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By Stephen Wilson

How do professors teach college students to write? Or for that matter to form a mindset of intellectual curiosity?

For Suzanne Westfall, professor of theater, clear thinking leads to clear writing. She has taught a first-year writing-intensive course since its inception in 1989.

In her First-Year Seminar (FYS)  “Theater and Visual Culture,” students are developing tools to analyze the thousands of images that surround them each day. For class this morning, students have read Patrice Pavis’ essay “Semiotics in Theatre” and are discussing the science of spectacle.

“If the text is the plot, what other languages are seen in performance?” Westfall asks.

Students begin to talk about the body, voice, set design, blocking, theater space, lighting, sound, smell, costumes … all aspects that make a printed text come to life and a performance take on meaning.

When asked how theater is different from church or sports, students slowly begin to see the intersections and similarities. But disagreements rise up too.

What’s occurring in this FYS strikes at the heart of the program’s goal: intellectual inquiry through intensive focus and discussion on a topic. Those wide-ranging topics include mushrooms, Appalachia, love, baseball, cookbooks, bread, warfare, plastic, coffee, happiness, democracy, social justice, and dogs.

Digging Deeper

Bianca Falbo, associate professor of English, teaches an FYS on dogs and directs the FYS program. Most colleges require a first-year composition class, but how it is executed can vary.

Lafayette’s FYS is a small-size, discussion-based, big-question kind of writing class.

“We see writing as a vehicle for learning, as a means to explore ideas and develop skills in academic discourse,” she says. “It is a unique opportunity for professors to model ways to think, how to approach complex texts, sort through ideas, and determine which writing approach might best serve their thinking.”

While the topic sounds cute and cuddly, the course asks a bigger question: What is the domestic dog? It then digs deeper as readings over the course of the semester engage the question from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

There are ethical questions about human and animal relationships since the dog seems to have earned a different status from that of other animals. But the class talks about the ethics of eating animals, experimenting on them, and breeding them.

Her class will have faculty guests who talk about oxytocin research—roles dogs play in releasing the “love” hormone in our bodies (and their own). Another guest will talk about the biological evolution of dogs. A dog trainer who specializes in the sport of Canine Nose Work joins the class as well to talk about how dogs perceive the world through their noses.

“When we take something familiar to many students, like dogs, and ask new questions, they can begin to think about how they think, how to challenge their own assumptions, imagine other points of view, and build empathy,” Falbo says. “These skills become the basis for critical thinking and strong writing.”

A Coordinated Approach

Another critical component of FYS is library research. Lijuan Xu, associate director of research and instructional services, is paired with 11 sections of FYS. Other librarian staff on that team take on 38 more sections.

Through FYS, students are introduced to library resources and services and how to conduct college-level research. Each FYS has a designated librarian who conducts at least two library sessions.

Librarians collaborate with FYS instructors to tailor each session to students’ needs. During these sessions, librarians discuss with students the research support available at the library, how to search database efficiently and effectively, evaluate information critically, and integrate and present information.

Another critical component is writing assistance. The College Writing Program, coordinated by Christian Tatu and directed by Tim Laquintano, employs writing associates (WAs) to support all 49 sections of FYS (as well as other courses). Four times a semester a WA sits down with students from each FYS class. It might be a group meeting where the WA facilitates peer editing, or it might be a one-on-one where a student pitches an essay approach or gets help with a specific concern.

Tatu, who has taught an FYS on “Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse,” understands the challenges students face and can better prepare WAs for what’s coming. In some cases WAs are familiar with the courses or the professor, but the real strength of WAs lies not in their familiarity with the subject matter, but their ability to coach students who are drafting and revising.

As an experiment this year, Erica D’Agostino, dean of advising, Julie Mule, associate director of residence life, and Grace Reynolds, director of residence life, worked with Falbo and  Rob Root, professor of mathematics, to pilot a housing component so students in their FYS classes share residential space. The hope was to activate collaboration outside the classroom.

Another recent addition was to assign each FYS class a PARDner—a student who helps first-years in their transition, development, and success. PARDners work with first-years from the start of New Student Orientation through the end of their first year.

“FYS is the perfect place to assist students in their transition to the College,” says D’Agostino. “We are creating active learning environments in the classroom and out.”

The Power of Class

But it starts in the classroom, and Patricia Donahue has been there from the start. In 1986, she, Westfall, and English Professor Debbie Byrd pioneered a general education program called the Freshman Common Experience—a two-semester course built around cities and civilizations.

The success of FYS later led to the creation of a required sophomore course on values and science and technology (VAST).  The sophomore class was phased out with the advent of the current curriculum, but FYS remained and continues to serve as an introduction for students to academic discourse.

Donahue, a professor of English, has taught a variety of topics in her FYS … paradigms, evil, and, currently, revenge. Her students grapple with theory, philosophy, and ancient and modern texts.

“I want the students to take difficult moments in the text and discuss them,” she says. “In writing, I don’t want them to dive into what’s clear and obvious, but into what doesn’t fit or doesn’t make sense and then work to untangle it.”

For her the excitement of FYS is teaching topics outside areas of faculty expertise and engaging students who are eager to learn.

“The students are bubbling over with energy to prove themselves,” she says. “As professors, we step out of our areas of specialization. Together, we become co-learners and are able to take risks and teach in different ways.”

Leah Wasacz ’16 still remembers her experience in associate professor Chris Phillips‘ FYS, “Stories from the Archive.” The class dove into special collections at the library. Wasacz was fascinated by the journals of Professor James Henry Coffin, a notable meteorologist at that time, whose seminal text, Winds of Northern Hemisphere, was internationally recognized. Wasacz read the journals researching the divide between Coffin’s religious and scientific thoughts.

“The class helped confirm that English was a field of study I wanted to pursue, and Professor Phillips was an instrumental figure in that class and my education,” says Wasacz. “It was one of the best seminars I had at the College as classmates became friends and discussion was lively and inquisitive.” The impact goes further in that Wasacz was a WA for three years and now is a full-time reading and writing tutor at a community college.

What? Not a Big Essay?

While students dive into research, the traditional capstone research paper is not typical. The genres of writing are different, not just words on paper. Students create digital projects that work with the eye and ear, that blend text and performance. Some assignments are delivered as podcasts, infographics, blog posts, and research posters.

“We want FYS assignments to provide opportunities for first-year students to explore a range of genres so that they begin to see how writing changes depending on the rhetorical situation,” says Falbo.

Still, students follow time-tested processes of brainstorming, drafting, and revising. Some take field trips and journal or blog about those experiences. Still others create a portfolio of work.

Falbo had students launching into an informal writing assignment. In front of the classroom was a table of objects: a pink-camouflage stuffed animal dog, an empty bag of Taste of the Wild dog food, a choke collar, a bottle of dog vitamins, a framed picture of dogs from dog daycare, a box of Milk-Bone dog biscuits, a tin of dog breath mints, and more.

Students imagined they were sociologists studying human-dog relationships. They came from a dog-less culture where there were animals but no pets. As Falbo handed students random objects, they had to review the artifact and discern what it said about human-and-dog relationships.

Students with a shopping catalog saw monogrammed dog beds and gravy in corked wine bottles. Other pondered a “Dogs for Romney” button. Others contemplated a leash.

The dog-loving students had to de-familiarize themselves with items that might seem commonplace and recognize how dogs are anthropomorphized.

The conclusion in this room might be similar to the one in Westfall’s.

It’s only when we stand back that we can begin to see things in new ways, to contemplate how something is constructed and if that construction, when isolated into parts, makes sense. For first-year students, that meta-cognition helps begin to turn thinking into writing.


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