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Transitions

August 23, 2008

A psychologist friend tells me that I'm experiencing cognitive dissonance with August: the calendar says that summer's nearly over, while I feel as though it's barely begun. Since the new students are arriving next week, I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm about to have a collision with reality, but in the meantime I'm trying to pack in as much leisure reading (currently Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty) and DVD-watching (the Kieslowski Trois Couleurs trilogy, and the last season of "The Wire"--surely the best series ever made for television!) as I can. I'll believe the students are coming when I see them.

None of which should taken to mean that I don't look forward to teaching. By the time Labor Day rolls around I'll be excited about meeting my students and starting to interact with them. And, as usual in the fall, I'm particularly looking forward to teaching my first-year seminar.

I've been teaching in the First-Year Seminar Program since its beginning in 2002, and for my money it's one of the most successful innovations in Oberlin's curriculum in recent years. The model is quite simple: one teacher and fourteen students in sustained conversation about a topic that interests them. These classes are taught across the curriculum, most by humanities and social science faculty, but also in the natural sciences. They're focused on a variety of subjects, from recent Russian cinema to the origins and treatment of cancer, from local ecology to utopian thought.

But despite the diversity of content, all first-year seminars share the goals of introducing new students to the meaning and value of liberal-arts learning, and of training them in the fundamental skills of analysis, focused discussion, and writing. Part of the justification for Oberlin's heavy investment in this program is our belief that it prepares students with skills they need for success in whatever major they go on to choose. These courses are not required, but there are enough spaces that every new student who wants to take a seminar can be accommodated, and a very high percentage of them choose to. I believe they're smart to do so, and that the benefits are substantial.

The other reason for taking a seminar is that they're a great deal of fun! Many of our students went to very good high schools, but others may have felt that they were among only a handful of peers who took learning seriously and were invested in their work. A first-year seminar at Oberlin, where everyone in the room is there by choice and has a genuine commitment to taking part in the conversation, can be a thrilling experience. The classroom becomes a dynamic arena: everybody does the reading because they don't want to feel left out of the interchange, they show up with ideas they want to try out on their peers, and often they continue the discussion after class because there hasn't been time to pack everything in. When everything's cooking, the class becomes a real community, and students make friendships that last throughout the rest of their time at Oberlin. I realize I'm sounding pretty utopian here, and obviously sometimes the chemistry works better than others, but on the whole my experience teaching these classes has been remarkably positive. The students work hard and learn a good deal.

My seminar, "Crossing Borders: The Mysteries of Identity," starts with the fact that in Western cultures identity has tended to be defined in binary terms: an individual is either black or white, male or female, straight or gay, and so on. This class explores the nature of identity by focusing on fiction, essays, films, and a Shakespeare play in which categories of identity--specifically those of race, gender, and sexuality--are represented as fluid and ambiguous rather than as fixed and polarized. These are of course complex and thorny questions, and that's what makes the seminar engaging. The point of classes such as these is learning how to think seriously and critically about the material, how to analyze and interpret, and how to communicate your ideas effectively. The students have to start taking responsibility for their own education by helping set the agenda for our discussion--and it pushes them beyond their comfort zone into new territories of intellectual maturity.

I've heard a few incoming students here and there--mainly on Facebook--wonder whether these are "real courses," since they have such broad goals and most don't count toward a major. To my mind the first-year seminars go right to the heart of what a liberal arts education is all about. I think most students see them as a valuable opportunity, and I'm grateful to have the chance to teach them. So if I can only persuade myself that school is actually about to start, I should be fine...

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