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Seminars introduce new students to the academic experience
October 5, 1998
John Allen holds up a plaster cast of a bear's paw print and asks his class to project their minds back to an early nineteenth-century world of uncharted territory and grizzly bears.
For the next hour, Allen, a professor of geography, explores with the group of 17 students a world from which they are separated by almost two centuries. "Why did Lewis and Clark use boats, not walk?" he asks them.
Allen, a consultant for Ken Burns' PBS documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition, also introduces his students to the dilemmas that faced the makers of the historical documentary. To what extent should photographs be used? Lewis and Clark, he points out, did not have a camera.
It's exciting stuff, but not something Allen could ordinarily afford to dwell upon in a large introductory class. The student-faculty seminar for freshmen and sophomores, however, gives both students and faculty the opportunity to delve into a topic that piques their interest.
It's a format that seems to be working for Michelle Cote, a freshman in the class. "I enjoy the seminar," she says. "The professor is so into what he is doing. He's very knowledgeable, and it shows."
The one-credit seminars are part of the First Year Experience program - a group of elective courses offering new students a chance to get to know faculty, staff, other students and the resources at the University. They have proved popular this year. Two hundred students signed up for one of a dozen seminars with titles as intriguing as "Velocity, Light and Universal Time," "History for the Bookworm," "Europe for Dummies," and "Hip Hop: Politics and Culture in the Late 20th Century United States."
Freshmen have many adjustments to make, says John Bennett, director of the Academic Experience program, including the First Year Experience. "The newness and the size of the University play a big role in making the transition from high school to college," he says. "But beyond that, there are some skills that are important for students that may not have been as important in high school, such as time management."
Those skills are directly addressed in University Learning Skills classes, also a part of the First Year Experience. "In the seminars," Bennett says, "by getting to know a faculty member in a small class situation and getting to know other students, they will be working on those skills without talking about them."
Just a few weeks into the semester and at the start of their college careers, many of the students in the seminars are still somewhat reserved. Yet with the size of each group capped at 20, the questions come more readily than they might in a large class. Cote says she feels comfortable in Professor Allen's class. "The class size makes it a lot easier to relate to what's going on than in a class of 250 kids," she says.
It also makes it easier for students to relate to the faculty member. Cote, who graduated from Daniel Hand High School in Madison, says one of the things she is having to adjust to as a college student is "not knowing teachers as well as I would have in high school."
Jennifer Hethcote, program manager of the First Year Experience, says the small size of the seminars directly addresses that issue. "One of the goals of the seminars is for students to get to know faculty early and feel that they have a connection with the University," she says.
Getting to know a faculty member can have long-term benefits. "Virtually every successful individual can tell you about the one person who made a fundamental difference in his or her life, through guidance, concern or insight," says Susan Steele, vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction, who is also leading a seminar on linguistics.
"The FYE seminars maximize the opportunities for our students to find that one person - and at a particularly critical point in their intellectual and emotional evelopment.
Although taking part in a seminar and other First Year Experience programs will not necessarily improve a student's overall grades, Bennett says "It does make students more comfortable with the university experience.
"Our surveys have shown that students are a lot more confident about their capabilities because they have taken these classes," he says, "and that quite often translates into taking more difficult classes or a more difficult major."
Whether or not they select a major that's more difficult, professors and administrators hope the seminars will be helpful when students have to make that decision.
Four faculty members who are team-teaching the statistics seminar hope the experience will give at least some of the students a taste for more.
"The students are being introduced to statistical methodology and thinking," says Joseph Glaz, a professor of statistics. "Hopefully, they will continue, and choose to major in statistics."
Paul Goodwin, a professor of history, says he holds discussion sections during his introductory courses in Western civilization, but has never offered a seminar for freshmen before. His seminar titled "What's That Have To Do With History?" introduces new students to a wide range of materials they may not immediately recognize as sources of historical evidence - from folk art to balconies, cemetery art, novels and postage stamps.
He also explores with them how photographic evidence can be manipulated. "We're trying to get at the question, 'history - is it real?'" says Goodwin, who is also associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Stuart Miller has even more ambitious goals for his seminar. "What I hope to do is not only to elicit interest in the ancient world, but I also want the students to have a better appreciation of what the professoriate is all about," says Miller, a - professor of modern and classical languages who leads a seminar on "Rabbis, Romans, Magicians and Messiahs: The World of Ancient Palestine."
Miller says he shows his students how scholars may come to different conclusions. "I'm taking them into the world of scholarship," he says.
Many students "go through four years thinking they've been bumped up from high school," he says. "They should have an appreciation for what a university education is all about. The seminar lends itself to this."