By Ellie Schuckman
It’s 1989 and Trenton State College is undergoing an academic overhaul. President Harold Eickhoff has recently appointed a task force to analyze the current general education requirements and create a new program incorporating the idea of liberal education.
Fast forward to 2015 and, ultimately, the First Seminar Program (FSP) has become a staple of the freshman year experience at the College. But how did we get here?
In the 26 years since the General Education Advisory Council (GEAC) began, many changes have been seen. The one thing in common, however, is the development of FSP courses.
“We didn’t have any kind of a core course of any sort,” said Robert Anderson, the director of general education at the time, who also served on the GEAC. “We were around the table and we said, ‘Let’s think hard. What was not what you think was supposed to be the best form of education, but what kind of classroom experiences, educational experiences, did you get the most out of when you were a student?’ Someone said, ‘A good lecture where the person knows what they’re talking about, (and) maybe has some humor from time to time.’”
The result of their deliberation was the creation of two freshman core courses — “Humanities and Ideals” and “Changes in Society.” Broken into two sections because there were too many students, each class met once a week in Kendall Hall for a large lecture followed by smaller breakout sessions with professors.
First implemented in 1993, flaws in the new program quickly began to show.
“It was not well received,” Anderson said. “It did everything but reflect the spirit of this institution that doesn’t have large lectures.”
Anderson detailed how instead of engaging students in discussion, the courses got them annoyed and bored them to sleep. He also noted how professors themselves felt like they were not doing much in the breakout sessions, and that the real teaching was being done through a lecture.
“The worst thing is when everybody’s supposed to talk and half of them don’t know what they’re talking about,” Anderson said. “So, it might be good for the student, but it’s not interesting, it’s not fun to be in.”
For the next academic school year, 1994-’95, slight changes were seen in an attempt to please the masses. Now, videos were taken of each lecture and professors had the opportunity to play clips from them during the classes, which now met twice a week. However, the program still failed to garner interest. According to Anderson, Eickhoff instructed the GEAC to contrive a better, more engaging plan.
In February of ’95, Richard Kamber, the dean of Arts and Sciences at the time, called for a special committee consisting of members of the GEAC and other faculty members to contrive a new program. Their task was to “create a single course that would replace the two core courses and that would provide a better experience than the two others combined,” according to information provided by Anderson.
By that April, “Athens to New York” was created.
A system based on the idea of having many small classes with a central theme, the course gave professors “maximum flexibility” to craft their lessons while still having an overarching focus for all freshmen. Professors were instructed to begin their course with discussion of Ancient Athens and end in contemporary New York, yet could go relatively anywhere in between.
At this time, a service learning program was added into the first year experience, as was the idea of a “living-learning” community. The majority of the “Athens to New York” classes were held in Travers and Wolfe halls, embracing the concept of students learning right from the comfort of their dorms. These programs later became what we know today as Community Engaged Learning (CEL) and is what sparked organizing housing based on an individual’s FSP class.
“Some complained we were encroaching on their space, but when we did some focus group stuff, it was clear that the thing they liked best about the whole course was that it was in their dorm room,” Anderson said. “(It was) not what we were hoping (it would be).”
While “Athens to New York” was largely seen as being beneficial, some felt the course wasn’t all it was hyped up to be, with about two thirds of the classes being taught by adjunct professors.
By the early 2000s, it became clear that the College could no longer progress without serious changes to academic requirements — faculty simply had too much of a teaching load.
With those concerns, in stepped Stephen Briggs in 2001, the new provost of Academic Affairs.
According to Anderson, Briggs suggested that students take fewer courses — an idea first seen as intriguing. For the reduction to not impact the quality of the courses, they themselves had to be transformed. Students would now take four courses per semester and faculty would now teach three. To accomplish this overall, all majors needed to have fewer courses and the general education program needed to be more compact.
The Committee on Academic Programs (CAP), headed by Kamber, met to discuss and further implement these changes.
“We knew we couldn’t do this in one foul swoop, because we knew we’d be running two programs for awhile,” Anderson said.
As the changes took place over roughly a two-year period, the new program was called Liberal Learning, as to not be confused with the old general education program. The name still stands today.
With the reduction of courses required, the increasingly controversial “Athens to New York” course had to be abandoned. President R. Barbara Gitenstein, who took over the position in 1999, tasked CAP to make a new program that would be “innovative, maximize student choice, integrate it as much as possible into major programs and to make it simple.”
Here, the FSP requirement was born.
“The cornerstone of the course was to generate the love of learning… what we wanted faculty members to do was teach something that they really wanted to teach,” Anderson said. “The idea was to have faculty members teach their passion.”
Starting in 2003, all entering freshmen in their first semester at the College would be required to take a writing intensive course that incorporates community engaged learning and a living-learning community. With the living-learning community, those in the same FSP course are housed together.
“The most important difference between high school and college is not the courses… It’s not living at home with Mama and Papa anymore,” Anderson said. “The most important difference is the residential community.”
Anderson noted how students select six of over 90 FSP courses offered, and a computer program ultimately chooses the one to which they are enrolled. Of the six chosen, the program places the student into the course that the fewest others selected.
Starting this year, the College used a Qualtrics survey so students could rank their top six choices instead of just selecting them. According to FSP Coordinator Lisa Grimm, over 1,200 freshmen got one of their six choices.
“The idea behind the (goals of the FSP program) was to give students an opportunity to benefit from conversations that would be happening in the residence halls and to give faculty some kind of interesting flexibility in designing activities to engage students outside of the classroom,” she said.
She noted how the College is engaged in conversations to assess the goals of the living-learning community and to see how well students and professors are utilizing the opportunity. Also, by incorporating student rank in selecting the FSP course, the hope is to better work with housing to create a more effective way to integrate roommate preferences.
“We don’t want a situation where a student is placed into an FSP that they did not select because that’s not a good experience for the student,” Grimm said. “That’s not a good experience for the instructor.”
Once in an assigned FSP, a big component of the course is the community engaged learning. About half of the FSP courses are linked to the Bonner Institute for Civic and Community Engagement, allowing students to partake in CEL days which are then integrated with their course.
“I think the Community Engaged Learning program is a really great way to not only celebrate what we’ve done to get here, but also to show that we’re more than just a tiny little community,” said professor Samantha Atzeni, a former graduate of the College who teaches “The Hero and Trauma” FSP class. “You don’t ever want the ‘bubble’ in your college community, and the CEL helps us burst that bubble a little bit.”
While many believe the FSP classes as a whole are beneficial, some feel they aren’t all to which they appear.
“I feel that it’s unnecessary,” said freshman communication studies major Kevin Walsh, who is taking the “Academic Satire” FSP. “I think we could replace this writing intensive FSP with an actual writing intensive course… I think it’s uneven. There’s a lot of FSPs where it’s intensive course work and I have to work pretty hard to get my grade, but there are also FSPs that I’m hearing about where people pretty much do nothing and they get their A’s.”
Other students have expressed similar views, yet many feel the FSP classes can be worthwhile.
“I think it was a really good introductory class at the College… and then you were able to use that to transition into harder classes,” said junior communication studies major Kat Horiates, who took the “American Film Renaissance of the 1970’s” FSP class. “I thought it helped me develop my writing skills and… I feel like it helped me figure out that I really enjoy film and that kind of helped me find my major.”
No matter what opinions people have about the FSP courses, the premise of them is undeniable.
“When you’re a freshman, there’s so much at your disposal, it can get overwhelming,” Atzeni said. “I think to have some kind of stability your first semester is very important because at least you know you’re going to be taking a class with people you already know… It’s a nice little staple moment for you in the heat of all the craziness that comes from it.”