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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Popular Courses Get a Reprise

A handful of highly successful Dean's Teaching Fellowship courses from recent years are enjoying a second life, reprised this year as Dean's Prize Freshman Seminars.

Two such courses—The Politics of Interpretation, and Disability and Society are running this fall, taught by experienced teachers and graduate students Mina Suk and Christian Villenas, respectively. A half dozen more courses are scheduled for spring. All originated as popular Dean's Teaching Fellowship courses and were selected for re-tooling as freshman seminars in the inaugural year of the Dean's Prize program.

Paula Burger, dean of undergraduate education, says the program helps address the need for more courses for freshmen in light of this year's over enrollment, but notes that the Dean's Prize program was conceived well before anyone knew the size of the Class of 2013. There are plans to continue running the program regardless of future class sizes, she says.

"Such talented, advanced graduate students are a real resource for our students, supplementing in very limited but important ways the work of our regular faculty," Burger says. "These seminars will expand the offerings in the departments where they are housed, with some attention to subjects that may not be part of the regular array of courses."

Indeed, that is the case with Suk's The Politics of Interpretation. Originally offered in Spring 2008 as an upper-level course titled Hermeneutics and Politics, the course takes a broad, interdisciplinary look at political theory, literary theory, and religious studies, asking such questions as: What is interpretation? How does one interpret a text? Does a text have a "true" meaning?

"It's almost a methods course," says Suk, one that should help freshmen begin to think about how to study, and how to think about their readings and the research they will conduct in a variety of courses at Hopkins. "I'm really excited to teach this new modality, and I'm grateful for this chance to expand my pedagogical repertoire."

Burger says Suk was asked to reprise her course based on the stellar teaching evaluations students gave her, as well as for the accessibility of its subject matter for freshmen. Most of the Dean's Prize seminars feature a somewhat scaled-back reading list and some other tweaks to make them more appropriate for first-year students.

Suk, who is in her last year of graduate work in political science, adjusted the readings and the length of some writing assignments, and added a section in the syllabus to encourage students' growth as thinkers, readers, critics, and writers. "I want students to leave my class not only having matured in their scholarly skills—skills of research and writing—but also thinking new and intellectually stimulating ideas that reveal new ways of approaching the world," she says.

Says Burger, "Freshmen and graduate students alike will benefit from this program--freshmen by having access to a small-group learning experience focused on an interesting topic, and graduate students by further demonstrating their teaching effectiveness in an area of their special expertise and intellectual passion."

Villenas originally developed and taught his Dean's Teaching Fellowship course two years ago, and it was such a hit that the Sociology Department found funding for him to teach it again last year. The course—more introductory and less theoretical in its freshman seminar form—aims to give students basic insight into how disability is defined, experienced, and understood in modern society.

"All too often we're more focused on the medical aspects of disabilities—how to prevent, cure, or treat them—as opposed to what it's like to live with a disability, or what the social aspects are," Villenas says.

A key component of the course is a group project in which students examine and assess various campus locations and university functions (like admissions) for issues of accessibility. This fall, freshmen are analyzing the accessibility—both physical and programmatic—of such buildings as the Bunting-Meyerhoff Interfaith Center, Mudd Hall (home to most of the school's biology research labs), and the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy.

Mina Suk teaching Political science graduate student Mina Suk asks freshmen the tough questions: What is interpretation? Does a text have a “true” meaning?

Will Kirk/