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The FYP at 20
A “radical departure” when it began, St. Lawrence’s First-Year Program has gone through frequent growing pains as it has matured.

By Neal Burdick ’72

If anything is certain about the First-Year Program, it’s that it was during its formative years one of the most controversial steps ever taken at St. Lawrence. The “FYP” observes its 20th anniversary in 2007.

But its lineage goes back further than two decades.

“Although I did not embrace all the living/learning rhetoric, I can see some beauty in the design of this approach. When it works well, it works really well--there is a feeling of solidarity among the students and long-lasting friendships are made. When the personalities do not mesh, it can make for a difficult time for instructors and students.”
David Hornung
Dana Professor of Biology

“The roots of the First-Year Program lie in the BASK, or Basic Academic Skills, Program, which began in fall 1979,” says Owen D. Young Library’s Director of Research Instruction Joan Larsen. “In an attempt to tackle the interlocking challenge posed by students who needed to improve their writing and simultaneously analyze and critique arguments, BASK brought together an English composition course, Informal Logic from the philosophy department and a series of library workshops.”

Meanwhile, faculty became concerned over the prevalence of alcohol and the dominant role of the Greek system on campus. This led to the formation of two committees:

*The Committee on the Academic Environment came to life in spring 1983 with Johnson as chair. Its report in February 1984 urged a meaningful integration of academic and residential life.

*The Committee on Alternatives to the Greek System (CAGS) “attracted faculty attention to residential matters--something that was then unusual in higher education,” says Parker Marden, who at the time was Dana Professor Sociology.

While these committees’ deliberations were in the air, East College was launched as an experiment.

“Marden and I wanted to improve the relationship between academic life and residential life,” recalls Joseph “JJ” Jockel ’74 of Canadian studies. “We went to President (W. Lawrence) Gulick with a proposal, and he was immediately positive. Our first year was 1983-84.” 

A committee to evaluate East College was set up in March 1984. It deemed the experiment a success.
Another document in that year added impetus. In October, President Gulick released his “white paper,”

“Directions for St. Lawrence University.”  He addressed many of the concerns that were stirring on campus and offered several “Proposals for Change.” One of them was residential colleges on the model of East College.

“Faculty experimented with various ways of empowering students in their residential lives, having them draw up social contracts and so forth. It was exciting but also controversial among the faculty, and that made it stressful.”
Eve Stoddard
Professor of English and Global Studies

 “I had in mind developing something at St. Lawrence that would distinguish it from other liberal arts institutions,” Gulick notes. The extensive press the FYP has gotten over the years bears out the achievement of this objective.

“The faculty was not wild about the idea of freshman colleges or team teaching, although there were a few notable exceptions,” Gulick recalls. “Many worried about the required extra preparation necessary to lead a seminar on a topic not central to their intellectual lives, the danger of exposing their limits to colleagues, the prospect that they would have to give up teaching one or more of their favorite courses and the disruption of their department's requirements for the major.”

Out of Gulick’s recommendations yet another committee sprang to life. Part of its charge for summer 1985 was to “consider alternative curricular structures.” Its 54-page report, “Directions in Liberal Education,” recommended, among other steps, creation of a “Freshman Program” with an integral “Communication Skills Component.”

“A new era began when the faculty voted to institute the program as part of the required curriculum,” Larsen observes.  For the fall of 1987, three residential colleges of about 45 students each were established, and in the fall of 1988 all incoming students were placed in colleges. The program was now mandatory.  In acknowledgment of the fact that language was also in a period of evolution,

“Freshman” was soon replaced by “First-Year” in the program’s name.

“The larger goals were to bring coherence and a habit of intellectual inquiry to the undergraduate experience,” says Richard Guarasci, founding director of the FYP (1987-1992), one of the “original 12” teachers in the 1987-88 pilot year and now president of Wagner College. “Innovative teaching was highly valued. The students were challenged by such pedagogical techniques as using journals to develop responses to the formidable texts.


“Each college was guided by a faculty chair and a residence director along with RAs,” Guarasci explains. “In this way, classroom and out-of-class learning were brought closer. This was controversial because it encroached on the traditional autonomy of the student affairs staff and because it asked much more of the faculty in student learning and life outside the classroom.”

“The greatest benefit of the FYP is that it can provide an immediate intellectual community among first-year students, their professors and the community assistants. I felt right away that I was part of a cohort that was going to be investigating a specific set of problems, questions and texts. Since the focus was interdisciplinary, everyone could contribute.  It was intellectually stimulating. On the other hand, for the individualist, the FYP can at times be a tense experience. I recall feeling a conflict there.”
Paul Graham '99

As Jockel puts it, “We were engaged in a conscious effort to take student life into the academic sphere.”

“The FYP gave birth to other initiatives, such as writing across the curriculum, gender studies and other interdisciplinary work at a time when the traditional disciplines were nearly the exclusive forms of learning at SLU,” Guarasci notes. “It was a radical departure for the faculty and student cultures.”

“The FYP proposal was intensely debated by the faculty,” says Johnson. “After some modifications, it was adopted with considerable support.  That support began to wane when implementation began.  The shared curriculum required faculty to teach outside their areas of expertise.  There was a lot of bitterness about whose canon would be adopted in that curriculum. And paying for it was perceived as taking away from departmental budgets.

“The controversy over the FYP was, for several years, the most bitter I have ever witnessed among faculty at SLU,” says Johnson. “It has died down now.”

Countering the hard feelings was the enthusiasm that many faculty invested in the FYP. “I remain impressed by the number of faculty who took on work that was beyond the usual expectations,” Marden observes.

One source of friction among the faculty was the mandate to teach writing.  “Much faculty development centered on that,” recalls Eve Stoddard of English and global studies, who was heavily involved in several aspects of the FYP in its early years. “The idea of teaching writing across the curriculum was new and controversial.”

Faculty in this era were asked to be more involved in social interventions, which “some thought of as ‘prep-schoolizing’ SLU,” says Jockel. “They didn’t want to be involved in residence life aspectsBut parents loved the idea.”

Valerie Lehr, who begins her tenure as vice president of the University and dean of academic affairs on July 1, was director of the FYP in the mid-1990s.  She believes that “the faculty responded effectively to dissatisfaction without losing what we were trying to accomplish programmatically. By having students live together and take a class together, the founders of the program wanted to foster a living environment that was connected to conversation about coursework, and about what that coursework said about how people go about forming and living in a community.

“The FYP was a tremendous faculty development program,” Lehr continues. “Many of us have become better teachers of writing, speaking and conducting research.”

    “What I like about the FYP/FYS is the freedom to try new things,” observes Dana Professor of Biology David Hornung, one of a relative handful of science faculty to have taught extensively in the FYP. “We have had our students spend a day in prison, do presentations about health issues at local schools, meet healers from around the world, write satire and spend an afternoon at the School of Mortuary Science. The FYP was an exciting innovation.  I hope we have the wisdom to guide its evolution.”
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