Posted by The Editorial Board
"What seminar are you in?" This omnipresent question is indicative of the impact of Skidmore's First-Year Experience on campus life. According to Skidmore, the FYE is "a combination of offerings and opportunities aimed at the student as a whole person." First-year students are placed in a Scribner seminar that is designed to be the centerpiece of this program. Each seminar is usually paired with both a professor, who also serves as the student's advisor until they declare a major, and a peer mentor, an upper-class student who works to facilitate the student's adjustment to college. The program is designed to both ease the academic and social transition into college and to introduce students to the level of academic rigor demanded by the College. The Editorial Board strongly supports the work of the FYE and suggests several changes to the process of selecting faculty members to teach the seminars in order to better improve the overall experience.
The academic experience is central to the success of the FYE. There are a number of factors that go into making a class successful: the energy and intellect of the students enrolled in the course, the chemistry in the classroom, the content of the course and the level of rigor required. It is obvious, however, that professors play an integral role in this equation. The FYE classes are unlike any other introductory course at the College: the experience extends beyond the basic curriculum into other aspects of students' social, residential and intellectual lives.
Perhaps more than any other experience in the first year, the FYE has the power to influence a student's experience and success at the College. To further improve the first-year seminars, we should do everything in our power to ensure that the professors teaching FYEs are the strongest and the most effective. To do this, we need to change the selection and feedback mechanisms for FYE professors.
Currently, each academic department selects a certain number of its experienced professors to teach first-year seminars each fall. (This number is based on the size of the department and the availability of faculty.) Teaching these seminars is generally regarded as a desirable job: professors are able to teach a topic they are enthusiastic about, which they might not be able to teach within their own department (courses must pass approval from the director of the FYE, English professor Janet Casey, and the Curriculum Committee), and each seminar comes with a spending stipend to enable professors to engage their students outside of class. Despite these incentives, most students will agree that, as with the College in general, professors range in teaching ability. Incoming students are as likely to get a strong, engaging professor as they are to end up with a dull, ineffective one.
To amend this, the Editorial Board suggests instituting a stronger system of student feedback into the process. As with every course, first-year students fill out evaluation forms for their professors. But these evaluations go to the department; their effect on the FYE is more distant. Furthermore, students may positively evaluate their professors on qualities that they liked but undermines the FYE, such as easiness -- thanks for my A, here's yours. The Editorial Board proposes direct student influence on FYE professor selection. Each spring, juniors and seniors within each departmental major would vote for the professors they have found to be the strongest and most engaging. The professors who receive the most votes would be given the first option of teaching a first-year seminar. We reason that upperclassmen in each major have taken a significant number of courses within the department and know the professors intimately. And because these students will not be taking the class, they will not be influenced by factors such as easiness or tendency to get sick. This voting process could become an important part of the selection process for FYE professors, a way of ensuring that the professors who experienced students have benefited and learned the most from have the opportunity to influence future first-year classes.
Student feedback is just one of the many factors that determine whether a professor is effective or not. It would be foolish to assume that one negative course experience means a professor is truly ineffective. Bad classes can be attributed to poor student involvement as often as poor teaching. But direct student feedback should be a greater part of the process, especially for the FYE, which has such a direct and immediate influence on the student experience at Skidmore.
The FYE seminar introduces students to Skidmore; the professor is the student's advisor for almost two years. Guaranteeing that only the best of the best are assigned to these influential roles is imperative to the success of the students.