One of UO’s undergraduate FIG assistants remembers the first day of his own College Connections course: “The professor began the class asking us ‘Why are you here?’” The student, now a mentor to this year’s freshmen, was surprised—indeed, why hadn’t he taken a year off? What did he want? Was he just taking the expected next step? “Answering that question solidified a few things for me—made me think about actually wanting an education, really an education—not just that I wanted A’s.”
UO’s thriving Freshman Interest Group program—30 years old in 2012—influences the first-year experience of about one third of the University’s freshmen, who select from 60 or so provocative, imaginative topics like “The Examined Life,” “Students without Borders,” and “Radical Stirrings.” Then, in cohorts of 25, they take two regular general education courses and a dedicated one-credit College Connections seminar, usually taught by the instructor of one of their linked courses.
The College Connections seminars make visible the thematic overlap between the bigger courses and extend those class conversations, giving students creative entry points into the issues they raise and plugging them into key academic resources and habits of mind. About a third of the FIGs are residential—the students live in residence halls together with their peer mentors; all of them have special access to faculty through activities like dining or hiking together, or even participating in experiential learning trips like attending a play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or observing animal behavior at the Oregon National Primate Research Center and Oregon Zoo.
Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Marilyn Linton, who has led the program since the year 2000, says she looks for general education courses at the 100-, 200-, and 300-level, and connections between them, that “edify and delight—and they have to be rigorous.” All College Connections courses are taught by experienced research and teaching faculty, she adds.
FIG students regularly outperform their predicted first-year GPAs and the GPAs of non-FIG students with similar high school grades and SAT scores; they have a first-year retention rate that’s significantly higher than non-FIG first-time freshmen (at 89.6 percent, about six percentage points higher in the most recent statistics prepared by UO’s Office of Institutional Research).
And, according to FIG faculty, these students—eager, well supported—can be a joy to teach and drivers of pedagogical change. Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology Loren Kajikawa recounts an opening day of his 200-student MUS 360: “History of Hip Hop Music” course, which included students in a FIG cohort. “I was making a point about a song—Jay-Z’s ‘D’Evils’—using that single song to illustrate what the course was about.”
Kajikawa jokingly asked if anybody wanted to demonstrate Jay-Z’s famously nuanced style. One of his FIG students stood and rapped the song’s entire first verse. “He hadn’t yet discovered that he could have just sat in the back, gotten a grade, and gone home—he was on the edge of his seat—ready to go. There’s no limit to what these students will do—what a beautiful moment,” Kajikawa mused.
Leigh Anne Jasheway, an adjunct instructor in the School of Journalism and Communication, is preparing to teach her first FIG, “College: A Screwball Comedy,” which will link Journalism 201: “Media and Society” and English 265: “History of the Motion Picture.” Jasheway, a comedian and writer, thinks knowing how to have a good laugh should be considered an academic survival skill.
“Yes, but” is a common rhetoric gesture in academic discourse, she says, intoning “Yes, I hear you, but here’s my opinion and it’s better because….” In improvisational comedy, on the other hand, performers play by a “yes, and” principle, flexibly integrating ideas from all members of the troupe. She plans to ask her students to try improvisational games, like one of her favorites, “World’s Worst,” in which actors instantly respond to occupations or hobbies shouted by the audience. “World’s Worst… skydiver,” Jasheway laughs. “Perfectionism alone isn’t going to be the thing that gets student where they want to be,” she says. “My students sometimes only see a failure, say, a bad grade, as the end of something, not as a challenge, not as a new start.” She says she wants to change that, and give her freshmen training in collaboration, intellectual risk taking, and even analysis of the sources of “fun” and humor—does it emanate from meanness or drunken ritual, or wit and empowerment?
Challenging students to think critically about how they approach their studies and the very role of “student” is a common approach among FIG faculty. Not only does the program build in occasions for library research, compelling student projects, and careful academic planning—helping students learn how to learn—but also its faculty often talk explicitly about the purpose of higher education, academe’s conventions and breaking those conventions, and the power of disciplinary tools when used in service of students’ own questions.
“I understand that most of you aren’t going to go on to study sociology, but every one of you can take away critical thinking skills and a sense of personal empowerment,” Associate Professor Michael Dreiling, a longtime FIG faculty member, tells his students. “Every one of you can understand that, while our choices may be circumscribed by forces outside of our control, we can also explore the power we have individually and collectively to push back on those forces,” he adds.
Everything about Dreiling’s teaching prepares students for that key lesson. For example, they experiment with “norm violations” like identifying and breaking an unspoken behavioral rule, or importing an everyday practice from another culture into a new context. Dreiling’s students analyze their own reactions to these experiments, and the reactions of others around them; they consider how arbitrary norms are naturalized, and how people perform their membership in various communities. (He and his FIG cohort attended a UO football game and the group enjoyed analyzing the meaning encoded in the seemingly spontaneous motion of the crowd’s collective “wave.”)
As Dreiling approaches sociologists’ tools as valuable equipment for living, so too does Kevin Hatfield make students’ lives the stuff of history and history the stuff of students’ lives. On the first day of his College Connections seminar—which will be called “Past or Portal” in Fall 2013 and co-taught with University Historian and Archivist Jennifer O’Neal—Hatfield, adjunct assistant professor of history and Residence Life’s Assistant Director for Academic Initiatives, asks students about their experiences as learners of history, both in the classroom and around kitchen tables or through tourism.
He says wants to get students’ assumptions out in the open, and make a clear break from teaching styles centered on students memorizing and repeating facts. Instead, he tells them they’ll approach the course with “agency, as living historical actors capturing their present experiences, and as historians interpreting past student life and culture.” Critical thinking and the pursuit of intriguing lines of inquiry is necessarily a “fragmentary and contradictory process,” he says. And students have to know to expect that. “Otherwise the shift from the textbook to framing questions and pursuing them through primary sources feels too unmooring.”
During the summer, before they begin as freshmen, Hatfield’s students read the diary of Lucile Saunders, a UO freshman in 1915, whose colorful account of her first year seems timeless. Them over the course of the FIG, students document their own experiences in any medium, and ultimately donate their work to the University Archives, where it becomes part of a permanent collection called “UO Documenting Freshman Experience Project.” Not only does the FIG invite students into the archive to discover what’s there, it also allows them to extend and revise that archive.
“What connections can we make?” Linton and other program administrators ask themselves, looking for thematic links to bring courses and faulty together—a habit of mind that FIGs help students develop, too, she points out. And the program fosters human connections: “One of our most important accomplishments is the creation of a community of faculty across disciplines and of a community of student academic leaders,” she says.
Assistant Professor of Classics Chris Eckerman says he’s looking forward to making and extending those connections. Thanks to the FIG program, he’s co-teaching for the first time, and with a friend, Assistant Professor of Linguistics Tyler Kendall. Their FIG, “Language Myths and Myths of Language,” combines mythology and linguistics courses, moving from the recurrence of mythic “name giver” figures to ancient philosophers’ interest in the origins of language and, ultimately, into modern day topics like “what is language, and are there usages that are ‘right’ and ‘wrong?’”
The two will teach the College Connections course together. “Students will be able to see that we’re learning from each other—that knowledge is dynamic. And in fact, the more we talk to one another, the more we realize how little we know. We can model the growth that comes from that conversation,” Eckerman says.
Even the one-credit course will be “ambitious,” Eckerman adds, gesturing toward a slender volume he and Kendall are considering assigning, Plato’s Cratylus—a dialogue about etymology and the “naturalness” of language. “This isn’t Disney stories about mythological gods—I want students to learn analytical approaches to help us engage not just with Greco-Roman religious thought, but with any socio-culture structure invested with the power of myth,” he says.
Eckerman remembers his own first steps toward Classics as a discipline: a friendly teacher at his high school with “punk” style taught a class in ancient Greek after school and invited him—he was intrigued and came along, developing an early interest in the language that became a long-term passion. Eckerman says he hopes that his students will leave the course with tools that will work across the curriculum and, ideally, some of the personal connection that drew him to give something surprising a try.
That collapsing of distance between teacher and student is crucial to the FIG program, the undergraduate FIG assistants (FAs) say. “‘You’re going to be taught by leaders in the field,’ students are told—but that’s very intimidating,” says one FA. Students need to see beyond “Doctor,” “Professor” titles—to see that faculty “aren’t just Einsteins who don’t want to be bothered,” she adds. The group praises the openness and outreach of their faculty, which, they say, humanizes faculty in general for the FIG students.
Linton points to her decision to focus the FA role around academics as important to the program—previously, they’d provided mostly social support: “We knew if we got the peer component right, the social aspects would follow.” Now FAs must have taken at least one of the two general education courses. In addition, they take TLC 408, a three-credit training course, with Linton; Assistant Director of First-Year Programs Amy Hughes Giard; and UO Libraries’ Barbara Jenkins the Spring before their first year on the job; then, in Fall, they attend all College Connections courses and activities, weekly meetings with their faculty and, separately, with Linton and Hughes Giard, for which they write reports reflecting on their experiences: “We select students with academic and leadership potential” Linton says. “And after a year on the job, they’re transformed—they’re never the same students they were coming in. They’re thinking about things they haven’t thought about before: ‘what is intellectual property; how do you manage a group; what is the value of a liberal arts education?’”
Assistant Professor Kajikawa says that working with the FA is one of the best parts of teaching in the program: “it’s a chance to extend a teaching relationship with a student already invested in the material.” And he gives his FAs significant freedom: they have the chance to lead class and design discussion activities, which challenges them “to think about what’s important about the material and how to really involve others in that.” Adjunct Instructor of Education Judy Francis, who teaches the “Thinking about Teaching” FIG agrees: “The FA position is a phenomenal leadership opportunity for students—really empowering. We decide together what we want to do and how. It’s a collaborative venture—that’s how I like to teach.”
The FAs say they feel well supported by the program as they work in turn to provide support to their freshmen. And they’re pleased that they can develop the relationship between academic and social life, which non-FIG students often experience as competing and in tension with each other.
“I had my student write out their biggest worries and things they were most excited for on index cards—the top worries were making friends, getting to know faculty, and wanting support picking majors. I was surprised at how well our training had anticipated what they needed,” says one FA.
Another FA points out that some degree of social support “frees students up to engage intellectually.” More than that, he continues, “there’s a culture at UO in which the social stuff isn’t connected with class—but academics can and should be social and fun.” Indeed, Associate Professor Dreiling has noted the power of that social and academic synergy—of teaching the whole student. The FIG social experiences are “riveted together with intention and intellectual content,” he says. And because of that, his FIG students are “ambitious in the course—they just get into it more,” he says, speculating that they feel more confident taking risks in part because they—the students and Dreiling himself—are doing it together.
‘It’s not just love—it’s fascination’
Every year, in Associate Professor of Anthropology Frances White’s “Animal Behavior” FIG, which she co-teaches with Senior Instructor of Biology Debbie Schlenoff, there are a couple of students she’ll eventually bring into her lab—new researchers with whom she’ll work shoulder to shoulder for four years, often through their own research projects, honors theses, and graduate school applications.
“I’m looking for the ones who light up. Who don’t just love animals, but are fascinated by them—who’ll watch them and say, ‘Oh, now that’s interesting,’” White says. Many come to the FIG because they’re “animal interested,” often because they’ve watched television nature shows. White takes them to the animals in person and teaches them how to look: “In lecture class I can define and describe, say, dominance, social structures, matrilineage, but until you watch a fight or a displacement in the field, you don’t get it—it’s just information,” she explains.
“In lecture, I might talk about ‘infant macaques,’” she continues. But when she takes her students to see about 250 snow monkeys living in a field at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, everybody trades the formal tone for one of joy: “‘Ah—isn’t that cute!’ is completely okay to say when you see a baby snow monkey bouncing around in the field. It’s part of developing an emotional understanding about what we’re learning,” White says.
It’s a connection White shares with her best students. “I could watch animals for hours. Now how do you spend your life watching animals? You become an academic,” she says with a smile. Some FIG students will follow her into the lab long term, all will tour it and be exposed to the possibility of serious undergraduate research. And all will be given a strong message: “you have to take responsibility for finding and following your own passions at this University—don’t be tentative,” she says. “Like faculty, students only have so much attention to give, but then I say to them in my maternal tone ‘You lot, pay attention—unless you engage, you’ll regret it,’” White warns.
Drivers of pedagogical change
“Having a FIG inspires me to search for avenues, even in large course environments, to connect with and hear from my students in authentic, human ways,” Dreiling says. He says it’s a fundamental shift in his expectations: now he expects to meet and know his students better. “The class must be more than lectures and exams,” he insists.
Kajikawa has drawn similar conclusions, developing a Facebook page for his students to continue the conversation about hip hop and its aesthetic, historical and political content, even after they complete the course. He says he now finishes his lecture course with group analyses of contemporary songs nominated as relevant by the students themselves—a teaching choice he attributes to the closer contact the FIG program had given him with students. “They help me keep my finger on the pulse of current hip hop culture, and I’m more aware of their tastes and interests. At the same time, they’re intensely aware of where I’m coming from—of what it means to be more than a fan. Even the theme of the FIG—‘Hip Hop and the Politics of Race’—frames and makes apparent a way to read this material,” he says.
White recalls multiple experiences overhearing her students talking with students in other FIGs on the bus, headed to one of their class fieldtrips: “The buses seat 80 people, so we always invite students in every FIG along. Sometimes I hear one of my students explain something—maybe it’ll be as simple as correcting someone who calls an ape a ‘monkey.’ They’ve learned something—and there they are teaching someone else. I wish every UO student were required to take a FIG—if they knew what they were missing, they would.”
Descriptions of all the Fall 2013 FIGS are available online. If you are interested in teaching a FIG in 2014, contact Marilyn Linton to start the conversation.