American Cultures Center Receives Ed Initiatives Award

The Center as Well as the Requirement Has Become a Model for Other Universities

The Center for the Teaching and Study of American Cultures, which oversees courses that satisfy the American cultures breadth requirement, is the recipient of the 1996 Educational Initiatives Award.

The honor is presented by the Committee on Teaching of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate annually to a department or unit to recognize distinctive contribution to undergraduate education.

In 1991, Berkeley initiated the American cultures breadth requirement.

To date, faculty from some 41 departments or programs have developed over 200 new courses that analyze how the diversity of America's constituent cultural traditions and their interactions have shaped and continue to shape American identify and experience.

This new approach responds directly to the problem encountered in numerous disciplines of how better to present the diversity of American experience.

To date 34,000 students have enrolled in these courses, which have been taught by 154 different instructors.

A significant aspect of the program is the American Cultures summer seminar, initiated by Ron Choy, assistant director of the center, and Professor William Simmons, the center's first director.

They foresaw that one problem the new requirement faced was that many Berkeley faculty were prepared to teach about one group and a few were prepared to teach about two groups, but the requirement that the course include at least three and often more groups put it beyond the expertise of many faculty members.

The summer seminar is intended, in part, to help faculty overcome this limitation. Each June, a number of faculty are offered stipends to support research to transform existing concepts and courses into forms that fit senate specifications.

As part of their stipends, faculty may attend a biweekly two-hour seminar, followed by discussion, in which members of the groups present their research and problems.

During the following fall and spring semesters, they meet regularly, discussing ongoing problems, strategies and resources.

During these meetings, faculty who have little opportunity to talk in depth about their fields with colleagues outside their discipline are able to find connections between often seemingly distant fields--forestry and English, for example.

The seminar has also transformed the teaching styles of participants, energizing their interactions with students, provoking invention of comparative and integrative structures for presenting disparate material.

Rhona Weinstein, professor of psychology, a 1995 participant in the faculty seminar, has high praise for the seminar: "(It) provided one of the most challenging and supportive contexts for my own growth that I have encountered in my 23 years at Berkeley."

Professor Emeritus of English Julian Boyd agrees: "The American Cultures program taught me a new way of looking at and talking and listening to my students. [It] exposed me to social theorists whom I knew nothing of--and, even better, how to use the theory in my research and teaching. I had no idea five years ago that the American Cultures program would so profoundly affect me--the direction of my studies, my feelings about the place and time I live in, and, above all, my connection to the students at Berkeley."

Every Berkeley undergraduate has been given access to cutting-edge thinking on some of the most urgent issues facing the state and nation today, and their enthusiasm is all the more remarkable because this is a required course.

"My perception of American society, history, and culture has deepened significantly as a result of this course," said one student.

"I will take this class and what I have learned with me throughout my study here at the university and out in the real word," said another.

The committee was impressed with the large numbers of students and faculty affected, often deeply, by the courses. It noted, too, that the center as well as the requirement has become a model for other universities.

Current center director Professor Mitch Breitwieser says, "It is not only the students who have been educated. Some dozens of Berkeley faculty members, including myself, have had the richest intellectual experience of their Berkeley careers in the center."


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
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