Reading Ourselves, Reading the World

Academic Literacy & Ethos (ALE) is the campus-wide name for the college Core course required of all UCSC first-years. At our college, ALE is called Merrill 1: Reading Ourselves, Reading the World, an apt focus for our unprecedented times. The name ALE specifies academic literacy and ethos, because understanding and feeling at ease with these concepts will make you feel intellectually at home at the university and will contribute to your success. These concepts are useful beyond the university, too: they “transfer” to work settings and equip you to participate meaningfully in democratic life. We call the key concepts taught in Academic Literacy & Ethos the “ACMES”: Analysis, Critical thinking, Metacognition, Engagement with others across difference, and Self-efficacy. 

“Academic literacy” means being able to identify, understand, and use the typical thinking tools, or “habits of mind,” that faculty use in their own work at the university. Chief among these tools are analysis and critical thinking. (Briefly, analysis means breaking down observations into smaller elements to see and understand them better; critical thinking means evaluating and synthesizing the products of your analysis, and then using what you’ve discovered to guide what you then believe or do). Faculty expect their students to employ these tools, so Merrill 1 is designed to ensure you recognize them and have some strategies for using them.

literacy-word-cloudAlbert Weidman, “What Is Academic Literacy?” (2019)

Academic literacy involves recognizing various names for these thinking tools (e.g., “analysis” = “breaking down” = “investigating”), and recognizing different ways these tools can be used in different academic settings. (For instance, anthropologists and physicists and historians all use strategies of observation when analyzing a phenomenon, but observation looks different when you’re an anthropologist analyzing the behaviors of people versus a physicist analyzing the behaviors of particles or an historian analyzing a collection of artifacts.)

We say we are academically literate when we have the habits of mind to face a new task--a new way of listening to, describing, and analyzing music, for instance--and feel we have tools that we can identify and adapt to the task at hand even if we have never before taken a music class. These habits of mind also allow us to understand and critique the world around us. They’ll help you weigh and interpret what you read in the news, see on Instagram and live streaming video, and experience when you participate in or watch a demonstration.

“Academic ethos” means understanding the culture of the university--the expectations, values, mores and “habits of being” of those who spend time at the university.


Teachingtheteacher2.0 (2016)

That culture begins with the sense that all of us at the university, students as well as faculty and staff, have a role to play in creating and learning new knowledge. The habits of being that help you feel like you’re part of the work of the university include persistence, curiosity, engagement, metacognition*. Gaining “academic ethos”--recognizing yourself as a full member of our  academic community--means developing concepts and practices such as metacognition (thinking about thinking), engagement with others across difference (embracing differences in background and point of view as assets to learning), and self-efficacy (confidence). 

If you feel these habits don’t describe you, rest assured. They are not innate traits, but instead practices you’ll learn that will allow you to put together what you’ve observed, analyzed, and evaluated into a reliable guide for your next steps (your actions, or your next stage of intellectual inquiry). These habits of mind eventually become automatic--they’ll become the way you’ll go about engaging with the world around you. No matter your major, they will contribute to your success at the university, and are important to helping you feel like you’re an active part of an intellectual community.

Academic Literacy & Ethos in Merrill 1 and IRL: To make these habits automatic, you have to recognize and practice them. This is best done in settings where you share a set of common interests and explore the kinds of “big questions” that feel rewarding to dig into because the discussions feel weighty and relevant to your real lives. That’s the reason for the topical readings we’ve assigned in Merrill 1: we can think of nothing more consequential to our times than what is unfolding now, every day, in the news: era-defining social protest, economic turmoil, and global pandemic alongside unprecedented national and personal self-examination.  Whether you become a scholar, a political activist, or a physical therapist, the approaches you take to understanding your world and working effectively within it will rest on the kinds of values that Merrill 1, and ALE as a whole, have been designed to identify and teach. We look forward to exploring the pressing issues of our historical moment in community with you.

Merrill 1, Reading Ourselves, Reading the World teaches the ACMES concepts by focusing on texts that simultaneously model good inquiry and invite your own further questions--about the texts themselves, and about your own stances, your “positionality,” in relation to them. Via the New York Times and a range of news sources, you’ll engage with current events as they unfold, analyzing the reporting to identify point of view and to consider other, equally plausible, ways of presenting the story. You’ll draw on these methods to examine how stories are told about diverse  cultures, experiences, and perspectives. Whether those narratives are distant or familiar, our challenge is to read the global as local, and to situate ourselves within a conversation where our agency and advocacy matters. Along the way, you’ll learn techniques for effective collaboration, and you’ll work in groups throughout the quarter, culminating in a group project you will present at Merrill’s annual festival of new knowledge, Core Night. 

* For the concept of “habits of mind” in connection to academic success, see Jennifer Fletcher, “Critical Habits of Mind: Exposing the Process of Development,” Liberal Education (Winter 2013).