FYSP Turns Five in Full Force
Oberlin’s First-Year Seminar Program turns five this year and, if a party is in order, Professor A.G. Miller certainly has students in his seminar “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” up to the task. On the Thursday before spring break, students were extremely engaged in class, making lively and articulate contributions to discussion.
Miller began teaching the course as a first- and second-year colloquia before FYSP came into existence in the fall of 2002. Since then he has taught the course as a first-year seminar in alternating years. Miller said he was drawn to FYSP as an opportunity to work closely with a small group of first-years, who in the past may have had difficulty accessing smaller, in-depth courses, and to help nurture their development from an early stage.
“One amazing thing is to see how the group gels,” Miller said. “Students often come in afraid to step on someone else’s toes, but over time they begin to feel they have permission to ask the difficult questions.”
The idea for the program first came about in the fall of 2001 out of what Professor of History Clayton Koppes, then the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, described as a “growing sentiment that we needed to have a more conscious and structured program for first-years.”
The first step was to get faculty interested and involved, which proved no great difficulty. Founding Director and Chair of the Religion Department David Kamitsuka said he was “blown away” by the near perfect attendance at all three pedagogy workshops just two days after graduation of 2001.
This strong faculty interest was certainly due in part to what Koppes saw as an opportunity for them to teach interesting courses that might be outside major or even interdisciplinary boundaries.
Professor of Rhetoric Leonard Podis and Professor of African American Studies Yakubu Saaka, both of whom had been co-teaching courses on Commonwealth Literature since the 1980s, used the opportunity to pool their interests into their seminar “Coming of Age in African Literature.”
The interdisciplinary nature of their course seems to be sparking the students’ interest as well. All of them participated significantly, and a couple students’ contributions showed signs of extra research outside of standard course material.
Although discussions about creating the program had also been sparked by the knowledge of first-year programs at other schools, Koppes and Kamitsuka agree there was a sense that Oberlin’s program needed to be distinct.
“Other programs seemed to express an idea of ‘this is what you need to be taught in your first year,’” Kamitsuka said. “We didn’t want that.”
Instead, the program was intended to be an introduction to liberal arts which, although certainly involving instruction in proper research and writing methods, would also be somewhat open-ended, allowing professors room to be creative.
The goal for fall 2002, said Kamitsuka, was to have enough seminars to accommodate the entire entering Arts and Sciences class.
With 45 seminars in its inaugural year, the program easily met that goal, and within two years had expanded enough to accommodate entering conservatory students as well. Within three years, the program had begun offering over 100 different courses on a rotating basis with over 100 faculty participants.
One recurring question, according to both Kamitsuka and current director Laurie McMillin, is whether or not to make the seminars a requirement. Although some faculty feel the program is so integral to the first-year experience that it should be required, this has apparently been unnecessary; McMillin said voluntary participation has risen from 70 percent to 90 percent in the last three years.
Aside from expansion of the program and higher student participation, much of its overall makeup has stayed the same, although possible new avenues have certainly been considered. McMillin said ways to better connect the program have been discussed. Some thoughts include linking multiple seminars to the same larger lecture course, or establishing a convocation at the end of the seminar that would focus on similar themes running through all of the seminars. These ideas, however, are still in the conception stage.
One small but still noticeable shift in the program has been to offer more seminars in the fall than in the spring, something McMillin said has been a conscious change made by directors and faculty.
“We find that it’s much more effective first semester.” McMillin said. “There’s something about that first semester; students grow exponentially.”
Podis and Saaka, who have taught their seminar in both the first and second semesters, sense a difference as well.
“Second semester students appear to be more interested in learning the specific material of the course than in discovering how to function as college students,” Podis said. “They’ve already figured out a lot of the basic techniques during the first semester.”
Nonetheless, the more methodological aspects of how to become a proficient academic are still present even in the second semester. As he handed back papers at the end of class, Miller firmly stressed to his students the importance of clearly defined theses, as well as use of original sources when doing research.
Even with all its successes, the FYSP has presented its own set of challenges.
“One of the things you always face with a program like this is how to sustain it,” Koppes said.
Although by now the program has become an integral part of Oberlin academics, it remains extra-departmental, which, according to McMillin, may contribute to the challenge.
“I still sometimes have to really knock on doors each year to get faculty to participate,” she said.
More often than not, however, the faculty are not just willing but even excited to keep teaching the seminars year after year.
Regardless of what tweaking might be made to the program or where it is heading in the future, it maintains its purpose as an introduction to liberal arts learning in which participation and community are so important.
“Knowledge is less about discerning what’s universally available and more about figuring out assumptions,” Kamitsuka said. “Discussion can’t wait until the end.”
Among the students in “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” and “Coming of Age in African Literature,” those discussions are well under way.