USS has effectively been dismantled, examined, discussed at length, and put together again.

If you ask a freshman of the University Scholars Programme out on a Wednesday evening, there’s a very high likelihood that freshman will have to sorrowfully turn you down, mumbling something about a ‘University Scholars Seminar’ (USS).

Traditionally, the University Scholars Seminar in USP has sought to expose students to major ideas within the sciences and humanities that have shaped Western intellectual history, with the aim of contextualising what students learn in their respective, specialised disciplines. By offering an ambitious survey of key milestones and ideas in the history of intellectual thought, the module has always aimed to facilitate the connection of ideas, disciplines and issues in students, in the finest tradition of multi-, and inter-disciplinarity in the USP.

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This year, with changes devised and spearheaded by Dr Mabel Wong and Assoc Prof Kang Hway Chuan, the USS embarks on a new direction in terms of its intellectual focus and pedagogy.

As Dr Jeremy Arnold, one of the faculty members teaching the module, elaborates, “The aim of USS is to help you to tell a narrative about the history of and connections between some of the central ideas in both the natural and human sciences”.

But histories can be told in many ways, centred on different perspectives.

This semester, the narrative arc of the module will focus on the concept of causality.

Broadly speaking, any research conducted will attempt to explain specific phenomena: how a phenomenon came to be; how it is constructed; how it affects other phenomena, and so on.

The idea of causality is a concept which has intrigued many thinkers across the centuries, and is a recurring subject of interest in the history of ideas.

This year’s USP cohort will walk in the intellectual footsteps of esteemed theorists, as they wrestle with the complexities of causal explanation in different disciplines.

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However, it is one thing to theorise about what students should learn; it’s another can of worms figuring out how to achieve learning outcomes for USP cohorts continually and consistently selected for their diversity, independence and critical thinking.

Until now, USS seminars have largely been passive in their approaches. In the past, weekly lectures often followed a predictable formula: a guest speaker discussed their experiences and expertise for the bulk of the session, and then took questions from the floor.

After several iterations of the USS, collecting feedback from students and experimenting with different modes of assessment and pedagogy, USP faculty has decided this year to go for a dramatically revamped style of teaching the USS.

“We have been working to create a more “blended” learning experience for the USS,” Dr Arnold explains. “On top of readings and online quizzes, this new approach will involve students more actively, through dialogue and discussion of the week’s lecture topics, facilitated by USP seniors.”

USS — once a lecture-centred module and the only large class in USP with minimal student participation — has effectively been dismantled, examined, discussed at length, and put together again.

This time, it has furthermore enlisted the experience and perspectives of not just professors and experts of academic disciplines, but students who have been through the module itself. USP seniors (in their second to fourth years), appointed as USS Mentors, will now help to facilitate and develop discussions with freshmen.

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What I have always enjoyed about being in the USP are its attentive, earnest, and highly responsive professors willing to take unconventional approaches to solve problems; and willing to change their approaches if these approaches are not working.

In many ways, the reworked (and still evolving) face of USS embodies this very dynamic.

Acknowledging the inherent and inevitable difficulties of tailoring a programme finely calibrated for a cohort as diverse in disciplines and temperament as the students of the USP — whose specialisations often run the gamut from chemical engineering to feminist literature to actuarial studies — Dr Arnold says,

“It’s a continual process of experimentation... we haven’t gotten it right; we may never get it right, but this is also the entire ethos of the USP: of inquiry beyond mere, absolute results, and a focus as well on the process of discovery.”

Much remains to be seen of what, and how, this new approach will play out. But with any luck, freshmen who give up their Wednesday evenings out for the University Scholars Seminar will do so in the coming weeks with curious and animated enthusiasm.