AUSTIN, Texas—Small classes, group discussions and lectures by award-winning full professors are usually opportunities that await college students when they enter their later years of study. But thanks to a new course offering at UT Austin, freshmen and sophomores are getting a chance to sample all these benefits sooner rather than later.
As part of UT Austin’s ongoing effort to enrich the undergraduate experience, the University has developed Forum Seminars, one-hour courses designed to introduce freshmen and sophomores to a variety of fields and interdisciplinary programs. The seminars have been organized as part of Connexus: Connections in Undergraduate Studies. This University-wide effort also includes the Freshman Seminar Program, the Longhorn Scholars Program and the Bridging Disciplines Program, which will be implemented next fall.
"This is a big, sometimes lumbering, but most often wonderful place," said Dr. Sheldon Ekland Olson, UT Austin executive vice president and provost. "Students need to know how to take advantage of the interlaced opportunities available. The Forum Seminars, along with the larger Connexus program, are part of an effort to expose students to the rich array of course offerings at the earliest possible moment."
Two courses — "Open Questions: The Process of Intellectual Inquiry in the Arts, Sciences and Humanities," taught by Dr. Robert Duke, School of Music; and "The New Texas," taught by Vice Provost Lucia Gilbert and Dr. Polly Strong of anthropology — are offered this spring. "The series of weekly lectures and small-group discussions feature some of the most fascinating and best-known faculty on the UT campus," said Gilbert, who is chair of the Connexus advisory committee. "Students will hopefully come away from these seven-week courses inspired to think differently about their educational experiences at UT and beyond."
Several of the professors in each of the courses are members of the University’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
The courses are restricted to freshmen and sophomores. Each seminar meets once a week for two hours for only half the semester. There are two or three guest faculty speakers each week and weekly reading and writing assignments are required.
Students, many of them with undeclared majors, receive one hour of credit.
"At such a large university, many students are only introduced to subjects within their majors and those core requirements," said sophomore Megan Willis, who is taking the "New Texas" course. "The Forum Seminars introduce students to an array of subjects early in their college careers. The seminars also give students different options to incorporate more than one concentration into their studies."
Willis also said she enjoys the chance to express her opinions in class. "Many times freshmen and sophomores are in such large classes that they are unable to discuss their views on issues," she said. "These seminars allow complete interaction from everyone."
"The New Texas" course focuses on the dramatic changes the state of Texas is undergoing. "These changes in populations, cultures, technologies and environments create a rich opportunity for understanding the importance of interdisciplinary study," said Gilbert, who also is a professor of educational psychology. The seminar also introduces the students to interdisciplinary programs at UT Austin such as environmental studies, children in society, technology, literacy and culture, urban studies, Latin American studies and women’s studies.
"I think the seminars are a great benefit to newcomers to the University because they introduce students to the diversity that can be found here," said Ginger Postert, a freshman from Bandera.
"Students get to meet and talk to professors from many different departments. "It’s great because you can take one class that gives you all this exposure that you might not get otherwise, and it can lead to new ideas about where you want to go with your education."
Presenting the Texas seminar are: Dr. Richard Flores, anthropology and Center for Mexican-American Studies; Dr. Maggie Rodriguez, journalism; Dr. Peter Ward, sociology and LBJ School of Public Affairs; Dr. Robert Wilson, LBJ School and director of the Urban Studies Program at UT; Dr. Ronald Angel, sociology; Dr. Laura Lein, anthropology and social work; Dr. Angela Valenzuela, curriculum and instruction; Dr. Jay Banner, geological sciences and director of the UT Environmental Science Institute; Dr. Robert Paterson, architecture; Dr. Dick Richardson, integrated biology; Gary Chapman, LBJ School and director of the 21st Century Project; Dr. Sirkka Jarvenpaa, holder of the James L. Bayless/Rauscher Pierce Refsnes, Inc. Chair in Business Administration; Dr. Samuel Wilson, anthropology and director of the Technology, Literacy and Culture program; Amparo Garcia-Crow, theater and dance, and Dr. Charles Ramirez-Berg, radio, television and film.
The "Open Questions" forum is designed to introduce students to interesting, unanswered questions in the arts, sciences and humanities. Among the guest professors in this course are Dr. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize recipient and UT Austin physics professor; Dr. Alan Campion, chemistry; Dr. Shelley Payne, molecular genetics and microbiology; Dr. Paul Woodruff, philosophy; and Jeff Hellmer, music. Ramirez-Berg will lecture in this class, too.