There are a lot of reasons to place freshmen in courses taught by tenure-line and otherwise full-time faculty members. Research suggests that underclassmen learn best from these professors, as opposed to part-time faculty members lacking institutional support, for example. Full-time faculty members also tend to be around for the long term -- meaning they can continue to support students as mentors throughout their academic careers.
There are also many reasons colleges don't staff introductory courses with full-time professors and frequently rely on part-timers or graduate students. Such an approach can be relatively costly, depending on institution type, and tenure-line faculty members don’t all jump at the chance to teach freshmen. Such concerns are particularly acute at financially strapped institutions and ones that aren’t known for undergraduate education.
Yet one institution facing a host of challenges has managed to fill its freshman program with full-time instructors -- and in fact says that’s been the secret to its early successes with lower-division enrollment. Notably, this is not the move of a well-financed public or an elite private, but of a poorly financed public institution.
“The hardest courses to teach are the freshman courses -- that's where you’re introducing students to critical thinking and writing and initiating them to the academy,” said Elaine Maimon, president of Governors State University, which accepted its first freshman class in 2014. “But there’s nothing more important to do. … These students are going to get a strong foundation that they’ll carry with them through their four years at university and beyond.”
Governors State, based outside Chicago, was founded in 1969 as a “senior university,” with undergraduates entering as juniors. It attracted many transfer students and was particularly well-known for its master’s degree programs in areas such as counseling and occupational therapy.
That all changed two years ago, when the university admitted its first cohort of freshmen. From the beginning, Maimon believed the success of the transition would depend on a strong first-year curriculum and even stronger instruction. The best way to achieve that, in her view, was pairing the institution’s best supported, and in many cases most experienced, faculty members -- full-timers and those on the tenure-track -- with the institution’s most vulnerable students.
While first-year success is a major indicator of any student’s ability to complete college, there’s a sense at Governors State that that’s especially true there. Students come from urban, suburban and rural areas, and many are first-generation college enrollees. Fifty-five percent are students of color, and 54 percent are eligible for Pell Grants.
That’s not to say Governors State didn’t embrace the challenge. It actively recruited first-generation students and said it was motivated by a finding from the National Center for Education Statistics that “endangers” U.S. democracy: that the lowest-achieving highest-income students were more likely to complete a university degree than the highest-achieving lowest-income students.
In preparation for the change, a faculty committee got to work on a new general education program for freshmen, ultimately proposing learning communities around three themes: civic engagement, global citizenship and sustainability. Freshmen are required to be full-time and take at least three courses with the same group of students.
The cohorts remain together through the first semester of their sophomore year. Classes in the freshman program are capped at 30, and freshman composition is limited to 15 students. These class sizes might not impress at elite residential private colleges, but they are far from the norm at institutions like Governors State.
While 30 is relatively small for any freshman course, 15 is especially good for composition classes. The Association of Departments of English, a subgroup of the Modern Language Association, says English teachers should not teach more than three composition courses per term and the number of students in each section should not exceed 15, with no more than 20 students in any case, but many institutions fail to meet that standard. That’s despite faculty complaints that to teach composition properly -- with many opportunities to draft and resubmit -- small classes and low student-per-instructor ratios are a must.
Ann Vendrely, associate provost and chair of the General Education Task Force, said its work was driven by the small class size principle. Beyond that, she said, ensuring “that these new students had a liberal education was important to us, and we felt that full-time faculty were in the best position to deliver that.”
Banking on Faculty Buy-In
So after curriculum came instruction -- or rather, convincing faculty members who hadn’t taught freshmen in years (or ever) to teach them. Adjunct professors, who teach about 20 percent of courses, continued to be hired as they once were on most campuses -- to teach upper-level courses, especially those in which they have real-world expertise, such as marketing or education.
In English, for example, tenure-line and non-tenure-track, full-time instructors all are required to teach at least one freshman composition class per year.
By all accounts, there was some initial faculty resistance. But many professors were ready to dive in.
“I thought it was a good idea -- I wanted [the freshmen] to have the best experience possible, and that comes from the most experienced faculty,” said Rashidah Muhammad, professor and chair of English at the time of the transition. “I wanted them to have faculty who would be around all the time, with regular office hours where the students can reach them.”
Practically speaking, Muhammad said, it wasn’t that big of a transition from teaching upper-division literature courses to teaching composition. For starters, she said, she’d taught composition throughout graduate school. And even though that was years ago, she said, “it’s not actually a new way of teaching. … When you’re looking at a novel, you’re reading over a life story, or history or politics -- that’s what you do. And when you’re writing, you’re writing about literature, or politics or society, or maybe talking about your life. What rhetorical devices are being used, how did this author signal this to you?”
Muhammad said the biggest change was probably the age group of the students she was teaching -- 18-year-olds versus older students. But it’s been revitalizing, in a way, she said -- “almost like I had a do-over -- or an opportunity to raise your kids differently now that you know what you know. It’s kind of a rebirth for me.”
Kerri Morris, an associate professor of English, also described teaching freshmen at Governors State as professionally reinvigorating; while she was uncertain about her professional future few years ago before coming to campus, she said she can’t imagine teaching anywhere other than Governors State now.
“To say that our students are amazing people is an understatement,” she said. “This really is a two-way street.”
Morris came to campus during the transition to lead the new composition initiative and shore up the Writing Across the Curriculum program. She said despite stereotypes that faculty members try to shirk teaching freshmen, the challenges at Governors State were much more practical. Scheduling was a big issue, she said, in that many professors until that point taught three-hour course sections once a week, often late at night. Working three-day-a-week freshmen courses into their schedules was hard.
Like Muhammad, Morris described teaching literature and composition as something of a spectrum, and found most professors well equipped for it. What professors did need help with was developing a kind of “file drawer” of practical exercises, she said, and breaking down lessons into 50-minute segments.
They also expressed some discomfort with the amount of in-class writing time their students required, thinking that it amounted to “cheating” or getting away with less teaching, Morris said. At the same time, professors were expected to teach more actively when they were in front of the class, since freshmen students don’t “take over” a discussion in the same way that upper-level or especially graduate students do.
Another challenge was teaching evaluations. Morris said she had to warn professors that ratings by students were going to go down, because freshmen simply don’t know how to complete objectively -- and freshmen haven’t failed to deliver on that point. “But it’s not like there’s just one person struggling with them,” she said.
Over all, Morris said, when it came to the faculty, “there was no active resistance, just a matter of envisioning how it would all work.” She added, “You’ve got to meet students where they are. … Not seeing that as an irritant but as an intellectual challenge has been what’s made this really invigorating.”
Vendrely said there was good faculty “buy-in” for starting the program, and that it’s opened up campuswide conversations about pedagogy. There have been some challenges, however -- such as finding enough professors this year to teach an interdisciplinary freshman humanities seminar.
“We are finding that some faculty are more comfortable teaching the freshmen than others. I think that is fairly normal,” Vendrely said in an email interview. “I think it has helped increase faculty interest in becoming better teachers. We’ve hosted some professional development on topics like teaching writing and increasing civic engagement. Of course that helps all our students, not just the freshmen.”
Muhammad called right now an “exciting time” at Governors State. “We’re in our second year with our freshmen now, and there are challenges, of course. We’re still working with students who were in high school two months ago, and that means adjustment. But these [second-year] students feel like they own the university, and they’re serving on all these committees and it’s very exciting to see.”
That enthusiasm seems to be translating to retention. Early figures suggest that the university is keeping students enrolled at a rate that’s about 10 percent higher than its peers serving similar populations.
Maimon said Governors State is committed to its model, despite incredibly challenging times for Illinois’s public institutions; the university, like its peers, hasn’t seen any state funding this year. (It should be noted that Governors State’s model isn’t necessarily more expensive than hiring adjuncts to teach freshman courses, and Maimon said that particular practice may be more cost-effective.)
“I believe very, very strongly that the regional publics and liberal arts college have an absolute obligation to have full-time faculty members teach these introductory courses,” she said, noting that institutions focused on research and graduate education may have different priorities. “We’re smaller and many of us are focused on first-generation college students, and these students really deserve to have top-notch intellectuals working with them, to help them become part of the intellectual life of the university.”