FASS1000 was first implemented as a core subject for BA/BAS students in 2021, supposedly to teach fundamental skills of critical reading, research, and analysis while exposing students to a wide range of specialties that make up the humanities. Core units are nothing new and are required in most, if not every, major. However, rather than a useful grounding in the Arts, FASS1000 is a microcosm of an increasingly corporate university that values generality and neglects specialisation. This is not to devalue the efforts of academics whose responsibilities are to facilitate this course. Instead, University management must be criticised for rorting students and academics of opportunities for specialised education.
The University claims FASS1000 reiterates how “the disciplines that make up the Arts and Social Sciences are fundamental to understanding our world.” While its intention appears innocuous, FASS1000 truly represents the corporate University’s growing interest in centralising Arts subjects in order to subsequently discontinue specialised courses en masse. This process of course-amalgamation since the “Future FASS Plan” in 2021 has been justified as a measure to reduce administrative demands, and guarantee consistent educational standards for all Arts students. Though, the pattern of successive course cuts proves more disastrous than beneficial. Recently, the Politics/International Relations stream has come under threat of amalgamation into the International Global Studies stream by 2025. Discipline-specific Arts Honours coursework units have also been proposed to be replaced by ‘interdisciplinary’ units. Such decisions occur in the shadow of USyd recording a $298.5 million surplus in 2022, and a $1.04 billion surplus in 2021, with staff and student trust in the University executive severely low.
In this context, Arts students forcibly undergo FASS1000 — a unit designed to justify their decision to study humanities; a self-validating exercise that students in Arts streams or other faculty dual-degrees are not forced to experience.
It’s no surprise that with a framing this condescending, most students who take FASS1000 become jaded very quickly. One first-year English and film student, when asked for a one-line summary of FASS1000, said it was a “contrived attempt to teach already-enrolled Arts students why Arts is important.” Another cut in, saying, “in short, a waste of time.” Being hammered with questions on the importance of Arts and others like, “what does it mean to be part of a university community?” mean students don’t take this course seriously and view it as a box they have to check.
Beyond the purpose of the course, the content itself is also vague. Students jump from learning about “narratives of belonging and exclusion” in Week 1 to “gender roles in society” in Week 4 and “art in social and cultural lives:” in Week 7. These are all important topics, but with one reading each — plus a very general lecture — students don’t learn enough to ground their conceptual understanding. The lectures are often pre-recorded so they can be reused every year, what the unit calls “asynchronous” lectures. Unlike most other courses, the topics and readings don’t build on one another, making it hard for students to consolidate ideas or make connections between topics. Sometimes the exposure to disciplines students may not have seen in high school — like criminology or linguistics — is engaging, however this is just the exception that proves the rule. Even when the lecture is interesting, the guest lecturers brought in are often overburdened, forced to add FASS1000 to their existing course load.
When asked what students took away from the course content-wise, some pointed to one or two readings they found intriguing, others pointed to a decent class discussion, but there was no conceptual takeaway about the discipline. It’s ironic that a course designed to cast a wide net leaves most students grasping at details.
Perhaps the greatest failure of FASS1000 is when its stated intention, to teach students core skills applicable to all Arts disciplines, falls through the cracks. How to find, critically analyse, contextualise, and cite sources is essential for students to master in their first year and something many did not get taught in high school. Rather than being emphasised, these skills are interspersed throughout the course at seemingly random points. The act of reading is taught in Week 5 and critical reading is introduced in Week 6 — apparently students were only taught non-critical reading beforehand.
It’s important to point out that these skills are well taught in discipline specific core courses. Placed in a very concentrated timeframe, History majors are taught how to analyse primary sources extensively in “History Workshop”, and English majors in “The Idea of the Classic” learn close reading skills through an incremental assignment structure. Skills require content to ground them — something FASS1000, by its very nature, cannot provide.
For academics, FASS1000 is often a teaching experience that does not tend to each tutor’s field of expertise, nor does it encourage a useful opportunity for Arts students to thoroughly interrogate majors beyond their own. The generalising, interdisciplinary designs of FASS1000 (and similarly FASS3999) represent a departure from specialised intellectual standards. While these courses are designed to appease the “Job Ready Graduates” program, and that neither FASS1000 nor FASS3999 are unequivocally hated by all students, it remains certain that course-amalgamation represents corporatisation rather than education for its own sake. What is instead prioritised by the University’s executive is the superficiality of its 2023 QS world ranking, which belittles the significant issues of staff to student ratios, makes sustainability requirements easily obtainable, and preserves the elitism attached to academic and employer reputations and outcomes. Students must realise how staff teaching conditions and students’ education practically deteriorates while the University’s executive celebrate world rankings that ignore fundamental issues of exclusion and exploitation that have been repeatedly brought to public attention.
The Arts are valuable. The University should prove they know that — by valuing its academic staff, protecting student choice and investing in discipline-specific courses — rather than getting its students to recite it back to them.