The First-Year Program is in its 25th year at St. Lawrence. In 1987, 12 faculty and 135 students piloted the FYP, and the following year it was implemented as a requirement for all first-year students. The FYP is and always has been a faculty initiative. It was born out of local and particular concerns about teaching and learning - concerns that proved to be prophetic of national critiques of higher education. Specifically, the faculty were concerned with the educational experience of students during their first year at St. Lawrence.
- Students were not being given a sufficient orientation to liberal learning. The architecture of the curriculum, in which knowledge had been broken into highly specific fields, disciplines, and departments, was too fragmented for students to find their way through it in coherent ways.
- Students were coming to St. Lawrence with communication skills insufficient for college level work. Composition 101 was not adequately addressing the needs of students with regard to proficient writing and speaking.
- Advising relationships were awkward, shallow, and bureaucratic. The traditional first-year advising system, where advisor and advisee typically had little basis for a relationship, did not encourage the quality of student/faculty relations that should be a hallmark of a St. Lawrence education.
- The academic and social dimensions of college life were bifurcated. Students were living dual lives, where what happened in the classroom seemed to have little bearing on campus life, and vice versa.
These concerns gave rise to the design of the FYP, one of the most complex and comprehensive initiatives in higher education.
Philosophy and Goals of the First-Year Program
In 2006, the faculty of the program passed a new Philosophy and Goals statement, which reiterated the four core components (discussed below). It also added new goals related to the social nature of knowledge production and social awareness, as well as self-reflectiveness and ethical concerns. Specifically, the FYP now commits itself to intentionally awakening and cultivating in students an understanding that intellectual work matters because it allows us to participate in the ongoing pursuit of leaving the world a better place than we found it. Furthermore, we now consciously aim to provide an intellectual atmosphere within which students can begin to see themselves as active participants in the educational process while reflecting on the assumptions about the nature of learning that they bring with them to this process. Finally, it is now an explicit goal of the FYP to continually ask students to reflect on the ethical dimensions of the work they are doing, whether it is the content of their learning or the process by which they write a research paper. These new goals, along with a new emphasis on assignments that ask students to integrate their communication skills and think carefully about the rhetorical choices they are making when writing, speaking, and researching, reflect the latest stage in the faculty’s thinking about what constitutes appropriate and challenging curriculum and pedagogy for first-year students.
Structure of the FYP
The FYP has four components, each of which can be mapped to one of the original concerns that gave birth to the program. However, the overarching goal of the FYP is the integration of the parts into a comprehensive educational experience for students and faculty alike. The FYP has become a model in contemporary higher education for its success in weaving together the strands of college life that are typically separated by departments and divisions. The fabric of the FYP is a tapestry woven of these four threads:
1. The Course
The centerpiece of the FYP is its academic curriculum. The year-long experience is comprised of two distinct semesters. In the fall, each FYP college is built around a team-taught, multi-disciplinary course that examines certain general, enduring and fundamental human questions. Originally, a single course was taught across the various colleges; each faculty team would put its own twist on a syllabus that was created by the program as a whole. In ‘90-’91 the FYP underwent a thorough review by an ad hoc University committee and external consultants. On the basis of that review several changes were made, the most important of which was that each team of FYP faculty could propose a thematically organized course, distinct in content from one another, and then students would choose their FYP college based on the theme of most interest to them. The guiding notion was that both faculty and students would find the FYP more engaging if the subjects of inquiry were those in which both groups, students and faculty, had a keen interest. Although the colleges now explore a rich diversity of themes, the program has strengthened its common expectations with regard to promoting critical, active, and collaborative learning, and in its handling of the communication skills it seeks to develop in first-year students.
Until the spring of 2001, that fall experience was carried over into the spring, with the difference being an emphasis on research-oriented communication skills. However, beginning in 2001, as a result of a broader curriculum review on campus, faculty voted for “stand-alone” first-year seminars for the spring. These seminars still continue the historical focus on research skills, but students can now choose from 35 to 40 seminars based on an area of intellectual interest. Although these seminars are not residentially-based, they are small, thus allowing students to build close relationships with another group of students and, in a majority of the cases, with another faculty member. Students who wish to enroll in the seminar taught by their fall FYP seminar instructor/advisor are guaranteed a spot in this seminar; approximately 10-15% of first year students elect to do so usually because the topic of their advisor’s FYS is related to the topic of their FYP course.
2. The Communication Skills Component
The basic premise of the Communication Skills component is that reading, writing, speaking and research are complex intellectual and social activities that are at the heart of liberal education. Improving students’ abilities in critical reading, writing, speaking and research requires sustained practice and overt, in-class reflection upon that practice. A critical feature of this sustained practice is that students receive detailed, constructive response to their work, from instructors, from peers, from mentors, and from the WORD Studio. Thus, as part of the Communication Skills component, both in-class and out-of-class assignments and activities provide students with an intensive and extensive opportunity to develop core competencies in writing, speaking, and research and to explore how critical reading informs and enhances the practices of writing, speaking, listening, performing, viewing, and conducting research, and how all of these practices are ways of learning and knowing as well as ways of communicating.
To provide sufficient time to engage in communication skills development, FYP classes meet four and a half hours per week, divided between “plenary” sessions (all FYP colleges meet 10:10-11:40 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in the fall) that primarily focus on the content of the course and “seminar” sessions (which meet at times chosen by the individual faculty or teams) that primarily focus on the communication skills development. Some faculty teams spend all of the FYP class time together (both plenary and seminar), and some faculty teams choose to divide the class into two smaller groups and work with just their advisees on the communication skills development during some or all of the seminar sessions.
3. The Advising Component
Each faculty member in an FYP team serves as the academic advisor for half of the students in the college. What this means is that FYP faculty advise students who they see four and a half hours a week in class as well as in a variety of one-on-one situations. The quality and quantity of contact between faculty and students in the FYP makes possible the kind of close, personal relationships necessary for the giving and receiving of meaningful advice. Faculty can help students chart their academic plans, knowing their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and interests. The role of the advisor is not simply to inform the students of their academic requirements, but to work with them to envision and project academic plans particular to each individual student. The FYP works closely with the Office for Academic Advising Programs to ensure the quality of first-year advising.
4. The Residential Component
A major goal of the FYP is to promote the integration of academic and social experience. FYP colleges, when successful, develop into communities of learners who value intellectual collaboration and critical reflection. Conversations begun in the classroom on theories, ideas, beliefs, and values are continued in the residence halls, where they are examined, evaluated, and measured against students’ experience, and then picked up again when class reconvenes. In these colleges, collaboration and cooperation on readings, papers, and projects help students discover one another as co-learners, as different persons with different strengths and interests who have come to this institution to engage in a common project. Thus, the goal of living and learning together is to help students understand how critical intellectual inquiry can directly inform their experience, both subjectively, in their individual reflection on their identity, beliefs, and values, and socially, in the choices they make in how they live together. The Office of Residence Life, which is part of the Division of Student Life, oversees the residential staff in the FYP colleges and the many programmatic residential initiatives. Continual collaboration between Residence Life and the FYP ensures that the co-curricular needs of first-year students are met and that residential initiatives enhance the richness of their experiences as first-year students at St. Lawrence. The strength of this collaborative effort represents one of the unique attributes of the FYP at St. Lawrence.