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Out of Ivory Tower

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bad enough you have to deliver an oral report before all your classmates, but there, off to the side, is a very special observer: the chancellor of the university.

That’s right, Laurel L. Wilkening, the person in charge of UC Irvine, will not only be listening very carefully to your every word, she will be giving you a grade too.

And you’re just a freshman.

“You know you say some things wrong,” said Anna Choi, who along with another student Friday gave a presentation on the geology and formation of Earth while Wilkening, an astrophysicist and the teacher of this seminar, sat taking notes.

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“She may not say anything but you just know she catches your mistakes,” said Choi, who is thinking about majoring in English.

Still, the students in Wilkening’s freshmen seminar, “Planets for the Non--Scientist,” say they wouldn’t have it any other way: Not only do they learn about the solar system from an expert, they get to know the campus’ chief executive officer, who was a little nervous, too, at first.

She hadn’t taught freshmen in more than a decade, since she was a professor at the University of Arizona.

“It’s been a long time,” Wilkening said. “But I enjoy it a lot. The fun of working at a university is interacting with the students.”

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Wilkening’s class is part of a series of seminars the university has started to tear down the walls between first-year students and high-level faculty and administrators and make this large, research-oriented campus seem a less daunting, more student-friendly place.

This quarter, a total of 45 students--out of 4,217 freshman--are participating in small weekly seminars with top administrators.

Aside from the one taught by Wilkening--who is believed to be the only one of UC’s nine chancellors currently teaching--there are three other seminars this quarter: arts appreciation with School of Arts Dean Jill Beck; the history and contemporary implications of the Salem witchcraft trials with Acting Dean of Humanities Michael Clark; and biological roots of scientific breakthroughs with Acting Dean of Biological Sciences Barbara Hamlako.

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Lack of close contact with top faculty and administrators has long been the bane of undergrads, especially freshman, whose lower-level courses often are taught by junior professors or graduate students serving as teaching assistants.

Even if a senior faculty member is teaching, students complain that the class sizes can top 100 and often are taught in cavernous lecture halls that make lively discussion impossible.

“At a public research university there is a certain perception if not total reality that many of the courses that the lower division exposes them to are large classes and they do not have personal contact with faculty,” said James Danzinger, UCI’s dean of undergraduate education, who organized the freshmen seminars shortly after taking his post in July. (Last quarter, Executive Vice Chancellor Sidney Golub inaugurated the seminars with a course on the history of epidemiology.)

Such freshmen seminars are common at small, liberal arts colleges. But their record of success at large public universities has been spotty.

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UC Berkeley’s 5-year-old program has shrunk from 184 seminars to 70 this semester, said Alix Schwartz, coordinator of the program. She said many top-level professors and administrators are too overloaded with other duties to teach many classes.

UCLA has several honors seminars taught by high-level faculty that are open to freshmen and sophomores but no program exclusively for first-year students like UCI’s, though the creation of one is under study, said Assistant Dean Jennifer Wilson.

Danzinger said he is determined to keep UCI’s alive, with a planned expansion to 55 to 60 students next semester and more administrators heading back to the classroom.

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Beck, who hasn’t taught at this level in about seven years, said she chose her topic as a way to interest students in the arts on a campus where biological sciences is the top major.

“Where do you learn how to enjoy a symphony or critique a ballet?” said Beck, who takes her students on field trips to galleries and performances. “Where do you learn this if you are a chemistry major?”

Wilkening has seen her students struggle over such complex concepts as the origins and characteristics of the Earth’s magnetic fields and atmospheric pressure.

But neither does she expect them to walk away from her seminar as experts.

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Her goals, she said, are to answer the curiosity of students wondering about current events concerning the solar system, such as the renewed debate over life on Mars, and to improve their research and oral communication skills.

“I think oral communication is a lifelong important skill and one that often isn’t possible in a large lecture hall,” Wilkening said. “Students sometimes are lucky if they get to ask a question a month.”

That’s not a problem in her class, where the atmosphere is loose and student anxiety has waned since the early classes.

Take Megurditch Mike Patatian, a prospective economics major who took the course as a way to learn about the planets and get to know the chancellor better (he is a member of the student government).

Initially nervous about taking the class from the chancellor, he has grown more comfortable both with teacher and setting, he said.

It didn’t faze Patatian, for instance, when he failed to turn in a paper Friday.

And it didn’t seem to faze Wilkening, who readily agreed to accept it late--by Tuesday.


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