First‑year focus

Exploring FASS' first-year seminar project

- January 17, 2014

Laura Eramian, who taught one of the first-year FASS seminars this past term. (Nick Pearce photo)
Laura Eramian, who taught one of the first-year FASS seminars this past term. (Nick Pearce photo)

Last summer, the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) announced it would run a pilot project in the fall 2013 term, funded through the DALVision Academic Innovation initiative: five seminar-style courses offered as electives to first-year students. Just before the fall term ended, Dal News checked in with two profs and a student to explore just how the seminars worked out from their perspective.

Kirsten Borgerson, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy, taught a seminar on "freedom," a subject she thought would resonate with young people who might be living on their own for the first time.

“‘I’m 18, I’m at university, I’m finally free!’ But wait a minute,” she says with a smile, “with great freedom comes great responsibility. What does it mean to be free, really?”

After presenting some groundwork theory the first few weeks, Dr. Borgerson shifted the discussions to applied topics. These discussions were “amazing,” she says with students relating issues “back to their lives and something they were struggling with. It was really neat – we couldn’t shut up, collectively. And I was learning, too. I love when that happens.”

Student – and faculty – engagement

Capped at 20 students, first-year seminars are intended to be smaller than average first-year courses. Dr. Borgerson says the size worked well for discussion when all students were present. “I ended up with a really great group. They were so engaged,” she marvels.

Dr. Borgerson says the seminars also improve faculty engagement: “I’m learning a lot about where my students are coming from, what interests them, what worries them. You don't always get that in a big lecture.” Those can also be a great experience, she says. “But this was a nice supplement. I was very lucky to get to teach it.”

“I like being in a small class… you get the prof’s opinion and the other students',” says Shannon Auster-Weis, a first-year student in Dr. Borgerson’s seminar. “Hands down, the seminar is my favourite class… It’s been a really good transition from high school to university.”

Even shortly after mid-term, Shannon was already seeing the benefits of taking the seminar. “I’ve definitely become more articulate and a critical thinker,” she explains. “I’ve gained the ability to process complex theses and concepts. That’s essential for university. [A course like this] is the fast-track to getting those skills.”

Laura Eramian, assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, taught a first-year seminar called “Friend, Neighbour, Stranger, Self: The Political Significance of Personal Relationships.” Sixteen students enrolled in her course.

“The course deals with everyday personal and social relationships,” she explains. “Students already have experience in this, so mainly, I got them to think through general questions to understand the complexity of things they take for granted. What is a friend? In fact, the answer is not so simple.”

Dr. Eramian’s students seemed to most enjoy discussing family relationships and were also fascinated by civil inattention: how strangers in close proximity acknowledge each other without intruding on personal space.

A group project on interpersonal relationships gave students an opportunity to learn about doing effective qualitative research, something they don't usually do till third year. Dr. Eramian demonstrated qualitative research methods and ethics, to ensure students’ research proposals would conform to the department’s ethics process.

“My goal wasn’t to make them into perfectly formed researchers, but to give them a taste of what it’s like to do this kind of work. I think they definitely have a newfound appreciation for how much careful thought goes into effective qualitative research.”

Attracting students to FASS programs

Dr. Eramian says “a number of students expressed interest in continuing in SoSA” – a good thing, given that FASS wanted the seminars to encourage more students to enroll in its programs. “The idea was to create a smaller, more intimate environment,” which she believes was achieved: “Those who might not ordinarily speak in class felt more comfortable doing so.”

Shannon Auster-Weiss says she “one hundred percent” recommends the seminar to friends, adding she plans to take another philosophy course in second year (and is considering majoring in it).

Dr. Eramian and Dr. Borgerson both say they heard from professors whose first-year seminars had lower enrollments that it was more challenging to keep discussions going. Both also say that “getting the word out” to students earlier might help ensure the seminars fill to capacity.

Dr. Borgerson notes it might also help to explain the benefits of the seminar model to students before registration, perhaps in a small brochure. She says she’d definitely teach the course again if asked. However, she expects that if FASS offers the courses again next year, they’ll give other professors a chance. “But if they were having trouble finding people, I would definitely volunteer.”

Dr. Eramian has similarly good things to say: “The level of work was at a very high-functioning first-year level. It did exceed my expectations.”

FASS is planning to offer four such seminars in the upcoming academic year, the second and final year of this particular DALVision project, and will be exploring how it might offer similar seminars on a more regular basis in the future.


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