In addition to taking intro-level courses, the class of 2015’s first term at Knox will involve love, happiness and even war, thanks to the redesigned First-Year Preceptorial (FP).
FP, designed to introduce freshmen to the liberal arts, has long been a subject of controversy among faculty, some of whom felt out of their depth teaching a philosophy-based course, and students, whose responses to FP have ranged from “fantastic” to “useless.” Dean of the College Larry Breitborde hopes teaching FP in a topical style will help alleviate these concerns.
“It’s the one thing we make you take; it should be the one you like best,” he told The Knox Student (TKS) in January 2011.
Under the new design, faculty members could propose courses that would still get at “big questions” but focus more on a specific discipline. The results include courses ranging from Challenge of Sustainability to Athens, Rome and Jerusalem.
“Faculty are more enthusiastic,” Associate Professor of Biology and FP Coordinator Jennifer Templeton said. “We have 23 professors teaching sections, which is probably what we had every year, but probably not willingly. If professors are enthusiastic, students should be more enthusiastic.”
When signing up for classes, freshmen will be asked to list their top three choices for FP. This will hopefully allow everyone to be placed into a course they will enjoy. However, common threads throughout all FP sections will ensure that even students who do not get their first choice will have a similar experience.
“The goal is still to write, discuss and listen to others’ points of view,” Templeton said. “FP is always trying to do the same thing. We’re just trying to do it in a different way.”
TKS had the opportunity to sit down with several professors teaching FP sections next fall and discuss their courses, as well as the pros and cons of revamping FP. Opinions ranged from enthusiastic to cautiously hopeful.
“It’s an experiment,” Templeton said. “Every year, we evaluate FP and every year there is disappointment at the response from students. I’d like to think that this will get at the goals we’ve always had in a more enthusiastic way.”
Assistant Professor of Political Science Andrew Civettini was always planning on teaching FP beginning in his fifth year at Knox, albeit reluctantly. The new FP has wiped away that reluctance.
Civettini will be teaching a course entitled Happiness, which will explore the “philosophical, scientific and cultural understandings of happiness in society,” he said. For Civettini, whose research focuses on the role of positive emotion in political decision-making, the course is an opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject that fascinates him.
“I know there are angles I haven’t explored. I could be surprised by my students in terms of what we discuss,” he said. “It’s exciting to do it this way.”
Despite his interest in the subject matter, Civettini noted that the emphasis of the course is on the skills it will teach.
“The focus is on learning to engage scholarly texts, to create and fashion scholarly arguments,” he said.
Civettini, who took a topical first-year experience course while completing his undergraduate degree at Grinnell College, described the course as “liking being in school for the first time in my life.” He hopes next year’s freshmen will have a similar experience.
“It adds another instance in which students get to have ownership of [their education], and I think that’s a good thing,” he said.
Science Fiction and Human Identity
Professor of Physics Tom Moses will be teaching Science Fiction and Human Identity, which will explore what it means to be human using science fiction as a lens. Questions addressed in the course will include the difference between being human and being a “person,” the role the body plays in humanity and how humans differ from machines.
“Science fiction stories are like thought experiments,” he said. “They explore what it means to be human.”
Although Moses is excited about the course, he said he would miss meeting with other faculty to discuss the curriculum for the common FP course.
“Other faculty would suggest readings that I had never heard about. I learned a lot that way,” he said.
Still, Moses feels that the new format will give the course more coherence, describing previous FP classes as “potpourris” rather than unified courses, leading him to call the new FP a “trade-off.”
“We’re definitely going to lose something from not having that [faculty] discussion, but maybe we’ll gain something from teaching to our interests,” he said.
Overall, Moses feels that more enthusiastic faculty will equal happier students.
“It’s promising that faculty seem more eager to teach FP,” he said. “It’s a healthy sign.”
For Instructor of Journalism and Anthropology-Sociology David Amor, the idea for his FP course, entitled War, came to him during a wrestling match.
“Everything can be thought of in terms of power relations and social constructions,” Amor said. “I wanted a course that gets at big issues and has the same emphasis on writing and discussion.”
Amor’s students will draw from scientific texts on the origins of violence and warfare, read philosophical texts and explore social science research on war.
“This is a topic that it’s very easy to find serious stuff about from virtually every disciplinary framework,” he said. “There’s no shortage of perspectives.”
Amor, who previously served as an FP co-coordinator, has watched the course develop over the past ten years from a truly common course to something more flexible. Even as the approach to FP has changed, its goals have remained the same.
“Hopefully it’s engaging and shows first years that there’s something more going on here than simply coming and getting a degree,” he said. “That’s more than anything the real value of FP: to hook people onto the liberal arts.”
For Amor, the most rewarding part of the new FP will be learning new things alongside his students.
“I’m going to have to educate myself about [war],” he said. “Discovering what it all means will be a collaborative enterprise.”
Fall 2011 FP classes
Athens, Rome and Jerusalem
Challenge of Sustainability
Cinematic Visions: Movies and the Meaning of Life
Dying and Death
Learning to See Water
Listening to Reason
Putting Down Roots
Science Fiction and Human Identity
Social Life of Food
Voyage to Rapa Nui (Easter Island)
Water and Humanity