New book on Signature Courses shares UT’s educational innovations

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Guy P. Raffa and his contribution to Signature Course Stories

One of the most important developments at the University during my nine years as president has been the formation of Signature Courses. Taught by seasoned faculty and required for all freshmen, Signature Courses are administered by the School of Undergraduate Studies and immerse students in the culture of higher learning as they arrive on our campus.

Now, a new book, written by the teachers of these courses, has painted a vivid picture of how they’re changing lives. Signature Course Stories is a collection of essays that describe how these groundbreaking courses connect the University’s freshmen with its most distinguished faculty members.

Written by outstanding professors from across many disciplines, and with a foreword by me, the essays are organized by the goals of Signature Courses: critical thinking, information literacy, oral communication, writing improvement, interdisciplinary approaches, experiential learning, and contemporary content.

Below is a short excerpt from Ben Carrington’s essay “Postracial America: Race and Culture in Contemporary America,” describing the scene in his classroom after showing a photo of the Marion, Indiana, lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith, and playing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”:

As I turned on the lights my suspicion was confirmed, at least three of the class were crying, a few more trying to hold back tears. The rest were silent. I took a few moments to let the students reflect and process. In truth, I needed the time myself. “Is everyone okay?”

It’s at moments like these that our role as educators seeking to enhance not just knowledge acquisition but the humanistic desire to understand and make sense of the world, with a view to change it, becomes apparent. These moments remind me what we’re about as professors, as teachers, or at least why I came into the profession. A reminder that, despite what some may claim, my students are not “customers,” and I am not providing a service to please and satisfy preexisting wants. The mall and cable TV can do that. A necessary precondition for being a better student, for being a more fluent writer, a more critical thinker, is to care about the subjects we engage. This does not mean losing sight of objectivity or placing politics before robust scholarship, but rather recognizing that passion, emotion, and empathetic recognition with different histories, cultures, and peoples can be an important basis for learning. We ultimately understand ourselves and our own histories better as a result. An affective pedagogy helps us to humanize and make real what can sometimes come across to students as a series of worthy but disembodied facts and historical markers.

I’d like to congratulate Dean Brent Iverson of the School of Undergraduate Studies, as well as editor Lori Holleran Steiker, on an outstanding job. Thank you for capturing and sharing this important moment in American higher education. The book is available from the University of Texas Press.

What starts here changes the world.

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