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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

USEM proposal passes

Published: April 7, 2006
Section: News

University faculty approved a new University Seminar (USEM) proposal at their Thursday faculty meeting that makes a revamped UWS mandatory for first-year students, “loosens” the restrictions on interdisciplinary USEMs, and changes the writing intensive university requirement to include an oral communication option.
The faculty approved the proposal presented by the University Curriculum Committee by a 73-0 vote. Because the vote received more than a two-thirds majority and was reviewed by a standing faculty committee, a second reading at the next faculty meeting is not required, according to the Faculty Handbook.

As written, the new proposal will go into effect in August of 2007.

The USEM proposal, which was obtained by The Hoot, calls for the dissolution of the Universitys USEM+W option, which allows students to take a one-hour writing lab and two writing-intensive course in addition to their USEM instead of taking an additional University Writing Seminar (UWS) and one writing-intensive course.

Furthermore, the proposal calls for the dramatic restructuring of the UWS process, which will now include four major assignments for a total of 25-30 pages in final drafts: a close reading, a lens essay, a research-based essay, and a position paper.

Professor Dawn Skorczewski (ENG) is responsible for developing the training program for future UWS instructors on the pedagogy of writing.

When asked about what the lens essay would entail, Skorczewski said that a lens is a frame, as in, how does Flannery O'Connor's theory of the Moment of Grace help us to understand her story A Good Man is Hard to Find'? Or, how does Foucualt's Theory of the Panopticon relate to the schooling system in America, if it does? Or, how is Mary Louise Pratt's Theory of the Contact Zone related to the conflict in Richard Rodriguez's The Achievement of Desire'?

One aspect of the proposal touched upon a topic which has had many students concerned: whether or not USEMs would count as a general education requirement or as a major elective. While the first USEM proposal, written by Freeze, called for USEMs to be counted as departmental electives, the second proposal, written by Jaffe on the advice of both the UCC and departmental chairs, stated that USEMs could count [only] toward school distribution (Creative Arts, Humanities, Science, or Social Science) or other general education requirements (Writing Intensive, Quantitative Reasoning, Nonwestern and Comparative Studies, or the new Oral Communication), if submitted to and approved by the appropriate School Councils and oversight committees. UWS classes, however, would not count toward any requirements other than the university writing requirements.

There will still be composition for those students who need it, added UCC member and Deputy Director of Academic Affairs Carol Ortenberg 06.

The proposal also stated that it would alter the registration method of the USEM and UWS classes, now allowing students to indicate up to five ranked choices (5 USEMs/ 5 UWSs).

Following that, according to the proposal, an optimization process will be run to balance demand and give students the highest ranked choice that we can prior to their enrolling in other classes.

Finally, the proposal called for the introduction of an oral communications Requirement, which could be completed in conjunction with a USEM, a UWS, and a Writing-Intensive course, instead of taking two Writing-Intensive courses. According to the proposal, this requirement would institute at least two five-to-seven minute oral assignments and would include instruction on such topics as appropriate style and effective delivery [and] theories of effective communication. If students did not wish to take the oral communications class, however, they could opt to take a second writing-intensive course.

When asked about how these oral requirement classes would be implemented in practice, Professor Paul Jankowski (HIST) mentioned that he was uncertain, but stated he agreed with the idea in theory. Oral communication has somehow been lost in many a liberal arts curriculum I certainly welcome its inclusion as a first step on the untravelled path to fluency, he said. My only regret is that the proposal does not recommend summary execution for every incorrect use of the word like.

Theres two parts to it: one, you have to learn how to talk theres speaking in public, and theres listening, said Ortenberg. Any oral communication class should emphasize both parts… I think that oral communication has a larger impact than just inside the classroom.

While Ortenberg mentioned that classes with the oral requirement notation have not been decided, she stated that the oral requirement could involve class debates, leading discussions, giving presentations, [or] writing a presentation not the Powerpoint 'Im-Going-to-Teach-You-Something' sort of presentation.

Dean Jaffe admitted at the Thursday faculty meeting that the oral communication requirement has not been fully developed.

Many faculty members were unable to comment on the proposal before its presentation at the faculty meeting due to a lack of information. I like the new USEM idea but have not studied it closely. I expect I will learn more about it at the faculty meeting. I don't know anything about the proposed oral communication, said one professor who wished to remain anonymous.

Over half of the faculty members contacted by The Hoot felt they did not know enough about the proposal to give an informed opinion

Jankowski added that the proposal, which would now allow USEMs to become single-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary, would [add] focus to seminars that perhaps in the past were trying to do too many things at once. It will also encourage faculty to create USEMs in their own fields;

before they might have been deterred by the range of requirements facing them.

According to Freezes initial proposal, there are currently three to four science-based USEMs and three to four arts-based USEMs per year, compared to the Social Sciences 16 to 19 USEMs and the Humanities 23 to 31 USEMs annually.

“I think this really responds to student comments–they want more out of their freshman year, said Ortenberg. You want to come out with a basic knowledge.

In a poll run Fall 2005, less than 50% of the student body stated that they would take a USEM if it were purely optional;

35% of students had a positive response to their USEM experience, compared against 37% which found their USEM experience to be negative.