FIGS Go Global


DATE: Monday, July 10

Contact: Ronnie Hess, Director of Communications, UW-Madison Division of International Studies. (608) 262-5590,



Madison, WI – There’s something new about FIGS, those First -Year Interest Groups where about 20 entering students enroll in three thematically-linked classes together for a semester. FIGS First Year Interest Groups (FIGs) | University of Wisconsin – Madison have gone global, with 15 of the fall semester’s 29 clusters having core international content. Eight of the “international” FIGS are new this year and eight involve language instruction.

Although FIGS have had an international orientation since the program was launched in 2001, this is perhaps the first time there have been so many globally-focused clusters, according to Greg Smith, assistant dean of the College of Letters and Science and director of FIGS. “I’m not sure what may be behind the number of FIGS with international focus,” Smith says, “but perhaps the general interest in globalization plays a part here.”

Among the new FIGS being offered are:

  • Subjects and Citizens in Global Cultures,
  • The Imperial Republic: The United States and Its Empire in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia,
  • Anime in Post-Modern Japan, and
  • Race and Ethnicity in the Americas.

Among this year’s language offerings are French, Japanese, Latin, Spanish, Thai, Yoruba and Yucatec Mayan. Back as well are previous years’ FIGS on Latin American Cultures, History and Society; An African Cultural Expedition; Twentieth Century French Gay and Lesbian Writers; and the Role of Buddhism in Southeast Asian Culture and History.

“I cannot imagine this experiment in undergraduate teaching not following the broader University trend of internationalizing the curriculum,” says Francisco Scarano, a professor of history who will be leading the Imperial Republic FIG. The FIG, which combines an advanced language practice course in Spanish with two introductory-level history courses, is designed to coincide with a major UW-Madison conference next November – Scarano is one of the organizers – dealing with the historical consequences of empire on the U.S. in the early 20th century.

Like other faculty who participate in FIGS, Scarano wanted to interact more with first-year students. He was especially interested in helping them get into a seminar-like course early in their university life. “Over the years, I have encountered too many talented juniors and seniors who tell me that their 500-level course with me, or their History 600 seminar, constitutes the first time they’ve really had to do library research on their own. The FIG experience will put them on this track much earlier,” Scarano says.

According to FIGS’ director Smith, this kind of student-faculty connectedness in smaller classes, as well as student-student camaraderie, is extremely important and may, in part, explain why FIG participants have had higher retention and graduation rates thus far compared to their peers. “They bond very fast, they’re more verbal and participatory because they have a comfort level with each other,” Smith says.

The FIGS also benefit faculty by giving them an opportunity to develop new courses, to work collaboratively with colleagues in their departments and across disciplines, and to enrich other programs academically. A three-week study-abroad seminar in Greece, “Daily Life in Ancient Athens,” has been offered for two years by International Academic Programs in connection with the Classical Myth and Modern American Culture FIG, according to Joan Raducha, associate dean of International Studies.

The FIGS have also fostered an unanticipated and sustained interest in less commonly taught languages at UW-Madison. According to Smith, language faculty have been thrilled to see not only strong enrollments but also high rates of returning students.

In the African Cultural Expedition FIG, led for the first time last year by African Languages and Literature, UW-Madison professor Antonia Schleicher, most of the students continued studying the Yoruba language in their second semester. “We’ve never had a case like that before,” Schleicher says. Schleicher taught the Yoruba Life and Culture course while a teaching assistant was responsible for first semester Yoruba, a language spoken in West Africa, Cuba, Brazil and Haiti. An introduction to global cultures rounded out the FIG. “I just never had such a group of highly motivated students in a language program,” she says.

Schleicher was so impressed with her students’ enthusiasm for their courses and their progress in Yoruba that she showed a videotape of their end-of-the-semester class play at a session at this year’s conference of the National Institute for Nigerian Languages, in Nigeria. The students wrote and staged the play themselves. According to Schleicher, the conference participants were astonished that a group of Americans, all of them white, could have become so sensitive to the culture of Yoruba-speaking people and so proficient in the language. According to Schleicher, the students’ example served to encourage teachers at the presentation in their efforts to promote the study of Yoruba in Nigeria. “It was a big incentive,” Schleicher says.

Students also say they are enthusiastic about learning less commonly taught languages and going in new intellectual directions. After taking last year’s Language, Culture, and Social Imagination FIG, which included classes in anthropology, religious studies and beginning Indonesian, one student wrote, “Because of the FIG, I’m thinking of pursuing a major in Southeast Asian Studies.” Another student wrote, “ If it had not been for the FIG, I would never have taken Indonesian but now I will be taking Indonesian for another semester, and a Buddhism class, too.”