Lessons From a Freshman Year

Brian Taylor

July 31, 2009

This past spring, on the last day of class in my "Introduction to Literature" course, I held a review session for the final exam. We had spent the semester digesting the standard diet of fiction, poetry, and drama, as well as reading a novel and watching a film. The final exam would require the students to write about those works using the literary terms we had encountered in the course—symbol, metaphor, imagery, and so on.

Still, with all that to cover, the review session hardly took up half of the 75-minute class period. With the 10 minutes it took students to complete their course evaluations, we were ready to bid farewell after 45 minutes. So I offered the students my standard closing words of wisdom, and prepared to drop another semester in the bag.

And nobody moved.

I waited a moment, a little mystified.

"Ah … that's it, folks," I said, with an apologetic shrug. "I don't have anything else for you. The class is done. You can leave early today. I'll see you at the final."

Still nobody moved. Another long moment followed, and then a student finally spoke:

"We don't want it be over."

Several other students nodded, and then somebody smiled and asked me what I was doing over the summer. So I told them, and then a few other people volunteered their summer plans, and for the remainder of the scheduled class time we sat and talked about nothing much in particular. They filed out slowly at the end of class time, and, one by one, thanked me and said goodbye.

I would love to be able to say that the same thing happens at the end of all of my courses, but it doesn't. Usually my standard farewell words of wisdom are followed by a stampede for the door, and my audible sigh of exhaustion and relief.

But my experience with the students in this course differed from every other course I have ever taught in one essential respect: It was my second semester with them. Like me, these students had volunteered to participate in one of three pilot courses for freshmen that my college offered last year, as it began the first phase of a program that will eventually be offered to all of them.

The program has modest ambitions. My college did not invent an entirely new first-year course, or even ask instructors teaching in the pilot program to make substantial changes to existing courses. Instead the college asked faculty members who were already teaching first-year courses to pair up and find some common ground for a yearlong sequence of paired courses that would enroll the same cohort of students.

So in other words, I would take my normal run of first-year courses—English composition in the fall, and "Introduction to Literature" in the spring—and see whether I could find a colleague who had two first-year courses that we could somehow yoke together. We were told explicitly not to seek common readings or a shared syllabus; we needed only to find enough points of connection among four existing courses to make the partnership sensible. Then we had to work together to strengthen those connections and to create some opportunities for shared co-curricular activities, such as field trips and discussion sessions in the dorms.

All of the elements—our four courses (two each semester), the co-curricular activities, and the fact that the students would be living in the same dorm and sharing these experiences—were designed to provide the experience of a small learning community within the college, which is the goal of many first-year programs.

I was able to locate a partner from our foreign-languages department after we both discovered that we each had enough readings on the topics of race, ethnicity, and identity to make that a focus of our shared sequence of courses. So we partnered up English composition and Spanish III in the fall, and "Introduction to Literature" and Spanish IV in the spring, and became one of the three groupings in the pilot year.

Our cohort of students was smaller than the others in the pilot, since ours had to be prepared to begin the language sequence at Spanish III, and we lost a couple of students along the way. But at the end of the year, we had around a dozen students who had been with us through four courses, and with whom we had shared more than a half-dozen co-curricular activities.

I'm two months beyond the experience now—sitting in a beach house as I write this, on a rainy day in a Southern clime—so I thought I would use this month's column to reflect upon what the experience taught me as a faculty member, and what benefits the program seems to offer to both faculty members and students.

To put my experience in a larger context, I searched around a bit to see whether my college was ahead of the times, or behind them, in starting our first-year program in the fall of 2008. The National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, located at the University of South Carolina, regularly conducts surveys about freshman programs at American institutions. Its 2006 survey found that 85 percent of respondents had first-year programs of some kind.

However, that number comes from the 900 or so institutions out of 2,600 that responded. My guess is that those that did not respond to a survey about first-year programs were less likely to have them. The survey also made clear that first-year programs varied widely, ranging from one-semester orientation or study-skill courses to full-blown, yearlong content courses.

So I would guess that we are neither trailblazers nor slackers when it comes to putting together our particular version of such programs. Hence I offer the following reflections as fodder for those who are in the midst of planning or updating their first-year offerings.

Closeness to students. This proved to be the main benefit for me. I am not usually the kind of faculty member who has a line of students out my office door, or who holds court in the student center at lunchtime. I didn't do those things this past year, either, but the sheer volume of time I spent with the freshmen in the classroom and in the co-curricular activities brought me closer to them than I have felt with any other class of students, and I enjoyed that closer relationship.

Our final out-of-class activity was a daylong field trip to a local museum, and I brought two of my older daughters with me. The camaraderie and informal conversations I had with students over the course of that day became one of my favorite memories of the year.

I should point out, however, the potential danger of this benefit. The students in our pilot courses got along well together, but those in another pilot did not. They proved much less willing to engage in discussions and embrace the content of the courses. I know the instructors felt some frustration at that. Take a group of bickering students and imagine spending two semesters with them, and you can see the problem.

Shifting perceptions. In the second semester, when I graded the first set of student papers, I was annoyed to find students making mistakes that we had covered extensively in the first semester. On the day I handed the papers back, I expressed my surprise at seeing those mistakes. The students expressed an equal amount of surprise that what they had learned in one course should condition what was expected of them in another.

That became a great opportunity for me to reiterate the point that they needed to see their education as continuous and cumulative, not as discrete courses to be ticked off on their way to a degree. It also proved a great reminder for me that students often do come into our institutions with that box-checking mind-set, and that I could do more in all of my classes to help them think about connections between courses.

Campus events. With five children of my own and a spouse who teaches, I never get around to attending as many events on the campus as I would like. Somewhere here, at least once a week, some department or student group hold an event I want to attend, and I almost never go.

But the co-curricular requirements of the course forced me finally to get off my duff and get out to some of those events, as well as to some off-campus events, which proved just as interesting and rewarding. I saw a Brazilian film, heard a lecture about St. Augustine and another about veiling and Muslim women, and toured a museum dedicated to the lives of women working in 19th-century American textile mills.

Such interdisciplinary learning experiences are what I had always hoped to encounter at a liberal-arts college, and this was the first semester in which I felt that I had taken advantage of them—not to mention helping my students do so as well.

Learning about residential life. I'm pretty far away from my experience of living in a dorm, and even if I could remember it with perfect clarity, I imagine that times have changed. What goes on in the lives of my students when they are not in my classroom has always been something of a mystery—not necessarily one I wanted to solve.

Teaching in the pilot program meant regular meetings with the team that had helped to design it, as well as meeting with the resident assistants and directors who were working with the students. Those meetings gave me a window into the workings of dorm life that I had never seen. I was impressed by the extent to which staff members on our campus work to integrate learning and co-curricular activities in the dorms.

I was surprised and interested, too, to learn all sorts of things I had never known about the dorms, about our student demographics, about what goes on in the dorms on a daily basis. That knowledge fed back into my teaching, as I was able to speak more confidently and knowledgeably about the relationship between my course and students' everyday experiences on the campus.

Usually by this point of the summer I have put the past semester out of my mind. But even here on the beach, months beyond May, I still find myself thinking about those students, and about how the program helped create such a positive relationship between myself and them.

I had some doubts about the design before it began, but the experience made me a convert, and I'm signed on again for another year. Next year's freshmen arrive in just about a month, and I can't wait to meet them.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College, in Worcester, Mass., and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at