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Free to focus FYE gets freshmen zeroed in early
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A day in the life What do students do all day? See for yourself.


Free to focus
Skidmore’s required freshman course? It’s now fifty small seminars on subjects of the faculty’s and students’ choosing.
by Barbara Melville

What?! No more LS 1? It’s hard to imagine Skidmore without the distinctive liberal-studies course that introduced twenty years of freshmen to the life of the mind from Aristotle to Angelou.

But even a stellar curriculum will dim after twenty years, so last fall the college made three big changes to the “first-year experience”: replacing LS 1’s wide-focus survey and single shared syllabus with nearly fifty small “Scribner Seminars”; letting freshmen choose a content-specific seminar that genuinely attracts them; and assigning their seminar instructors as their faculty advisors and mentors. The idea was to engage the new students more deeply and immediately in academic life.

Driving it all was a simple proposition that Skidmore faculty found enticing and exhilarating: Teach your passion, and your students will also be impassioned. Faculty were encouraged to create bold new heart’s-desire courses that sliced freely across departmental lines in ways that “otherwise couldn’t be offered within a disciplinary or departmental curriculum,” as biologist and seminar instructor Bernie Possidente explains. The result was an explosion of first-year seminars on genes, African cinema, China and the West, robot design, tobacco advertising, human colonization of space, and many more (including a timely “Dangerous Earth” whose syllabus was painfully upstaged by real-life tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes). Freshmen in the college’s first-semester London program took a seminar on the literature and sociology of crime fiction. And LS 1 lived on in nine “Human Dilemmas” seminars taught from a modified LS text. The specificity and luster of the choices virtually guaranteed that all freshmen would connect with something they really wanted to study.

And connect they did. “In a survey, you rush past all these interesting things you have no time for,” says Hannah Philips ’09, who signed up for a study of cities in Latin America, co-taught by historian Jordana Dym and Spanish professor Paty Rubio. During one class session, students had to decipher the socioeconomic castes shown in eighteenth-century paintings, identifying a dizzying array of pure- and mixed-blood citizens of Spain’s New World colonies. Declares Philips, “I loved being able to delve into so specific a topic.”

Paced by the faculty’s own keen interests, Scribner Seminars ran
fast and deep. Freshmen scrambled to keep up with heavy reading lists that often featured primary materials rather than textbooks, and whole works rather than excerpts. “I’m giving them the same materials I’d give juniors and seniors,” one seminar instructor says. “Maybe
they don’t engage it as thoroughly as upperclassmen can, but they love it.” Certainly Dym and Rubio’s
students devoured city ordinances decreed in 1573 by King Phillip II of Spain, and full-length Supreme
Court cases were on the reading list for business professor Christine Kopec’s seminar on how minority causes fare in a majority-driven democracy.

At first, as they read complicated decisions on issues of affirmative action and same-sex marriage, Kopec’s students couldn’t puzzle out the verdicts—or even where to find them. “Reading complex material new to you is what you do in college,” Kopec told them. “But is this too difficult for a first-year class?” Not according to Max Weinbrown ’09, who “hadn’t expected actual case law in a freshman seminar” but was soon citing it himself. “We were intimidated at first, but as the semester went on we really liked it,” says Lauren Villanueva ’09. “Class discussion would just continue—our minds were so stimulated, we’d talk for forty-five minutes.”

By mid-November, Kopec’s students were ready to argue their own mock trial, based on the actual Dover, Pa., case contesting an intelligent-design statement the school board inserted into the district’s biology curriculum. With the classroom rearranged to simulate a courtroom, four student “plaintiffs” read carefully from prepared arguments. They zeroed in on the issue that later decided the Dover case, contending that intelligent design is thinly disguised creationism and thus violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Saddled with the unpopular side of the argument, the “defendants” nonetheless played their case to the hilt, pointing to the “irreducible complexity” of biological constructions like bacteria and quoting Supreme Court decisions banning “viewpoint discrimination.”

There was order in the court until the jury withdrew to deliberate. Then the room boiled over in an ardent unscripted debate. “What are the natural-science experiments that have been done to substantiate intelligent design?” one student demanded. When someone cited irreducible complexity, he snarled back, “Do you know how idiotic that argument is?” Another joked, “Oh, my cell phone is so complicated! I guess God created it.” A “defendant” admitted that after researching the issue, she could at least “see where the arguments were coming from,” but no one genuinely supported the teaching of intelligent design. So the verdict came as a shock: swayed by the case-law arguments and the defense’s savvy presentation, the jury found for the intelligent-design team.

After class Kopec told the crestfallen losers, “You didn’t work as hard as the other side, because you believed your arguments yourself.” It was a painful lesson in the art of critical thinking—and a taste of real engagement.

To balance the increased academic weight and pace, the new first-year experience also includes more support. For instance, the program provides a flexible fourth credit-hour, for additional course content, social bonding, or skills sharpening. Faculty receive small stipends to provide extras like guest speakers, films, field trips, or a postexam pizza party, and they are encouraged to employ upperclassmen as “peer mentors,” an FYE twist on the highly successful LS 1 tutors.
Such options seem to foster student confidence, perhaps because they allow seminar instructors to directly address the myriad questions and panging anxieties that many freshmen bring into classrooms. Meeting such basic needs frees students to learn, observes English professor Michael Marx, a former LS 1 director. “If your students are freaking out because registration is coming up and they don’t know how it works, that’s what is foremost on their minds”—not their lesson. In his class last fall Marx devoted a bit of time to a peer-mentor demo of the computer-registration process.

Anthropologist Michael Ennis-McMillan (whose seminar studied diseases like AIDS and Ebola from the perspectives of medical anthropology, public health, and environmental studies) says, “I could take the time to work on college-transition issues like using interlibrary loan, searching databases, getting permission to put up posters, whether it’s better to e-mail faculty or talk in person...”

“In my first year, I never felt as comfortable as they do,” admits peer mentor Debra Japko ’07. “They always had a lot to say in class, because they were so into this topic, and they were never afraid to ask questions.” Before delivering their final presentations (remarkably well researched and sophisticated) on the likes of leprosy, malaria, and elephantiasis, the students took a moment to vote on the cuisine for their semester-end class dinner. “Those who didn’t vote for sushi and Thai this time will get to plan the next dinner’s menu,” Ennis-McMillan promises—because this seminar may be over, but he remains the students’ advisor. “We’re going on into next semester as a group.” He adds, “This is all very different from my big intro classes. These students read each other’s first drafts and help with each other’s presentations. They really are forming a learning community.”

More Firsts

Small interdisciplinary seminars, student choice, seminar faculty as advisors—they’re all keepers for the new “first-year experience.” But what of FYE’s supplemental programs? Here’s the preliminary report from FYE director Michael Arnush and other evaluators:

Peer mentors—Upperclassmen serving as academic role models, liaisons, learning resources, activities directors, and guides to campus life: A venerable LS 1 tradition is still a winner with FYE.

Fourth credit-hour—A flexible bonus hour tailored by each seminar’s instructor: Some worked well, but the many fourth-hour skills workshops offered last fall (on time management, the library, the Honor Code) will be winnowed down next year and run only as needed when midterms, registration, and finals loom.

Summer reading—An LS 1–style common reading (Seamus Heaney’s Burial at Thebes this year was good, but not germane to many seminar subjects): Next year’s Life on the Color Line is expected to stir wide interest.

“Reflection and Projection”—Assignments in which students define and track their college-career goals: The jury is still out.

Residential bonding—An attempt to forge living/learning communities by housing each seminar’s students and peer mentors in the same dorm (only partly achieved this year): Will be expanded, to encourage more group study and social interaction. —BAM

It hasn’t been all roses for the new program. Even though most faculty quickly embraced the pedagogy of “teach your passion,” some questioned how well it would serve students. Some faculty simply hated losing LS 1’s tradition of a shared intellectual experience for all students, recalls music professor Gordon Thompson, who chaired the Committee on Educational Policy and Planning that developed the new FYE. That regret was echoed in a Skidmore News editorial in which the writers poignantly lamented the demise of a course they themselves had grumbled about as freshmen.

But overall, the combination of higher academic challenge and deeper social support clicked so well that even before the semester ended, FYE was earning thumbs-ups from faculty, freshmen, and peer mentors alike. “We have some tinkering to do,” admits classicist Michael Arnush, who directs the FYE program. “But on the core of the program—faculty teaching a topic they want to teach, to students who want to learn about that topic, and faculty advising those same students—we’re doing really well.” In fact, delighted with their students’ responses, many instructors signed up for next year. “For me, the chance to teach this seminar was like opening a door,” says dance professor Isabel Brown, whose students read Russian literary masterpieces and compared them with film, dance, and operatic versions.

Also on the plus side, the peer mentoring was deemed widely successful, once the instructors and mentors creatively worked out their roles. For instance, besides keeping office hours and serving generally as student-faculty liaisons, Emma Yorra ’08 led students in cocurricular activities, Deb Japko served as a writing consultant, and Howie Austin ’06 was big brother and geek-in-chief for a robot-design seminar. “It was great fun for me,” grins Austin, who helped freshmen engineer such projects as a robot scorpion that “stung” with its tail and a penguin programmed to belly-flop down a slope. “If I weren’t graduating, I’d do it again.”

And the first-year students themselves gave the program high grades. Danielle Gray-Lobe ’09 admits she gasped at first sight of the Russian-literature syllabus, but by semester’s end she was saying, “It was hard, but it was worth it.” Well, of course, offers peer mentor Yorra: “The most rewarding thing of all is to give people a real challenge.”

Premed student Ben Rauch ’09 avows, “Of all my classes so far, the first-year seminar was the most valuable. Bio and calc you can learn from books. But this went beyond reading.” His professor’s intellectual passion, he says, “got me excited and made me want to learn.”