Freshman Seminar

One of the things that St. Edward’s emphasizes is the value of a liberal arts education, including small class sizes and active learning environments.  For this reason, it seems odd that our current Freshman Studies program features lecture-based courses of approximately one hundred students.  These courses are taught by terrific colleagues and conscientiously overseen by the course coordinator, but their structure seems antithetical to our liberal arts ethos.  The Curriculum Models Group addresses this issue by proposing a new Freshman Seminar that will serve as the cornerstone for the First Year Experience.  We have also taken into account the university’s initiative to achieve full freshman participation in living learning communities.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities describes freshman seminars and experiences as “programs that bring small groups of students together with faculty or staff on a regular basis. The highest quality first year experiences place a strong emphasis on critical inquiry, frequent writing, information literacy, collaborative learning, and other skills that develop students’ intellectual and practical competencies.” This is what we envision for these courses. Full-time faculty from various disciplines will teach them, and they will contain twenty or fewer students in order to foster an intimate environment for inquiry.

The program will have several distinguishing characteristics. The first is that courses will be grouped together based on themes. The process for deciding these themes will rely heavily on faculty input, as ideas for themes that correspond to the university’s mission and scholarly interests of our faculty are requested. Themes could emerge first, followed by a call for courses to fit within those themes. Or individual courses could be proposed first, leading to the emergence of certain themes. Regardless of the exact process, there will be plenty of time for those who eventually participate in freshman seminars to develop courses in order to ensure a seamless transition from our current model.

The second characteristic is the courses themselves. Throughout the rest of the curriculum, we have looked for ways that existing courses can be utilized within general education. But for this part of the curriculum, we want new courses that will capture the attention of first-semester students and reinvigorate faculty who may be tired of offering the same fare semester after semester. If there is a course that you want to teach, then this may be your opportunity to unveil it. Or perhaps there is a course that you already teach that could be modified into a seminar structure suitable for freshmen. These will be courses taught only within the First Year Experience, having a label of FYE or something similar to designate them as such.

The third characteristic is the co-curricular aspect of this program. Research that we have examined shows that the most effective programs provide students with opportunities to learn both within and outside of the classroom. The co-curricular activities will be twofold. Some will be open to all incoming freshmen, as we have received positive feedback about such endeavors already in existence (e.g. the common text and campus events related to it). Others will be targeted to those students within a particular theme. It only makes sense that some activities be geared toward the content that students are being exposed to in their seminars. The campus-wide activities could be planned by the Director of General Education, a committee of faculty representing each of the schools, a single faculty member designated for that purpose, staff members in Student Life, or a combination thereof. The activities specific to a theme could be planned by one of the faculty offering a course within that theme, with additional compensation being included.  In terms of ensuring that students are participating in the activities—some of which should involve service learning—SEU could institute a sophisticated swipe card system or have teaching assistants attend events. Students would need to participate in fifteen hours worth of events in order to earn one credit hour.

Something innovative that we are suggesting is to schedule all of the seminars within a theme at the same time. This allows for a couple of things.  First, let’s say that one course is approaching the theme from a political science perspective, while another is approaching it from the standpoint of psychology.  Those two professors could coordinate so that for one or two weeks they rotate into each other’s courses, thus providing students with an interdisciplinary approach to the topic. Second, maybe all of the professors in a theme want students to hear from a guest speaker or do a large class-based activity. They could coordinate with each other and arrange a date for all of the students within the theme to meet in Jones or Carter Auditorium. Having the courses scheduled at the same time allows for this flexibility.