This semester is the trial run for the First-Year Seminar (FYS) at Northwestern.
The class syllabus begins with a scripture passage from the Gospel of Matthew and a quote from Homer Simpson.
“How is education supposed to make me feel smarter?” the cartoon character asks in the quote. “Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?”
The purpose of this seminar is to ask questions while introducing new students to the pace of college courses. It is intended to foster effective writing, reading and speaking skills while exploring the importance of a liberal arts education and the Reformed tradition.
The class will take the place of college writing and public speaking courses. Both disciplines will be covered in the FYS.
“I like taking speech and writing at the same time. It’s nice getting both done at the same time,” said freshman Megan Fuchser.
The course focuses on the questions “Who am I?,” “Who are my neighbors?” and “How will I live in the world?”
“I love talking about these questions because these are questions they’ll be asking their whole life,” said Fern-Smith Hall resident director Alyssum Roe, who is observing the seminar.
The readings and assignments are tailored to help answer these questions. Students read a variety of poems, novels, memoirs, nonfiction and theological texts.
“The books we read are really awesome,” Roe said. “They are books that teach you how to read college literature, but you can also connect to them on a deeper level.”
The seminar’s format has received positive reactions from students as well.
“It’s a good class for figuring out who you are and learning to take the time to invest in others,” Fuchser said.
Students take time to get to know their surrounding community and classmates. They are assigned specific speeches and essays that encourage intentional interaction with one another.
The “My Neighbor Presentation” includes interviewing a peer who has significant differences and then introducing that person to the class orally and in writing.
Each section is led by a different instructor but follows a uniform syllabus with identical reading material and speech assignments.
“What happens in each class is very similar, but each instructor has their own style,” said Tom Truesdell, director of academic support.
The FYS includes an honors section taught by Professor Laird Edmund.
“The purpose of the honors course is to push each other,” said Edmund. “It’s the most important part.”
Students applied for the honors section during scholarship days. The honors students study the same material as all the other students but spend more time on deep conversation.
This year, only a portion of the freshman class is taking the FYS. Next year, every freshman will be required to take it.
Eventually the FYS will be a bookend course that is completed with a senior seminar. The senior seminar will be discipline-specific and will revisit some questions asked in the FYS.
Because this is the first year of the seminar, kinks are being worked out.
“All instructors meet once a week to talk about what went well and what needs to improve,” Truesdell said. “This is still a pilot.”
“Because it’s the first time they’re running this class, there’s going to be problems, but it will definitely be beneficial in the long run,” said freshman Isaac Horigan.
“It’s ending up being better than any of us expected or hoped,”Edmund said.