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Faculty passes proposal to change First Year Seminar guidelines

January 31, 2020

After an extended debate, the faculty voted at Monday’s faculty meeting to change the parameters for First Year Seminars requirement.

The proposal, introduced by Director of Writing and Rhetoric Meredith McCarroll, aims to refocus the seminars on teaching college-level writing and composition. Under the new proposal, the seminars, which will now be called First Year Writing Seminars, will be required to include at least four papers, each involving multiple drafts and substantial engagement with the Library’s research resources.

Per the proposal, new and existing First Year Seminars will have to be approved by the Curriculum Implementation Committee (CIC) in order to qualify as First Year Writing Seminars.

Since McCarroll arrived at Bowdoin in 2015, her primary focus has been reworking the first-year writing program to ensure that it effectively teaches students the writing skills they need to thrive in their academic work and beyond.

“The language around the First Year Seminar has varied over the years,” said McCarroll in an interview with the Orient. “But it has always circled back to an emphasis on writing and preparing … to transition students to college level writing.”

In 2017, McCarroll conducted a survey of first year students to gauge how prepared they felt to write at the college level before and after completing their seminar requirement. The survey found that the seminars did not significantly affect students’ sense of their writing abilities. Students who came into the seminar feeling confident in their writing, for example, came out feeling equally self-assured, while students who entered their seminars feeling unsure about their writing ended the fall semester still feeling underprepared.

After receiving the results, McCarroll spoke to many first-year students individually.

“I heard that they felt like their First Year Seminar really didn’t focus on writing and didn’t teach them writing,” said McCarroll. “It’s really important to focus on student needs and what students were reporting they were experiencing in their First Year Seminar. But [it’s] also [important] to make sure that we can … make sure that faculty have autonomy and can teach in different ways.”

After arriving at Bowdoin, McCarroll attended the Dartmouth Institute for Research on Composition, where she consulted with experts and writing professionals to develop new strategies for teaching undergraduate writing. At Bowdoin, she has collaborated with the CIC and professors teaching First Year Seminars to implement a number of limited reforms.

“This isn’t about revising this program in order to support the most vulnerable group of students—it’s about putting the best practices into place that will support all students,” McCarroll said.

The proposal was met with mixed responses from the faculty.

Associate Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Hadley Horch, who taught a First Year Seminar in 2015 and another this past fall, expressed support for the changes. She noted that the structure of the program failed initially to prepare her to design a course that balanced course content and writing instruction.

“I think coming from a science background—[where] we do a lot of writing—I think I’m very good at editing my students’ writing, but actually stepping back and teaching someone how to write …  is a little bit different,” Horch said. “I think for the [faculty] who are new to [the seminars], these guidelines are going to be appreciated because they help to make sure that the course is in line with the pedagogical values of this First Year Seminar requirement.”

Horch said she hopes the new requirements will allow students to develop the writing skills necessary to grapple with and communicate complex ideas—a gap she finds in her current students’ writing.

“One of the things that I like about the writing-across-the-curriculum vision [is that] students get to take the class that they’re hopefully really excited about and [they] get into complex deep ideas with [their] professor,” said Horch. “I think that writing challenges appear because you’re trying to deal with very sophisticated ideas in writing, so [for] any level of student—no matter their experience—I think [these seminars are] going to be able to highlight for them where they can improve.”

Andrew Rudalevige, chair of the Department of Government and Legal Studies, voiced his concerns that the new writing requirements will cut into the time that he now devotes to teaching course material.

“If I’m spending numerous sessions on paragraph structure, I’m not spending them on American political development, so there is a trade off,” he said.

Associate Professor of History Page Herrlinger said that the new requirements might force the history department to exclude First Year Writing Seminars from the department’s courses that count for credit toward the history major.

“With the new requirements being so explicitly around writing, [I wonder] whether we feel that we’re able to put enough focus on historical skills in particular, and whether or not we would count the First Year Seminar toward the major,” said Herrlinger.

Nadia Celis, associate professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and the director of the Latin American Studies Program, acknowledged that some professors with well-established seminars will have to re-think their curricula in order to meet the new requirements.

“It will definitely require some adjustment on the part of the people who have been teaching these for a period of time,” said Celis. “But also, all of our students in the whole College are basically expected to take this one course … and there are a series of reasons why we wanted them to take them. And this is a course that will prepare them for writing at the level we expect from them in the College.”

Proposals for new and revised courses will be due for approval on April 3, according to McCarroll.

Herrlinger also expressed concern about the amount of time outside of class that the new requirements would ask faculty to commit to one-on-one meetings with students. First Year Seminars are capped at 16 students, and the First Year Writing Seminars will be as well.

“Just logistically, it’s a lot of time, but it’s also a lot of scheduling outside of class, and so I am concerned that with these new requirements that I’m going to have a hard time scheduling and fitting that time into my own week,” she said.

Herrlinger added that the seminar class size will be something to think about “down the road,” once the requirements have been implemented.

Despite faculty pushback, McCarroll said she appreciated her colleagues’ feedback and criticism.

“[It is] truthfully really what makes a healthy community,” said McCarroll. “I think that it’s a sign of faculty who are committed to asking hard questions and to deeply understanding issues. And I think that the faculty vote really supports that this is a campus that cares about students and student growth and student learning.”

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