The Right Combination
By Ivette M. Yee
The College of Arts & Sciences boasts a cornucopia of outstanding course offerings, but faculty—both recently arrived and long established—are ever trying to make it even richer, whether through improving an existing course or creating a new one. The “market” in new courses here is an especially vibrant one.
For example, assistant professor of philosophy Elijah Chudnoff, who joined UM last fall, teaches a course on the “Philosophical Aspects of Infinity.”
“I think a philosophical course on infinity is attractive because several gripping puzzles about infinity turn up when you reflect on basic concepts, such as space, time, number, and motion,” Chudnoff said. “The history of the subject presents us with a nice narrative: people worry about a puzzle, then someone develops some new ideas in order to resolve it, but these new ideas generate a new puzzle, which requires more sophisticated and deeper ideas, and so on. Working through all this, you both learn a good story and some deep mathematics and philosophy.”
Indeed, new faculty members play a significant role in curriculum development. “Faculty change is one of the most important factors in changing our course offerings,” said Harvey Siegel, chair of the Department of Philosophy. “When we have retiring faculty and new faculty come in, new courses are part of the hiring conversation.”
During the past three years, A&S has added more than 70 professors. With each new faculty member, the College gains a fresh perspective in a particular field—through an expert and educator with a desire to share his or her research. Thus “many of the courses I teach have never been taught before,” said Karen Ruffle, an assistant professor of religion who joined the University last year. Her course offerings include “Islam and Gender” and “Epic Traditions of South Asia.” “My research plays an important role,” Ruffle said. “I am keenly interested in issues of gender in Islamic traditions, and I use my courses as a forum in which to examine this topic.”
Examples of new Arts & Sciences classes can be found in every subject, including history (“The Cold War in East Asia”), religion (“Religion and Youth in Contemporary America”), art and art history (“Art and Politics”), international studies (“Refugees, Migrants, and Human Trafficking in Latin American and the Caribbean”), and English (“Terrifying Dreams: Fantasy Narratives in World Literature”), among others.
“A STRONG SENSE OF PRIDE”
Departments base their new course offerings on curricular need, a request by faculty or students to explore a certain topic, or a suggestion by the chair of a department to teach a series of courses because of programmatic importance, said Kathryn Tosney, chair of the Department of Biology.
An important criterion for new classes, especially department-developed courses, is that they appeal to both students and faculty. “You want to offer courses the students are excited about, but first the faculty member teaching the course has to be excited,” Siegel said. “If it’s a chore for the instructor, the students will know that.”
New faculty reworking long-established classes also add to the course offerings. Assistant professor of physics Kevin Huffenberger, who studies the cosmic microwave background (CMB)—the radiation afterglow of the Big Bang—teaches a revised class in “Astronomy,” covering the whole universe. “The course I am offering is complemented by my research, which provides students with a new way of thinking about the CMB and the Big Bang. And there are benefits to me as well. When you are explaining these concepts to a class, it makes your research clearer. It helps you organize.”
Given UM’s diverse student body and faculty, cultural background also influences course development. Assistant professor of religious studies Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, who is of Cuban descent, said she is motivated to create new classes—including “Religion and Gender” and “Race and Religion”—by her own and her students’ strong cultural identity. “It’s very exciting to have students from places such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Jamaica, Chile, and Peru, all gathered together to learn about their histories and, consequently, their own identities,” Maldonado said.
FOCUS ON INTERDISCIPLINARITY
An important goal of the College is to offer courses of an interdisciplinary nature. “Arts & Sciences is diverse—a strength in itself—and we strengthen the school further when we build bridges between disciplines,” said Jacqueline Dixon, interim dean of the college. “Many of the most exciting new discoveries happen when the walls of disciplines are breached,” she explained. “Courses with an interdisciplinary focus bring faculty and students together to learn in new and creative ways.”
This past year, the College provided funding to support faculty members in the development of interdisciplinary courses.
“I am thrilled to have been selected to develop an interdisciplinary course that will break new ground by moving outside the existing curriculum,” said Joel Hollander, an art history professor who received one of the grants for his “Art & Politics” course. The idea for Hollander’s class sprouted from a series of prints created by contemporary British artist Anthony Davies, who was living, working and teaching in Belfast, Northern Ireland during “The Troubles,” the ethno-political conflict that took place from the late 1960s to 1998 in that region.
“My course aims to move beyond stylistic analysis of Western visual art produced between the Renaissance and post-Modern era, by examining how imagery has advanced the policies of despots, emperors, dictators, and democratically elected officials,” he said.
Another new interdisciplinary course award went to associate professor of anthropology Traci Ardren for her new class “Boys will be boys? Exploring masculinities,” which will examine masculine gender roles in cultures ranging from Rome to modern Latin America, with an emphasis on Maya civilization, Ardren’s specialty. Ardren, who serves as director of the College’s program in Women’s and Gender Studies, said the impetus for the course came from her 20 years of researching gender, especially the lives of ancient women. “My thinking eventually turned to linking masculinity and dominance with why women’s roles were so overlooked. I have never taught a course on this material before, but I thought the time was right for it.”
She is well known for adding several interdisciplinary courses to the A&S listings and says that her primary sources for information are her colleagues and students. “I talk to a lot of professors who are paying attention to what subjects get students excited,” she said. “When I do that, new ideas for classes seem to find me.”