A Bridge to Knowledge: Bowdoin’s First-Year Seminars

Prof. Tess Chakkalakal's first-year seminar, Fictions of Freedom, in Massachusetts Hall

Prof. Tess Chakkalakal’s first-year seminar, Fictions of Freedom, in Massachusetts Hall

Along with orientation trips, orientation week, and the experience of sleeping in Farley Field House with 500 or so classmates, all incoming students at Bowdoin participate in another communal experience, one that will perhaps become their most important.

Every student is required to enroll in one of the College’s first-year seminars, classes that are offered in a range of disciplines in the fall and spring. They are limited to 16 students and are designed to help first-years make the intellectual leap from high school to college.

While many colleges offer similar first-year programs, Bowdoin’s program is somewhat unique because it teaches the skills of critical reading and persuasive writing through the lens of different disciplines. Rather than taking a class that just focuses on how to write and analyze texts, Bowdoin students practice college-level writing for a specific field. “We don’t try to distinguish these skills from the acquisition of knowledge,” said Assistant Professor of History David Hecht, who is the director of the first-year seminar program.

The program also grants flexibility to faculty members to teach new students in the way they think best. “It’s a highly individualized, highly personalized approach,” said Professor of Government and Legal Studies Allen Springer, who teaches the first-year seminar Pursuit of Peace. “This is their strength.”

Springer said faculty find it stimulating to teach the areas they work in, read in class the books they find fascinating, and hand out assignments they believe will deepen students’ understanding of the material. This enthusiasm rubs off on students. “I get them excited about comparing the Peloponnesian War to the Obama administration’s strategy with Syria,” Springer said.

While the government department has been offering small, introductory seminars since 1983, and the college has had a long-running first-year seminar program, Bowdoin didn’t make the first-year seminar mandatory until 2005. Since then, the College has increased the number of departments that offer seminars to ensure the classes aren’t limited to the humanities. That has led to such seminars as Adventures in Neuroscience: Aphasias, Auras, and Axons, taught by Associate Professor of Biology Hadley Horch, and Science Fiction, Science Fact, by Madeleine Msall, professor of physics and astronomy. The science courses appeal to students who want to major in a science, Hecht says, and they also convey how important writing is in all fields.

Faculty across the campus volunteer to teach first-year seminars, and many of them say they gain much satisfaction and pleasure from these classes. “You get students at a level of maximum eagerness and teach-ability,” Hecht explained.

Horch, who typically teaches upper-level students in her neuroscience classes, said she has enjoyed getting to know her first-years. “I had not remembered how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed they are,” she said. “They’re happy to be here. This is their first college course and they’re really excited. And with neuroscience, I can blow their minds every day — the stuff is so cool.”

Tess Chakkalakal, associate professor of Africana studies and English, teaches the first-year seminar Fictions of Freedom. “It’s a big idea — freedom,” she said. “But we learn about it through canonical writers.” She says teaching first-year students reminds her of the significance of her work. “It gives me a sense of the bigness of teaching,” she described. “It’s what the liberal arts should be — about ideas and conversation and collaboration.” By studying the works of Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley and others, she says she reinforces how reading and new knowledge can enlighten students’ lives.

First-year seminars are also helpful because they offer first-years a chance to learn without older students. Chakkalakal tells her students they should think of the seminar as a lab of sorts, where they can experiment with ideas without fear. “You put a hypothesis to the test, if it doesn’t quite work, you go back to the text,” she said. “You just might change your idea if you listen to someone or someone challenges your interpretation of a text.”

Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd said the seminars play an important role in Bowdoin’s curriculum, and that the small-group settings foster tight bonds between students, and between students and faculty. These relationships sometimes end up “among the strongest that will endure during their time at Bowdoin and beyond,” she said.

How to teach writing and reading

Critical reading and writing are difficult skills to master; they are also challenging to teach. Hecht says that the nature of the small discussion-based seminar lends itself to learning. “I do think there is something about being in a college environment and being in a class where you keep talking about the same theme or variations of a theme over and over in a semester that gets you thinking deeply about it,” he said.

To teach writing skills, some professors assign large research projects; others ask for many reading-and-response assignments, which have the students writing several shorter essays. Tactics also diverge on coaching public speaking skills and analytical reading.

Students read and discuss each other's papers in philosophy professor Matthew Stuart's seminar on personal idenity

In pairs, students read and discuss their papers on the Ship of Theseus problem in philosophy professor Matthew Stuart’s seminar, Personal Identity

Hecht, who teaches a first-year seminar called Science and Society, says that getting students engaged in literature requires picking the right readings. Some of the students, fed on a diet of textbooks at their high schools, will be exposed to scholarly articles for the first time. “If you pick a reading that’s too hard, they give up. But if you pick one that’s too easy, it’s hard to model depth,” he said.

Associate Professor of Education Chuck Dorn says at times he’ll take a “meta” approach to analyzing an article, asking students to assess the author’s thesis, evidence or data, and the architecture of the piece. “This helps students take a step back and see the construction of the thing,” he said.

Dorn also assigns one large research paper in his seminar, Educational Crusade: The History of American Education, because he has found that many students never had this experience in high school. Horch and Springer, on the other hand, ask students to respond to readings in short writing assignments, which accustoms students to writing frequently and ensures they have several chances in later papers to rectify earlier errors.

As for developing speaking skills, Horch assigns students to formally debate hot-button topics, such as whether female and male brains are different, or how to define language and whether animals possess language. Chakkalakal requires each student to make an 11-minute presentation on an interpretation of one reading. She demands they do this without once using the word ‘like’ or resorting to ‘um,’ and to not rely on a written script or PowerPoint.

At the same time as they are teaching college-level skills, professors are also introducing students to their academic metiers. “I view my job as trying to give them some sort of survey of neuroscience,” Horch said. “We’re touching on ethical questions in neuroscience to give the students a sense of what we do and to make them excited.”

Dorn said few of the students who end up in his class on the history of American education probably ever thought about his topic before. “Many of them haven’t reflected on the nature of their schooling — where it came from and why it is comprised of this and that,” he said. Some of them get so interested in education, they minor in teaching and eventually become teachers themselves, he noted.

Along with writing and reading, Horch said she’s trying to teach her students to become independent learners. “I’ll give them the framework and how to think about this,” she said, “and they can fill in the gaps.”

The tools the students pick up in their seminars will carry them through college, and beyond. “Everything I do in class I do with an eye toward educating students to do college-level work, skills they will use over the next three years,” Dorn said.

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