Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Students who can’t find a class they like can create their own

When Weinberg senior Dena Trugman could not find the course she was looking for, she created her own.

At Northwestern, student-led seminars allow motivated students to delve into a topic of interest and facilitate small discussion-based classes that meet once a week. Creating this kind of class involves developing and proposing an idea, creating a syllabus and working under the supervision of an advisor. Once approved, students become the professors.

“The whole point of student-led seminars is that you can offer something not being taught,” Trugman said.

This Winter Quarter, Trugman and her co-leader, Weinberg sophomore Muhammad Safdari are offering the class “Extremism, Religion, and Politics in the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” with the hope of stimulating interfaith dialogue between students.

Students who are willing to make the effort to put classes together receive support from NU, said Weinberg Assistant Dean Mark Sheldon, who is in his first year as administrative overseer of student-led seminars.

“I think it is a nice opportunity for self-selective students with similar interests to pursue a particular topic,” Sheldon said. “When students have taken enough classes that have already been designed for them and they reach a point of understanding in a certain area where they are able to put together a syllabus, it is intellectually challenging and rewarding.”

Trugman said she and Safdari consulted professors and spent about three hours a week reading books to help prepare a balanced syllabus on the contentious topic.

“It’s been a lot of work, more than I anticipated,” Trugman said. “But I have never taught a class before and it is fairly open to where we want to take it. We have an adviser, but we have basically decided on everything.”

Adviser roles are fairly limited, said Galya Ruffer, associate director of International Studies and the adviser for a student-led seminar on torture last winter.

“My role was simple because the students were so excellent,” Ruffer said. “I felt that by the end of the course the conversations got more sophisticated, and it was because the students in charge constructed the class very well.”

Non-academic student-led seminars are also available. Project Wildcat co-chairman and Weinberg junior Tyler Browne is leading PWild’s class for the first time this spring.

“The coolest thing about having it student-run with a loose curriculum is that, because we have different groups of students in the class present different lessons every week, week to week the class changes,” said Browne, who has taken the PWild class since freshmen year. “It keeps the interest level up.”

Although the seminars are taken pass/fail, the students motivate each other to keep up with the work, Browne said.

“Even though there are no exams or grades, there is a peer pressure to do the readings rather than a superior pressure,” he said.

And just because the classes are led by students does not mean that there is no work, said Weinberg senior Susannah Harris, a student in last spring’s PWild seminar.

“There is definitely a different atmosphere than another class, and it is more casual just in terms of the structure,” Harris said. “But we are really good at focusing when we need to because we know that there is information that we have to get across.”

The leaders also face the pressure of being in charge.

“I have a new respect for my teachers now,” Trugman said. “The teachers have the benefit of a number of years of education. For us, this is all brand new.”

Reach Rachel Lebowitz at [email protected].

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Students who can’t find a class they like can create their own