The University Record, December 19, 1994

LS&A’s first-year seminars popular with students, faculty

By Mary Jo Frank

New students may come to the U-M expecting large, impersonal classes where no one, including the professor, knows their names.

That has not been the case for 1,193 students who enrolled in 65 new first-year seminar classes offered by LS&A fall term. The College has scheduled another 71 winter term. In addition to the new first-year seminars, the Residential College and Pilot Program offered more than 30 first-year seminars this year.

“Registration for the new first-year seminars has exceeded our expectations,” says David Schoem, assistant dean for undergraduate education. “Students are learning about it by word of mouth. Most courses this fall filled to capacity.”

First-year seminars, typically with 25 or fewer students, encourage students to be active participants in class discussions and their learning. “There also is more emphasis on critical thinking and an opportunity to get to know regular faculty,” Schoem explains.

LS&A has invested heavily in its expanding first-year seminar program, spending $300,000 for overload or supplemental faculty to free up professors to teach the smaller seminar classes.

Seminar topics draw from all areas of LS&A—the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities. All seminars can count toward completing part of the College’s general requirements. Some seminars fulfill the introductory composition requirement; others the area distribution requirement in humanities; and others the new quantitative reasoning requirement.

Students and faculty, including some who have never before taught first-year students, are enthused about the seminars.

“What I like about the seminar-type course is there is a lot more exchange with students,” says Philip A. Meyers, professor of geological sciences, who is teaching “Ocean Resources: Promises and Problems.”

In Meyers’ class, students do library research, write reports and discuss their findings in class, with Meyers leading the discussion, which is based on their research.

Recently, students spent a class period discussing the different coastal areas of the United States, their ecology and their impact on local, regional and national economies.

Ronelle Laranang of Southfield says she signed up for “Ocean Resources: Promises and Problems” because she “wanted something different from large classes.”

In addition to having opportunities to join in class discussion, Laranang says she prefers writing assignments to taking tests.

Teaching first-year seminars is not for everybody, Meyers notes. “To make these classes work, you have to accept the fact that you’re not going to cover everything you think is important. I believe it’s better to cover a smaller number of topics well.”

For former President Robben W. Fleming, his seminar “Decision Making” is the first time he has taught undergraduates.

“I always taught law and graduate students. It is different because these students are at a different stage in their academic careers.”

They may be less knowledgeable about a lot of things, Fleming says. “But on the other hand, it’s interesting because by and large they are filled with enthusiasm and they are not loath to talk.”

Fleming uses newspaper accounts and situations from his own experience to teach students that almost any question has some pros and cons and that “people who disagree with you often hold their views just as firmly as you hold yours.”

He also tells his students: “You won’t make very good decisions unless you hold out all the pros and cons before making the decision. Since we all hold biases, it is not always easy to give the best case for the other side before you decide.”

Students in Deborah Keller-Cohen’s “The Literate Imagination” are studying various constructions of literacy throughout the course of humankind. The aim is to understand how reading and writing affect the mental and social life of people.

“Since literacy is at the heart of what they do at the University, it is important for students to think more critically about what they are doing,” says Keller-Cohen, professor of linguistics.

“We’re discussing what literacy means in the present and across history and in different cultures,” she adds. Assignments are aimed at developing students as readers, writers and thinkers.

Students have read autobiographies that deal with literacy, including the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and the earliest American primer called the New England Primer. They have explored many of the museums and archives on campus, including the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the papyrology collection in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, the William L. Clements Library and the Bentley Historical Library, which houses the Michigan Historical Collection.

One of the most interesting topics to students, Keller-Cohen says, was the section on literacy and religion. They observed the use of reading and writing in two religious institutions of which they are not members and visited a local cemetery to examine inscriptions on tombstones.

Keller-Cohen, who regularly teaches classes of 200 students and smaller classes, says this is the first time she has had all first-year students.

“They don’t know where anything is. They don’t know anything about the system. Part of what you’re doing is orienting them to being a university student,” says Keller-Cohen.

To that end, they’ve also discussed literacy in academe and plagiarism. One assignment involved interviewing professors about the writing they do in their discipline, the writing of their colleagues and how their department teaches writing.

Jodi Cook of Sault St. Marie, one of 18 students enrolled in “The Literate Imagination,” says she has learned much about literacy she didn’t know before.

The seminar format also “is great for students enrolled in bigger classes,” Cook says. “In larger lectures you don’t really say anything. This gives people an opportunity to speak out.”

For Cook, Keller-Cohen’s course is one of three small classes she is taking, with enrollments ranging from four to 22. She also is taking a sociology lecture course with 100 students. It has a 20-student discussion section.

In addition to the regular contact with students in the seminar setting, Keller-Cohen meets individually with students at least twice formally during the term as well as all the times they come by her office for other things. She also occasionally joins some of her students who get together after class for lunch.

Enthusiastic about her first-year seminar experience, Keller-Cohen says, “I have offered to do it again.”