Tell us about your Signature Course.
Many years ago, I was a first-year student at UT enrolled in a Plan II freshman tutorial course, which was the forerunner of today’s Signature Course. It was one of the highlights of my college career, and so, of course, I modeled my own Signature Course on that one, even though it is in a completely different discipline. That means using a topic of general interest and public import as delivery system of sorts for a lot of writing and many opportunities for oral discussion. My course leverages an issue that is always at the forefront of public discussion (racial/ethnic inequality and conflict) and a policy issue that has UT squarely in the spotlight (affirmative action, diversity initiatives) to engage students in a semester-long exercise aimed at facilitating their ability to argue. By argue, I mean crafting persuasive, evidence-based, logically structured arguments in writing and oral presentation about their carefully considered stances on the issues of the day. To that end, we mix short assignment-driven written and oral assignments with a longer interest-driven project that requires students to pose a hard question about race/ethnicity and education, analyze extant data to come up with an answer to that question, and discuss potential policy responses informed by that answer. Doing so helps them figure out what they think about a specific topic and why they think it in ways that ultimately allow them to see the real world/real life value of research.
What is your favorite part about teaching a Signature Course?
I do believe that my Signature Course helps students think more clearly about social problems and associated policy interventions and that they leave this course much better equipped to argue in informed ways. These are rewarding experiences. Yet, what I like most about my course beyond these academic rewards is not technically (or directly) academic. Instead, it is about how the Signature Course program gives explicit license (and actual encouragement) to devote significant amounts of the semester to what I call student socialization, which refers to the formal and informal activities through which first-year students and transfer students learn how to be successful college students in general and successful UT students in particular. For example, my students, TA, and I have discussions about effectively communicating with professors (including email etiquette!), writing activities aimed at breaking some of the bad writing lessons learned in high school, and library-based sessions that teach how to find and identify trusted scientific sources. I think that, because of this aspect of the signature course program, students leave this course knowing something valuable for their lives beyond a better understanding of race/ethnicity and public policy.
What is your best piece of advice for first-year students?
When I engage in those student socialization activities in my Signature Course, I always hit home this message to students—get on the radar. By this, I mean that students who know and are known by their professors in a deeper way than just basic classroom interaction get the most out of the academic experience of the university, but the size and structure of UT challenges the ability of students and professors to make that happen. Thus, the burden often falls on students to make themselves better known to professors and to engage with them in a more meaningful way. As a result, one student will have a deeper relationship with professors and be more invested in by professors than another student, and those students will then be traveling on divergent paths through school. Students cannot let themselves be left behind like that, let that other student get an advantage on them. They need to take charge—go to office hours, talk to professors after class, email professors. Get on the radar, so that, when a professor has the chance to nominate a student for a new program or has an undergraduate research opportunity, guess who they remember.