Architectural Detail of Old Cabell

American Dreams

How do people imagine the perfect society? What does it mean to imagine a paradise on earth—and what earthly creations can hasten its arrival? This forum explores how utopias have been understood and imagined in American life. Utopias have taken different forms in US history—from collectivist Christian communities like the Shakers that practiced celibacy and pacificism starting in the 18th century, to “back to the land” movements of the 1970s like “Soul City,” an abortive planned community for African-Americans in rural North Carolina, to a wide range of artistic projects that sought to create utopias for their practitioners and audiences. Those who participate in these experiments often know they are unlikely to succeed; indeed, the failure of these projects—and their irrepressible re-generation—is a testament to the power of utopian ideals to inspire tremendous effort. Even more frequently, artists, activists, and community builders have created works of enormously influential formal and philosophical innovation in order to represent visions of a different and better future. Some of the questions this forum explores are:

  • What forums do utopias take—whether in art, music, literature, or in community? How has social critique shaped utopias—especially as Americans imagined different economies, technologies, sexual and gender relations, and racial formations?
  • How do politics and values shape the formal elements of a utopian creative project—a song, an artistic collective, or a film?
  • How have different utopian thinkers understood the potential of technology to emancipate and to degrade human life?



Jack Hamilton, Assistant Professor of American Studies

Sarah Milov, Assistant Professor of History


Navigating the Forum

 The introductory seminar, “Utopias in Modern America” offered during the opening semester of the forum (Fall 2020) will explore these questions through four units organized around manifestos, fiction and film, music, and utopian communities. Although many case studies will be based in the United States, special attention will be given to how social ideas transcend borders—a fact especially true for utopias, which only rarely exist in real-life. The first weeks of the semester will be devoted to studying how utopian thinkers have expressed their visions of a better world. We will ask how skepticism and critique of prevailing social and economic conditions can give rise to bold ways of reimagining how people relate to each other, the environment, and themselves. The middle of the semester will be devoted to asking how artistic forms have followed from utopian visions—and if utopias have been rooted in transformations within cultural production. During the final unit of the semester, we will examine case studies of different utopian experiments—communes, black and feminist separatist communities, model 2 cities, wilderness preserves, and housing projects. What can these experiments in alternative ways of living teach us as we try to navigate our politically fractured, economically unequal, and environmentally damaged world? Since the 1970s, utopian communities have all but disappeared from contemporary society. Has the utopian impulse disappeared—or does it exist in new forms?

During the Spring 2021 and Fall 2021 semesters, the Forum will arrange workshops, talks, and film screenings on the theme of utopias. We will also arrange a field trip to an intentional community in the Albemarle area. Finally, during the capstone seminar, students will focus intensively on researching the history and afterlives of one utopian experiment, or experimental artistic form. Students have free rein in choosing their topics, and students may pursue non-US utopias in their capstone projects. In doing so, students will build upon the skills and modes of interpretation they have developed in units 1-3 of the forum. In small groups, students will research the political ideals that gave rise to a single utopian vision or artistic form and examine the forces that ultimately lead to the abandonment of the utopian project. What were the intellectual, artistic, and cultural legacies of even failed experiments?  The capstone seminar will culminate in a conference in which students will present their work, and an invited keynote will deliver an address.


Category I. Core Required Courses (8 Credits)         

    FORU 1500 Introductory Seminar: Utopias Modern in American Culture (Fall ’20)

                Instructor: Jack Hamilton and Sarah Milov

    FORU 1510 Contimuing the Forum (Spring ’21 and Fall '21)

     FORU 2500: Capstone Seminar (Spring ’22)

               Instructor:Jack Hamilton and Sarah Milov         

    Category II. Forum Literacy Requirements

    All students must complte the following Literacy Requirements 

    • First Writing Requirement
    • Second Writing Requirement
    • World Langauges Requirements


    Category III. Required Forum Classes

    Students must take two of the following three courses

    • AAS 1010 Intro to African American and African Studies I
    • AMST 2001 Intro to American Studies
    • WGS 2100 Intro to Gender and Sexuality Studies

    Category IV. Forum Electives

    Students must take three courses from the following two lists, including at least one courses from list IV-A and one course from list IV-B

    List IV-A

    • AMST 2680  Spiritual but not Religious: Spirituality in America
    • AMST 3200  African American Political Thought
    • AMST 3641  Native America
    • AMST 3740  Cultures of Hip-Hop
    • ARTH 150x Any Introductory Seminar in Art History Course
    • ENGL 2100  Introduction to Literary Studies
    • GETR 3462  Neighbors and Enemies
    • GETR 3470  Literature of the Holocaust
    • GETR 3695  The Holocaust and the Law
    • MESA 1000  From Genghis Khan to Stalin: Invasions and Empires
    • MESA 2300  Crossing Borders: Middle East and South Asia
    • MESA 2700  Revolutions in the Islamic World
    • MEST 2470  Reflections of Exile: Jewish Languages and the Communities
    • MUSI 2070   Popular Musics
    • MUSI 2140   Music of Multicultural America
    • MUSI 2120   History of Jazz Music
    • MUSI 2350   Technosonics: Digital Music and Sound Art Composition
    • PHIL 1730   Introduction to Moral and Political Philosophy
    • PHIL 2690   Justice, Law, and Morality
    • PHIL 2760   Classics of Political Philosophy
    • PHIL 2770   Political Philosophy
    • PLAP 1010   Intro to American Politics
    • PLPT 1010   Introduction to Political Theory
    • RELA 2850  Afro-Creole Religions in the Americas
    • RELC 3056   In Defense of Sin
    • RELC 3222   From Jefferson to King
    • RELG 2210  Religion, Ethics, and Global Development
    • RELG 2300  Religious Ethics and Moral Problems
    • RELG 2630  Business, Ethics and Society
    • RELG 2650  Theology, Ethics, and Medicine
    • RELG 3225  The Civil Rights Movement
    • RELG 3559  Religion and the Black Freedom Struggle (course will receive more permanent number)
    • RELG 3605  Religion, Violence and Strategy: How to Stop Killing in the Name of God
    • RELJ 3052    Responses to the Holocaust
    • RELJ 2024    Jewish-Muslim Relations
    • RELJ 2030    Judaism, Roots, and Rebellion
    • RUTR 3340  Books Behind Bars: Life, Lit, and Community Leadership
    • SAST 1300   Under the Colonized-Gaze
    • SAST 2010   Remembering India’s Partition through Literature and Poetry

    List IV-B

    • AAS 1020 Intro to African American Studies II
    • ANTH 2240 Progress
    • ANTH 2250 Nationalism, Racism, Multiculturalism
    • ANTH 2375 Disaster
    • ANTH 2541 Language, Culture and Healing
    • ANTH 2590 Social and Cultural Anthropology: Everyday Resistance
    • ANTH 2621 Culture, Gender, Violence
    • ANTH 3290 Biopolitics and the Contemporary Condition
    • ANTH 3370 Power and the Body
    • ETP 2020 Global Sustainability
    • GSGS 3030   Global Cultural Studies
    • HIAF 2031   The African Diaspora
    • HIUS 2001   American History Before 1865
    • HIUS 2002   American History Since 1865
    • HIST 2201    Technology in World History
    • HIUS 3011   Colonial Period in American History
      HIUS 3151   US 1900-1945
    • HIUS 3171   US 1945-Present
    • HIUS 3651   African American History since 1865
    • HIUS 3654   Black Fire
    • MDST 2000  Intro to Media Studies
    • MDST 2810  Cinema as an Art Form
    • MDST 3310  Sound and Cinema
    • MDST 3402  War and the Media
    • MDST 3630  Screening Terrorism
    • MDST 3650  Shooting the Western
    • MDST 3661  Media Bodies
    • MDST 3740  Cultures of Hip-Hop
    • MDST 3750  Money, Media, and Technology
    • MDST 3751  Value, Values, Valuation
    • MDST 3760  #BlackTwitter and Black Digital Culture
    • PSYC 2600   Introduction to Social Psychology
    • PSYC 3420   The Nature Nurture Debate
    • SOC 2220     Social Problems
    • SOC 2230     Criminology
    • SOC 2320     Gender and Society
    • SOC 2442     Systems of Inequality
    • SOC 2490     Globalization and Social Responsibility
    • SOC 2900     Economics and Society
    • WGS 2895    Front Lines of Social Change I
    • WGS 2896    Front Lines of Social Change II
    • WGS 2897    Gender Violence and Social Justice
    • WGS 3100    Women and Freedom of Movement

    Category V. Science Classes

    Students must take two three credit classes from BIOL, CHEM, PHYS, ASTR, EVSC and/or PSYC 2200. The courses below are strongly recommended for the purposes of this forum:

    • ASTR 1250   Alien Worlds
    • ASTR 1270   Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe
    • BIOL 1050    Genetics for an Informed Citizen
    • BIOL 1210    Human Biology and Disease
    • EVSC 1450   An Inconvenient Truce: Climate Change, You, and CO2
    • EVSC 2010   Materials That Shape Civilization
    • EVSC 2030   Politics, Science and Values
    • EVSC 2070   Earth Systems Technology & Management
    • EVSC 2200   Plants, People, and Culture
    • PSYC 2200   A Survey of the Neural Basis of Behavior

    Category VI. STAT or MATH Course

    Students must take one three-or-more credit classes from STAT or MATH