First official semester of FYS winds down

First Year Seminar remains controversial among faculty


As the first official semester of the First Year Seminar winds down, the merits and demerits of the program still divide members of Augustana’s campus.

Some professors say FYS has made them better educators, while others think the program shortchanges certain departments and students.   

 stephen-ministerFYS Director Stephen Minister said that while the faculty voted last academic year to enact SOPHIA (the general education plan replacing the Augustana Plan) and FYS for a four-year period, he is open to tweaking the program as more information of its successes and pitfalls becomes available.

One of those tweaks will likely involve the six required tailored experiences, which freshmen must attend and write papers about during their first semester. Minister said he has heard enough negative feedback from students to justify reconsidering the program component.

“I have heard concerns raised from the students,” Minister, a philosophy professor, said. “Frankly, this seems to be a pretty consistent concern. Fundamentally, if students don’t like something, don’t see why they have to do something, hate every minute of it, they’re not going to get a whole lot out of it.”

While Minister acknowledged that the tailored experiences might have been a misfire as currently designed, he said other aspects of FYS have gone well. He highlighted the small class sizes (capped at 18 students) as being as beneficial as advertised.

Government professor Joel Johnson, a proponent of FYS, agreed, saying that his class has developed a good rapport with him and with each other.

“There’s some camaraderie that gets built up,” Johnson said, specifying that the small class size encourages honest discussion from students.

Johnson recognized that it’s been difficult to give each component of FYS’s first semester—critical thinking, writing and oral communication—fair consideration while maintaining a course theme, his being “designing and debating the Constitution.”

“It’s taken a great deal of course prep time for me,” Johnson said. “I’m fairly confident that once we get a year or two down the road, things will start working pretty smoothly.”

Not everyone is happy

Some professors in the Humanities, the group of departments conducting the majority of FYS coursework, feel strongly that the program remains too ambitious, with unrealistic goals and standards.

English professor Sandra Looney stands firmly in that camp.

Looney, who said she loves her FYS students, said she ended up emphasizing the writing component of the course after determining that its other goals were unattainable. The time allotted to the other areas, such as oral communication, didn’t allow for a depth of knowledge to develop, according to Looney.

“We’re doing too much, so you can’t do things well,” Looney said. “The other thing is that most of us, we aren’t trained, none of us our trained, in all the areas that the First Year Seminar demands. … The expertise is not there.”

Minister said that once professors get acclimated with the areas where they may be inexperienced, their ability to educate students will strengthen and therefore benefit Augustana in the long run. He said he’s already seen improvement in his teaching.

sandra-looneyLooney said that the purpose of a college or university is to expose students to experts in their fields, and that removing English 110 and communications 110 from the curriculum and merging them into FYS detracts from that.

“I think the students came here to get the professors who are trained in their areas,” Looney said.

Looney was also frustrated by the Humanities’ role in teaching FYS. She was under the impression that departments across campus would share the load.

This has not been the case. Professors from English, communication and philosophy shoulder the bulk of the courses.

Minister said he knew before last year’s faculty vote (which passed by one vote) that departments would not be equally represented in the new program. He thought all faculty did. He realizes now that others did not, which has made the transition more turbulent.

Minister added that multiple professors of the natural sciences expressed interest in teaching FYS courses but could not because their course load hadn’t been altered as much as the Humanities by SOPHIA.

Before next semester, Minister plans on surveying professors and students about the effectiveness of the program’s first official semester to get anonymous, objective feedback about what worked well and what did not.

“That will give us a better overall picture,” Minister said. “I think the only way … we will be able to get this program to really be an excellent crown jewel of the Augustana experience is for us to recognize where it’s working and where it’s not working.”

Minister said there has not been a faculty-wide meeting to discuss SOPHIA and FYS since the vote passed last year. In time, he hopes they will reconvene and resume honest dialogue.

“I’m not afraid of the truth. If the truth is that SOPHIA or certain parts of SOPHIA aren’t working well, let’s get that out there and get everyone to know it so that we can all be behind making changes to it.”

Senior Britt Jacobsen contributed to this report via an interview with professor Sandra Looney.

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