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Back to School: Unique fall classes and programs

This fall, freshmen reluctant to make use of professors’ office hours are finding three new ways to change all that and discover the value of faculty-student communication. A handful of professors are turning the tables by heading to the residence halls to teach class.

Other new classes are stretching students’ imaginations, challenging them, for example, to design more humane office spaces and to trek in the California wilderness to better understand the work of writers including John Muir and Gary Snyder.

Getting to Know UC Berkeley Faculty
Instructor: Christina Maslach, UC Berkeley vice provost for undergraduate education

 Charles Townes meets new students
Members of the incoming class get to meet Nobel laureate Charles Townes, a physicist and Greduate School professor, at the chancellor's reception for new students. (Steve McConnell photos)

According to Maslach, a psychology professor, research shows that faculty-student contact plays a key role in the quality of the undergraduate experience. Then why don’t students often jump at the chance to meet their instructors and visit them during office hours? In this Freshman Seminar, students will do their own research on the topic, become better skilled at meeting their professors, and develop recommendations on how students and their instructors at UC Berkeley can better communicate.

Getting to know one’s professors “is probably one of the most important things you can do while you are here,” said Maslach. “You will get advice and guidance about what courses to take, what major to choose, what research opportunities to try, and what career options to consider — and eventually, you may be able to get research mentoring and recommendations to help you pursue your chosen path.”

Freshman Seminar Program Dinner Series
Coordinator: Alix Schwartz, director of academic planning, College of Letters & Science undergraduate division

For the first time this fall, a handful of professors in the Freshman Seminar Program have chosen to teach courses late in the afternoon, then continue class discussions over dinner in the dining commons at UC Berkeley residence halls. Schwartz said the series is designed to help freshmen overcome their reluctance to meet with professors who are not only brilliant, but often well-known.

“Some of the students are so shy,” she said, “you really have to build a bridge for them.”

About 95 to 98 percent of new freshmen live in the residence halls, as do a large number of transfer students, added Troy Gilbert, associate director of academic services in Residential & Student Services, so life in student housing is an important gateway to the university experience.

“The residence halls offer classes on study skills and help with tutoring, so this (dinner series) fits right in,” he said. “It’s a way to introduce students to the university’s intellectual community and make the dining commons a place for intellectual discussions. I hope it really catches on.”

Professors George Chang and Allen Goldstein (“Global Environment House Freshman Seminar”); Samuel Haber (“Movies as Historical Documents: America 1920-1945”); Robert Tracy (“Contemporary Irish Theater: The Plays of Brian Friel”); and Lowell Dittmer (“Problems in East Asian Politics”) are among the faculty members participating in this new series.

A few of the seminars are even being held in meeting rooms at the residence halls, to be closer to their dinner discussion sites.

Global Environment Residential Theme Program
Program chair: Allen Goldstein, associate professor of biogeochemistry in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management

Twenty students who share an interest in the social, economic and scientific issues affecting the environment are moving this week into Foothill Residence Halls’ “Global Environment House,” a new residential theme program.

Professors and lecturers will lead seminars at Foothill each week for this small group of students, most of them freshmen, and take them on weekend field trips to such environmentally sensitive areas as Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County and the vernal pools in Merced County.

“Bringing faculty into residence halls to teach seminars can help break down barriers that sometimes exist between new students and faculty members,” said Goldstein. “We are very interested in creating closer communication between faculty and students, particularly when they first arrive at UC Berkeley.”

The new program, which earns students one unit of credit each semester, also includes evening lectures that will be open to the campus community.

The campus’s Office of Residential & Family Living initiated theme programs two decades ago to provide a learning environment for residents who share an interest in a particular cultural or academic theme.

Global Environment House, co-sponsored by the College of Natural Resources, is the sixth theme program to be offered by UC Berkeley. Others include the African American, Women in Science & Engineering, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender theme programs.

More information about these theme programs is available online.

The Post-Dilbert Workspace
Instructors: Galen Cranz, professor of architecture; Sara Beckman, business professor; Seth Roberts, psychology professor; Arnold Wasserman, design consultant

Office cube
The soulless cubicle, bane of office workers everywhere.

Graduate students will have a chance to think outside the “cube” in this interdisciplinary class offered in the Management of Technology program at the Haas School of Business. Students will learn to create a high-performance workspace that blends the traditionally disparate areas of human relations, information technology and workplace design.

While cubicle-bound office workers are ready for a change, instructor Cranz said, employers often aren’t. But “Dilbert spaces have got to go! They hurt people physiologically, for a start,” said Cranz, an architectural sociologist who wrote in her 1998 book on the chair that right-angled seating is inherently stressful, and cumulatively deforming, to the human body.

The interdisciplinary team of instructors will help the students – through lectures, readings, guest speakers, labs and in-class exercises – consider many factors when designing a work space.

In addition to Cranz, the instructors are Beckman, who teaches operations management, manufacturing strategy and product design and development at the Haas School; Roberts, who researches how the environment controls mood, weight and sleep; and Wasserman, who specializes in the multi-disciplinary design of workplace products and services.

Writing the Sierra
Instructors: Susan Schweik, professor of English; Gene Rose, retired journalist and veteran outdoorsman

In this Freshman Seminar, Schweik will share her love of the high Sierra with students not only through the writings of 19th and 20th century nature lovers, but by taking students to the California wilderness to experience it firsthand.

In addition to their regular Monday class, students will spend Sept. 19-21 in Kings Canyon National Park, camping, hiking, keeping journals and chatting with guest nature writers including Kevin Starr, a California historian; William Alsup, a U.S. district court judge and author of “Such a Landscape;” Gold Rush author J.S. Holiday; “California Grizzly” author Susan Snyder of The Bancroft Library; and Dean Shenck, a national park ranger who edited “Ramblings in the Sierra.”