Each fall as Bowdoin first years flip through their course catalogs, their first academic challenge arises: picking a first year seminar. The first year seminar, a course that every student must take, provides critical reading and writing assignments designed to test and prepare first years for the rigorous workload ahead. Many students wonder, however, why only select academic departments offer these seminars, seemingly limiting student's choices.
At the faculty meeting earlier this month Dean of Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd introduced a proposal to include a principle statement to include in the student course catalog that would correspond directly with the guidelines offered in the faculty handbook.
Currently, the course catalognotes only that, "First year seminars, independent study courses and honors projects do not fulfill any of the five Distribution Requirements", and that, "the requirement of completing a first year seminar will not be met if the seminar is taken on a non-graded (Credit/D/Fail) basis." The faculty handbook, which is more specific, includes rules regarding the writing assignments implemented during seminars.
Judd also proposed that all first years should take a seminar during the fall semester.
"We would like ideally for as many students as possible to experience their first year seminar in the fall of their first year, so we are hoping to increase the number of first year seminar offerings in the fall," said Judd. "For the last few years, we have offered 25 to 28 first year seminars in the fall semester and another dozen or more in the spring."
With such a focus on reading and writing, first year seminars are generally limited to the humanities and social sciences, which comes as a source of frustration for many first years.
Judd said that the focus of first year seminars is simply to improve students' reading and writing skills and while this goal may be better addressed by some departments, others should also be able to offer them.
"The first year seminar program is designed to help introduce students to what it means to undertake serious intellectual work at the college level," said Judd. "In part the balance of offerings reflects the ways in which departments contribute broadly to the College requirements and the entry points to various majors. Because of the emphasis on writing in the first year seminars, not surprisingly many come from the humanities, however the format does not exclude courses from the natural sciences and mathematics."
Associate Professor of Education Charles Dorn expressed concern regarding the grading policy of first year seminars at the faculty meeting. At present, a student who receives a 'D' in a seminar is advised to take another first year seminar. Judd defended the current policy as a way to measure how well students engage with the material.
"Because of their intimate nature, their focus on critical thinking and writing, and their specific attention to the needs of students in their first years, the first year seminars often provide a good way to identify students who might be struggling in some area or who could benefit from additional work," said Judd. "Certainly if a student received a 'D' in a seminar, I would advise them to take another, even though the 'D' satisfied the requirements. The focus on writing and critical thinking that the first year seminar provides is only in your first year, many students find that taking a second one is a special opportunity."
First year seminars can be taken with the Credit/D/Fail grading option, as indicated in the student course catalogue. While first year seminars taken for a non-grade do not count for the distribution requirement, Judd feels that this stipulation is an adequate way to allow students some leniency.
"The first year seminar launches a student not only in critical thinking and writing, but introduces them to a discipline," said Judd. "While grades are merely one kind of measure of accomplishment or engagement, they can often help a student measure think about that degree of accomplishment as they make subsequent choices."