From Autumn 2018, the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge is delighted to announce an unprecedented set of new courses: XCAP, The Experimental Capstone. Designed for upper-level undergraduates, a new XCAP class was debuted each quarter in 2018-19, and will continue throughout the 2019-20 quarters. XCAP courses, team-taught by faculty from different Divisions or Schools, are designed to challenge students to build upon their UChicago educational experience by adding practice, impact, and influence as important dimensions for undergraduate education.

XCAP courses incorporate a variety of topics and frameworks, but inherent in each of these courses are the following three elements:

  • an element of practice, a result in a product, or a measurable impact;
  • an appeal to students from all the College divisions for maximal interaction of different points of view; and
  • a part of the college experience with particular relevance to post-college life.

The XCAP courses may be taken pass/fail or for a quality grade, and students may take one, two, or all three quarters of XCAP, as the courses are not part of a sequence. Each course is taught by a different team of faculty, and provides a distinct perspective on the three core elements above.

See what UChicago News has to say about XCAP!


2021-22 XCAP Courses

Spring 2022

KNOW 29975: XCAP: The Commune: The Making and Breaking of Intentional Communities

Instructors: William Nickell

Course listings: KNOW 29975 / REES 23154/33154

Any class is an intentional community of sorts: people gathered together with a sense of collective purpose. But often the hopes of students are not met by the content or the methods in the classroom. Can we do better by making the process more intentional—clarifying and developing a collective sense of purpose at the outset? We will start by forming a collective plan on topics to be explored—anything from iconic American communities and Russian communes to memoir studies and economics. Possible projects include creating an intentional community in an off-campus location, designing a communal space, rewriting manifestos, or creating a new communal charter. We can cover anything from economics, space, and gender to the problem of leadership and secular belief systems. We may also want to utilize alternative modes of learning, besides reading and discussing texts, such as roleplaying. A few students in the class have some experience in intentional communities, and we will welcome their input and suggestions.


KNOW 29943: XCAP: Diasporic Narratives and Memories: Designing a New Concept for a Multi-Ethnic Museum of Belarusian Emigration

Instructors: Olga Solovieva and Bozena Shallcross

Course listings: KNOW 29943 / CMLT 29943 / CHST 29943 / BPRO 29943, REES 29950, MAPH 39943

This course project takes the instability of Belarusian identity as an advantage for creating a new model of multi-ethnic, open emigrant community with a potential of cooperative democratic integration into a larger multi-ethnic landscape of Chicago. This project’s relevance goes beyond the Chicago community, offering a model of multi-ethnic integration for building a civil society in the Belarusian homeland. The course will involve theoretical readings in the studies of diaspora, training in oral histories gathering provided by the Chicago History Museum, and weekly field trips to the diasporic museums in Chicago. We will analyze these museums’ curatorial and narrative concepts in order to build upon their strengths and to avoid their weaknesses.


2020-21 XCAP Courses

Autumn 2020

KNOW 29942: XCAP: Food for Thought

Instructors: Laura Letinsky, Stephan Palmie

If anthropology and contemporary art have one thing in common, it is the aim to de-familiarize taken-for-granted ways of being in the world by means of ethnographic comparison or aesthetic provocation so as to open up new perspectives on the complexities of human social life. Eating is a physiological precondition for the reproduction of human life. Yet while humans are omnivores in biological terms, human food intake is neither random, nor based on genetically encoded taste preferences. Food and its consumption form highly diverse parts of human experience and play a correspondingly rich role within creative cultural production over millennia—as vehicles for need and desire, social allegiance and division, purity and danger, value and lack, connection and disruption. Co-taught by an artist and an anthropologist, this course considers what’s at stake when contemporary artists build on this longstanding practice to explore the complexities of current societal, political, and cultural contexts. Works considered range from historical still life painting to recent performative work, with a focus on European and American visual art since 1960.  Throughout class, we will examine the intertwining of art, food and sociality in relation to relevant theoretical frameworks, art historical contexts, and reception.  Participation in field trips and evening film screenings is required.  Readings are drawn from a variety of disciplines. 

Winter 2021

KNOW 29976: XCAP: The Narratives and Aesthetics of Contagion: Knowledge Formation and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Instructors: Brian Callender, William Nickell

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event in our lifetimes, one that has permeated our personal, national, and global discourse about health, disease, and dying. It confronts us with questions that we struggle to answer and are expressive of our individual and societal fears and anxieties. Where did the virus come from? How do I keep myself safe? How many of us will die? When will it go away? Will we ever return to normal? In the search for answers to these questions, we have been inundated with images and information about the virus, its contagious spread, and the impact on our society. Yet what do we make of all of this information? Where does it come from? And how does it help us understand the current moment? This is a unique opportunity to observe and participate in a moment of worldwide engagement in the challenge of knowledge formation. This course will explore how (dis)information about the virus and pandemic is created, disseminated, and shapes our perceptions and behaviors, with a particular focus on narratives and aesthetics within a variety of information ecosystems. In this course we examine what is happening as the scientific community and the media (print and digital) confront these unknowns under the watch of an anxious public, with its powerful fears, beliefs, and imagination. We will explore, in a broadly chronological format, important narratives and iconography that emerged and continue to evolve during the course of the ongoing pandemic and that contribute to our individual and collective understanding of social, cultural, political, and scientific aspects of the pandemic. We will further consider how this information relates to personal and collective knowledge formation that subsequently informs our attitudes about and behaviors during the pandemic. Our weekly readings and discussions will explore how scientists tell their story and represent their progress in a field of discourse with an unusually engaged public, which brings to bear its various faiths and agnosticism toward the systems of knowledge and practice of science. Clinical and public health ethics will provide an important framework for assessing and understanding this information within a medical context, including the ethics of quarantine, scarce resource allocation, vaccine creation, and mandated behaviors (masking, stay-at-home). We will also discuss how medical knowledge is formed and used to care for patients within a rapidly changing clinical environment. Materials that we will draw upon include: medical and scientific literature, mainstream media print and video, and materials that exist on the fringe of mainstream media. Assignments will focus on interrogating personal sources of information and how that information contributes to personal knowledge formation about and behaviors during the pandemic.


2019-20 XCAP Courses

Autumn 2019

KNOW 29901: XCAP: The Experimental Capstone -The Art of Healing: Medical Aesthetics in Russia & the US

Instructors: William Nickell, Associate Professor, Chair of the Slavic Department; Brian Callender, Professor, Dept. of Medicine; Elizabeth Murphy, Assistant Professor of Medicine

What makes a medical treatment look like it will work? What makes us feel that we are receiving good care, or that we can be cured? Why does the color of a pill influence its effectiveness, and how do placebos sometimes achieve what less inert medication cannot? In this course we will consider these problems from the vantage points of a physician and a cultural historian. Our methodology will combine techniques of aesthetic analysis with those of medical anthropology, history and practice. We will consider the narratology of medicine as we examine the way that patients tell their stories—and the way that doctors, nurses, buildings, wards, and machines enter those narratives. The latter agents derive their meaning from medical outcomes, but are also embedded in a field of aesthetic values that shape their apperception. We will look closely at a realm of medical experience that continues to evade the grasp of instruments: how the aesthetic experience shapes the phenomenon of medical treatment.

Winter 2020

KNOW 29941: XCAP: The Experimental Capstone - The Affect System

Intructors: Stephanie Cacioppo, Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences Division, Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience, Adult Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience; Eric Oliver, Professor, Political Science and the College.

The Affect system in Medicine and the Political Science is a multidisciplinary course that aims to explore the concept of “affect” from different angles and unique perspectives. Drawing broadly from Medicine, philosophy and the political science, this course seeks to understand the affect system in different cultures and environments. The term “affect” typically refers to feelings beyond those of the traditional senses, with an emphasis on the experience of emotions and variations in hedonic tone. The structure and processes underlying mental contents are not readily apparent, however, and most cognitive processes occur non-consciously with only selected outcomes reaching awareness. Over millions of years of evolution, efficient and manifold mechanisms have evolved for differentiating hostile from hospitable stimuli and for organizing adaptive responses to these stimuli. These are critically important functions for the evolution of mammals, and the integrated set of mechanisms that serve these functions can be thought of as an “affect system.” It is this affect system – its architecture and operating characteristics, as viewed from neural, psychological, social, and political perspectives, that is the focus of the course.

Spring 2020

KNOW 29971: XCAP: The Experimental Capstone - What is an Intervention (for Mental Health)?

Instructors: Eugene Raikhel, Associate Professor, Social Sciences Division, Comparative Human Development; Dr. Michael Marcangelo, Director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences Division, Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience, Adult Psychiatry & Behavioral Neuroscience.

What does it mean for a practice to be understood as an intervention in the domain of mental health? Interventions in mental health can be carried out with tools ranging from chemicals and electrical impulses, to words, affects, and social relationships, to organizations. They can involve acting on a range of distinct targets -- from brains and bodies to psyches and emotional conflicts to housing and employment. This course will use a focus on mental health interventions to introduce students to a range of conceptual and practical issues surrounding mental health and illness, as well as to raise a set of broader questions about the relationships between knowledge formation, practice, ethics, and politics. The questions we will ask throughout the course will include: What does it mean for an intervention to be successful? How is effectiveness understood and measured? Are mental health interventions ethically-neutral or do they contain embedded within them assumptions about the normal, the pathological, and the good life? We will think through these questions vis-a-vis readings drawn from psychiatry, psychology, and the social sciences -- but more importantly, through weekly practical and experiential activities. Each week will focus on one kind of mental health intervention, and will involve a particular kind of practical learning activity.

2018-19 XCAP Courses

  • Autumn 2018: KNOW 29900 – XCAP: The Experimental Capstone – The Body in Medicine and the Performing Arts
  • Winter 2019: KNOW 29940: XCAP: The Experimental Capstone:  Knowledge Claims: Theory/Praxis
  • Spring 2019: KNOW 29970: XCAP: The Experimental Capstone: Experiencing the Real - Nature, Culture, Society