Senior Pallavi Reddy, 22, sits at the head of the classroom, facing about a dozen other UCLA students. Students who are taking her class, that is.
"So, did you all get a chance to watch the video clips of Anthony Bourdain and Rachael Ray?" Reddy asked, referring to the celebrity chefs and their cooking shows.
Welcome to a geography class, entitled "Anthony Bourdain vs. Rachael Ray: Cultural Geography of Food." On the surface, Reddy's class may seem, well, different from the typical UCLA course found in the course catalogue. That's because this is isn't just any class — this is one of 15 student-led classes, rigorously developed by undergraduates for months and then offered during the Spring Quarter.
Undergraduate Rene Tiongquico, Jr., passes out papers while leading the class he developed: "Hail to the Southland: History of UCLA." Photo by Reed Hutchinson.
These student-created courses also provide them with a way to learn about curriculum-building and teaching.
The process goes like this: Each fall, upper classmen apply to create and teach a class. The 15 students chosen from a competitive field spend winter quarter working with a faculty adviser and taking a pedagogy class. Every spring, the student "facilitators" — not officially considered teachers — lead a one-hour-per-week class of up to 20 undergraduates, who earn one credit for the pass/no pass seminar.
In Reddy's food class, Bourdain and Ray are symbols of a larger divide. On the first day of class, her students launched into a spirited discussion as she encouraged them to explore the differences between the pair's target audiences, their training and their focus on local culture. Reddy elevated the conversation with tidbits about the rise of the Food Network, Alice Waters and the slow-food movement, and the new White House "victory" garden to show how attitudes toward food are evolving and to help her students determine their own "food identity."
As more students learn about the USIE program, applications to become a facilitator have risen and enrollment has soared, said Kumiko Haas, who teaches the facilitators' annual pedagogy class and is associate director of instructional improvement programs in the Office of Instructional Development.
"There was some concern originally from the faculty that the topics needed to have enough academic rigor," Haas recalled. "That's why we have the pedagogy class to train them and a full quarter with a faculty adviser helping the facilitators flesh out the seminar. In our faculty reviews, they've been universally happy with the quality of the classes."
Student reviews have been positive, too, Haas said. "Sometimes the students feel more comfortable in these small discussion groups with their peers than with a professor. They feel less pressure."
Senior Roberta Wolfson, a 21-year-old English major who facilitated "Taking Bestsellers Seriously" last year, heard similar comments. Wolfson guided her class through books such as the first Harry Potter novel, the sci-fi classic "Ender's Game" and "The Da Vinci Code."
Students approach undergraduate Rene Tiongquico, Jr., after attending the class he developed: “Hail to the Southland: History of UCLA.” Photo by Reed Hutchinson.
"Several of my students told me, 'I love your class. I'm excited to come to it. I think of it as my fun class.' That made me feel really good."
A review of the USIE program even found that students tended to devote extra time to these one-credit classes because they enjoy the subjects. For Wolfson, who began tutoring her peers as a freshman and founded an organization to teach creative writing at a local middle school, teaching her peers was one more way to develop her professorial muscles.
"It was nerve-wracking," she said. "Sometimes I responded more like a student than a professor — I've had professors who articulate everything with such poetic beauty, whereas I'd catch myself saying, 'Wow, that's an awesome idea!' But I got a lot out of it. It was a great preview of what I'll be doing someday."
About half of the facilitators plan to become teachers, said English Professor Rob Watson, associate vice provost for educational innovation and chair of the USIE Student-Faculty Advisory Committee, which chooses facilitators from the pool of applicants and approves the classes. The other half, said Watson, teach because they are passionate about a subject and want to share with their peers.
When Watson's committee reviews a USIE class syllabus to ensure it meets UCLA's stringent standards for academic quality, one of the most common problems, ironically, is that the committee has to reduce the amount of reading assigned.
"The facilitators want to make sure the seminar is sufficiently rigorous," Watson said. "We've never run into a problem with the class quality. It's never a caricature of a student lazily pursuing a goof-off topic with friends; it's highly accomplished students delving into topics we've yet to offer as part of the regular curriculum."
The key may be the program's rigorous selection process and mentoring requirements, he said, which distinguishes it from other programs.
"The classes at UCLA may not be conventionally taught, but they aren't strange or wacky," Haas said. "They're niche classes and often very timely. We've had classes on Darfur, on micro-financing, as well as on the history of science fiction."
Devna Shukla, 21, a political science major who graduates in June, combines both the timeliness of last presidential election and the allure of movie stars in her class, "The Role of Celebrities in Contemporary American Politics." Shukla's students are looking at the overlap between politicians and celebrities. She noted that Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin have dominated the covers of gossipy magazines like People and US Weekly, and she'll host a UCLA researcher as a guest lecturer. The one-hour class gives non-poli-sci majors an opportunity to explore a new subject, she said.
"A lot of my friends are science majors, and I want to share this topic with people who are interested in the subject, but don't have time to take a full class," Shukla said. "And running a class like this is an opportunity I don't think I'll get again. Everyone wants to teach at UCLA."