The Chronicle of Higher Ed. on UR’s first-year seminar program

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece on the University of Richmond’s first-year seminar program. (Don’t know if it’s paywalled.) I’ve taught FYS several times, and I currently serve on the committee overseeing the program, so I was naturally interested in what they have to say. I certainly urge all of my faculty colleagues to read the piece, especially those of us on the committee, which will be performing a thorough review of the program in the fall.

The piece focuses on three seminars, taught by different faculty members on very different subjects. The reporter sat in on each of the seminars multiple times and gets quite specific about what went on in class. I’d be interested to know what others think, but overall I don’t think we come off very well from these descriptions. I have no way of knowing whether the article’s description of the seminars does them justice, and I shudder to think of how my course might have come out looking under the same treatment, so I don’t mean this statement as a criticism of the three courses or their instructors; it’s just the impression I got as a reader.

In addition to descriptions of the three courses, the article makes some general observations. This struck me as the most provocative section:

One of the chief strengths of seminars is that they serve as pedagogical laboratories for faculty members, says Jennifer R. Keup, director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, at the University of South Carolina.

But the variability of seminars, she says, is a weakness.

An analysis produced by the center measured the extent to which teaching practices that are generally accepted as strong were present in different types of seminars. Results suggested that those with varying content had relatively low levels of academic challenge and clarity of teaching, in part because their general quality varied so much, says Ms. Keup.

“When content is left up to the instructor, you cede a lot of control,” she says, which “makes it harder to engage and police the degree to which they’re doing them well.”

There’s no surer way to enrage faculty members than to suggest that it would be better to take control of the content of their courses away from them. And in fact, I think that the variety of course topics is a great strength of our program, particularly in comparison with its predecessor, a “core course” taught in many sections, by faculty members from many disciplines, with a common syllabus. (I wrote down some thoughts on this years ago, when we were considering making this transition. In short, I thought — and continue to think — that the old core course, in which instructors taught subjects in which they had no expertise, was something akin to educational malpractice.)

I certainly don’t deny that the problem of nonuniform levels of rigor is real. When we first adopted the first-year seminar program, people worried a lot about whether the seminars would set uniformly rigorous standards. The committee I currently serve on is tasked, among other things, with figuring out ways to assure that they do, but it’s a hard problem, and I don’t think anybody knows how best to do it.

I don’t know any details of the study referred to in the above quote, but I have doubts about whether there’s necessarily a causal link between  having courses with varying content and having courses with low / inconsistent standards. Anecdotally (for what little that’s worth), back in the old days of our core course, there was a great deal of variation in the standards set by different core instructors, although there’s no way of knowing whether it was greater than the variability in the current seminars.

I do worry that, in the first-year seminar program as it currently exists, we’re not doing enough to set uniformly high expectations, but I hope that we can figure out ways to do that while maintaining the program’s strengths — such as faculty teaching subjects in which they have expertise, and students choosing courses in subjects that they find interesting.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

3 thoughts on “The Chronicle of Higher Ed. on UR’s first-year seminar program”

  1. This might be controversial (and possibly even dated, I’m getting old enough now), but I’ll share anyway. I looked at my transcript, and it turns out I took courses from 11 different departments. It was my distinct impression from the interactions I had in these departments that there was a wide variety of opinions about what a professor could expect from the student body at Richmond, in terms of ability and workload, where most the variation was between departments, not between faculty in the same department (though there is certainly some of that).

    I don’t just mean in terms of course difficulty. There was a palpable sense that some departments thought of UR students as premier, top-notch, cream-of-the-(inter)national-crop undergraduates (the feeling I have), while others held the student body to a lower standard–perhaps seeing the university as the regional institution it might have been in the past. In this respect, it feels as if the real solution to any variability in difficulty shouldn’t deal with a recalibration of the curriculum in the seminars (which admittedly I never took), but rather a recalibration of the expectations of departments with regards to the student body.

  2. The article is indeed paywalled. So I’ll try to access it from campus, but in the meantime:

    The quotation you included suggests Jennifer Keup did not fairly consider the “old system” — i.e. the old Core course — before she made the comments. Sure, you can’t “police” equally how well a physicist conducts a seminar about the universe VS. how well a linguist conducts a seminar about

  3. eek!

    … VS. how well a linguist conducts a seminar about the history of human language (or something impressive; I’m not a linguist!). But isn’t that the point? To have a variety of experts teaching what they’re passionate about?

    It would be ridiculous for any entity to presume that they’d be able to judge how well 25 or 50 or 100 different experts teach introductory seminars on their respective topics! And — in reference to the Core course — are we to prefer the old system (Core) where we actually can (in theory!) “police” how well 25 or 50 or 100 different individuals teach a common syllabus when they mostly (I think) had ZERO training or prior experience with the subject matter?

    I guess a non-UR reader couldn’t be blamed for getting a bad feeling about the UR first year seminar if your impression is true, Ted. It’s just too bad certain comments in the piece, directed at the FYS, are allowed to imply things that frankly aren’t justified.

    And what about the students’ perspective? Under the FYS system, by their own choice most freshman presumably end up in a seminar they’re at least somewhat interested in, taught by an expert with intimate knowledge and passion for the subject – at least compared with other UR faculty & same subject. I doubt many students would choose to instead be forced to study a campus-wide syllabus of literature (selection of which was a black box to me, BTW) taught by a (effectively) randomly selected professor.

    I guess I find that part of the piece to be pretty provocative too! 🙂

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