Arts First: the most important courses you’ll take

King WarriorWritten by special contributor

Although communication has always been important to Rebekah, it wasn’t until she participated in the University of Waterloo’s Arts First courses that she truly began to appreciate the meaning of the word.

"At the beginning of the seminar, our prof spent a whole class asking us to define how communication works. We all had one idea in mind, but were presented with a completely different perspective that no one had really thought about before. It definitely gave me a new outlook that I was able to apply to my other courses."

Arts First is made up of two seminars, ARTS 130 (Inquiry and Communication) and ARTS 140 (Information and Analysis) with students taking one seminar each term in their first year. From seating that enables collaboration to ongoing opportunities to test ideas and concepts using methods not found in a traditional university classroom, Arts First feels different from the moment you walk through the door. With just 20 to 25 students per class, the topics reflect the pressing research and intellectual issues of today’s world.

Recent course offerings

Arts 130 — The Board Game Renaissance
Arts 130 — The Rhetoric of Smartphones
Arts 130 — Mindtools to Maximize Your Memory
Arts 130 — Ghosts, Cults, and End Times

Arts 140 — 90's Pop Culture
Arts 140 — Can We Measure Originality?
Arts 140 — Video Game Research Methods
Arts 140 — The Science of Happiness

Full course topic descriptions can be found on the Arts First website. 

An instructor points at a document on a table while two students, seated, listen

Beyond the classroom: Students from an Arts 140 section visit the REEP House where they learn about sustainability and develop climate action plans in consultation with industry experts.  

Rebekah, an Honours Arts and Business student with a Fine Arts major and Digital Arts Communication minor, took "How to Talk to Strangers, Enemies, and Friends" for Arts 130, taught by Professor Robert Danisch. The experience challenged her thought process and ideas, enabling her to develop a communication skill set she applied to her other courses to improve her grades and form new opinions.

Professor Heather Smyth recognizes a tangible difference in students as they move through the courses, which she attributes to increased opportunities for them to develop confidence. “I got the sense, that from the beginning to the end, students got used to being heard,” says Smyth. Students quickly get used to participating in meaningful in-class discussions, while learning that they can understand and implement the steps needed to improve their communication skills, transforming them into vocal advocates for their own work.

In the beginning, I told my prof I had never been a strong writer and I was going to need help. Professor Danisch said ‘Oh don’t worry — you’ll get it.’ And I got it!

Arianna, an Honours Arts and Business co-op student majoring in Speech Communication, credits Arts First for helping her to be more comfortable talking to, and in front of, her classmates, which then translated into more authentic relationships outside of class, including participating in a course Facebook group and discovering mutual interests with new friends.

“If students stop seeing themselves as a sort of sponge whose role is to soak up the knowledge the faculty have and, instead, start to see themselves as responsible participants and agents in the world, when they go into a job they’ll be able to figure out what they can contribute to intellectual conversations and be in a different position professionally from the get go.”

A student laughs while wearing a VR headset and manipulating her view using a handheld control

A student tests out a VR headset in the Arts 130 — Virtual Theatre course.


The important part of education is not about passing down a body of knowledge from instructor to student, but about engaging students...

 Professor Danisch feels strongly that the important part of education is not about passing down a body of knowledge from instructor to student, but about engaging students in activities instead of talking at them in lectures. For him, the goal of the program is to position students for success by changing their self-perception, so they believe in themselves and know that their voice matters — in the university community and beyond.


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