Sept. 13-26, 2002
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Photo by Jenny Gerow
Politics professor Michael Smith lectures to students at the opening class of U.Va.’s first common course, a new venture that tackles big issues in today’s world — war this semester and environmental decisions next.
Why study war in 21st century?
College’s new ’common course’ tackles big issues

By Anne Bromley

About 400 students packed Wilson Auditorium last week for the opening class of the University’s first “common course” on “21st Century Choices — War, Justice and Human Rights.”

The interdisciplinary class was added just this summer, so it wasn’t in the course directory, but news spread through e-mail and word-of-mouth. Seats were saved for first-year students who could sign up during their summer orientation.

Some undergraduates were there because of the outstanding reputations of the professors – politics professor Michael Smith and biomedical ethicist James Childress – who are team-teaching the lecture class.

“I’ve had Smith before, and he’s good. And I’ve heard a lot about Childress. I’m fourth year, so I wanted to take him, too,” said one student sitting on the floor in the back of the room.

Some were there because the topic is relevant. “The ‘just war’ theory is interesting,” said another student.

While many gatherings around the nation have been marking the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the students enrolled in the new course are exploring the historical and political context that led to the events in order to contemplate the future of war.

“We are right now in the midst of a national and international debate about how to proceed in a ‘war against terrorism,’” Smith said. “[It] has an urgent immediacy that we hope to build on as we explore the issues with our students.”

In the class, Smith and Childress are co-teaching the first of at least two “common courses” offered through the College of Arts & Sciences. The class intertwines history, politics, philosophy and religious studies to examine the topic of war broadly through ethical and other viewpoints.

Although U.Va. offers many interdisciplinary courses, the common course is a new venture that tackles big issues in today’s world — war this semester, environmental decisions next semester. It is open to first- through fourth-year students and broader in scope than most other interdisciplinary courses.
“It’s a way to get American students to connect with the larger world,” Smith said.
Other common courses may be offered in the future, depending on the success of the first two, said Arts & Sciences Dean Edward L. Ayers.

Interdisciplinary study has been a growing trend among faculty for years, but it’s not necessarily been visible or available to students, said Adam Daniel, an assistant dean in Arts & Sciences. Faculty members rarely team-teach with colleagues from different departments and schools, he added.

In this time of financial belt-tightening, departments are hard-pressed to offer new incentives for faculty to be innovative. Ayers was able to offer the common course thanks to the “far-sighted” generosity of John Griffin, a Commerce School graduate who donated funds for the project.

“I told him we needed to offer a course that would teach a lot of students and be something innovative and exciting,” Ayers said. “This shows how philanthropy helps the mission of the University.”

Faculty also consider the new offering an exciting opportunity.

“It’s important for U.Va. to do creative things like this,” Smith said. “It brings new energy to the curriculum, especially at a time when we can’t hire new colleagues.”
Offering interdisciplinary short courses through the Institute for Practical Ethics has paved the way for common courses, said Childress, the institute’s founding director.

“We’re thinking about the topics in more creative ways, not just entrenched in our academic disciplines,” he said. “The students will have the value of seeing faculty from different perspectives.”

He is working with Associate Professor of Commerce Mark A. White on next semester’s common course, “Environmental Decisions.” They’ll involve other faculty members as well as visiting speakers.

You have to come at topics with different questions, Childress said.

“Every discipline is in danger of making assumptions about why things happened. But no one branch of learning has a monopoly on a subject,” said Smith, who directs the Political and Social Thought Program, one of the University’s best-known interdisciplinary majors.

“It is the postulate of this particular course, and the common course, to show that there’s something important to be gained by adopting more than one discipline to study a topic.”


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