Volume 6, Issue 3 University of Houston
University, museum team up in core course
Linked English and history course designed to "energize the freshman experience'
By Portia-Elaine Gant
UH professors and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston are giving traditionally taught core courses the boot by creating a united course that integrates second-semester English and history.
This spring, for the second consecutive year, 50 students will have the opportunity to research music, film, art and controversy. The theme of this year's course is "Places in Time."
Graduate students in instructional technology will teach the students how to create Web pages and multimedia presentations, College of Education professor Sara McNeil said, and the museum will provide a visual link to the curriculum.
"Victoria Burke, the school programs manager at MFAH, will provide images with a connection to history, so that students are getting technology and cultural art in addition to the history and English," McNeil said.
Education professor Bernard Robin, history professor Steven Mintz and English professor Mary Gray will all teach the course, as will two or three graduate students.
"The students are getting lots of support," McNeil said. "We want these classes to be challenging, but not over board. This way the students will feel as if they worked really hard, and they got a lot out of it."
Mintz, who was a proponent of the project from the ground level, said he was inspired by Inventing Modern, the latest book by John Lienhard, M.D. Anderson professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and history Professor. The book looks at the convergence of art, history, technology and culture in the 20th century.
"He is really great, and this book is sort of what we're trying to do," Mintz said. "We're trying to look at modern art, photography and film and see if we can create a class based on the kind of thing John's working towards. We want to energize the freshman experience."
The professors said they believe the course will rejuvenate students who feel uninterested and detached in lecture-based courses. Another aim of the course is to help increase retention and graduation rates.
Mintz said there are many reasons for dropping retention and graduation, including a lack of connection between faculty and students.
"I'm often asked to write recommendations for students in one of my big classes. I recognize their face, but I don't know them, and if I'm the one they know best, there's a problem," he said. "The other reason I think people don't finish is because they don't feel like they're doing real-world projects. My hope is that the kinds of skills that students will learn in this class are the kind of thing that people are going to feel they came to college for."
In addition to MFAH, the faculty is also looking to the Houston Chronicle for help in broadening the project's horizons by opening up the newspaper's pre-1960 archives. The professors have also invited film director Spike Lee to campus.
"When I was a graduate student at Yale, they had cocktail parties for the undergraduates every Friday," Mintz said. "They had really prominent people come, and they would mingle with the students. The idea is to give the students a lot of self-confidence and turn them into leaders.
"It was my impression that the Yale students got the best undergraduate education I'd ever seen, because it didn't all take place in the classroom," he said. "It was an experience. We can't have cocktail parties, but we can bring in some prominent people for the students to meet and experience."
The linked course in English and history is the only one of its kind offered now, but the Places in Time team hopes to spread the idea throughout the University.
"We're trying different models within English and history and seeing what works," Mintz said. "We've seen that this linked course works. One of our goals is to see a science or engineering model tried by someone else at the University."
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