General Education Courses: What’s Out There and How to Get Ahead

Posted by Rebecca on July 29, 2015

Academic Success | Archive

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If you are a first-year student, one of your most important tasks after accepting your offer is selecting your courses. At York, a cornucopia of choices await! All academic programs demand both core courses, those required for your degree, and electives, which are courses outside your field of study. The idea behind electives or General Education courses is to broaden your perspective on a variety of subjects, giving you interdisciplinary knowledge, so that you can see well beyond the more narrowly focused subject you are majoring in. They also offer additional training in critical thinking and analysis. In a number of upcoming posts, we will be highlighting the courses we bloggers loved in our first year, and we’ll also be interviewing the professors who teach them. It will give you a glimpse into what kind of electives York University offers and how you can make the best of your first year.

The first course we will discuss is AP/HIST 1095, Streetlife: The Culture and History of European Cities. I took the course from September 2014 to April 2015. It focuses on city life in London and Paris from the 19th century to the Blitz in the 1940s, examining how the city as an entity shaped individuals and society as a whole. The course was an amazing experience for me, because as a person living in Toronto, I could relate to a lot of the ideas we discussed in class, such as both the excitement and loneliness one feels living in a big city. It was interesting to consider that being a teenager in 1930s Paris and being one in Toronto today were not all that different. We all crave exploration, excitement and the freedom to enjoy what our cities have to offer, even if what young Parisians considered exciting in the past century differs from what piques your or my interests in 2015. The course reading list was very diverse, including everything from crime novels to Virginia Woolf. I had the chance to speak to Dr. Stephen Brooke, who teaches the course, about the class. I also asked him what he thought incoming students needed to know before beginning university.

Professor: Dr. Stephen Brooke
Course Code and Name:
AP/HIST 1095, Streetlife: The Culture and History of European Cities
Tuesdays at 8:30am, with multiple tutorials at 10:30am and 11:30am.
Credit: 6.00, General Education Humanities credit

Dr. Stephen Brooke
Dr. Stephen Brooke

R: In your own words, how would you describe the course?

D.B.: The course is an attempt at look at how we live and have lived in cities. It’s a way of telling the stories of London and Paris in that way. What is it like living in a city? How has it changed? I’m really interested in the physical space of cities and how it affects us. We also explore things like class, social structure, gender, sexuality, race, war and the experiences of being a teenager in the 1930s, the experience of popular culture.

R: What do you think are some of the challenges students encounter in first year?  

D.B: I’ve taught first year in a bunch of different contexts, and that experience has demonstrated a few things to me. Being a first-year student can be quite challenging, for example, especially in terms of freedom. In terms of where you are supposed to be and what you are supposed to be doing, it requires you to be pretty self-disciplined. In university, there are fewer people going after you to make you work or attend class. As a teacher, it’s really important to be aware of that, to be able to provide a structure and to provide encouragement. One of the things that you can do is remind people of basic skills and the basic aim [of a university education], which is to offer new ideas and new ways of seeing things. On the ground, you mostly see people asking, “What’s a thesis? What’s an argument?”. That’s one of the challenges of not only being a first-year student but also of teaching at that level. It is unpacking those ideas. One of the things we should be doing in first year is getting people excited about seeing issues in new ways.

R: From a professor’s perspective, what do you think incoming students can work on to succeed at university? 

  1. If you could work four good hours a day on your courses, every day, that would be good. It’s important to get into the habit of disciplining yourself, finding how to allocate time, etc. There’s also a great sense of accomplishment!
  2. Surrender to the structure of any course. Say to yourself, “I’m going to go to lecture, tutorial, and I’m going to get into the habit of doing that.”
  3. Try not to get panicked or overwhelmed. The great thing about York is that it has so many resources for people to take advantage of, like great writing workshops.

Dr. Brooke adds, “When I applied to York, it was and remains one of the best departments for history. The bigness of York appealed to me, especially its richness and diversity. There’s a lot of tenured faculty who are committed to teaching at the first- and second-year level, and that’s absolutely critical. That enthusiasm for teaching has remained at York.”

As you can see, General Education courses have a unique purpose in terms of your degree. At York, we are fortunate to have such a variety of them that you will be sure to find one that helps you look at everyday life in a different way.

What courses are you most excited to be taking next year? Will you be following Dr. Brooke’s tips? Comment or tweet me at @yorkustudents!



Rebecca M. is a third-year English major. She no longer blogs regularly for the YU Blog but may post on occasion as a guest-blogger.

See other posts by Rebecca