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The Rewards of Teaching First-year Students

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Chiu-Mi Lai with students in class sitting around a table
Chiu-Mi Lai, professor of instruction in the Asian Studies department, taught UGS 302: The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly in Chinese Culture.

Everyone agrees there’s something special about teaching brand new Longhorns.

“They’re so enthusiastic and excited to be in college,” says John B. Bartholomew, the associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Education and professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. He taught UGS 302: Physical Activity and Public Health in fall 2022 — not for the first time — and he loves that it was “the course that really feels like what they thought college would be like…the course that they talk to their parents about.”

John Bartholomew with students outside pointing to something in the distance
John Bartholomew, the associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Education and professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, taught UGS 302: Physical Activity and Public Health in fall 2022.

Chiu-Mi Lai, professor of instruction in the Asian Studies department, echoes his excitement: “I enjoy playing a part in helping the students navigate their transition from high school. I am always learning from the experience of interacting with first-year students!” Lai, who taught UGS 302: The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly in Chinese Culture in fall 2022, can’t help but note “the warmth of the dynamics and the bond that they forge from beginning to end of the term, and even beyond, as they find college friendships, even roommates.”

Bartholomew and Lai, along with many other members of The University of Texas at Austin’s faculty, teach Signature Courses, small seminar-style classes that aim to ease adjustment to the college learning environment, build invaluable writing, critical thinking and research skills, and familiarize students with key university resources, landmarks and events. Since 2010, all freshmen have been required to take a Signature Course, but they are not restricted to subject matter related to their major—in fact, students are encouraged to explore topics they are interested in but might not otherwise get to study at length.

Following a March 21 award ceremony celebrating professors who have taught 10 or more Signature Courses in the last 10 years, a few outstanding faculty members shared what they think makes this program such a vital additional to the university’s core curriculum.

Michael Domjan, Department of Psychology, College of Liberal Arts

Michael Domjan holds a violin in front of students sitting around a table
Michael Domjan, professor in the Department of Psychology, taught UGS 302: Music and Psychology in fall 2022.

UGS 302: Music and Psychology (Fall 2022)

On what makes teaching a Signature Course unique:
“This is the most enjoyable course I teach, but also the most challenging. I don’t think of it as a regular class. I think of it as a conversation about how to get the most out of the college experience, both in terms of intellectual growth and personal growth. As a conversation, the content of the course is different each semester and reflects not just my interests but also the interests of the students, in the context of what is happening in their lives and the world around them.”

Mehdi Haghshenas, Department of Sociology, College of Liberal Arts

UGS 302: What We See, What We Believe (Fall 2022)

On the student feedback he can’t forget:
“Every time I teach the signature course, I ask the students to reflect on the course at the end of the semester. Reading their reflections is the most memorable time of the course for me and the students. This one student’s remarks especially touched me: ‘Your comment about how we are all different lightbulbs, but the same source of energy, allowed me to start seeing myself as equally human as the person next to me. I felt more at peace and at ease. I know who I am, and nothing anyone does or says changes that. Accepting that I am worthy of love and relaxation did a lot for me, and in a sense, I felt reborn and clear-headed for the first time in many years.'”

Yolanda Padilla, Steve Hicks School of Social Work

Yolanda Padilla speaks with students inside a building
Yolanda Padilla, professor in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, taught UGS 302: How to Change the World in fall 2022.

UGS 302: How to Change the World (Fall 2022)

On why she designed her Signature Course the way she did:
“What I’m trying to do with my teaching is help cultivate empathy. I have 300 books in my collection from which students pick. They read memoirs, they read ethnographies, they read fiction and then, finally, social action books. The power of reading a memoir of an incarcerated person or an immigrant or a refugee — students find connections with people and things that have never been a part of their lives. It’s just eye-opening! But the reason it’s eye-opening is they get to choose their books. In social work, we teach a lot of social problems and we teach a lot of things that are very difficult. Ultimately, what I want is for them to see it as something that they can have agency in changing and in making a difference. It’s a sense of hope for the world.”

Brad Love, Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations, Moody College of Communication

UGS 303: Thinking About Thinking (Fall 2021)

On “memorable moments” from the last 10 years:
“For me, the Signature Course experience isn’t about moments so much as trend lines. It’s about all these dynamic, capable, diligent young people who show up for themselves and their peers over the years and what they’ve taught me about how they learn and think and grow. The memorable bit is about how they’ve grown — now well into adulthood for my first cohorts! — and how I see the influence of the experience on me.”

Suzanne Seriff, Department of Anthropology, College of Liberal Arts

UGS 303: Immigrants as Aliens: Difficult Dialogues About Immigration Throughout American History (Fall 2022)

On why so many students consider their Signature Course experience to be life changing:
“The ability for students to critically and compassionately engage with each other, with critical texts and with guest speakers in dialogue around controversial yet crucial issues is one of the hallmarks of a first-class university education, as well as the global leaders our university hopes to foster. As one student remarked about the power of dialogue to build an inclusive community, ‘The prospect of having an open dialogue over such a hot button issue with people my own age is an exciting one. I know people have many different strong opinions when it comes to immigration, and I hope we can all be respectful of one another.’ The Signature Course experience is the path that gets us there!”