UCLA Spotlight


Freshman Clusters, UCLA College

  • By Cynthia Lee, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Apr 1, 2004 8:00 AM

Six years ago, UCLA College Vice Provost Judith L. Smith decided to take an unusual approach to general education. Senior faculty from different disciplines were asked to team-teach a yearlong, big-idea “cluster” course unlike any other offered to freshmen.

A series of lectures and seminars that would be writing-, research- and discussion-intensive, the course would explore a single broad topic, such as interracial dynamics or biotechnology, from perspectives as varied as biology, philosophy and urban planning.

“Increasingly, work in all the professional fields and at research universities is interdisciplinary in nature,” said Smith, who is also acting executive dean. “We wanted to familiarize freshmen with interdisciplinarity as an approach to the creation and evaluation of knowledge.”

But would senior faculty embrace the concept and agree to teach collaboratively with peers from disparate disciplines for the benefit of undergraduate students?

After six years, the answer is yes. The cluster program has not only proven to be a huge success with freshmen, it has been a synergistic boon to faculty, who say they have learned a great deal from working with others outside their discipline.

“Clusters represent a very different way of teaching,” said Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Initiatives Lucy Blackmar. “These courses compel faculty to work with one another, and in that process, they learn more about their topic, their colleagues and undergraduate teaching in general.”

Further evidence of the program’s success in faculty development came this month when TIAA-CREF awarded the Theodore M. Hesburgh Certificate of Excellence to UCLA for the Freshman Cluster Program at the annual meeting of the American Council on Education.

TIAA-CREF, one of the largest retirement systems for higher education and research employees, cited the clusters as “an outstanding faculty development program that has shown great success in enhancing teaching skills that enrich the intellectual welfare of undergraduate students.”

Faculty such as Rita Effros, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, would heartily agree. Effros is one of 80 senior faculty who have taught a total of 12 clusters to date. One lesson she learned early on from teaching with two non-scientists was that “we were from different planets,” with different priorities and ways of thinking about their course on aging from biomedical, psychosocial and policy perspectives. The co-teachers had to balance their priorities and adapt their teaching styles.

“Watching my colleagues has taught me a better teaching style,” Effros said. “I’ve switched from a science-oriented, PowerPoint approach to a more casual style that allows me to be much more interactive with the class. I wouldn’t have thought that this experience would have done that.”

Robert Watson, professor of English, found himself, a Shakespeare and Renaissance scholar, team-teaching with a political scientist and a historian. “The whole course (‘The United States, 1963-74: Politics, Society, and Culture’) was a chance for me to learn about what the different disciplines did with this period,” he said.

Each team chooses its own pedagogical approach, whether it’s tag-team teaching or solo lecturing. Sometimes four instructors participate in a single lecture. Team members, who attend all the lectures, must know what’s being covered by the others and provide the necessary transitions.

“Faculty agree that it makes them better teachers,” said M. Gregory Kendrick, director of the Freshman Cluster Program. “It makes them more aware of the undergraduate student population, and it even gives them different perspectives on their own research. In effect, they too become learners.”