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Tools of the Trade

First-year seminars give new students a taste of scholarship

The Dartmouth experience means something different to every Dartmouth student and alumnus, but a common thread for the last four decades has been the First-Year Seminar Program. Begun in 1965, the program was designed to provide a powerful launch for entering students, fueled by the College's focus on the liberal arts. Across the disciplines, the seminars provide an emphasis on strong writing skills and independent research. They immerse students just entering the College in the scholarly process, bringing them into close contact with senior faculty members in small class settings that foster rich discussion.

Professor of Sociology Misagh Parsa teaching his first-year seminar.
Professor of Sociology Misagh Parsa (front right) teaching his first-year seminar, Twentieth Century Revolutions. Like all first-year seminars, Parsa's course emphasizes writing and research skills. (Photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Almost every department offers a first-year seminar each year during at least one term. Faculty members design and teach these courses in their individual areas of scholarly interest. Tom Cormen, chair of the Writing Program and professor of computer science, oversees the First-Year Seminar Program. Cormen and the Writing Program team work to make sure that each course places enough emphasis on independent research and writing (students are expected to write at least 6,000 words over the term). He also confers with the faculty Committee on Instruction — the group that sets policy on academic requirements — to determine whether seminars fulfill a particular distribution credit.

Professor of History Rich Kremer's first-year seminar, Reading Artifacts: The Material Culture of Science, uses Dartmouth's extensive collection of historic scientific instruments to familiarize students with how science has been taught over the last two centuries. "With few exceptions, these instruments are indigenous to Dartmouth," explains Kremer, who recently published a book on the collection, titled Study, Measure, Experiment: Stories of Scientific Instruments at Dartmouth. "They were used by faculty members to conduct research in what was then the field of natural philosophy, and to display for students the phenomena of the natural world." He says that the seminars, most of which are limited to an enrollment of 16 students, hold first-years to a high standard of scholarship. "I run this class at a very high level and include a lot of reading. The students are more than willing to do the work."

Karen Fisher-Vanden, assistant professor of environmental studies, teaches a seminar on environmental economics. She found the seminars to be good preparation for budding social science majors by giving them the research and citation skills that will later be required of them. "This is their opportunity to learn how to write in the social sciences, so it's important for them to choose a seminar in the direction they think they might be going."

Students report being satisfied — and challenged — by the rigorous demands. "I really enjoyed my seminar. In fact, it was my favorite class," says John Zaleski '09. "It wasn't just the subject matter — I really enjoyed the opportunity for long class discussions."

Steven Swayne, associate professor of music, shared an appreciation for the personal contact that the seminars afford. "Beyond the tools I hoped to give my students as writers and scholars, we developed a sense of mutual respect and trust that, if not unique to the first-year seminars, is a welcomed aspect of the intense experience we shared together," he says.

"The first time in my teaching career that a class asked me to teach an extra hour was during a first-year seminar," says Carey Heckman '76, senior lecturer of computer science and an adjunct professor of philosophy, who teaches a seminar on Ideas, Ideals, and Computer Science.

Other first-year seminars taught during the winter term included Dangerous Ideas, with Professor of English Ernest Hebert, Public Art in the United States, with Assistant Professor of Art History Mary Coffey, and Twentieth Century Revolutions, with Professor of Sociology and Department Chair Misagh Parsa. "First-years have so much energy and enthusiasm," says Parsa, who also notes an unexpected benefit of the course. "You're supposed to teach the students how to write and I found that by teaching them, I improved my own writing."


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Last Updated: 5/30/08