Freshmen Learning The Write Stuff

October 1, 1998

Mark Miester

Math professor Terry Lawson had been looking for ways to attract more students to mathematics. The problem was, Lawson noted, many of the most compelling concepts of the discipline were introduced only in upper-level courses, not in courses open to freshmen.

Now, thanks to a new program, he has just the venue he wanted to introduce freshmen to the mysteries and complexities of math: a composition class. Lawson is one of 34 faculty members who have signed on to teach Freshman Writing Seminar 119, an innovative new offering that enables first-year students to fulfill their writing proficiency requirements through one of a series of department-based courses.

According to Cynthia Lowenthal, associate professor of English and chair of the committee that developed the seminar concept, freshmen have fulfilled the liberal arts and sciences curriculum's writing component in recent years by completing English 101, a composition course structured around principles of rhetoric and typically taught by English graduate students.

Freshman Writing Seminar 119, on the other hand, is taught by full-time faculty drawn from across the disciplines, and the topic of each seminar is up to the instructor. English 101 will continue to be offered. According to Geoffrey Harpham, professor of English and a member of the development committee, the seeds of the idea had germinated since as early as 1991, when Harpham chaired a committee that studied new approaches to undergraduate education and noted the success of similar programs at other colleges, including Dartmouth and Harvard.

A combination of market forces and budgetary situations in the wake of Tulane 2000 rekindled interest in the writing seminar concept last year. Specifically, the English department lost a number graduate stipends, a restructuring that essentially reduced the number of graduate students able to teach English composition.

"This meant we could no longer staff the sections of 101 that we had traditionally staffed with graduate students," Harpham explains. "Unless we wanted to abandon it all together, we had to do something to take care of the freshman writing requirement. At this point the idea of freshman seminars re-emerged as a very viable and pedagogically sound way to address the needs of the community to have a writing requirement that would also be academically stimulating."

Last spring, the Liberal Arts and Sciences Task Force on Writing solicited seminar proposals from across the disciplines, eventually selecting 20 seminars for the fall semester and 14 for the spring. The seminars reflect the writing requirements of English 101, with a minimum of four essays (approximately 5,000 words), including a research paper.

Participating faculty members, who are allowed to teach one seminar per year, can earn a one-semester sabbatical for teaching five seminars. The topics for seminars run the gamut, from Lowenthal's "Science Fiction and the Limits of the Human" to associate professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology Thomas Sherry's "Cooperation, Confrontation and Environmental Controversy."

While some professors might focus a seminar on their own research, others have seized the opportunity to teach subjects they ordinarily might not have had the opportunity to, says Lowenthal. English professor Janice Carlisle, for example, is leading a seminar on the state of liberal education; associate professor of history Samuel Ramer examines the works of Joseph Brodsky, Tzvetan Todorov and Vaclav Havel in another.

Although it was a staffing need that pushed the idea over the top, proponents argue the educational benefits more than justify its implementation.

"The idea is to get freshmen in small classrooms with faculty, not with graduate students," Harpham explains. "Not that our graduate students haven't done extremely well, but for recruitment, retention, acclimatization and just getting students stimulated about the idea of education, it's best to have them in the classroom with full-time faculty who are teaching the ideas they love. . . ."

The promise of a sabbatical is a powerful lure to faculty, but to many who have signed on, teaching the seminar is its own reward. Associate professor of sociology April Brayfield, who taught "Children and Society" as a 200-level course with a class of 65 students, was excited about the chance to teach that material as a freshman writing seminar.

"By doing a writing course, I get to work very intensely with students on developing their critical thinking and writing skills," Brayfield says. "Also, I can explore these issues a lot better in a small-group-seminar fashion in which we're working on both content and expressing content through writing."

As for Lawson, who teaches a seminar on "knots and surfaces" in the spring, the sabbatical is irrelevant. "I had proposed teaching something like this to freshmen without the writing component per se, so I already had an interest in trying to present this kind of material to freshmen. That was why I volunteered."

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