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  September 22, 2003

Fun Topics For Freshmen Engage
Students, Encourage Discussion

Witches, cathedrals, and lawns. Mediation, meditation, and growing up. From Gone With the Wind, to Franz Kafka, to What America Really Thinks, the course descriptions read like something you would be eager to attend in your spare time.

Instead, these are classes offered to freshmen and sophomores as part of the First Year Experience. Worth one credit each, they are designed to help students develop their intellectual curiosity and their ability to focus on a topic and participate in a discussion about it. Students can take one each semester until they enter their junior year.

Image: FYE class on the lawn outside the Young Building.

Kristin Schwab, left, assistant professor of plant science, and Steve Ratcliffe Rackliffe, second from left, extension professor of plant science, team-teach "The Great American Lawn: Green Perfection or Environmental Affliction?", a First Year Experience class, on the lawn in front of the W.B. Young Building.

Photo by Dollie Harvey

"My major goal is to whet their curiosity about university-level humanities, and get them talking freely in and about the course," says Ed Benson, head of the critical languages program and a professor of modern and classical languages. Since the program began five years ago, Benson has taught a course on witchcraft that focuses on Europe emerging from the Dark Ages, when nobles were shocked to discover a thriving pagan culture among their tenants.

"The students come into the class with many interests and preconception s. Some are interested in Wicca," Benson says. "But most find the importance of the role witch-hunting played in building the modern nation-state the most surprising thing in the course."

Lisa Amatruda, a senior from Longmeadow, Mass., who took Benson's class as a freshman, says the course included more history than she expected. "It was great to take as a freshman," she says, "because it got you used to reading, and writing short papers about the reading. It led right into the upper-level classes."

Topics of Interest
The INTD 182 classes use topics of professional interest to the faculty, to introduce students to what college is all about, says David Ouimette, director of first year programs.

"We try to emphasize academic success and skills such as note taking, test taking, and studying. We are also trying to help students make important decisions about career choices and give them an idea about what options they have," he says. "Most of all, we want students to actively engage with the University."

Some of the classes, such as "Calling All Pre-Law Students" and "How to Survive Calculus," are intended for students considering specific majors. Others began as offerings for particular majors, but often appeal to a broader audience.

"I have tried to limit the course to those interested in considering a major in engineering, but I have one liberal arts student and several students who are undecided or shadow majors," says John DeWolf, a professor of engineering who teaches a course called "Cathedrals - Engineering and Construction," which discusses how these edifices were built without modern engineering principles.

He notes that many of the students have never visited the great European cathedrals that are the focus of the course.

"I'm trying to get them to begin to see how engineers think and solve problems," says DeWolf. "But another of my goals is to get freshmen to begin to interact, both with their fellow students and with faculty. This takes a lot of work. By the time they are upper division students, they are used to working together, and know each other."

Not Just in the Classroom
Not all of the classes take place in classrooms. Some students spend part of their time in class in the back rooms of the William Benton Museum of Art, the UConn Sports Museum, or the Dodd Center Archives.

"We want the students to have a better understanding of the purposes that museums and archives serve here at UConn," says Thomas Wilsted, director of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, who team-teaches a class with Thomas Bruhn, curator of art collections at the Benton, and Leanne Harty, interim director of the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History at UConn. "We also want them to know, in a wider cultural context, how the collections might be used during their time here on campus.

"We hope they will also have a better understanding of what archivists and museum curators do professionally, and the training and experience they bring to their work," Wilsted adds. "And we expect the course will encourage students to visit museum and archives collections once they leave campus."

The classes place some constraints on faculty, who find they cannot fit into a one-credit class what they might in a three-hour class.

"In one hour, there is not as much depth as in three hours, and I find I can't assign the kind of imaginative writing as in other classes," says Lynn Bloom, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of English, who team-teaches an experimental honors course on growing up with Catherine Costanzo, a sophomore majoring in English. On Tuesdays, Bloom leads a discussion about the book; on Thursdays, Costanzo encourages students to express their personal opinions and draw on their own experiences. "We are trying to work out a balance between how students relate to the work and how they comment on it," says Bloom.

Although the topic might sound whimsical, Bloom says "growing up and coming of age are serious business. There is a vast autobiograph ical literature that's out there." Her goal is for students exposed to the one-credit class to seek out additional reading on the topic later.

First Year Experience classes began in the fall of 1996 and were designed to be offered in three areas: university learning skills (180 courses); topical seminars to introduce students to an area of the university they might not otherwise see or experience, or an interest they might not otherwise have an opportunity to pursue (182 courses); and interdisciplinary classes focusing on broad topic areas, designed for students living in a residential cluster (181 courses).

This year, Ouimette says, nearly 80 percent of freshmen will enroll in the basic FYE classes and another 850 or so will enroll in the 182 courses.

"Interest in the 182 classes has been growing," Ouimette says. "Students really enjoy the opportunity to engage in readings and discussion in a small seminar setting."

Faculty enjoy them, too. Veronica Makowsky, professor of English and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, chose Gone With the Wind for the topic of her class "because it is a great read and a great movie, but it also raises important issues about Southern writing, especially that of Southern women."

Discussing the Issues
Makowsky notes that the book focuses on Southern culture and history, as well as American culture and its expectations and stereotypes about the South.

"I can teach a lot of literature and history by slipping it in to explain parts of the novel, as well as explaining literary techniques using examples from scenes and characters that interest the class."

Makowsky says the book also lends itself toward discussions of women's issues, maturation, stereotypes, obligations to self and others, and comparisons between the book and the movie.

Makowsky uses WebCT so students can post responses to questions in preparation for the discussions in class. "The entries grow longer and more complex as the students become more comfortable with the novel and more accomplished as writers," she notes. "They also become more confident and learn how to support an opinion as a more formal argument as the semester progresses."