Incoming first-year Richmond students have many decisions to make before they even arrive on campus. Do they choose to study Stephen Sondheim musicals or fairytales? Should they delve into climate change or heroes and villains? Would they prefer to explore how the brain creates God or how genes affect behavior?

These choices represent just a handful of the 50-plus First-Year Seminar (FYS) courses available to new students each year.

Now in their third year, the seminars are the result of a curriculum review process that the faculty undertook as part of the University’s strategic plan. The seminars are focused on enhancing critical thinking, writing, and communication skills; developing the fundamentals of research and information literacy; and expanding students’ awareness of the world around them — all skills that will help them at Richmond and beyond.

“FYS aren’t intended to introduce students to a discipline so much as they are intended to introduce students to how to think in college,” says Libby Gruner, associate professor of English and FYS coordinator.

Faculty members submit course proposals to a committee for review and the committee works with each professor to fully form the courses. Those who are new to FYS participate in a week-long summer institute, where they work collaboratively with Richmond colleagues and outside experts to design their courses. They focus on how to help students develop the skills that the seminars aim to build, particularly writing pedagogy. “What’s been gratifying to me is how robust the conversations are among our faculty regarding their teaching and how much they’ve been able to share with each other,” Gruner says. 

The seminars also are an outlet for faculty to choose an area of interest to explore. “First-Year Seminars allow the opportunity to teach something that you know very well, but they also allow people to experiment, to say, ‘here is something that I’m passionate about that I may not be an expert in, that I can explore with a group of students,’” Gruner says.

She cites English professor Joyce McAllister as an example. “Joyce is a composition specialist, but she’s also an animal lover,” Gruner says. “She designed a course called Noble Beasts, which focuses on human/animal interactions in literature, and she had students visit shelters and also brought a veterinarian into class. It’s not something she had ever taught at the college level before, but something she knew a lot about.”

Students are also given creative freedom in the ways they present their research. Classes have used digital storytelling, PowerPoint presentations, iPads, panel discussions, and digital maps to share their ideas. Two students in Gruner’s fairytales seminar went so far as to create a scaled model set-design for a production of Into the Woods, a Stephen Sondheim musical that is based on several fairytales. “Students are engaging in a combination of research, written communication, and oral communication and the way they are synthesizing that – I’ve been really impressed,” Gruner says.

While FYS will continue to be a work in progress, Gruner is thrilled with the results so far. Through assessments at the end of each semester, students have more than surpassed the faculty’s goal of having 70 percent proficiency in the specified skill areas. In addition, faculty have enjoyed the experience of designing unique courses on subjects they are passionate about.

Most important to Gruner, however, is the feedback she receives from students. “Students enjoy the small size of the class and the opportunity to work closely with faculty,” she says. “I think they also appreciate the range of offerings.”

Photo: Students present their research at the first First-Year Seminar Conference in fall 2012.

Seminar Samplings
A brief look at three of the varied FYS course options available to students.

Open Water: The Centrality of Oceans, taught by Malcolm Hill, biology
Oceans have served as a source of fear and awe, and have inspired artists, theologians, explorers, and scientists. For millennia, humans have used these massive bodies of water for travel, protection, trade, and food. Open Water explores the influence of the world's oceans on literature, art, history, politics, society, and science. Through detailed and critical analysis of primary texts, art, poetry, and music, Hill hopes students gain a better appreciation of the visible and invisible influence marine habitats have on their daily lives. 

 “The manner of instruction in Open Water required some re-tooling of what I traditionally do in the classroom,” Hill says. “My biology majors write a lot, but it is usually more technical in nature. In Open Water, the students are writing thesis-driven essays, doing analysis of poems, writing a personal course log.”

The class traveled to the Chesapeake Bay to search for lesser-known marine organisms, like the sea roach. “Having my students scurrying over rocks trying to catch an extremely fast organism that is less than one inch long was a highlight for me,” Hill says. Students also worked with the CTLT to create digital stories to share how their ancestors used ocean travel, in one form or another, to arrive on this continent.

Americans in Paris, taught by Suzanne Jones, English
American writers and artists have frequently viewed the French as a people who value art and creativity, the aesthete, and the intellectual more highly than Americans. Jones’ course discussed what Americans hoped to find in Paris that didn’t exist in the United States, what happened when the Paris of their dreams departed from reality, and compared their quests across generations and demographic groups. Throughout the semester the class attempted to think more complexly about stereotypes of both American and French people, why they exist, and the effects of misperceptions on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Each student wrote an essay about an American author or artist living in Paris, and the class built an interactive digital map of Paris with links to their research essays. Jones says, “Two years after completion, the site has been viewed nearly 158,597 times by people in 146 countries.”

Watching the Wire, taught by Andrea Simpson, political science and Paul Achter, rhetoric and communication studies
Frequently hailed as a television masterpiece, The Wire created a vivid and detailed portrait of Baltimore that focused on its police, drug trade, shipping docks, city hall, public schools, and newspapers. The Wire asks audiences to look at places, people, and stories that mainstream television—and other media—customarily ignores.

“This course asked students to think about racial injustice and their own race-based privileges and disprivileges,” Achter says. “Dr. Simpson and I know that our capacity to ask hard questions about American structural, racial, and economic injustice hinges on our identities as a white man and a black woman; and moreover, as a rhetorical critic and a political scientist.”

Simpson says, “Dr. Achter was as enthusiastic as I was about The Wire’s potential for teaching students about the mechanisms of urban politics in maintaining racial inequality and limiting life chances for blacks and working-class whites. We were granted iPads from the UR iPad initiative, and the technological advantage of having the episodes on the iPad was a major factor in helping students understand the series as text—not just as entertainment. Student projects tackled everything from gentrification to racial profiling and beyond.”