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Tier 2 Courses

The Department of Focused Inquiry offers five interdisciplinary courses that fulfill Tier 2 core and general education requirements for VCU students in most majors (please check with your advisor about your requirements):


Food for Thought (UNIV 211)

This course is frequently offered both as a Service-Learning Course and a non-Service-Learning course. No prerequisites.

Food is universal; all humans need to eat. Food is not just fuel for the body; humanity’s search for and relationship with food have shaped the course of history. For example, we define historical development using changes in food as a marker of civilization (hunter/gatherers vs. agricultural societies), integrate food into religious rituals (communion), use food to mark rites of passage (wedding cake), and eat in historically and culturally specific ways – not to mention that cooking is often considered a creative art, and that the arts often incorporate and emphasize food. Even so, food is fuel for the body – and our food supplies and sources often serve to inscribe significant economic and political boundaries. This course will examine food from a variety of disciplines. Using analytical lenses from sociology, anthropology, philosophy, art, literature, history, political science, psychology, economics and religious studies, students will explore:

  •   the cultural, historical, sociological, economic, psychological, spiritual, and political dimensions of food;
  •   how food shapes national, regional, gender, ethnic, racial, class, religious, and personal identity;
  •   how the media and industry affect the food we eat;
  •   food as a venue for creative and personal expression;
  •   the production, consumption, and distribution of food;
  •   food as a source of conflict: global food and agricultural problems and food-related social problems, including food security and scarcity, food and agricultural situations in developing nations, the impact of globalized, industrialized agriculture on local communities, farmers, consumers and the environment.


The Truth About Lying (UNIV 213)

No prerequisites.

Primarily, this course will explore the function and nature of lying in different situations (education, art, journalism, politics, advertising, interpersonal relationships, etc.) and, in so doing, will attempt to distinguish between types of lies given form and context.  At the same time, we will consider the ethical implications of lying, how we may go about understanding and detecting lies in various real-world settings, and how lying shapes perceptions of character.

Some core questions:

What is a lie?

  • Are there various types of lies?  If so, what are they?/li>
  • How should we judge acts of lying?  Is it ever right? When would we know?
  • How do our particular ideologies influence how we find and assess information
  • How do ways in which we communicate shape the way information is understood?
  • What role do audiences play when lying?
  • Can we identify verbal and non-verbal signals when someone is being dishonest?


Finding Your Voice in Contemporary Society (UNIV 217)

Prerequisites: UNIV 111 and 112 or both ENGL 295 and HONR 200. Often offered as Service-Learning course.

In this course, you will examine the strategies available in contemporary society for personal expression. We will explore what it means to have a “voice,” how to have a voice, and how to ensure that your expression is decoded and understood by your intended audience. Practical application will be explored through understanding cultural, textural and civic expression. We will examine trends in communicating ideas and values through a range of strategies such as music, fashion, advertising, consumer choice, visual media and technology. You will pursue projects based on your own interests in order to demonstrate and develop your influence on the world around you. In a sense, this is a course in the messages that are conveyed in our society, and how people decode and understand those messages.

The core competencies addressed in this Tier II course are: Information Fluency, Critical Thinking, and Ethical/Civic Responsibility.

The course curriculum will prepare students to:

  1. Assess the cogency of arguments, and construct her/his own argument
  2. Think reflectively about modes of expression (their own and those of others)
  3. Synthesize various source material in order to solve problems and find their own voice within a range of multidisciplinary perspectives
  4. Engage in problem-based learning, requiring them to apply their critical thinking skills to determine the best solution or course of action in a given context, rather than adhering to a single standard approach.
  5. Collect, evaluate and present information effectively and efficiently 6. Use information ethically and legally /li>
  6. Decode and construct cultural messages
  7. Critically review actions in response to global/local issues
  8. Expand their ability to collaborate with others and appreciation for the benefits of group work (through a group project designed to integrate different forms of expression within a targeted campaign for change)

The course is divided up into three units which address various avenues of personal expression. The units are:

  • Textual Expression (Digital, Visual, and Rhetorical strategies)
  • Cultural Expression (Music, Art, Fashion, Food, etc.)
  • Civic Expression (Volunteerism, Consumerism, Education, Political Activism, etc.)

While there is clearly overlap from one form of expression to the next, we will try to explore these various modes of expression separately in order to determine which responses work best for addressing particular issues/problems in our society. We will explore both practical and theoretical considerations of these strategies in order to facilitate this process.


Pseudoscience (UNIV 222)

No prerequisites.

Without sharp critical thinking skills, people are more vulnerable to exploitation based on misrepresentations of nature and scientific knowledge. Even in our age of unprecedented scientific and technological progress, many of us are still swayed by superstitions, biases, and flights of fancy. All too often, such ideas are covered with a veneer of scientific legitimacy and made more enticing. Thankfully, the critical study of pseudoscience can help to remedy this. Pseudoscience is an interdisciplinary course that explores the controversial fringes of inquiry. It will engage a variety of subjects, including astronomy, anthropology, biology, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and psychology, and bring them into conversation with one another. Central to the course is the application of critical thinking skills to a variety of “strange ideas.”

Course Goals:

  • This course will afford a deeper understanding of the nature of science and rational modes of inquiry and what separates them from pseudoscience and other irrational pursuits.
  • We will develop and apply advanced critical thinking skills in the evaluation of pseudoscientific claims and methods. The curriculum will emphasize the analysis and assessment of controversial positions. Through an extensive study of the varieties of cognitive biases and fallacious reasoning, we can assess the deficiencies of pseudoscientific inquiry more precisely.
  • We will gain a greater understanding of how superstitions, poor decisions, and dubious beliefs arise from common cognitive processes
  • The course addresses a number of foundational inquiry questions, including:
    • What is the nature of scientific knowledge?
    • What distinguishes good science from bad science, and science from pseudoscience?
    • What makes fringe ideas so compelling to so many people?
    • What is skepticism, and why should one be skeptical?
  • This course seeks to advance quantitative literacy by devoting special attention to the uses and misuses of data to support or refute controversial claims and mathematical fallacies underlying weak quantitative reasoning.
  • Finally, the course aims to promote skill in oral communication, one of the competencies in VCU’s Core Curriculum. The course will encourage active discussion and diligent preparation for formal presentations.


What’s the Big Idea? (UNIV 299)

No prerequisites.

What’s the Big Idea?is an interdisciplinary course that satisfies the Humanities/Fine Arts Tier II Core Curriculum requirement. The course embraces inquiry and discovery.  Students will look at a particular “Big Idea” and come to better understand it through a complex cycle of questioning, gathering, examining, interpreting, comparing, analyzing and evaluating.  The “Big Idea” for Spring 2018 revolves around wilderness. This course will seek to understand why and how wilderness matters. We will explore the term’s meaning from a general idea to a land-management definition.  We will read about the wilderness idea from a range of perspectives. Ultimately, we will examine our own connections to the natural world, no matter where we are or where we come from.  In other semesters, sections of this course will focus on different big ideas; however, the process of inquiry we will practice this semester ultimately transcends any subject matter or focus.

Primary features of the course:

  1. Unrestrained Inquiry: The primary mandate for the course is to provide students with an opportunity to engage in learning-centered inquiry into a Big Idea.
  2. Semester-long focus on a central topic: The course will focus on a single Big Idea (wilderness, stories, evil, etc.) throughout the semester, as the basis for developing and practicing skills in Critical Thinking, Information Fluency, and Ethical and Social Responsibility.
  3. Interdisciplinary: The course will be interdisciplinary, investigating the value of a single big idea  in our lives from the perspectives of various disciplines. Students will examine these perspectives in an integrated way that recognizes both their differences and similarities.
  4. Multi-disciplinary: Students will have the opportunity to discuss the value of the big idea under examination with experts from VCU and the wider community.
  5. Relevance/Application: The course will connect our inquiry  to contemporary issues. Students will apply what they learn to identifying and solving problems in their lives, their communities, and our world.

Virginia Commonwealth University

Department of Focused Inquiry

Harris Hall, 5th Floor
1015 Floyd Avenue
Box 842015
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2015

Phone: 804-827-0838

Updated: 6/7/2019

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