An Early Start: First-Year Seminars

by Leslie Stainton

Joe Casey couldn't wait to get to class. In fact, he liked his seminar so much that one day last fall, when he accidentally locked himself out of his dorm room before he had put on his shoes, he chose to walk all the way across campus in his bare feet rather than miss part of the seminar. "It was my favorite class of the semester," he shrugs. "I didn't want to be late."

Pressed to explain what he liked about the class, Casey cites the participatory format of the seminar, its small size, and the fact that there was "a lot of sharing of ideas. I really got to know the people in the class." In most of Casey's other classes, including a large introductory lecture course on film, "it was me just sitting there taking it in," he says.

Casey, who is from Detroit, is one of a growing number of Michigan undergraduates to benefit from the College of LS&A's First-Year Seminar Program. Launched in the fall of 1994 as part of a widespread effort to improve undergraduate education, the seminar program was designed primarily to place freshmen in small, interactive courses taught by tenured and tenure-track faculty. While undergraduate seminars had been a part of the curriculum at Michigan since the mid-1970s, such courses had typically been taught by emeritus faculty and were available to only a minuscule portion of the student population.

The expanded seminar program aimed to change that. In 1994-95, its first year of existence, the program offered 125 courses. The following year the number of seminars rose to 175. Because student enrollment in each seminar is restricted to a maximum of 25, that meant there was sufficient space for more than the number of incoming LS&A freshmen. "The intent," says Charles Judge, director of academic standards, "is to provide enough seminars so that every student can have at least one." Faculty participation in the program has exceeded projections. During the 1995-96 year, tenured and tenure-track faculty taught more than 85 percent of the College's first-year seminars. Emeritus faculty, lecturers, and academic advisors taught the remaining 15 percent.

But impressive as the numbers are, the program's success is best measured by the experience of students like Joe Casey, who for the most part come to Michigan expecting huge courses taught by unapproachable faculty members, or small discussion sections run by lecturers and teaching assistants.

"First-year students know that professors write books and give papers, but they don't expect to meet anyone who does that sort of thing," says Lincoln Faller, professor of English and associate dean for undergraduate education at LS&A.

Faller's appreciation for the seminar program is based on firsthand experience. It was his seminar on Native American literature, in fact, that Joe Casey was so eager to attend last fall. As Casey remembers it, Faller's class was the sort of course "where I could share my ideas, where I could sit right next to someone else who was talking." Students in the seminar were astonished to find that Faller knew their names by the second day. The class formed an e-mail group, sat in a circle during discussion sessions, and got to know one another. One student, who was on the women's field hockey team, made sure that her classmates knew whenever games were going to take place, and they showed up to watch her. Faller even cooked a turkey for the group.

A sense of involvement is crucial to a seminar's success. When the class becomes just another lecture course, students tend to be disappointed, observes Charles Judge. In her first semester at Michigan, Lesley Kagan took a seminar where the professor never learned anyone's name. "You didn't have to attend because he never knew who I was," she recalls. In her second semester Kagan enrolled in a seminar she describes as "great," not only because the professor knew his students by name, but also because students were expected to participate actively in the discussion. "It's a great forum," says Kagan, who intends to major in political science. "You have to learn to speak up and be open-minded."

"You can't slack in these classes because it will show," says first-year student Cynthia Epler, who took Prof. Richard W. Bailey's seminar on "English: How It Works, and Why" during her second semester at Michigan. Bailey asked his class to conduct primary research on an unpublished 16th-century London diary. Working from a computer-based image of the text (the original of which resides in the British Library), students divided into small groups to investigate a variety of topics, ranging from the meaning of arcane words, to the location of places mentioned in the diary, to the cultural context of the document. "They learned odd things," Bailey notes. "But what they really learned was how to identify and deal with uncertainty. For most of these students, he adds, this was a first opportunity to take full charge of their own learning. For Epler, the experience was captivating. "Because we were actually running the class, giving different presentations, you end up learning a lot more than just by reading a book," she explains, adding, "The closer you are to the professor, the harder you want to work."

"Freshmen are very passionate. They really want to learn and find out answers and think through questions. It's their first taste of college. In that sense, it's very exciting. They have not been intellectually socialized as to how the discipline thinks about issues, so they bring a whole range of questions."

David Schoem, lecturer in Sociology and
Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education

For Nisha Patel, an Indian student born and raised in Zambia, a first-semester, first-year seminar with lecturer William Condon turned into a watershed experience. During the course of Condon's seminar on "Writing about Cultural Communities, Ethnicity, and Imposed Categories," Patel explored the nature of culture and race, with particular emphasis on her own background and aspirations. "Every time I wrote, I realized the people who had influenced me," she recalls. By the end of the course, Patel had achieved what she calls a "sense of wholeness. I knew I'd had all these experiences, but I never realized that's what I really am."

Her classmate Amanda Trestrail, a freshman from Grand Rapids, had a similar experience in Condon's seminar. Trestrail describes her work in the course as "a big look into my family and my family values." Through writing about her background, she came to appreciate her family in unexpected ways. "I kind of went to college to get away from them," she laughs, "but I discovered that everything I had was based on my family." Trestrail was particularly grateful for the "connection" she felt with her professor throughout the semester. From the outset, Condon scheduled hour-long, bi-weekly meetings with each student in the class, so that everyone had ample time to discuss not only the content of the course, but also college life in general. "It gave me a connection to the University," Trestrail says. To her delight, members of the class stayed in touch by e-mail long after the semester ended.

While many first-year seminars focus on writing, only a small percentage of them fulfill the undergraduate composition requirement. Professor of biology Michael Martin, who helped design the First-Year Seminar Program when he was associate dean for undergraduate education, recalls that originally he and his committee associates considered insisting that all first-year seminars fulfill the composition requirement. But ultimately they dismissed the idea as both unworkable and antithetical to the overall goals of the program.

Nevertheless, first-year seminars remain a popular means of meeting the composition requirement--for both students and teachers. According to Martha Vicinus, chair of the English Department, some 20 to 30 of the department's yearly total of 200 composition courses are first-year seminars. Vicinus herself taught a composition seminar in the winter of 1996 and found the class "wonderful to work with." Despite the fact that the group met at 8:30 in the morning, the students in the course were attentive and enthusiastic. And because enrollment in the seminar was restricted to 20--as is enrollment in all first-year seminars that meet the composition requirement--Vicinus was able to structure the course so that primary focus was given to student critiques of one another's work. As the semester wore on, groups of students voluntarily met outside the class for 30- and 40-minute sessions of intensive writing and revising work.

For Vicinus herself, the experience of teaching freshmen proved immensely rewarding. "They're fresh-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to do well in college," she says warmly of Michigan's first-year students. Increasingly, she notes, her colleagues in the English Department are making the same discovery. "The word is out that these courses are a great pleasure to teach. Many more senior faculty are signing up for them."

The Departments of English, Psychology, and Geology have been among the most active participants in the First-Year Seminar Program. But involvement in the program is expanding. For one thing, faculty members find the seminar format appealing. "Most people would rather teach a course of 25," says Michael Martin. "Teaching Biology 100 to 200 people is pretty impersonal." Students also perform better in seminars. Overall, students who took first-year seminars in 1994-95 had slightly higher GPAs than students who did not, notes Lincoln Faller.

That's because "instead of passive learning with big lecture halls, students are in small classes where they can participate," says David Schoem, assistant dean for undergraduate education, who coordinates the First-Year Seminar Program. In his own first-year seminar on Jewish identity, Schoem found that students worked much more intensively than in other courses, and he was able to set higher standards for the class. "Freshmen are very passionate," he notes. "They really want to learn and find out answers and think through questions. It's their first taste of college. In that sense, it's very exciting. They have not been intellectually socialized as to how the discipline thinks about issues, so they bring a whole range of questions."

To help faculty members understand how best to utilize the seminar program, Schoem organizes workshops and discussion sessions throughout the year, to which all first-year-seminar teachers are invited. For senior faculty, in particular, the shift from teaching upper-class students to teaching freshmen can be jarring. Professors often find the seminars take more time to teach, in part because the students demand it. But most agree the results are worth it. "Before your eyes, you can see the switch from high school to college work," says Schoem.

After teaching freshmen for a semester, Lincoln Faller discovered that he had a better grasp of how to teach upper-class students. Faller believes it is incumbent on departments to participate fully in the seminar program. "If faculty don't insert themselves into the processes whereby students are formed early on here, students will be formed nonetheless," he argues. "We have very good students here, and I think our major task is to demand enough of them. And the time to start doing that is at the very beginning of their careers."

"First-year students know that professors write books and give papers, but they don't expect to meet anyone who does that sort of thing."

Lincoln Faller, professor of English and
Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education

When associate professor of history and women's studies Carol Karlsen first began teaching freshmen several years ago, she did not know what to expect. But she quickly realized it was an exhilarating experience. "There's a culture of missing classes that first-year students are not a part of. They're more likely to be engaged. You get some wonderful work," she says. Through her seminar on the Salem witchcraft outbreak of 1692, Karlsen was able to introduce students to the idea of history as interpretation, not simply chronology. Her work with first-year students led directly to Karlsen's current book, a document collection for high-school and first-year college students, to be published by Oxford University Press as part of its "Pages from History" series. Karlsen believes that as a result of her exposure to freshman teaching she now writes more effectively. "I feel it's important to write for an audience that's not solely one's peers," she explains. "It's important to write a well-crafted book that can also be understandable and engaging to an 18-year old."

For Spanish professor Monroe Hafter, perhaps the most appealing aspect of his first-year seminar on "Wrestling with Religion in the Nineteenth Century" was the fact that its topic did not pertain directly to his area of specialization. Prof. Hafter, who taught 18th- and 19th-century Spanish literature until his retirement last spring, created the seminar in order to explore texts and ideas he had always found intriguing but had never examined in depth. "We had only ourselves to please," he says of the approach he and his students took to the seminar. "I'm sure that anyone from the philosophy department hearing me talk about Nietzche would weep. It didn't matter. We reasoned aloud together." He was astonished by the degree of commitment and interest students brought to the seminar, and by the number of "surprisingly good perceptions" that emerged in their final papers for the course.

Hafter laughingly suggests that enrollment in his seminar was high because "religion sells." But he's partly right. According to Charles Judge, the most popular first-year seminars are those that promise direct relevance to students' lives. Emeritus professor Joseph Vaughn's course on "Current Issues in Sports Sociology" always "goes immediately," says Judge. So does psychology professor Robert Pachella's' seminar on "Identity, Alienation, and Freedom." Such courses, Judge believes, "address where a lot of students are in their minds." In fact, LS&A advisors work specifically with faculty members to craft course descriptions that will appeal to 18-year old students.

Psychology professor Frank Yates was told that his 1996 winter term seminar on "Decisions About Marriage" filled in 40 minutes. A specialist in decision-making, Yates offered the course on marriage because he thought it would be relevant to his students' lives, but also because he hoped to learn from them. "They're at the ideal age and situation to be talking about these issues. Also, they're out of high school, where you can't have these kinds of conversations in a free way," he explains. "And with older people, so many of them are already in attached relationships that it's hard for them to be objective."

Although Yates suspects that many of his seminar students enrolled in the course expecting to be given a "formula" for making decisions about marriage, he believes they eventually came to accept the complex nature of the subject. Initially, though, they were taken aback by Yates's highly technical approach to the material (one student persisted in calling him a "techie"). As the semester progressed, they learned to be more critical in their thinking. And Yates learned to "humanize some of the basic concepts of decision-making. They're helping me along," he says of the class. His new research, he adds, will relate directly to the seminar.

Yates's seminar on marriage typifies the First-Year Seminar Program at its best. Both students and teacher were fully engaged in the course, and both found it pertinent to their lives. Ilyse Broder, from Farmington Hills, Mich., maintains that Prof. Yates's course taught her how to argue effectively in class and showed her that "even though it's a really big university, you can get to know the teacher." For Broder, Yates' passion for his subject was inspiring. "The way he got involved in the conversation, I could tell that he wasn't just teaching."

Yates himself says the seminar allowed him "to experience more closely one of the primary rewards of this business--seeing students achieve insight, the 'Aha' phenomenon. That's a real rush." Besides, he adds, the students "are simply fun to talk to and to get to know. I expect to enjoy their friendship a long time."

More than Just a Number

On his first day as a University of Michigan student, Kevin Munoz walked into a lecture hall for a class in introductory sociology and saw several hundred students and some guy who talked for about fifty minutes. And that was it, Munoz remembers quietly. I didn't know how I was going to get through the year if all the classes were like this.

But on his second day, Munoz walked into Patricia McCune's first-year seminar on Punishment and Social Order and saw approximately fifteen students in the room. It made me feel much more confident, he says. The seminar reminded him of the high school he left behind in Teaneck, New Jersey--a school where the classes were small, challenging, and personal, and where a shy, soft-spoken student like Kevin Munoz received the kind of attention he needed.

The son of Colombian immigrants, Munoz came to Michigan because of the reputation of its Business School, which he hopes to attend. But although he knew the U-M would be big and impersonal, he thought its size wouldn't bother him. It didn't take him long to realize he was mistaken. In high school, Munoz had a guidance counselor he called Mom and a principal whom he describes as a father figure. At Michigan he had no one. Here, if you mess up, it doesn't matter. You're just a number, he murmurs. The one exception was his first-year seminar. After Munoz did poorly on his first essay for the course, McCune asked to see him. I was glad she did, Munoz recalls. I felt bad myself because I had let myself down and let her down. Their conversation was a turning point. Munoz improved dramatically on his second paper for the course, and his work in his other classes began to prosper. For the first time, he looked forward to going to school. If it hadn't been for that one day, if it hadn't been for a small-class environment, I wouldn't have gotten the attention I needed, he admits frankly. She kind of took me under her wing.

Possessed by a newfound confidence, Munoz learned to speak out in class, to talk candidly about his experience as a member of an ethnic minority on a college campus where a majority of the students are white. He sought McCune's opinion throughout the semester on a range of topics. They remain in touch today. For Munoz, the friendship is vital. Being able to talk to her kind of soothes the pain that I sometimes feel, that I'm not happy here, that I don't belong, he reflects, then adds gently, She may not be able to solve the problem, but at least shes listening. As for his sociology class, Munoz received an A in the course. But he never did get to know his teacher.

Easing the Transition

Last year, the University of Michigan turned down Tracey Parker's application for admission to the freshman class. Shattered by this "flat-out no," she clung to the slim hope that a spot might open for her later in the year. But when an admissions counselor bluntly told Parker her grades weren't good enough for Michigan, she nearly gave up. Then, in June, word came that a slot had opened, Parker seized it.

"I was nervous about coming here," she remembers. She worried about which courses to take and how much to study. Told that all her classes would be "gigantic," Parker opted to enroll in a first-year seminar because it seemed like a good idea. By the time she registered, however, only a few seminars remained open. By chance, Parker enrolled in Patricia McCune's seminar on Punishment and Social Order.

From the start, the course engaged her. Its highly interactive format meant that Parker got plenty of hands-on experience grappling with the course material. (McCune insisted that each student lead one class session during the semester, for example, a requirement Parker found both daunting and enjoyable.) The small size of the class meant that everyone got to know everyone else.

But even so, Parker was curious about her teacher and decided to invite McCune to join her for lunch one day in the residence hall. McCune accepted, and a friendship was born. "It's such a positive experience, knowing this professor," Parker says now, her face brightening. "It's different from getting to know your TA. This is an adult, with a position, who's been through so much." As the semester progressed, Parker turned to McCune for advice on everything from study habits ("Am I studying too much?" she wondered), to dorm life, to graduate school, to her course selection for the winter semester. At the end of the seminar McCune told her, "Call me Pat, now. You're out of my class."

Parker completed her first semester with honors, a fact she attributes in large part to her friendship with McCune. "I think having this professor made the difference," she admits. "She just calmed me down." The two continue to talk regularly. At the end of the spring term, Parker was planning to take part in a public service internship program in Washington, D.C.--a program to which McCune first introduced her.

Leaving a high-school class of 400 to enter a freshman class of nearly 4,000 has not been easy, says Parker, who is from Livonia, Mich. "It's so huge here. It can be real confusing." But her first-year seminar eased the way. "It helped make everything a little more personal."

Copyright © 1999, The Regents of the University of Michigan

College of Literature, Science, and the Arts 500 S. State Street, Ann Arbor, MI  48109 © 2016 Regents of the University of Michigan