From Pickleball to Psychobiology, J-Term Gets Students Up Close to Unique Coursework

News Story categories: Behavioral Neuroscience Biology Criminology History Honors Psychology Sociology and Anthropology
Students participate in a Barre class during J-Term

January Term, known affectionately to Yellow Jackets as “J-Term,” is a unique part of the Randolph-Macon academic experience. The four-week, optional term allows for a different kind of coursework that often includes travel abroad, or the opportunity to complete an internship.

Even more students use J-Term to take focused classes on campus that meet every day during the four-week period. The courses range from exercise classes like barre and pickleball that help students complete their physical education credits to coursework for majors and minors that often explore unique topics and interdisciplinary ideas.

Read on to learn about some of the distinctive courses RMC students took during the 2023 J-Term.

Psychobiology of Happiness

Dr. Massimo Bardi instructs the Psychobiology of Happiness course

Happiness is something we all strive for, but what makes it work? Behavioral neuroscience professor Dr. Massimo Bardi’s Psychobiology of Happiness course explores the neurological mechanisms of emotional regulation and the scientific components of what leads to life satisfaction.

“For this class, I have two hopes. First, if they are interested in any related fields like psychology, neuroscience, biology, or neurochemistry, that they understand that this field can also answer very practical questions,” Bardi said. “The second goal—even if you are not working directly in this field, these topics will affect you. These are things that are very important for your life.”

Kate Hudson ’23, a behavioral neuroscience major with biology and psychology minors, is currently applying to grad school, but aims to one day be an occupational therapist.

“I want to specialize in children with intellectual and physical disabilities, and helping them regulate their emotions,” Hudson said. “Taking a class on an emotion is going to be greatly beneficial for that.”

In addition to exploring the specific functions of the brain that cause happiness, the class touches on practices students can implement in their own lives—like how meditation can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease—and real-world examples of people who have recovered from traumatic experiences to live happy lives.

Oral History – An Introduction

Students visit the Hanover County Black Heritage Society

“Oral history is both the practice and methodology of recording people’s memories about the past and using those memories to create interpretations about the past to create historical narratives,” Dr. Donelle Boose, professor of history and black studies at RMC, explained.

Her new course gave students hands-on experience interacting with oral histories and creating their own. Each student visited the makerspace at the McGraw-Page Library for the virtual reality experience Traveling While Black, which immerses viewers into interviews with African Americans who used the Green Book to safely travel across the United States. The class also visited the Hanover County Black Heritage Society, where retired RMC professor Alphine Jefferson gave a talk on his work with oral histories throughout his career.

The class is much more than conducting interviews with interesting subjects. Boose challenges her students to think critically about the context of oral histories and how that shapes the way we think about historical narratives.

“In this process, I want them to really understand the interpretive side as well,” Boose said. “You can’t successfully complete the class without using those oral histories to create an interpretation. And when we’re doing that, we’re thinking about the dynamics of power that are involved in the history-making process in general.”

At the end of the course, the students created their own oral histories on a subject of their choosing. Maggie Demasi ’23 and her group explored how the nuclear threat during the Cold War in the 1980s affected daily American life—with the ultimate interpretive project of recording a podcast that analyzed their respective research questions.

Social Perspectives on Motherhood

Students create a version of the board game Life during an activity in the Social Perspectives on Motherhood course

“This is my favorite class to teach,” Dr. Nazneen Khan said, of her sociology course. “It’s a lot of stuff that students aren’t aware of, but I think because a lot of them want to be parents or work with families, it’s also one of the classes where students seem the most interested.”

Khan is clear that this is not a class on how to be a good mother. Rather, the course looks at how social factors, particularly inequalities, shape the maternal experience.

“I think my favorite part is hearing everyone else’s perspectives on it, because obviously everyone has grown up differently,” Natalie Arnold ‘24 said. “Hearing other people’s experiences really expands my knowledge and view.”

Khan highlights the choices and obstacles faced by mothers with a creative assignment that challenges groups in class to create their own versions of the board game “Life.” The student projects feature game pieces that ask questions like do you opt for a Cesarean section or utilize a midwife? How do lesbian mothers navigate the bureaucracy of adoption? What are the consequences of mothers who are incarcerated?

While the game is an accessible way to address some of the heavy topics of the class, it also reiterates one of its core concepts: there are many different perspectives and experiences of being a mother.

Psychology and Legal Issues

Students participate in a mock jury selection during the Psychology and Legal Issues J-Term course

Trials are typically the most sensational part of the legal process, and they certainly get the most portrayal in movies and TV. But in an exercise during Dr. Kristen Klaaren’s Psychology and Legal Issues J-Term class, students got to experience the drama of a jury selection.

In a hands-on exercise in the final week of the course, the students were split evenly between defense and prosecution, with two designated judges, and went through the process of selecting simulated jurors, learning firsthand about peremptory challenges and challenges for cause, and the psychology behind why either side would choose certain jurors over others.

Many students taking the course are working towards psychology majors or minors, but a sizable portion are pursuing criminology as an area of study. The interdisciplinary nature of the class serves as a bridge between the two fields and gives practical lessons.

Abi Detrich ’24 is majoring in both psychology and criminology and appreciates the “well-rounded perspective” the class and various guest speakers have given her. Between forensic psychologists and family lawyers, she’s learned about the many career paths in the criminal justice field, and how psychology intersects with each one.

“A better understanding of the legal system and how it works,” Klaaren said of what she hopes students take away from her class. “But as a psychology instructor, really I hope they see the applications of psychology in the legal system.”

Students in the Problem-Based Learning honors course work with Sanctuary Rescue and its puppies with special needs

Problem-Based Learning

Dr. Sarah Cribbs’ Problem-Based Learning course pairs students in RMC’s Honors Program with a community partner to help solve or mitigate a problem for which the organization doesn’t have the time, resources, or expertise.

This J-Term, the class worked with Sanctuary Rescue, a small, foster-based local dog rescue organization specializing in pulling dogs from high-kill shelters, pregnant and nursing mothers, and, increasingly, dogs with special needs, like cleft palates.

The class was tasked with exploring ways to increase three key metrics for Sanctuary Rescue–the number of available foster families, retention of current foster families, and overall fundraising.

The students conducted market research, generated and administered surveys, analyzed the results, and created a marketing and fundraising plan, which they presented to the CEO (and a tiny puppy named Velveteen Rabbit) on the final day of class. The class even created a new website for Sanctuary Rescue and TikTok videos to attract younger foster parents/families.

“This group of students took three challenging problems and worked together to create a real sense of community among one another where they could trust each other and build off each other’s strengths to generate potential solutions,” Cribbs said. “It was truly awesome to watch.”