FSEM 2.0

For a couple of years, I’ve written about our institution’s pilot program to offer first year seminars.

We have now made it a requirement as part of our general education curriculum. It’s not clear, though, that all our faculty really understand what the FSEM program is about. What I’ve witnessed is that even professors with decades of experience don’t really comprehend the program until they try teaching a course in it. Teaching a seminar-style course to first year students, where the emphasis in the course is on inquiry, rather than presentation or even exploration of a settled body of knowledge is quite different from either an upper-level seminar or a traditionally introductory course which enrolls first year students. The fundamental purpose of the FSEMs is not to teach content, but rather to introduce students to the life of the mind. At one level this has developed as an emphasis on teaching skills, but what we’re really to articulate is something more holistic, not skills per se, but rather a model of the process of intellectual inquiry, the art or culture of the intellectual life.

A group of us are developing a summer workshop for FSEM instructors. In the past, we’ve had a one day (6 hour) workshop organized along skill lines, with sessions on writing, speaking, research skills and technology tools. This year we’re making it two full days.

Yesterday we had what may prove to be an epiphany. Instead of a skills-orientation, we’re going to try to organize the sessions in terms of the themes we want FSEMs to embody. The idea is to bring in the skills in context as appropriate. The next step is to identify the themes. I’m finding that easier said than done. Examples might include:

* What is a scholar?

* The role of inquiry/exploration (as opposed to learning established ideas)

* Knowledge as development of arguments rather than a collection of facts

* Critical Thinking

* Evidence, credibility, expertise

* Rhetoric

This listing is incomplete at best. I’d really appreciate some additional ideas along these lines and I suspect that talking about it with you will help.

Any suggestions?

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17 Responses to FSEM 2.0

  1. Jeff says:

    Hmmm. I probably focused more explicitly on the skills rather than the holistic approach, at least explicitly in my FSEM. Still, it might be worth looking at my course blog schedule for what I called “FSEM Topics”, which were items I spread throughout the semester aimed at preparing students for the college classroom and discussionshttp://marchinghome.umwblogs.org/fsem-topic-links/.

    Looking forward to seeing what the training sessions looks like.

  2. Sue says:

    In my experience teaching a FSEM (at another campus, where, incidentally, it was also integrated with 1st-year advising), I found that one of the primary challenges for students lay in the related areas of risk, voice, and authority. Overcoming fear of the first, discovering the second, and then exploring a method that establishes the third…

    All this while recognizing, as part of the same process, the value of debate or difference, experimentation, and, indeed, mistakes (‘Gardner Writes’ offers a wonderful testament to the latter in a recent post: http://www.gardnercampbell.net/blog1/?p=602 )

    Risk, voice, and authority seem to encapsulate the themes you’ve mentioned – and raise the challenging question of method itself, this time of instruction. Looking forward to a continuing conversation!

  3. Gardner says:

    I had a perhaps-related revelation during a recent high-stakes conversation. You’ll recognize part of this from a presentation I did for the Dean and the initial FSEM committee several years ago. My idea then went nowhere, but my idea 2.0 is even better and might be attractive to some as a small-cohort pilot.

    My idea is to have some (maybe one day, all) FSEM instructors in a group or groups of peers, studying and discussing FSEM the way you’re doing in this blog post, as a kind of macro- or meta-FSEM FSEM (where FSEM now suggests Faculty Seminar). Then we’d use blogs, wikis, all the sheds of Web 2.0 tools, to expose this virtual FacSEM to students in the FSEM. We’d encourage FSEM students to follow along, naturally, but we could also build in periodic stock-taking exercises in which students do critical/synthetic work on their own stock-taking along with (by means of, through the lens of, in response to) the ongoing discussion of FSEM within the FacSEM.

    I’m really glad you blogged this, since whether or not my idea finds acceptance, I am interested in it, and I’d almost forgotten about it even though it was only yesterday that it came to me! This is the invisible kind of collaboration: even when we’re not working on the same project, our own individual thoughts spark across the gaps and keep what may be wholly unrelated ideas alive in the other person. Interesting how that works. Perhaps an example of more delicate and complex forms of resonance.

  4. Steve says:

    Responding to Jeff, I’m not asking what FSEM instructors *do* in their courses, but rather how we can articulate the vision of FSEMs at UMW. The way we present FSEMs to students is almost certainly going to be different from the way we articulate the vision to faculty.

  5. Barbara says:


    I would hope that creativity, reflection and connectionq are at the core of the FSEM. Instead of having our students looking at works created by others and only learning how to analyze, synthesize and communicate what they glean from those works, that they create such works themselves as well. That they have time for noodling, for coming up with creative solutions to actual problems, and for reflecting on the actual creative process. The best scholarship is, of course, intensely creative. I always put creativity right at the forefront of my first-year seminars–we talk about what it means to be creative– precisely because students are really losing any sense of being actively responsible for their thoughts and words and deeds. I want them, as Sue writes above, to overcome their fear, to find their voice, and to experience the kind of connectivity, collaboration building of which Gardner speaks.

  6. Jeff says:

    I understood that you were not looking for specific practices, but my point of showing my own specific FSEM topics was to reveal my own approach to what FSEM meant to me (and how I presented it to my students). I understand the skill set itself that each of us focuses on reflects our own strengths and disciplines. Still, given some of the conversations I’ve had with people about FSEM classes, I think specific models/examples of what we *do* in our FSEMs can help colleagues grasp the vision we’re trying to articulate.

  7. Charlotte says:

    I think your very first question is the key, Steve. Your question is not “what does a scholar do?” nor “what skills does a scholar have?” It is, “What IS a scholar?” Or “How does a scholar live in and perceive the world?” The themes, in my view, flow from there. A scholar is filled with intellectual curiosity. She learns not by rote but by gathering information and ideas, examining them critically, and using her mind to arrive at new syntheses and conclusions. She is an eager and respectful participant in the ongoing scholarly conversation. She reads, writes, discusses, and presents. She builds on the work on others, giving credit where credit is due. Perhaps she collaborates. She is tolerant of new ideas and of others’ opinions.

    Steve, I began this comment thinking that I would end up with a different set of themes than the ones you propose. Instead, I am struck by how much our answers jibe . . . even the order in which they flow. I thought I was onto something slightly new with the idea of synthesis. But then I see that Gardner speaks of “critical/synthetic work.” Perhaps Jeff’s syllabus puts a more practical spin on the themes. But here’s why I’m so excited: We are all talking about the same thing. We DO share a common perception of the world and way of being in it.

    I was in the recent planning meeting you described (as you know, but others don’t) and that to me was the true nature of the epiphany: there was a very unusual sense of common purpose and community. The people around that meeting table included teaching faculty and many representatives of professional faculty—librarians, writing and speaking center faculty, and instructional technologists. In the “normal” course of things at our institution professional faculty are often considered to be only purveyors of skills and resources, rather than devoted members of the scholarly culture. With the support of subversive teaching faculty like you, some of us have been chipping away at that notion. At that meeting, there seemed to be a sudden recognition by other teaching faculty that we may be onto something: We are all talking about the same thing. It was an exhilarating and encouraging moment.

    So thank you. You’re on the right track and you have my full cooperation and support.

  8. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » More on FSEM 2.0

  9. Debbie Zies says:

    I am in the middle of my second semester teaching a FSEM on Scientific Discoveries. I cannot even begin to describe how much better the second semester is going. I agree with your comment that faculty do not comprehend the concept of FSEM until we are actually teaching the course!! I have many thoughts on why the second semester is so markedly improved, but I will save those for when I participate in the workshop. I would like to use this space to comment on the missing component of my FSEM, which speaks to your themes for the workshop.

    The students, and I to a certain extent, do not really understand why they are in FSEM. Why is it a general education requirement? What are they supposed to be learning that is so important that everybody has to take the course? I believe that these questions are not fully answered by the administration. The idea of “introducing students to the life of the mind” sounds awesome in theory, but how to do it in practice is not clear. Your epiphany about the organization of the FSEM workshop is a great step towards solidifying the goals of FSEM. The use of topics and skill sets to get across the point of FSEM is a far better use of time than just reviewing skills of which many are already familiar.

    One thing I would add to your list is something about student involment in their own education. The use of skills to help students evaluate their own mind, decide how they feel about issues, figure out who they are, determine their interests, participate in their own education and get the most out of their four years in academia.

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  11. Keith says:

    The idea of structuring a workshop around central themes, rather than central skills, is a very good idea. We are trying to teach students to think, to become better learners, and to learn how to teach themselves. Speaking, writing, research, etc. can all be infused into these themes. But, as pointed out above, this is just talk. Let’s focus on something more concrete.

    Here are some ideas for sessions at a workshop:

    Session One: Creating an environment of “participatory learning”
    – how to structure and grade class discussions
    – digital technologies as a tool for discussion
    – experiences of past FSEM instructors

    Session Two: How to I make my course “exploratory” in nature?
    – writing as a tool for discovery
    – using the library as a tool and not as a resource
    – digital investigations
    – experiences of past FSEM instructors
    – experiences of past FSEM students

    Can we build on this?

  12. Debbie Zies says:

    Session Three: How do I get my students to “think critically”?
    – tools for analysis of primary literature
    – tools for debate of controversial issues
    – writing and/or speaking as a mechanism for expressing opinions (with supporting data) on topics that have no “right” answer.
    – experiences of past FSEM instructors

  13. Steve says:

    Good ideas for what Keith calls themes and what Martha calls values. I don’t know what the best order for presenting these is, but I’m going to add one more:

    Session Four: How do I make my course “developmental”? What do I need to know about how first year students read, write, speak, think and how can I move them a step towards university-level reading, writing, speaking and thinking? My experience in the program suggests that they can perform at a university level, but they need more scaffolding than we typically give to upper class students.

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  16. Pingback: Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching » Blog Archive » More Vision for the UMW Teaching Center

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