Covington Student Organizes Unusual Class at U.Va.

Oct. 30, 2007 — The course is billed as "unforgettable lectures" by University of Virginia faculty members.

But Davis Zaunbrecher, the third-year Latin Studies major from Covington, La., who has organized this semester’s edition of the unusual offering, admits the title may be deceptive.

"They start out as lectures," Zaunbrecher says, "but they always turn into conversations."

Each Tuesday, students invite a different U.Va. faculty member to deliver a lecture of his or her choosing in the student-designed course that began a year ago. Enrollment fills the 100 available spots as quickly as any course offered at the University.

Emily Ewell, a U.Va. engineering student who graduated in May 2007, came up with the idea. She thought too many of her fellow students missed out on some of the best U.Va. professors simply because their major concentrations were not closely enough aligned.

Offered for the third time this fall, students take LASE 360: U.Va.’s Unforgettable Lectures on a pass-fail basis for one credit.

"This is what we faculty view as a system working at its best — students self-organizing academics," said Barry Condron, associate professor of biology. "This is about as positive a sign of our academics’ health as any."

Zaunbrecher heads up the committee that organized this semester’s version of the course, which has already featured lecturers from religious studies and sociology, architecture and psychology, with anthropology, engineering, commerce, and politics, among others, yet to come.

The students themselves, Zaunbrecher says, are very much in charge of the way the class evolves. "I don’t own this class," he says. "Everyone who is in the class has serious ownership, and any one can bring up something to make it as good as it should be."

Asked what constitutes an unforgettable lecture, Zaunbrecher confesses that he can’t say with certainty what makes a great engineering lecture, for example.

"But when engineering students tell us that this is one of the most dynamic, interesting professor you can imagine, then we’ll invite that professor," he said. "We rely on our classmates to tell us who we should include, and it’s fascinating to me how many different recommendations we get."

According to Zaunbrecher, the visiting lecturers generally choose to present a favorite lecture from a class that they teach.
 "It obviously doesn’t go into a subject with great depth," he said. "But what I’ve enjoyed most is that these professors spent a great deal of their lives dealing with these concepts or these historical realities or these scientific facts, and they translate them into the real world. It constantly reminds me that there is so much out there that we tend to take for granted."

And while the format may start out as a faculty members standing in front of 100 students, the class period never ends that way. Whether it’s a class on premarital sex led by a religious studies professor or a session on politics and religion led by a psychology professor, almost every session goes beyond the allotted 75 minutes.

 "We rarely finish a class on time. Almost all of them go into overtime," says Zaunbrecher. "There are so many questions that the students want to ask, and the lectures are anything but monologues."