Class Encounters of the Different Kind

When Jordan Conneely began her first year of college, she signed up to take a year-long first-year seminar class. In this mandatory course, Conneely and her peers discussed texts from several different disciplines in a small class setting and worked to improve their writing abilities. Although this sounds suspiciously like the Whitman class known as Encounters, which Whitman first-years will soon refer to as “Transformations,” Conneely is not a Whitman student. She is actually a rising sophomore at University of California-Merced.
In Conneely’s first-year seminar, which is referred to as CORE, classes of no more than 20 first-years read works ranging from the Mayan “Popul Vuh” to Stephen Hawking to an article about the jellyfish of Palau. Similar to those taking Whitman’s Encounters seminar, students in Merced’s CORE aim to create links between seemingly unrelated texts.

“We wrote papers, which . . . taught us an overall understanding of how knowledge of one subject is interconnected with that of all others,” said Conneely.

However, many liberal arts colleges take a slightly different approach to their first-year seminar courses. Several schools require their first-years to take a seminar concurrently, but not all seminar sections read the same texts at the same time. Rather, they are given a list of a few dozen seminar topics to choose from, and students pick the section that sounds most interesting or relevant to them. 

Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, a school with roughly 1600 students, offers topics in several different subject areas for their seminar class called “Tutorial.” Grinnell alumna Sara Kittleson ’12 signed up for a seminar course her first year titled “The Trouble with Love in German Literature” because she had visited the professor’s class as a prospective student and really enjoyed it.

“Most people just pick something that sounds interesting,” she said.

Other topic choices included the Russian Revolution, U.S. Immigration Policy and the Sistine Chapel.

Wheaton College alumna Sally Dexter ’12 was also able to select a seminar topic. Students at Wheaton list their top five seminar topic choices and the registrar works to try and grant them their top choice. Dexter said that most students get their first choice. Her section was called “Fit for a Queen: Fashion of the Formidable” and it allowed students to consider the ways in which powerful figures in history used their appearance to create their public image. She liked seeing students with different backgrounds come together because of their interest in a topic.

“It brought together a really diverse group of people who were interested in the topic for a lot of different reasons, and it was great to hear so many diverse opinions,” she said.

Dexter also enjoyed having varied discussions with her friends in other seminars.

“It was fun to hear about all the different seminars and even as a senior to talk with my friends about all of the different things we did in them.”

However, she also saw a certain drawback to being able to choose her seminar theme. She experienced some frustration with her lack of knowledge before selecting her section.

“We chose seminars without any advising guidance . . . and it didn’t occur to me to see what department each professor came from, because the course would obviously have that disciplinary slant on it,” she said.

Anne Gaskins, a Whitman junior who was previously a Student Academic Advisor (SA), does not feel that she missed out by not having a seminar theme. Rather, she feels that having all  first-years read the same texts allows for even more discussion among friends.

“One of my favorite moments from [my first] year was when I helped a section-mate with a presentation that she had to do and we had a fantastic discussion about St. Augustine’s Confessions completely spontaneously. It was a great way to connect with people,” she said.

Senior Lecturer of Environmental Humanities and General Studies Don Snow agrees.

“The original theory behind the common syllabus was, of course, that students would continue the classroom discussions with others outside of their own sections, over meals, in the dorms,” he said.

Gaskins also believes that professors’ ability to draw on texts that are familiar to all students is useful in higher-level courses. Additionally, having read the same books as the first-years in her section made her experience as an SA much easier.

“I think reading the same texts definitely contributed to a [sense of] community. Even the fact that I had read the same books as [other students] were reading made it easier for me to connect with them, because I could discuss their ideas from a perspective of familiarity with the texts,” she said.

On the other hand, Snow addresses the difficulties professors in different departments face when using the same syllabus.

“One of the great things about designing our own courses . . . is that we can choose texts we know and enjoy. Obviously, it’s easier to teach such texts with greater alacrity.  That’s not the case in Encounters.”

However, Snow also feels that these inconsistencies are true to what liberal arts means.

“Academic learning is not like television. It cannot pivot merely upon what [you]  like.  Growth is most likely to occur when you honestly greet what you don’t like,” he said.

Gaskins also cites inconsistencies among teaching styles and workloads in each section as a drawback.

“Some sort of standardization in how the professors actually teach the class, not just what they teach, might make the discrepancy a little less noticeable,” she said.

Rising junior Luke Rodriguez also believes that the structure of Encounters could be improved. Particularly, he feels that reading a survey of texts only allows students to read texts superficially.

“I wish that the philosophy were different. Instead of trying to be a survey course of critical thinking that tries to introduce students to a whole range of topics that inevitably glosses over most of them in a superficial way, it should focus in on a particular discipline, time, or subject,” he said.

He doesn’t feel that the solution is choosing a seminar topic, however. Instead, he suggests changing the Encounters theme and book list regularly so that all students can read the same texts and still be more focused.

“This would create a greater coherence to the whole curriculum that is currently somewhat lacking. This also maintains the liberal-arts ideal, that everyone in the incoming class should be excited about learning and interested in whatever topic it is.”

Some students at other colleges feel that even taking a first-year seminar isn’t necessary. Amandine Lee, a senior at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, also took a themed first-year seminar. Each first-year seminar course at Swarthmore has twelve students in it, and students are allowed to take more than one seminar course.  Lee chose the class theme “Infectious Diseases,” and although she was interested in the topic, she wasn’t entirely pleased with the way the course was structured.

“For a little class of only freshman, we had the potential of getting to do something really self directed and challenging and cool, and it ended up being a survey of like ten major infectious diseases,” she said.

She also felt that the workload in her seminar wasn’t difficult enough to prepare her for other college courses.

“I had high school classes that prepared me better for my workload,” she said.

Several colleges and universities don’t require students to take an academic first-year seminar course and instead opt for courses that are more like an extension of orientation. Ian Crane, a junior at Point Loma Nazarene University didn’t take an academic first-year seminar course. Instead, he took a required course called Psychology of Personal Development, which gave students the opportunity to hone their study skills and leadership styles rather than to read and discuss a survey of texts. However, Crane didn’t feel that this course contributed greatly to his academic career.

“It was useful insofar as using it to meet other people. But it wasn’t significant to my academic studies,” he said.

Additionally, Crane doesn’t believe that he missed out by not having a discussion-based seminar class.

“It was fine. There are intro courses that a lot of students here end up taking, and they read a lot of the same books in those, so I don’t see why it’s necessary [to have a seminar class]. The more you choose classes based on what you’re interested in, the more beneficial they are.”

Despite the differences in their classes, many students who took a first-year seminar claimed to have developed close relationships with their professors. At Grinnell, for example, seminar professors are their first-year seminar students’ pre-major advisers.

According to Kittleson, this system allowed her to create lasting ties with her professor.
“I think that’s a wonderful system because it forces you to get to know your advisor. Even after I declared I would go back to my tutorial professor for advice all the time,” she said.
Although Gaskins’s Whitman Encounters professor wasn’t her advisor, she still felt that their relationship was close.
“The best aspect of Encounters for me was the opportunity to work with the same people and professor for an entire school year. That’s a rare opportunity with college classes, and I think it made class discussions less intimidating.”
Conneely also especially enjoyed developing a connection with her CORE professor.
“Her passion exemplified the goals of the class and made attending discussion worth waking up. She wrote letters of recommendation for me for studying abroad and we still communicate,” she said.

Regardless of whether or not students chose their seminar topics or developed close relationships with their professors, they seemed to agree that focusing on improving their writing was a major part of their first-year seminars.

“The best parts of tutorial were having a space to ask stupid first-year questions, discussing the books, and learning to write. Nobody liked having grammar lessons or talking about how to structure a paper, but peer-reviewing and rewriting the short essays we wrote was really helpful and my writing improved a lot,” said Kittleson.




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