Friday, September 12, 2008

How to frame college for first-year students?

Steve Greenlaw has a very thought-provoking post about engaging students early in a first-year seminar up at Pedablogy. I started to leave this post as a comment there, but it became too long, so I'm posting it here instead.

Sounds like a very interesting course.

My first year of being in a Ph.D. program was at the University of Iowa, and I was assigned to instruct two sections of my own course (with no prior teaching experience--eeek!) in the university's General Education in Literature Program. They had a pretty good mentoring program set up, and one of the faculty told us that our primary job was not necessarily to teach literature (even though we had to cover four genres in the class, teach one Shakespearean play, etc.), but rather to re-instill in students the love of reading they probably had as little kids. So in my class we talked about what they read as kids, why they liked the books they did, and at what point--and why--they stopped reading literature for fun. One student from Michigan had last finished a book in eighth grade: Lord of the Flies. The conversation was eye-opening for me. But taking that little walk down memory lane really helped the students reconnect with words and the place (I felt) literature should have in their lives.

Connecting students with their high school experience is trickier because there's such a wide range of experiences. I don't think it will backfire on you, but to be honest, one of the reasons I left the University of Mary Washington after a single semester is because the classes I happened to take didn't challenge me a whole lot. They were easier than my high school classes. Like your student, I was one of the last to register, and so I ended up in classes that weren't my first picks. I was interested in the topics, and became more interested in them as the semester progressed, but they lacked intellectual rigor and opportunities for self-reflection. They felt like general ed classes. (I wish I had taken one of your classes instead!) My point is that comparing college to high school would have been (a) difficult for me because I was still learning what college was all about--for example, I didn't know that college students only attended class for 12-16 hours a week; I thought it was going to be more like high school, with class all day, and (b) even if I did have some college experience under my belt, my high school classes were more thought-provoking than the college classes I was taking, so the comparison wouldn't have been a favorable one. That said, the questions would have helped me better frame my experience and think earlier rather than later about what I was supposed to be getting out of college.

The college I finally did graduate from--Grinnell--eschewed general ed requirements in favor of trusting students to choose their own paths. We weren't allowed to overdose in any one department (I think 48 credits was the max allowed per department) or division, but our only requirements were a first-year tutorial (which I didn't take because I entered as a sophomore) and whatever requirements were required for our major. And because of the type of student who attended that college, most of us took a very broad range of classes. The stats--and my memory is a bit fuzzy about these--during my tenure there were something like 90 percent of students took math courses and 95 percent took literature courses.

If I were teaching a first-year seminar (and I hope to do so for the first time this spring), I think I would feel compelled to provide the students with a critique of the university system of which they were a part. At my current institution, we have a boatload of general ed requirements--of which first-year seminars are not one. But I would want to ask students why the general education requirements are in place, what is the meaning of a liberal arts education (and can you really get such a thing at a university with class sizes as large as 750)?

My big question for you is this: Are you going to lead students away from a discussion on personal responsibility and move them toward one about possibility and social responsibility? Grinnell framed this nicely for us as incoming students by explicitly framing our experience and privilege as training for community service of all stripes or, as the college calls it in its mission statement, "the common good." That was an awakening for me. I wish someone had told me earlier that my college education was not really about me. Yes, my college years were an excellent time to reflect and grow, but that reflection and growth was in service of a higher ideal--not to get a job, not to get a degree, not to please my parents, not to be recognized as the graduate of an elite liberal arts college, but rather to figure out how best to serve people. I chose education. When I read my class's alumni newsletter, I'm thrilled to see how many people, even 11 years after graduation, are teaching or working for nonprofits or for the government or as doctors or who performed service abroad or who practice law in the public interest.

At our commencement, our speaker, David McCullough, told us that within a week some jerk would say, "Welcome to the real world." He reminded us that the liberal arts endeavor, with its intellectual challenges and cultural critiques and ethic of service, was the real world. I don't think enough undergrads at my current institution share McCullough's view.

Steve, you're a very reflective teacher, and I'm sure whatever path you take with your students, the course will be one they look back on with fondness. Thanks for the invitation to share some thoughts!

No comments: