Katarina Elise Gebauer
December 13, 2015
Final Portfolio Reflection
Final Portfolio Learning Reflection
The experience of taking a first-year seminar at the University of Richmond is an experience like no other. Particularly when compared to other courses at the University of Richmond, the expectations for a first year taking a seminar are far more varied and multi-dimensional. Unlike English courses that focus solely on literary analysis and science courses that are largely research-driven, the first-year seminar program is designed to prepare students for all the various challenges that they may face during their college careers. According to fys.richmond.edu, “FYS offer the opportunity to explore varied interests in small class settings with close faculty contact…All seminars provide opportunities for critical reading and thinking and establish a foundation for effective written and oral communication skills, information literacy, and library research skills.” I will prove that my first-year seminar experience in Social Utopias has helped me improve all of these skills through the various reading, writing, and oral communication assignments.
The reflection on my learning written for the midterm portfolio focused mainly on my improvements in my writing ability. I made the decision to focus on composition because our assignments to that point had been mainly short response papers designed with a specific concept in mind. For example, our fourth response paper was designed to teach us how to more easily identify the central thesis of an argumentative essay. As aforementioned in my previous reflection, that assignment was particularly challenging for me as I had never been asked to so definitively identify a single passage as the thesis in such a multi-faceted essay. As disheartened as I was upon receiving my grade on my response paper, I soon realized the importance of this assignment when I began my work on the fifth response paper. This subsequent response paper required me to analyze an exhibit source and determine its connection to our larger reading, Thomas More’s Utopia. Because of the short nature of the assigned midterm reflection, I made the decision to focus on the significance of each writing assignment for that quarter. From that reflection, I determined the ways in which each assignment helped improve my critical writing ability. For this longer reflection, I am able to focus on my oral communication and research project as well as the further improvements to my critical reading and writing abilities.
Similar to the nature of our assignments, the content that we studied changed in the second quarter of the semester. Whereas Plato’s Republic is a hypothetical thought experiment to pinpoint the meaning of justice and Thomas More’s Utopia is a criticism of reality through the lens of an imaginary society, the works we read for the second quarter were more reality-based. For example, A Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is an essay expressing Rousseau’s theory about how private property engenders inequality. Similarly, Flora Tristan’s Utopian Feminist is a collection of her travel notes discussing the inequality between men and women in various countries. The connection to real life events and phenomena demanded a different set of analytical skills to interpret and critique. These skills included the ability to make connections between present and past readings and to make connections to the historical setting.
One of the most important steps in our writing assignments after the midterm portfolio was the requirement to craft our own analytical questions on which to write our papers. In order to craft a sufficiently analytical question, I had to closely read the text and mark critical passages and places where I had questions. I found that in my quest to properly prepare to craft my question, I became an even better critical reader due to my dedication to paying close attention to the details. Once I had carefully and critically read the assigned reading, I would review my notes and the passages I had market to search for a common theme. For example, for the sixth response paper on Book One of Rousseau’s A Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Men, I found that almost all of my noted or highlighted passages were ones that expressed the differences between man in the state of nature and modern or civilized man. Therefore, when it came time to craft my question, I asked myself to build an argument that delineated Rousseau’s explanation of the differences between the two states of men. Learning how to craft an analytical question on a low stakes response paper was helpful because I felt better prepared when it came time to write a question for my second essay. Given only certain guidelines about content, I was able to write a question that was sufficiently complex enough that I needed at least the minimum word count to answer it.
Another new skill I learned this semester was how to properly explicate a quote from a passage. I had never completed an explication before and the concept was initially difficult for me to grasp because I did not know how to start with such a small quote and work outwards towards a broader analysis. However, once I finally understood the concept, I knew it would be an important skill to have for the duration of my college career. During the process of planning my sixth response paper, I discovered that one quote from the essay most concisely answered the question so I decided to write a complete explication of that quote. I found the process of explication to be an effective method to better understand the entirety of the text through the lens of a single, important passage. Although I did not use a solely explicative method for the remainder of my responses for this class, I did use the method during the process of writing my second essay to better incorporate relevant quotes and explain them more thoroughly.
While the reading and writing assignments were a large portion of our work for both the first and second quarters of the semester, a new set of assignments was introduced for the second quarter– the research project. The research project for this seminar was a multi-step, multi-disciplinary process; it required me to combine many of the skills I had learned or strengthened so far this semester and skills that I learned through the research process. The final goal of the assignment was to turn in a report of our research process and give a formal presentation to the class of both our process and our findings. I knew before I started that this assignment would be a new set of challenges for me as a student doing many of the steps for the first time at a college level.
As always with research projects, the first step was choosing a topic and then narrowing it down to a feasible one for such a short research project. Provided with a list of possible topics, I did some preliminary research into various intentional communities. However, none of them caught my attention until I started looking at Buddhist monasteries. As a Buddhist, I knew a decent amount about the practice of Buddhism before I began the research process, but I knew I would still learn new information through my research because I had never before looked at a monastery as a utopian community. Due to the immense variation between the monasteries of different countries, I needed to narrow my topic to a single region; I chose Nepalese and Tibetan monasteries due to their proximity to the origins of Buddhism. Now with a focused topic, I could begin to craft a research question.
My initial research question was “How are Buddhist Monasteries Utopian Communities?” However, I soon learned through my research that my research question was invalid as the Buddhist monasteries are not utopian communities. Rather, they are intentional communities designed to help each individual reach the state of Enlightenment. I adjusted my research on the premise that Enlightenment can be equated with an individual utopian state. Therefore, monasteries help people reach utopia without being a utopian community in itself. To match my focused topic, I refocused my research question and it became “How do Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and Tibet help disseminate the Buddhist teachings, and how do those teachings help practicing Buddhists reach the state of Enlightenment?”
With my revised research question, I could then proceed to do more focused research in order to complete the annotated bibliography portion of the assignment. Finding relevant sources was easy using resources like JSTOR.com and the school library. Writing the annotations also helped me organize my sources according to the information they offered. The final challenge was compiling my research into a presentation that was accessible to my classmates who knew far less about Buddhism than I did. I attempted to make a visual presentation that would be clear to everyone in the audience, but I realized after the fact that I should have worked harder to prove what I had learned from my research.
In conclusion, through the various reading, writing, research, and presentation assignments I completed over the course, I learned many valuable skills that will aid me on my quest to be a successful college student. Although I faced challenges along the way, including issues with clarity in my writing and failing to most completely prove my findings in oral presentation, I ultimately will be a stronger student for my struggles. I can say with complete truth that my first-year seminar fulfilled all the goals set up for the seminar program and that I, as a first-year student, have fulfilled the expectations set up for first-year students.