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First-year seminars serve as launching pad for college career

October 18, 2005

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. ? How about "Close Encounters with the Middle East"? Or perhaps "Beauty and the Brain," "English Cathedrals," or "Science Demonized: Chemical and Biological Warfare"? These offerings are among more than 40 courses designed specifically to smooth the transition to higher education for Middlebury College's first-year students.

As part of Middlebury's required first-year seminar program, all students in the class of 2009 have begun their college careers with a writing-intensive course, intended not only to sharpen their skills but also to offer social and residential benefits. Each seminar is limited to just 15 students and taught by the faculty member who will become the students' academic adviser for their first three semesters on campus.

The students in each seminar are also from the same "commons" - Middlebury's residential system of five small campus communities. Middlebury created the commons in the 1990s to allow living, dining and learning to take place in the same area, and to create an environment that melds academics and social life. In some cases, clusters of students from the same hall are enrolled together in a first-year seminar, making it easy for them to discuss their work outside the classroom and get to know one another. 

These seminars provide incoming students with their first taste of academics at Middlebury, and the small class size encourages confidence, intellectual curiosity and spontaneous creativity. According to First-Year Seminar Program Director Kathleen Skubikowski, faculty members who teach first-year seminars must choose course topics outside of their customary fields, and their choices tend to reflect their personal passions and stimulate the classroom environment. They typically take an interdisciplinary approach to their topics, and incorporate outside speakers, field trips and other relevant events into their seminars. Because faculty and students are all associated with the same commons, many of these activities take place outside of the classroom and in the students' shared living environment.

According to Middlebury College Vice President of Academic Affairs Alison Byerly, the seminars provide a unique first experience for incoming students. By taking a course from their adviser immediately upon arriving at college, the students develop a direct relationship with that professor, who is then more informed about individual students and better able to monitor their progress. Before the first-year seminar program was established in 1988, faculty advisers were assigned to students randomly.

"The students feel more comfortable asking their advisers for guidance since they've established a meaningful relationship in class," said Byerly.

Students learn about the seminars the summer before they arrive on campus, when they select their top five choices. Most are enrolled in their first or second preference.

Elizabeth Brace, now a sophomore, recalled her first-year seminar as one of her best academic experiences. She took "The Modern Novel at Middlebury" with Lecturer in English Don Mitchell, and feels it was the foundation for the college career she is now building.

"So far, it is still my favorite class," she said. "The atmosphere of our classroom was comfortable yet conducive to intense discussions that helped us all grow as analytical writers and readers. Don Mitchell always provided thoughtful insights about our work and structured class so we could receive the guidance we needed, but also lead when we felt the tug of a particular question or issue in the text." 

Many faculty members are eager for the opportunity the seminar offers to explore a subject outside of the regular curriculum. This fall, Professor of Political Science Eric Davis is teaching a course on English cathedrals while Professor of French Carol Rifelj, who normally teaches French language or literature, is offering a course on one of her longtime interests - mysteries. 

"In my seminar," explains Davis, "we use cathedrals as a window for looking at English life and society from the medieval period to the present, drawing on the disciplines of history,
religious studies, art history, urban studies, music and literature. Not only is it a great opportunity for me to teach a subject of personal interest, but I can also model for these first-year students one of the essential elements of the liberal arts - making connections across disciplinary boundaries."
Seminar topics and faculty change from year to year. "The selection is always fresh, often related to current events, and meant to prick students' intellectual curiosity in a particular subject - and perhaps encourage them to pursue a focused interest in depth," Skubikowski said.

What is most important, added Skubikowski, is that the seminars highlight critical skills.  "By emphasizing cross-disciplinary thinking and intellectual curiosity," she said, "these seminars can instill in students a strong sense of responsibility for their own learning as they become active participants in their college education."