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What a First-Year Seminar is Like

December 30, 2021

Phoebe McChesney ’25

When I was first browsing colleges, I took note of Oberlin’s emphasis on first-year seminar classes, described as introductory courses with small class sizes. Intrigued, I watched videos featuring students who espoused the benefits of these classes, but having heard similar excitement from students elsewhere, I didn’t give these videos much consideration.

So when the time came to select my top seminar choices, I simply shrugged and picked what seemed mildly interesting to me. 

Come the start of my first semester, I was placed in Contemporary East Asian Cinema, a course not associated with my major and not about a topic with which I was particularly well-versed. However, as an incoming Chinese-American student, I was drawn to the focus on East Asia.

I’m from a predominantly white community and grew up with few consistent Asian role models. I saw even fewer on screen or in the media. I’ve relished the opportunity presented by my first-year seminar to explore cinema created by Asian directors and starring Asian actors in central roles. And, in light of the increase in anti-Asian hate in the United States, I am comforted by the course’s positive Asian representation in film.

It is my favorite class this semester. Each Monday and Wednesday, bright and early, we meet. We come prepared to discuss a film from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, or Japan. We spend time debating character motives, relationship dynamics, and social symbolism and context with the same respect and appreciation so often given to Western cinema.

Most notably, after watching Park Chan-Wook’s Joint Security Area, much of class was spent discussing the nature of the protagonist’s character, Major Jean. Is she emotionally deficient in her pursuit of truth or is she emotionally manipulative?

I find it especially exciting to draw upon others’ ideas for both consideration and rebuttal and psychologically rigorous to explore the extent to which the social context impacts the art made within a certain society at a given time.

The opportunity to sit and have so much discussion and the flexibility to express a wide array of ideas, questions, and opinions really surprised me. I got to sink my teeth into the “good stuff,” a freedom I hadn’t expected and which pleasantly surprised me. 

I come from a high school where it was easy to run a rat race in an attempt to keep up with the perpetual treadmill of academic expectation. Teaching was focused solely on acing Advanced Placement and standardized tests. There was no time in the curriculum to debate ideas that have no obvious answer. Everything was yes or no, right or wrong. 

In my first-year seminar at Oberlin, there isn’t always a right answer and rarely a wrong one. Cinema can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives and can address a multitude of experiences. Two different viewers may interpret the same film in completely different ways, yet each of these ways has its own merit. This is best exemplified by regular alternations between a written assignment and a creative project through which we get to write informed arguments about films and also practice basic cinema techniques including panning, tracking, and long shots. The seminar provides a solid introduction to both critical analysis of cinema and an early introduction to cinema production, which correspond nicely with the East Asian and Cinema Studies majors.

For people like myself, with other majors, the class can also be a nice way to explore potential additional academic interests and to dip your toes into new worlds.

So... all in all, a first-year seminar can simultaneously satiate intellectual appetite, allow for expansion of interest, and even connect to important cultural identities. I can now confidently say that I understand what the hype is all about. 

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