Fearlessly Facing the Freshman Seminar

What's it like to be a provost, about to teach freshmen for the first time? Steve Allred shares the experience.

September 16, 2010

True confession: I’ve never taught freshmen in my life. So why am I, a provost, offering a class to 18-year olds? I asked myself this question earlier this summer as I enrolled as a participant in a faculty workshop. Although I’ve taught employment law and public administration courses to thousands of graduate, law, and upper-level undergraduate students during my 25 years in the academy, all this was done at my former institution, a research university. But here I am, joining my colleagues from across the campus as we launch our new First Year Seminar program this fall.

For 20 years, the University of Richmond had a year-long, common-syllabus required course for freshmen. Last year, however, the faculty voted to replace that course with a series of seminars. Limited to 16 students apiece, the seminars have three major goals: enhancing our students’ ability to read and think critically, to communicate effectively, and to develop the fundamentals of information literacy and library research. The seminars are part of an exciting and significant curriculum change at our university, a change designed to increase student engagement at every level.

Even after substantial faculty deliberation and discussion, we knew we were taking a risk – particularly when we first reached out for enough course proposals for the year. After all, we were asking faculty to come up with completely new writing-intensive courses, without much incentive beyond a small course-development stipend. And, we needed to staff 54 seminars each semester to ensure we met our commitment to small sections.

But the program had the support of the faculty — they’d voted it in, after all — and to our delight, we received 85 proposals from 28 departments, generating full participation across Richmond’s five schools. That means students have direct access to classes taught by faculty in our Jepson School of Leadership Studies, the Law School and the Robins School of Business — traditionally not available until the junior year or graduate school. We could offer an unexpected breadth of topics, meaning that students could find a required seminar each semester to match their interests. Proposed seminar topics included bioethics, oceans, the postapocalyptic imagination, civilization and its discontents, heaven and hell, the social meanings of home, climate change, wrongful convictions, Muslim women, comedy, aging, gender, heroes and villains, Shakespeare, food, judicial leadership, sports, social justice, and a host of others. Although most proposals were offered by individual faculty, several were proposals for team-taught courses, and many were interdisciplinary offerings.

Two features of the program were striking: first, the range of topics was extraordinary; second, having senior faculty from across the campus, including the Law School, willing to share the investment in teaching freshmen was heartening.

So what was I to do? Rather than sitting on the sidelines, I decided to join in, and proposed a seminar entitled “Working: An Examination of the Legal, Economic and Social Aspects of the Nine to Five World.” But once the proposal was approved, the hard part began: how to teach this new class, to an entirely new (to me) population of students?

Like the rest of my colleagues, I got help. Last spring, I attended four workshops to help me understand the students I’d be teaching. Two sessions addressed effective use of library materials to conduct research and copyright rules. Our counseling and student affairs staff led the third and fourth sessions, “Impediments to Academic Success,” and “Development and Transition in the First Year,” which revealed the incredible range of difficulties students face. Those of you who teach freshmen regularly may not be surprised to learn these findings from the 2008 National College Health Assessment: 34 percent of students feel stressed, overwhelmed, and over-scheduled; 25 percent experience sleep difficulties; and 16 percent suffer from depression or anxiety disorders. Data on our University of Richmond students showed they mirrored the national averages, and that problems of alcohol abuse, relationships, and uncertainty about identity were as real here as on any other campus. I was reminded of the challenges student affairs professionals face every day, and how important it is that those of us in academic affairs appreciate the work they do.

At first, this made me want to turn and run (and to increase our liability insurance). But I was also reminded during these workshops of how optimistic, capable and high-achieving most of our students are, and how many are focused on public service, sustainability, and creating a better life for themselves and others.

But the greatest help I received was through the FYS Summer Institute, a weeklong intensive academic boot camp. Five sessions were offered throughout the summer, and I enrolled in the first offering in May, along with my fellow participant, University of Richmond President Ed Ayers, a distinguished historian of the American South. We were joined by six faculty from the biology department, and eight other faculty members from the departments of philosophy, English, political science, psychology, theater and dance, and, just for good measure, the Law School. Our hearty band spent the first two days defining our common goals for the seminars, learning more about our student profile, and examining a variety of techniques for stimulating writing and addressing transition issues. We talked about designing our courses around controversy, so that students have something to argue about; the need to make frequent writing assignments to help students think through issues and receive constant feedback on their writing; the importance of group work outside of class to increase engagement, and other means to make the seminars a valuable learning experience. It was intriguing to move from the general goals of curriculum change to the hard work of accomplishing those goals one course at a time.

We were fortunate to spend the third and fourth days of the Institute with Nicole Wallack of the Columbia University Writing Program and the Bard Institute for Writing and Thinking. She led us through a series of writing exercises in which we played the role of the student, trying out approaches like guided exploratory writing, evidence finding, and free writing. We critiqued essays, examined academic vs. nonacademic writing, listed our pet writing peeves, synthesized works, and generally tried to replicate the freshman experience for two days. By Thursday, we were exhausted but truly appreciative of Dr. Wallack’s techniques for teaching writing, and we all vowed to incorporate at least some of her methods into our seminars. The last day of the Institute focused on assessing learning outcomes, helping our students use library resources, and summarizing all we had discussed that week.

My confidence renewed, I began crafting my syllabus. I thought about the fact that our students come to college right out of high school with some idea of the working world, formed primarily from their own limited experience and by observing what their parents do. But few have had the opportunity to look into why the 21st century American workplace is the way it is, and to examine the role the courts, Congress, unions, and social movements have played in shaping that world. I decided that my seminar would require students to consider the views of writers ranging from U.S. Supreme Court justices to assembly line workers, and that it should challenge assumptions students may have about why people choose the work they do, and how they are or are not satisfied by that work.

Soon, however, I was confronted with a number of thoughts: should the first class begin with a case study? a writing exercise? a “get to know you” discussion”? When I taught graduate students I had them prepare an assignment for the first day of class; was that appropriate for freshmen? How, I wondered, should I accomplish the writing goals of the course in a way that required the student to produce a good research paper but would allow them to ease into the process? Given that one of the seminar goals is to enhance students’ oral communication skills, should individual presentations be required, or would classroom discussion and feedback be sufficient?

In the end, I designed a syllabus with readings that span the spectrum from Ben Hamper’s Rivethead to the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal 1971 ruling on race discrimination, Griggs v. Duke Power. I read a dozen books, rejecting Studs Terkel’s classic Working for the newer Gig by John Bowe, Marisa Bowe and Sabin Streeter, and enjoying again the humorous yet touching Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. I read aloud to my wife some of the breathtaking prose of Alan de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and considered numerous other books, essays and descriptions of the American workplace, from Joanna Cuilla’s The Working Life to the Harvard Business School’s case study on the Hawthorne experiments. I don’t know if I’ve assigned too much or too little, although I suspect I’m guilty of the former. I devised a series of writing assignments, ranging from in-class one-page reaction pieces to a ten-page research paper. I decided to combine the students’ research with a requirement for a short presentation at the end of the semester, to help them synthesize and present their findings, answer questions from their fellow students, and simply have the crucial experience of publicly defending a point of view.

So here I go, off to teach freshmen in a seminar about working.

Oscar Wilde famously observed that “work is the curse of the drinking class,” but whether we view work as the fulfillment of our dreams or as daily drudgery, we’re all destined to spend the better part of our lives in various vocations. So we’ll use our seminar experience to consider workplace questions of employee rights, social justice, motivation, challenges, social behavior and economic necessity. I don’t aim to turn my students into experts in employment law, sociology, history, or economics. Rather, like all First-Year Seminars, my course should enhance students’ ability to read and think critically, to communicate effectively, and to conduct research. And I expect to learn as much – and have as much fun — as my students do in the journey.


Steve Allred is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Richmond.


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