

Mr. Geoff Pollick

In a nation where religion fosters fiery debate, religious affiliation matters. But recently, scholars have recorded a sharp decline in religious identity among Americans: the fastest-growing religious group is now the “nones” (people who respond “none” when asked about religious affiliation). Against a long history of disagreements about religion and American life, the increasing number of people who reject religious association raises important questions about American culture and identity.

This course explores various ways that Americans have imagined the relationship between religion and public life through four “snapshots” of religious demographics: in the 1790s, just after the American Revolution; in the two decades after the Civil War, up to 1885; during the post-war 1950s; and the period from 2000 to the present. In each of these moments, we’ll ask questions such as: 

  • How do scholars measure religious identity? 
  • How have the numbers of religious Americans shifted over time? 
  • What arguments have been made about the meaning of American identity in relationship to the number of Americans who identify with various religions, or no religion at all?

Overall, we’ll develop arguments about the meaning of decreased religious affiliation in our own present moment.

The Right to Take a Stand: First Amendment Law and Ethics

Mr. Joe Staniunas

Current events call many people to stand up and speak out. Each time they do, they’re exercising rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And yet, those rights are not absolute, and it’s good for us to know where the lines are drawn and why. It’s also important to realize that social media can have a chilling effect on dissent, making people hesitate to speak out, or shouting them down if they do. Some commentators, and even many young people, believe that censorship and regulation not now permitted under the law are right and just, and the only hope to preserve democracy. In addition to examining that question and discussing key First Amendment cases, students will design and take part in a project demonstrating their understanding of free expression, freedom of the press and the rights of assembly and petition.

Afternoon Seminar Courses

Humanities students also enroll in four afternoon seminar courses (one for each week of the program). The afternoon course offerings for the 2019 Governor's School for the Humanities are listed below. You can learn more about this part of the Governor's School curriculum by reading the descriptions for the afternoon courses.

Athletes as Entertainers or Undercover Politicians?
Mrs. Courtney Simpkins

Comedians as Public Intellectuals
Mr. Mike Zarella

Comedy in the Age of the Internet
Dr. Matthew Turner

Defining Religion: Do Cults Count?
Dr. Paul Thomas

Digital Trees?: Nature in Films, Video Games, and Virtual Reality
Dr. Sean Keck

Disability Studies
Dr. Jamie McDaniel

Exploring the Marvelous World of Ethics through Film and Comics
Dr. Kathryn Shepard

Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy: Exploring Film Genres
Mr. Sean Kotz

Humans of Governor's School
Ms. Justine Jackson

Insiders and Outsiders: The Hillbilly Dynamic
Dr. Aysha Bodenhammer

Dr. Michele Ren

Literature and the Digital Humanities: The Victorians in the Digital Age
Mrs. Courtney Simpkins

Making Real TV
Mr. Joe Staniunas

Odd Docs: Humanity Caught in the Camera's Eye
Mr. Sean Kotz

Page to Stage: Reading Drama Through Performance
Dr. Emily Keck

Philosophy of Art
Mr. Mike Zarella

Politics and Pop Culture
Dr. Scott Dunn

Protest and Movements
Mr. Johannes Grow

Queer Representation Matters: LGBTQ+ in Media
Ms. Justine Jackson

Radical Artists and the Spirituality of Secularism: The Ashcan School
Dr. Geoff Pollick

Sociology of Hip Hop
Dr. Stephanie Bradley

Using Publicly Available Data to Identify Social Inequalities
Dr. Stephanie Bradley

What is Whiteness?
Dr. Gabriella Smith