What Makes Seventh College’s New Writing Course Different?

Arts and CultureStudent Life

Photos courtesy of Seventh College Residence Life, Louis Reed / Unsplash

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The end of Winter Quarter marks the first completed course of Synthesis 1 for 320 Seventh College students, UC San Diego’s newest college’s writing sequence, called the Synthesis program, centers communication and writing while taking on the lens of the climate change crisis, in reference to the overarching theme of Seventh College, which is a “changing planet.”

The program also has a few surprises, with its implementation of “contract grading,” which allows students to pledge the labor they will commit to the course in order to earn a specific grade. Jill Gladstein, the director of the Synthesis program, chose to implement contract grading in the program. She explained  “We want students to immerse themselves in learning, and not to be driven by standards. Taking the grading system out of the mix, I find, helps students embrace their voice.”

Kaylin Au, a Biochemistry Major, found this new approach effective, saying “I had never had any class offer contract grading, and it changed the goal of the class for me, since the contract grading is more focused on completion and learning than making grades.” Not all responses have been positive, however. Daniel Yoo, a Math-Computer Science Major, pointed out that “Students are forced to choose between taking a good grade versus a bad one, which will affect our GPA no matter what. There is no reason to contract for anything other than an A at the moment.”

Cognitive Science Major Megna Anand contends that “A lot of people might believe that there’s pressure to contract for an A grade, but you can renegotiate your contract later on. I think it really helps to give an equal position to international students and people in situations where English may not be their first language.” 

Seventh College Provost Antonovics added that “There’s a lot of concern among faculty about student stress levels at this time. Gladstein embraces contract grading for reasons that have nothing to do with COVID-19. However, it comes at an especially appropriate time, in regards to the stress that students were facing in this remote situation.”

SYN 1, which is the only course from the Synthesis sequence offered currently, is split into 20 discussion sections, with 16 students in each section; ten Instructional Assistants lead two discussions. The reason for this unique structure lies in the program organizers’ desire to create a cohesive experience for Synthesis students. Antonovics explained, “Other programs, like Revelle’s humanities program, are focused on specific texts and readings. This means that, even though you can have different lectures, students will have similar experiences across them. But the interdisciplinary theme of the changing planet is just so broad that we felt like we needed more structure.” Daniel Yoo added that, in his experience, “Our I.A. seems very determined to get things right.” 

Because all Seventh College students are required to take the Synthesis sequence, which runs from SYN 1, SYN 2, to SYN 100, some students were concerned about the relevance of the classes to their individual study.

To this, Gladstein had a ready answer. “Whether you’re an engineer or an anthropologist, communication is going to be important. Sometimes people think writing is not applicable to what they want to do, but there are elements of writing and speaking that transfer into all disciplines.”

Provost Antonovics concurred, “The ability to communicate is foundational to every single discipline. It’s such a misconception that you don’t need that. Writing is just a part of communication. In fact, I would prefer if students viewed the classes as being communication-intensive.”

As reflected in the COVID-19 crisis, there is an urgent need to effectively communicate science to the public. On the subject, Gladstein commented, “People won’t wear masks, and I’m perplexed and intrigued on how you get people to wear masks. We know the science, so it comes down to communication. Who am I trying to talk to, where am I coming from, and how do I bring the science to them?”

The Synthesis program was designed with the intent of creating a, as Antonovics put it, “shared intellectual experience” between all the students of Seventh College. Because of the remote-learning format, and the new-ness of Seventh College itself, this aim is much harder to accomplish. Nonetheless, Coen Brown, a Structural-Engineering major, commented that “It [Synthesis] is the only class that I’m taking right now that seems to foster any sort of community.” Lilith Sadil, General Biology, added that “It is refreshing to have the roles of listener and speaker blurred a bit in SYN.” 

Seventh College will offer more sections of Synthesis 1 in Spring Quarter. The rest of the series will debut the following years: Synthesis 2 is set to start next fall, and Synthesis 100 the following fall in 2022. 

Though we are already halfway through the Winter Quarter, for Synthesis every day is breaking new ground. The directors, organizers, and IAs have a substantial task in front of them. 

“SYN 1 has talked about other types of social change other than environmentalism, it somehow bridges marginalization, racial inequality, philosophy, and environmentalism all into one thing which is beautiful” said Morgan Pierce, a Physics Major. 

Both Antonovics and Gladstein were pleased to hear the response. “We are always ready to hear positive feedback,” Antonovics said, and Gladstein added “And constructive feedback, of course, but ‘beautiful’… I’ll take it.” 

Emily Zou is a Staff Writer for The Triton