Last fall I confessed to readers of Inside Higher Ed  that, although I’d never previously taught freshmen, I’d signed up to offer a First Year Seminar (FYS) at the University of Richmond, where I serve as provost. Now that the academic year is over and I’ve finished my foray into freshman seminar teaching, I offer a few reflections.
I drew on my previous academic career teaching law and graduate students at another university and decided to offer an FYS entitled "Working: An Examination of the Legal, Economic and Social Aspects of the Nine to Five World." My first concern was if any students would sign up for the class. To my delight, all 16 slots filled up on the first day of registration. Then I wondered if that quick response was a consequence of the inherently attractive course topic and title, or was it that the class was scheduled from 3–4:15 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when even the sleepiest of freshmen would be up and ready to go to class?
As it turned out, the students were indeed interested in the topic of working. We began the first class with a discussion of the jobs they had held in high school, which represented a surprising range of positions: lifeguard, hospital emergency room aide, fashion model, babysitter, salesperson (lots of salespeople!), camp counselor, and waitress. We spent our first week exploring the legal foundations of the employment relationship and the harsh realities of the employment at will rule, and then we launched into the semester’s readings and topics.
We read five books, a half-dozen articles, three U.S. Supreme Courts cases, and a case study, all tied to the American workplace. I’m pleased to report that the students did the reading. They came to class prepared and ready to discuss what they had read. Even more satisfying, they sent me newspaper articles that related to the topics we’d discussed in class. For example, when I assigned the seminal 1968 Supreme Court decision Pickering v. Board of Education, which established the free speech right of public employees, one of my students e-mailed me a clipping from her hometown newspaper describing a local teacher who had been fired for blogging about her school principal. Needless to say, class discussion that day was enriched by the comparison of the two circumstances, occurring 43 years apart yet presenting the same issues of justice, fairness, and expectations of loyalty in the workplace.
The students loved Ben Hamper’s Rivethead, which they found authentic, profane, and rich with humor. They were somewhat troubled by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, not so much for the working conditions she described as for the reality that as a writer posing as a low-wage worker she could choose to leave those abysmal conditions at any time. Reading three Supreme Court opinions was a challenge, but the students persisted through the unfamiliar language of concurring opinions and marathon footnotes. Other well-received books included Gig and Nobodies, both by John Bowe.
Writing assignments varied from single-page exercises written in class to a 10-page research paper. The variation in my students’ writing ability was striking. Some wrote beautifully, regularly employing topic sentences, descriptive adjectives, effective transitions, and properly-attributed quotes, all in grammatically correct sentences. Others wrote paragraphs that rivaled Faulkner in length and complexity (but alas, not in depth). Punctuation conventions were many and varied, and sometimes mystifying (why does that semicolon appear here?). I used the old-fashioned technique of correcting papers with a red pen, often rewriting entire paragraphs to show what I was looking for. The good news is that my students’ writing improved over the semester. The not-surprising news is that my students will need to have continuous writing assignments across the curriculum throughout their college careers if they are to graduate as skilled writers.
What surprised me the most was the vast divide between the world I knew and the one my students brought to the classroom. Stated simply, our cultural references were miles apart. Granted, I’m 40 years older than they are, so I expected a certain level of generational difference; after all, I had stopped making references to bands in class many years ago when I realized no one else in the room had ever heard of the Grateful Dead.
An example: when we came across a reference in Gig to the fiery conflagration in Waco, I stopped and asked “Do any of you know what the author is talking about when he refers to Waco?” They solemnly shook their heads. “The Branch Davidians? David Koresh?” I continued. Nope. My students have no knowledge of that event, nor of Timothy McVeigh’s subsequent bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. They did remember 9/11, although they were only 8 years old when it happened.
Another time, while discussing a brief history of union organizing attempts in the South, I asked if any of them had ever seen a textile mill – or indeed a mill of any kind. Not a one answered yes. I suppose I should not have been surprised, but as someone who grew up in North Carolina, where two of my aunts spent their entire working lives in the mills, I was a bit taken aback.
The killer was when one of my students was describing the plush setting at a software startup company she had visited, complete with pool tables and a Wii — and she suddenly stopped in embarrassment and asked if I knew what a Wii was. Although my head was in my hands, I assured her that I did indeed know about Wii.
What pleased me the most was the skill my students showed in making class presentations at the end of the semester. All were adroit with PowerPoint, many using embedded videos and creative graphics to underscore their main ideas. Some were nervous, and some hesitated when their classmates or I asked follow-up questions, but they did well. They were comfortable with technology and, more importantly, they were comfortable speaking before the class. Lest you think my praise is limited to their communication skills, the substance of their presentations was impressive as well; in fact, one student’s presentation on the economic effects of the Family and Medical Leave Act was as sophisticated as any presentation my former graduate students might have made.
So will I do this again? Emphatically, yes! After a nine-year absence from the classroom, I was exhilarated by the give and take of class discussion (including one lively 30-minute exchange on whether or not the profession of bookmaker should be legalized), the occasional flashes of insight in some papers, and the bond I formed with my students over the course of the semester. I have to admit that even after grading seven sets of papers, evaluating 16 presentations, and leading four months of discussions, I was sad to see the semester end. I’ll revise my syllabus, drop a couple of reading assignments and add a few others, give some more thought to the number and type of writing assignments I should require, and fearlessly face a new class of freshmen next year!
Steve Allred is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Richmond.