Lately I find myself wearing several hats. I’m chairing a committee to look into our first-year curriculum, for example, at the same time as I’m advising my daughter on her plans for her first year in college. The disjunction is stunning.
For many years now I’ve taught off and on in our first year program. It’s a two-semester course with a common syllabus, taught by faculty from across the campus. One of its salient features, then, is that the students develop bonds in this class, both with each other and with their professor. When students complain about the course — and, since it’s a required course, they often do — I’ve been tempted to shoot back at them: “You knew this was part of the curriculum all along — if you didn’t like it, you could have gone somewhere else.”
But alas, to the faculty member’s chagrin, students choose their undergraduate institutions for a variety of reasons, some of which may have little or nothing to do with the particulars of the curriculum. When my daughter was home over Easter, taking a break from her gap year, I asked her about the first-year curriculum at the school she’ll be attending in the fall.
“Um, I don’t really know,” she said. “I guess I have to find out about that.” And that was it. I actually did go on their website to compare their offerings with our own — and found that it wasn’t all that easy to find the information. Some schools, no doubt, foreground their first-year experience. It’s hard for me to imagine a student enrolling at Columbia or Chicago without knowing something about their core curricula. But others of us — many of us, no doubt — offer what we think is a valuable and important first-year experience, but it’s not necessarily our strongest selling point, or the first thing one finds on the institution’s website.
That’s probably a good thing. The first-year experience shouldn’t define the entire college experience any more than the wedding day should define the marriage. Maybe that’s not the best example — maybe the first-year experience is more like the first year of a marriage than the wedding day. But you get the point. It’s related to the larger thing, but it shouldn’t define it. Alas, it only does in a negative way — a bad marriage may not survive its first year any more than a student will stay at an institution if s/he has a bad first year there. We need, then, to put our best foot forward, to use the first year experience to give an indication of what’s to follow, and hope that it makes sense to the students who come in with only the vaguest idea of what they’re getting into.
I don’t know yet what my committee will propose, or what our first-year experience will end up looking like. I don’t know, either, what my daughter will do with her first year (though I did find a pretty decent indication on the website, she still has lots of choices to make). But my experiences in both arenas this semester have made me realize both how important the decision is — and how little weight, nonetheless, many of those most affected by it will give it.