From FYP Student to FYP Professor

Paul Graham ’99

I stepped onto the St. Lawrence University campus as a first-year student in 1995, already thinking I knew how college worked, and what it was for. My notions were rigid and a bit romantic, doubtless the product of reading too many American novels about college-aged male protagonists. I turned out to be wrong about many things, but I was correct in my conviction that I had reached a place where I unequivocally belonged.

The First-Year Program, in the mid-90s, was about a decade old and humming along. As a student I had no awareness, of course, of the work that goes into achieving such an innovative curriculum.

Most FYP colleges consisted of three faculty members from separate disciplines, and they were all big—30 students or more. My college lived in Gaines Hall, and our topic was the fragility of the American dream. I remember reading Ana Deveare-Smith’s Fires in the Mirror, and Praying for Sheetrock (the town in North Carolina, not the building material), and taking a trip to New York City to view public art installations.

But to be completely honest, I remember less about the contents of the syllabus than how that syllabus made me feel. I resisted the FYP at first. I suffered from what surely must have been an annoying mixture of over-confidence and independence. The First-Year Program interrupted both of those tendencies in me, first by blending one thread of a curriculum I thought I knew pretty well (which was writing—except I didn’t know it well at all; I just had a knack for it) with other threads I knew little about—sociology and performance.

Even today, 20 years later, I can recall my early reactions to the interdisciplinary approach: first consternation and struggle, and then the slow dawning of an understanding that a person can and should work to solve a problem from multiple angles. This approach, which is at the heart of the liberal arts, has become, not coincidentally, a core feature of my own writing process. The FYP was also the first place I was exposed to a healthy amount of literature by and about the experiences of minorities, which was a trying but necessary experience for a kid from rural Maryland.

My tendency toward quietude and self-reliance was harder to shake, but I have no doubt that I would have been a pretty lonely kid, even a homesick one, had I not been immediately immersed in a community of people, both similar and different, who challenged, entertained, and, a couple of times, solaced me.

The First-Year Program college I teach now focuses on food—from journalism on industrial agriculture to ancient history, from gastronomy to poverty—is a solo project (my independent streak remains) that enrolls 16 students. FYP, and St. Lawrence’s research-based twin, First-Year Seminar, are among the most challenging and rewarding of my teaching assignments. The challenge rests in increasing the critical thinking, writing, and speaking skills of a roomful of individuals, which demands careful responses to assignments; the reward rests in the frequency with which I can actually see, in those assignments, the students making connections, tossing away old habits, and improving their skills.

Difficult questions structure the semester. They’re designed for the interdisciplinary approach I encountered years ago. If securing food has been man’s largest preoccupation for the last 10,000 years, what does it mean that most of us are no longer involved in food production? How does food simultaneously reinforce and break down boundaries between races, ethnicities, and social classes?  Sometimes, the discussions around the table become so energetic I walk out of the classroom exhausted. Other times, the room resists a reading or a perspective, and I immediately recognize the skepticism I brought to challenging situations when I was a first-year.

Perhaps it’s the subject I’ve chosen, or perhaps it’s an idiosyncrasy of the group I last taught, but above all I admired the class’s honesty and vulnerability about these questions: their responses to the pressing environmental and human issues, the compromises they could and could not imagine themselves making in light of those issues, and what their instincts told them about why sitting down at the table is simultaneously a source of joy and guilt. Without knowing it, they have informed and deepened my own work.