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It isn’t enough that Thematic Option (T.O.) students are struggling to understand the greatest philosophers, writers, scientists, and artists of Western civilization. They are also supposed to question the definitiveness of the very works they are told are so important—those of Homer, Plato, Dante, Woolf, Hawking, Shakespeare, Rousseau, Arendt, Marx, or Freud—the multiple “canons” that have long set the standards in their disciplines.  

Each year, 200 freshmen participate in this interdisciplinary core curriculum. "T.O." - as it's commonly called around campus - offers small classes with some of the University's best undergraduate teachers and a hand-picked group of writing instructors. The classes are stimulating, and the faculty are brought together with students for a variety of evening events including films, dinners, speakers, performances, and field trips. The intellectual community fostered by common coursework and evening events helps bright students find their peers and a sense of their own place during those crucial first few freshman weeks.

Thematic Option’s curriculum consists of honors-level interdisciplinary courses taught around distinct themes, through which you will satisfy USC’s general education requirements.  Your T.O. classes will ask you to consider the big questions, such as: Is there such a thing as human nature?  How have conceptions of justice changed over time?  Is there order in history?  How do we define progress?  What is the nature of truth?  Where does knowledge come from?  As you pursue possible answers, you will learn about broad ethical issues and approaches to historical change.  As issues of epistemology, representation, and social construction emerge from your studies, you will be challenged to reconceptualize the world and your role within it.

Thematic Option’s writing program consists of two writing seminars supplemented with biweekly one‐on‐one tutorials.  The first semester writing course focuses on the relationship between critical thinking and analytic writing.  The second course is aimed at developing your capacity to address specific audiences and convey complex ideas persuasively.

The curriculum in Thematic Option is centered on interdisciplinary approaches that develop students’ abilities to think critically about themselves and their place in history and society.  T.O. creates a small intellectual community through various kinds of programming inside and outside the classroom that generates a free flow of ideas, debate, and conversation through the student population, including an annual research conference where students can present their original work in an academic formal setting, tying together what they have learned in the program as they engage with each other’s budding research interests. Across its curriculum, Thematic Option strives to equip students for a life as critical and dialectical thinkers and, equally important, equip them with the ability to intelligently express themselves and engage in dialogue within their respective field(s), profession(s), as well as across various perspectives that make up the public sphere.


The program has three broad learning objectives:


1. Students learn to think across disciplines, to not be constrained by the methods and concepts of any one approach. The name “Thematic Option” stems from its interdisciplinary strategy for general education, which allows students to trace specific concepts, such as the self, family, or progress, trans-historically and to discover the web of interconnection between academic fields visible from a thematic perspective.  For example, CORE 102: Culture and Values may weave together literature, classics, history, philosophy, politics, and biology to consider questions of personal identity and social responsibility.


2. Students develop a love of language, an appreciation for the power of the written and spoken word.

a. Through the CORE curriculum courses, students get a sense of the great tradition of Western thought, along with the ability to discuss it critically and open it up to inquiry.  Students read primary texts rather than textbooks, which allows students to confront the canon on their own terms and form their own passionate points of view on these works.

b. Thematic Option’s writing seminars emphasize close reading and argumentation through which students learn to express complex ideas cogently and concisely as persuasive writers.  Importantly, students learn to integrate their own ideas with those of others, establishing their own voice and authority while supporting their stances by employing outside sources. Students should be able to assess broad rhetorical situations and respond confidently in a way that maintains the integrity of the student’s own voice.


3. Students learn to deal with ambiguity. Many of the challenges and issues we face and our students will face do not have clear-cut responses or solutions. Thematic Option courses are not about providing answers, but asking questions, often the so-called big questions like What is truth? What is justice? What is love? Who am I? What responsibilities do I have to society?  These are but a few of the grand questions with which Thematic Option students struggle as they become comfortable with the realm of uncertainty, an open space full of opportunities for exploration and debate within themselves and among each other.

Thematic Option is a diverse and eclectic intellectual community.  We are interested in enthusiasm, participation, and the pursuit of more questions rather than simple answers.  The typical T.O. student has an SAT I score well above 2150 and average high school grades of “A.”  More important than scores, applicants to Thematic Option should have an evident love of reading and writing. Many eligible students are contacted by T.O. after they are admitted to the University, however, we encourage all interested students to inquire about and apply for the Program.  Let us know if you think Thematic Option is right for you.



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CORE 103 with Professor Haw

As part of a Problems Without Passports program, USC Dornsife Professor Jim Haw travels to Borrego Springs with undergraduates to study water and energy issues.

Video by Mira Zimet

Statement on Academic Conduct and Support Systems


Academic Conduct

Plagiarism – presenting someone else’s ideas as your own, either verbatim or recast in your own words – is a serious academic offense with serious consequences.  Please familiarize yourself with the discussion of plagiarism in SCampus in Section 11, Behavior Violating University Standards  Other forms of academic dishonesty are equally unacceptable.  See additional information in SCampus and university policies on scientific misconduct,


Discrimination, sexual assault, and harassment are not tolerated by the university.  You are encouraged to report any incidents to the Office of Equity and Diversity or to the Department of Public Safety  This is important for the safety whole USC community.  Another member of the university community – such as a friend, classmate, advisor, or faculty member – can help initiate the report, or can initiate the report on behalf of another person.  The Center for Women and Men provides 24/7 confidential support, and the sexual assault resource center webpage describes reporting options and other resources.


Support Systems

A number of USC’s schools provide support for students who need help with scholarly writing.  Check with your advisor or program staff to find out more.  Students whose primary language is not English should check with the American Language Institute, which sponsors courses and workshops specifically for international graduate students.  The Office of Disability Services and Programs certification for students with disabilities and helps arrange the relevant accommodations.  If an officially  declared emergency makes travel to campus infeasible, USC Emergency Information provide safety and other updates, including ways in which instruction will be continued by means of blackboard, teleconferencing, and other technology.