Academically Adrift: How a First-Year Seminar Can Get the Academy Back on Course

What follows is a proposal I’ve been working on to convince my university to switch from its General Education requirements to a first-year seminary, given the data in Academically Adrift.

Executive Summary

The best research available suggests that courses with demanding reading and writing requirements are the only way to teach the core competencies required for collegiate learning. Because prerequisite skills must be taught at the start of a students’ undergraduate career, Morgan State should offer all students a two-semester course in these skills in their first year. Because such a course requires small class sizes to be effective, it must recruit professors from across the disciplines. This approach balances a common curriculum with interdisciplinary variety, and allows professors to model engaged learning rather than the passive consumption of knowledge.

What Works

In their provocative 2011 book Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa use data from the Collegiate Learning Assessment to demonstrate that students who take certain kinds of courses show significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication.

These courses have three factors in common:

  • More than 40 pages of reading per week
  • More than 20 pages of writing per semester
  • High teacher expectations

In principle, these gains can be had in a variety of ways, and some students might simply luck upon the right professors and classes in their first two years. However, there is a real benefit to standardization of expectations and skills. Thus, we should require these types of courses early in our students’ education so that these core competencies are available to our students as they go on to their major coursework.

Why a First-Year Seminar Is the Best Way to Teach the Skills Our Students Need

A First-Year seminar is a year-long course taught by faculty across the disciplines. The program I will describe closely mirrors the one at my undergraduate alma mater (Bard College), but variations are possible. In general, a First-Year Seminar combines the following traits:

  • Close reading of difficult texts
  • Regular and lengthy writing about those texts
  • Small class sizes that cultivate a cohort of mutually-supporting active learners
  • A variety of campus introductory experiences that orient new students
  • A “campus canon” that provides touchstones for future learning
  • An early opportunity to investigate a potential major with permanent faculty from that major

In the first semester, all students enroll in small sections of a seminar with the same curriculum. In the second semester, seminars provide a focused introduction to a single text or problem, and students select courses based on their interests and possible majors.

How a First-Year Seminar Balances a Common Curriculum with Interdisciplinary Variety

Faculty members from across the university participate, in both semesters of the seminar, including faculty in the sciences and professional schools. Rather than lecturing, expert and non-expert faculty members alike are encouraged to approach the texts as novel experiences. Neither “sages on the stage” nor “guides on the side,” faculty seminar leaders serve as model learners and primarily offer their experience of close reading, reflective writing, and critical engagement to the students.

For the first semester for the seminar, four to eight texts are chosen each year, generally with a few texts serving as a “campus canon” and other texts rotating. Most of the texts in some way count as classics, but may not necessarily be part of the conventional canon. All of the texts introduce important intellectual, cultural, scientific, and artistic ideas that serve as a basis for the rest of our students’ education.

The second semester focuses students on the reading and interpretation of a specific text. Where in the first semester students all read and discuss the same texts, in the second semester they begin to develop specialized knowledge and to delve deeply into the problems of a specific text or author. Where the text itself is short enough to allow it, professors also teach the works that inspired or are inspired by the text under analysis.

Both semesters of the seminar offer many more opportunities to dig deeply into Morgan State’s specialization in Africana literature and philosophy.

Examples of texts for the first semester include:

  • Genesis
  • Plato; Republic
  • Virgil; Aeneid
  • Dante; Inferno
  • William Shakespeare; Othello
  • Galileo Galilei; Discoveries and Opinions
  • De Montaigne, Michel; Essays
  • Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Discourse on the Origins of Inequality
  • Kant, Immanuel; Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals
  • Séjour, Victor; The Mulatto
  • Shelley, Mary; Frankenstein
  • Marx, Karl; Communist Manifesto
  • Truth, Sojourner; Ain’t I a Woman?
  • Washington, Booker; Up from Slavery
  • DuBois, W.E.B.; The Souls of Black Folk
  • Woolf, Virginia; To the Lighthouse
  • Virginia Woolf; A Room of One’s Own
  • Arendt, Hannah; The Human Condition
  • Hurston, Zora Neal; Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Achebe, Chinua; Things Fall Apart
  • Appiah, Kwame Anthony; In My Father’s House
  • Ngugi wa Thiong’o; Decolonizing the Mind
  • West, Cornell; Race Matters
  • Shelby, Tommie; We Who Are Dark

Examples of texts for the second semester include:

  • “The Bible as Literature”
  • The Bhagavad Gita
  • Freakonomics and The Arm-Chair Economist
  • Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons
  • The Bell Curve and The Mismeasure of Man taught by a psychologist
  • Michelle Alexanders’ The New Jim Crow
  • Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil
  • Cosmology
  • Ellison’s Invisible Man
  • St. Augustine; Confessions
  • Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
  • Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract
  • Richard Wright’s Black Boy
  • Audre Lorde’s Zami
  • James T. Watson’s The Double Helix
  • David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years

This is only a partial list; there are endless possibilities, mixing classics with new and noteworthy works of contemporary scholarship and literature. So long as the course meets the reading and writing requirements, faculty are free to design and propose courses to fit their interests. In fact, for a First-Year Seminar to work, it is especially important that faculty members from outside the liberal arts offer courses in this second semester.

Responses to Some Anticipated Objections

Compared to the prerequisite writing courses that are a part of the general education program, it may seem that a First-Year Seminar presents scheduling and staffing challenges. However, in what follows I will show that these challenges are in fact the core strengths of a First-Year Seminar.

They’re not prepared!

In the traditional university, classes like the First-Year Seminar I have described are treated as privileges for upper-level students who have passed introductory survey courses. However, as Arum and Roksa have shown, there is a general utility to reasoning and problem solving skills that students cultivate through demanding reading and writing assignments required by an attentive professor with high expectations. Without these skills, the surveys of material specific to a discipline supposedly required for more advanced work cannot be learned.

It won’t make a difference!

One difficulty with the data Arum and Roksa present is that starting college well-prepared (with relatively high CLA scores) appears to be a prerequisite for making further significant gains. Morgan State ought to be cautious about accepting these suggestions without noting that 65% of our students do not have this prerequisite. According to their research, no techniques have been shown to create significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication for students who do not come to college well-prepared. We must aim to prove Arum and Roksa wrong, but we will be tacking against a strong headwind. Yet the paucity of the data on this subject (African-American students “were almost one-third less likely to take courses with both [demanding reading and writing] requirements than white students…”) suggests that there is also ample leeway to test these assumptions.

It’s too much work!

Many universities are also reticent to demand that their faculties assign such large assignments for simple workload reasons. Teaching too many of the courses that increase CLA skills would be an unimaginable burden for any faculty, especially if it were to fall on the English department alone. With 20 students per course, a 4/4 load of courses on this model would give a full-time General Education professor 160 students per academic year, each writing 20 pages each. This would be 3200 pages of student writing per academic year, which is a daunting prospect just to read, let alone provide the kind of detailed correction and commentary that qualifies as what Arum and Roksa identify as “high expectations.”

Thus the First-Year Seminar proposal requires faculty across the university to share the load. If the First-Year Seminar is taught by faculty throughout the university, then it can serve both to inculcate a culture of writing across the disciplines and to ensure that a wider range of texts are offered in these courses. Students can gravitate towards seminars that capture their interests and passions, which will maximize the chances that their motivation will lead to increased skills. Also, students can choose second-semester seminars that are directly related to their intended major, thus allowing them an early and in-depth test of those interests before changing majors would require additional time to complete their degree.

What’s more, many faculty experience teaching the First Year Seminar as a pleasurable and challenging re-invigoration of their love of teaching and scholarship. In fact, one way to provide the needed seminar leaders is to draw non-academic intellectuals, writers, and artists from the surrounding community, as well as members of the university administration. In Baltimore, we might recruit Benjamin Jealous, Marvin Cheatham, David Simon, Ed Burns, Harold McDougal, John Waters, or Louis Diggs.

We’re not prepared!

Though it would seem that the inclusion of faculty from across the university in the first semester “campus canon” seminar would replace experts with amateurs in front of our classrooms, this is actually exactly what makes a First-Year Seminar such a powerful institutional practice. Rather than giving in to the temptation to lecture on familiar material, faculty in the First-Year Seminar help to model an approach to the new and unfamiliar for their students.

Watching passively from the audience, a student learns to sit still, take notes, and regurgitate material. Moreover, they learn to be passive inquirers: the solution to ignorance is to raise your hand and appeal to the expert authority in the classroom. Yet critical thinking and complex reasoning require active engagement with the unknown. The seminar format is designed to cultivate interactive pedagogical modes: this teaches students to become independent learners, cultivating the habits that allow one to move from confusion to clarity. Lectures do not teach these skills, and experts speaking within the areas of their expertise must be careful not to stultify their students.

Of course, we will need to prepare faculty for the First-Year Seminar, but ideally this would involve a short, preparatory meeting or retreat in advance of the each semester. In part, faculty teaching in the First-Year Seminar can use this meeting to begin to familiarize themselves with the texts they will be reading, but more importantly these meetings should serve to solidify the goals and methods of the First-Year Seminar and to encourage the faculty in their efforts to create a supportive learning environment that maintains high expectations.

It’s too expensive!

To place an incoming class of 1600 students in small seminars of 20 each would require at least 80 sections each semester of First-Year Seminar. This is certainly a daunting number. However, in principle this is achievable: we offered 33 sections of Humanities 201 in Spring 2012, all taught by a single department, and the load will be lighter if it is shared. Many hands make light work.

The more important price is this one: according to MHEC, Morgan State spent $3.2 million dollars in fiscal year 2009 on developmental education. That’s a lot of money, and we owe it to our students to spend it effectively. The data suggests that small classes with high reading and writing loads are what works. Which is more expensive: a university with milquetoast general education requirements and a 68% first-year retention rate, or a university with a rigorous first-year seminar and a 90% first-year retention rate?

7 thoughts on “Academically Adrift: How a First-Year Seminar Can Get the Academy Back on Course”

  1. I see that this could replace the current composition requirement, but what about math, science, and health?

    1. This doesn't eliminate other Gen Ed requirements, although I like the "distribution" angle they currently have: take any course with a "quantitative" element for math, any course with a lab for science, etc. Not sure what's up with "health" or why it's a gen ed.

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