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Provocative topics in micro-seminars draw freshmen out of comfort zones

Top faculty take part in Welcome Week seminars on law, sports, physics and even zombies

President Nikias speaks at micro-seminar
President Nikias speaks to the students at his micro-seminar. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Sharon Lloyd’s fall semester started a few days early. Mere hours after convocation, the professor stood in front of a dozen newly minted Trojans, ushering them into a three-hour dialogue on the moral status of non-humans.

Lloyd, a professor of philosophy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was one of 64 faculty members to lead micro-seminars during Welcome Week.

Now in its ninth year, the program is geared to put incoming freshmen and new transfer students into close intellectual contact with faculty from the get-go.

“The first week of college,” explained Gene Bickers, vice provost for undergraduate programs, “is a particularly important time for promoting interactions and fostering a sense of academic engagement.”

Bringing on the big names

Ungraded and carrying no academic credit, micro-seminars promote exploration in disciplines outside a student’s comfort zone. Split into two 90-minute sessions on Aug. 21 and 22, each seminar is limited to 20 students; sign-ups happened in early August. In 2013, about 1,250 students participated. More than 1,000 students took part this year, Bickers noted.

Though compensation is nominal, the program attracts star faculty. Each year USC President C. L. Max Nikias leads a seminar on Athenian drama and the roots of Western storytelling. An engineer by training, Nikias is passionate about the classics. Provost Elizabeth Garrett, who serves on the USC Gould School of Law faculty, taught one on the California initiative process. Bickers, who runs the micro-seminars program, taught one whimsically titled “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Particle Physics.” Dozens of other seminars covered such far-flung topics as combustion engines, genome censorship, doping in sports and even zombie invasions.

‘It looked like fun’

This was Lloyd’s first time teaching a micro-seminar, though she’s been on USC’s faculty since 1987.

Asked why now, she said: “It looked like fun. And I thought it would be a nice way to ease into the semester, after being rusty all summer.”

Aided by a PowerPoint slideshow, she tore into her meaty topic: “Animals, Aliens, AIs and Enemies: Who Matters Morally?” The object, she explained to the dozen students in her Von KleinSmid Center classroom, is to identify the qualities a creature must possess in order to merit moral consideration.

Having briefly summarized the views of major Western thinkers such as Aquinas, Descartes, Kant and Bentham on the matter, Lloyd drew the students into lively Socratic dialogue. They needed little coaxing.

“The examples they came up with were very helpful,” said Lloyd, who was herself trained by the great moral philosopher John Rawls. The students had clearly done their reading, she noted. “I was impressed. It was actually a pretty difficult article.”

She had polled the students on their majors. All but one fell far afield of moral philosophy. “They want to stretch themselves,” Lloyd said approvingly, “which shows they have intellectual curiosity.”

That was certainly true of Cole Kurth, a civil engineering major who seemed right at home with the idea of “necessary and sufficient conditions.” The same held true for architecture student Amanda Lim.

Asked if she had enjoyed Lloyd’s discussion, Lim nodded and smiled: “It was interesting. I came to really explore an area that’s way out of my major. And I did that.”

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Provocative topics in micro-seminars draw freshmen out of comfort zones

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