I came to Wheaton in the fall of 1993 to be chair of the Classics Department. I’d read the college catalog and knew my slice of the curriculum, which is to say I knew which classics courses I wanted to remove, change or create. But I didn’t know the college and I didn’t know the students, so I decided that the best thing to do was to teach a First-Year Seminar. This was not the normal thing: you were expected to settle in before you accepted the responsibilities of an FYS. This was a sensible rule, because you had to know enough of the whole curriculum and of student life to be a competent advisor, and advising was clearly a crucial component. But I could tell that FYS called for boldness, and so I decided to learn on the job.
Beyond boldness, FYS demands creativity on the part of the faculty, so I decided to create a course that I had never taught before. The theme of FYS, then, as now, is Great Controversies, so I posed this question: Since the Greek heroes of the Trojan War are city destroyers, while the Greek ideals of the Classical era are solidly pro-city, where does the real Greek soul lie? On the side of the burn-it-to-the-ground individualist or the lightning-always-strikes-the-tallest-trees democrat? Do the great live in cities or in opposition to them? I called it “City and Soul in the Ancient World,” and our readings went from Greek tragedy and Aristotle through Livy and Vergil to the Life of St. Antony and the Rule of St. Benedict; Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, a book I’d never read before, provided a massive and modern counterpoint.
I’ll admit now that this course was too book-heavy. I have taught FYS eight times. In more recent years, I have moved to a different approach, taking the existing literary and social experience of the freshmen and building on that into a study of contrast between classical and modern worlds. When I taught “What’s Funny?” I asked students to come to campus with a favorite comic novel that they knew well already so that they could learn by other readings and discussions what social and intellectual conventions make humor work. “Autobiography” attempted to use Marcus Aurelius and Augustine as models for the writing of personal thought and experience. “Classics and Comics” encouraged students with a favorite comic book superhero to contrast modern conventions with ancient ones, even as they learned to discuss the elements of visual narrative. This much I knew: the FYS is not supposed to stand still.
But how did I teach the course that crucial first time? Here I have an alum to come to my rescue: Eric Tomasini ’97, now a management consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, remembers it, and me, better than I do myself. I was surprised to learn that I held our first class on the sundeck behind Admissions—in my previous years of teaching I had never taught outdoors. I had my students submit their papers to me through an electronic drop box, a sort of technology that I had never used before and that was quite new at the time. I also had a coffee pot installed in my office from the outset—another first for me—and this proved invaluable for talking to students face-to-face.
Eric’s first graded paper came back to him with more red ink in evidence than black. “Disaster!” he thought, but he took me at my word when I wrote, “Feel free to stop by my office anytime to discuss.” He did. I offered him coffee and the well-worn comfy chair. My suggestions were extensive: format, argument, techniques of analysis and compression, what Eric calls the “anatomy” of his paper. The second paper benefited from the long consultations. I’ll let Eric tell it: “The paper gleamed with black ink as the entrée, and the red more a garnish. A- it read on the back page; good work. I remember clear as day the feeling I had 19 years ago, sitting down in Chase Dining Hall to a chicken sandwich and fries, rereading the comments on my paper as if it were a check for $10,000. I remember I said out loud, ‘I can do this, I can really do this!’ Perplexed onlookers suggested yes, I could eat my chicken sandwich. To this day, it was the most fulfilling chicken sandwich of my life and a signal that Wheaton was the right place for me.”
I was a new instructor then. Now I serve as an associate provost and coordinator of First-Year Seminar. I run the May workshops, convene the FYS Steering Committee, organize lunches for the faculty during the fall, when we all talk about our students, our successes, our problems. There were 30 sections this fall, and so 30 autonomous instructors with 30 topics but a common goal: “To inspire a cohort of enthusiastic, intellectually curious students who are prepared to assume responsibility for their education and their lives.” FYS is a laboratory for them as it was for me. Many find that FYS is thus a gateway for students into the instructor’s major field.
So what does the student get out of FYS? It is not just Intro to College, or Research Toolkit 101, though its goals of critical reading and research begin the conscious scaffolding of skills that build toward the last year and the senior seminar. It is primarily a collaboration between faculty and students. We learn as they learn, and this works because of the personal touch: not always a cup of coffee, but always the individual work with a student who is also an advisee and then, very often, a friend.
Eric sees it as the exemplification of Wheaton’s liberal arts mission: “to learn how to think and write critically and analytically, to compare and contrast the differences in the world we live in, to challenge your beliefs and understanding, and to create value in the work you do as a citizen of the world. …I can say honestly that First-Year Seminar changed my life.”
As an ideal—and we aim for this ideal even as our practices change over time—the First-Year Seminar creates our community; then the students that we bring in and nurture change that community. And in doing so set the stage for the next FYS.