When you teach an elective course, you can pretty much teach it as you like. The content and pedagogical approach are up to you.
When you teach a required course or a prerequisite, you are expected to meet or at least consider the expectations of others, your department in the case of a major requirement, and the faculty at large when you teach a general education course. Of course, the extent to which instructors respect this expectation varies, since it conflicts with another strong cultural belief, namely academic freedom.
How does this apply to FSEMs? I think it means the faculty and staff who care about the FSEM program, including all the instructors, need to participate in the conversation to define the vision. That’s what I was trying to promote with the last post. One of the things I’ve found interesting over the three years that we’ve been developing this program is the variety of opinions on this question. Part of this reflects the different places that we’re coming from: administrators who are focussed on issues of student satisfaction, retention, etc., faculty who want to induct students into the life of the mind they themselves are pursuing. But another part reflects the fact that this is a complex and difficult question. One of the advantages of participating since the beginning is that my view has become clearer. That doesn’t make it the right view, but it does mean I have a better idea of what I think that view is.
I don’t think we all need to have exactly the same view of what the FSEM is about (given the culture of academia, that would be highly unlikely), but I do think we can all learn from the conversation. There’s always going to be a tension between what I want to accomplish in my class and what the collective goals are. That’s okay. I feel strongly that the conversation alone should generate a common structure to the program, that is, if all the instructors participate. I also think that instructors who do not participate may be saying that they don’t accept a common structure. And I think that’s wrong.
I’ve spent some time reviewing the acclaimed First Year Experience program at the University of South Carolina. One thing that I think I know is that their program is substantially different from ours. It’s certainly broader, encompassing issues that involve first year advising, and remedial (for lack of a better term) learning to bring students up to the college level. Our program is designed to be more academic or intellectual in approach.
Shannon recently described what we are up against:
Lets be honest the University is competing for student’s attention and it is really an unbalanced fight. For freshman that are getting their first taste of freedom away from parents and the identity they have been living with most of their lives, it is a time to explore new ideas. There are also friends, clubs, parties, etc. Academics are going to take a back seat to these things most of the time. Combine this with the anti-school sentiment and it is plain to see that for most students being a student isn’t really the most important thing. And here is what I am really getting at, when there is no community built around learning, students will not be interested. I don’t believe cool tools or awesome professors could fully convince someone of the importance of learning. It would just be a blip on the radar screen in a sea of tradition, non-controversial, and rote schooling.
Some may discount this as only a description of students who aren’t serious about their education. Yes, but I also think it’s a dead-on description of the majority of our students. The FSEM program may be one way to address this disconnect between academia’s view of higher education and the typical undergraduate view. One thing is for sure: our FSEM won’t be successful if it doesn’t.