It's not unusual to come across a group of Knox professors hanging around campus during the summer. It's also not unusual for these professors to be engaged in deep discussion over a book or course. What is unusual is to see a group of 20 or more Knox professors sitting around a table in Old Main engaged in a kind of mock class, teaching each other First-Year Preceptorial or, as it is known to generations of alumni, FP. For the first time in the history of FP—and possibly of Knox College—faculty worked to improve the course by deliberately stepping into the shoes of their students.
Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, given in part to support continuing curriculum development for Knox's educational program, the professors were part of a larger project to review and revise First-Year Preceptorial. The result was a new FP course called On Making One's Way.
In its 29 years as part of Knox's core curriculum, FP has undergone numerous revisions and updates. In the fall of 2003, it was time for another change. Many students and professors had grown unhappy with the existing course, Exploring Human Identity. Faculty members were concerned that the course load was too overwhelming for first-year students. Some students complained that they felt alienated, and sometimes offended, by the course readings. Most important, Exploring Human Identity was over a decade old. "It was time to develop a new tradition," said Tom Clayton, associate professor of chemistry and director of the First-Year Preceptorial Program. The College was already in the process of revising its educational program—it was the perfect time to revisit FP as a core part of that program.
What is First-Year Preceptorial?
According to the current College Catalog, First-Year Preceptorial is "an introduction to liberal learning, examining broad issues and questions that transcend disciplinary boundaries." All first-year students are re-quired to take Preceptorial in the fall. The course is taught in small sections led by faculty members, assisted in many cases by upper-class student co-leaders. Each summer, incoming first-year students receive the first reading assignment for FP in advance of their arrival on campus.
As the only required course for all incoming first-year students, FP's primary mission is to introduce students to a liberal arts education, prepare them for academic life and challenge them to explore new ideas and cultures. Yet how can a course accomplish this mission while still engaging its students? This was the challenge facing the FP revision committee, formed in November 2003. What would count as an improvement to the course versus change? "That's what we were asking ourselves," said Lauren Tillinghast, assistant professor of philosophy and co-chair of the revision committee. "What do we want students to be good at and get better at, no matter what version of this class is taught?"
To create a successful class, one that everyone—students and faculty—could support, the committee returned for inspiration to the course's original goals, which were set forth in the early 1970s. "We want a sequence of courses whose concept or design will have enduring value," stated E. Samuel Moon, William G. Simonds Professor Emeritus of English, in his 1974 proposal for FP. It should be "something so central to our liberal arts concerns that there will be no hesitancy to commit ourselves to the immense and continuing effort of preparation outside our disciplines."
Body vs. Earrings
The revision committee decided that the best way to meet the course's goals was to approach the structure of the class before addressing the theme or the syllabus. "The structure is the body of the course. The readings are the earrings," said Professor Tillinghast. Although the basic structure of FP did not change—a 10-week course that regularly meets four times per week (three individual classes, one Tuesday group lecture, followed by individual class discussions) and focuses on oral and written assignments—the new course places greater emphasis on written assignments (two weeks of the course focus on developing writing skills) and expands the Tuesday group gathering to include films, lectures and other events.
This new structure is meant to focus on three primary skills—observation, analysis and evaluation. "We want students to approach their assignments to hone these basic skills," said Judith Thorn, assistant professor of biology and co-chair of the revision committee. To do so, the course emphasizes four requirements—writing, oral discussions, reading and diversity—or WORD. Structured oral assignments, along with classroom discussion, help students clearly articulate and express their opinions. Both the written papers and oral discussion are based upon a group of diverse readings that explore and challenge students' cultural perspectives. "The course was designed to get students to a place where they can do anything well academically," said Martin Roth, visiting assistant professor of philosophy and FP instructor.
After settling on the structure, the committee created models for four courses that met WORD requirements and the larger goals for the course and presented them to the student body and faculty for discussion and approval. Faculty members had two opportunities to offer suggestions on the course models, and a website was created for students to offer their input. Open forums were also held to gather student suggestions and ideas. Using this feedback, the committee revised the proposed courses, and, in April 2004, a faculty vote designated On Making One's Way as the new FP course.
On Making One's Way
Shortly after the faculty selected On Making One's Way, the revision committee disbanded, and the faculty members who signed up to teach FP the next year took on the charge of creating the course's syllabus. During the summer of 2004, they worked to finalize the reading list, then spent two weeks teaching the course to each other during August.
Using the idea of a journey as a metaphor for personal growth and exploration, On Making One's Way seeks to address questions that are relevant to first-year students—"What is the nature of a journey?" "What do I need to make this journey?" "What obstacles will I overcome?" "What happens if I get lost or go astray?" The professors started with these questions and worked to find readings that were diverse, challenging and accessible to students. "The summer was a great opportunity to engage my colleagues at length over significant texts and issues," said Stephen Fineberg, Szold Distinguished Service Professor of Classics and committee member. After weeks of reading, discussing and debating texts as diverse as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Acheba, the syllabus was finalized. In September 2004, 10 months and many revisions later, On Making One's Way was introduced to first-year students.
The Journey So Far
After nearly a year of committee meetings and 10 weeks of teaching the new course, is On Making One's Way a success? Judith Thorn, who taught FP for the first time last fall, thinks so. "Overall, people are happy about the course. I'm glad I've had the opportunity to teach it." Seeley Distinguished Professor of Theatre Robert Whitlatch, who has had the honor of teaching every version of FP since its inception in 1976, agrees. "I enjoy it, but I'm not sure if the students do."
As Professor Whitlatch noted, the student reactions to the course are mixed. "I absolutely hated the conceiving idea when it was first presented, but it hasn't gone too badly thus far," said Malissa Marie Kent, a sophomore FP co-leader. "I enjoy the readings, but . . . we can't seem to get our class to disagree about anything." One first-year student echoed Kent's thoughts. "The course had solid readings, but there was not enough structure to force discussion," said Noah Magaram. Sneha Subramaniam did enjoy the diversity of the readings. "I think we see a lot of different perspectives—different countries, cultures and values," she said.
The same faculty members who gathered in the summer of 2004 met again this winter to discuss student and faculty feedback on the course's first term. As many students noted, the new course may still need a few additional revisions. Addressing these issues is the next step on the College's FP journey.
The Evolution of FP
First-Year Preceptorial, or Freshman Preceptorial as it was once known, has been a part of Knox's core curriculum for 29 years. Its longevity can be attributed, in part, to its numerous revisions. From the course's structure to its reading list, FP has evolved with the College's faculty and academic climate.