A&S First Years Exploring Connections in New Forums
Keelyn McCabe and Blaise Sevier, along with 198 other first-year students in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, decided to enroll in one of the five Forums introduced this fall. A new way for students to fulfill the College’s area requirements, the Forums are tailored groups of courses that revolve around a central topic during their first four semesters on Grounds. The program offers incoming students a chance to identify thematic connections between different academic disciplines while offering smaller class sizes limited to 40 students per forum.
In addition to the Forum chosen by McCabe and Sevier, which explores how different cultures balance the ideals of individual mobility and community, the College introduced four other Forums focused on the following themes: Creative Processes and Practices; Epidemics; Human Impact on the Environment; and Visions of the Good.
What the program’s faculty organizers could not have anticipated, however, was how quickly their students would launch their own series of Forum-inspired events to explore connections across their chosen fields of study. One month into the fall semester, McCabe and Sevier, who are enrolled in the “Mobility and Community” forum led by Professor of Politics Len Schoppa and Professor of Psychology Shigehiro Oishi, met with a few students from the other four Forums and organized a welcome dinner at Newcomb Hall.
The casual dinner served as an opportunity for students and faculty to get to know each other and to share their early experiences in the different forums. It also led to plans for a series of Sunday night gatherings where students from the five forums could get together as a community to explore ways to expand the program’s ideals within the College.
“The dinner was an informal call to action, so to speak, to see if there is someplace that all of us could go from there,” McCabe said. “It was nice that we were able to have the professors there to speak about what inspired them to get involved in the Forums. They did a great job of connecting all of us. It’s easy to be just another fish in the pond, but this allowed us to take that next step and break out of that mold.”
Rachel Most, the College’s Associate Dean for Undergraduate Academic Programs, said it has been wonderful to see the Forums’ students develop such a strong academic – and social – community only a few weeks into the semester.
“They have such energy and creativity amongst them,” Most said. “I can’t wait to see where they will be this time next year.”
McCabe said one of the best things about her Forum has been how it provided a ready-made community that quickly made her feel at home on Grounds.
“It helps to make a big school like UVA feel small,” she said. “Some of the larger lecture classes can seem overwhelming as a first year. But then you’re able to spot someone from your Forum class, and you have that bond with them that you’ve established. It’s really given me a great foundation of community. That’s definitely been a great draw and one of the main advantages of the Forum. As opposed to just being enrolled in a bunch of different classes and trying to satisfy requirements, I feel that it’s given me a focus and people to share that focus with.”
For Sevier, who lived in Denver, Cairo and Belgrade before relocating to Falls Church, Virginia (her mother is a physician in the U.S. State Department), the study abroad component in the Mobility and Community forum appealed to her. And while she does not yet know what she wants to pursue as her major, Sevier said her Forum class with Professors Schoppa and Oishi have helped her identify common themes and threads in her Japanese History seminar and other courses outside the Forum.
“I love being in the Community and Mobility Forum because it has provided me with an academical community that I have been able to jump into and feel a part of right away,” she said. “When you’re thrown into this big pool of opportunities in college, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. I was incredibly excited that the Forum curriculum provided a guided list of class opportunities that introduced a variety of disciplines but also connected to our Forum theme.”
For Professor of Religious Studies Vanessa Ochs, who collaborates with Associate Professor of Music Michelle Kisliuk to lead the Creative Processes and Practices Forum, exploring the processes, practices and sensibilities that foster creative lives serves to engage their students in previously unexplored art forms. A guest lecture by Prof. Lisa Russ Spaar, an award-winning poet on the Department of English faculty, inspired Ochs and Kisliuk’s students to write their own poems. On a separate Monday afternoon in October, composer and artist Peter Bussigel, a visiting professor in the McIntire Department of Music, offered Ochs and Kisliuk’s class a presentation on intermedia art ranging from the early 20th-century work of Marcel Duchamp to the contemporary art of Sophia Brueckner.
“Our Forum students represent so many different art forms: poetry, theatre, fiction writing, playwriting, dance, photography and more,” Ochs said. “Each week, they’re exposed to a variety of art forms, and they are all courageously getting their feet wet in art forms that are new and different to them. … Now everyone understands what it means to think not only outside the box, but to push beyond the boxes that so typically constrain us.”
The cross-disciplinary connections explored within the forums also serve to open new areas of discovery for the veteran faculty leading them. Professor of Biology Iggy Provencio proposed leading a forum on epidemics following the summer of 2014, when Ebola was raging through western Africa. Provencio is teaching the new Epidemics forum alongside John Shepherd, an associate professor in the College’s Department of Anthropology. Their collaboration has allowed them to expand their students’ examination of epidemic diseases beyond their biological roots to their historical and sociological components, as well as the political impact of trying to combat the spread of epidemics.
“We didn’t want this forum to appeal solely to pre-med students,” Provencio said. “The good thing about this topic is that it’s in the news every day. When we designed the forum we were thinking about the Ebola virus. But this summer the Zika crisis was in the news, so I think it gave the students a real sense of the importance of this topic. We constantly have real-life touch points for the students, and we talk about those topics in class. And there’s no way I could do this class without John Shepherd.
“We can tend to be kind of segregated in the sciences, so it’s great to have an opportunities to collaborate with an anthropologist.”
More information on this year’s Forums can be found online here on the Arts & Sciences website. The second class of Forum students will be selected next summer from the pool of applicants from next year’s incoming Class of 2021.