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Northwestern University

Fly-Fishing and the Freshman Seminar

Helping Students Cast into Deep Intellectual Waters

The Class

For almost 40 years, liberal arts students at Northwestern have shared this freshman experience: sitting around a table with a small group engaged in intense discussion about things that matter. On a chilly fall day, the 15 freshmen in Wendy Griswold’s African American literature class are part of the tradition. They have moved eight tables into a big rectangle in a University Hall classroom. Four students are wearing Wildcat purple. Six have laptops. All are listening intently, perhaps because they know they will be called upon. Even those who answer hesitantly may be amazed at their progress by the end of the quarter. Propelling them from where they are now—students fresh from high school—to where they need to be as Northwestern students—are these, the freshman seminars.

Their titles often stir the imagination: A Yen for Fly-fishing: Philosophy and Environmentalism from Midstream; A is for Afrofuturism; Anthropology of Time; Science/Pseudoscience/Hoaxes; and Harry Potter’s Medieval Origins. But that is just the beginning of what makes them distinctive. Two freshman seminars are required of most Weinberg students, one in fall quarter and one in the winter or spring. The fact that the College devotes considerable faculty time to the specially-crafted seminars is a point of pride and a rarity among peer institutions. Another Northwestern innovation is offering seminars across many departments, from English to economics to Spanish, from art history to chemistry to philosophy. All have dedicated instructors, many of whom are full professors. If the seminars work as planned, students will emerge more confident in their ability to think clearly, to read critically, and to write persuasively. A few may even find a direction, a passion, a piece of themselves they didn’t know existed.

Griswold’s class today contrasts the style and themes of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God with Richard Wright’s Native Son. Students sit behind tented pieces of notebook paper on which they have written their names. Griswold stands, dressed in black, her long scarf moving as she gestures. The energy in the class is palpable in this, the fourth week of class.

Says one female student, “Native Son is easier to read and more straightforward with less imagery. It paints a harsher picture of African American life.” A male student disagrees about the imagery. Perhaps it’s just a different kind of imagery, he conjectures. And the discussion begins, with Griswold, like a major league catcher, tossing their ideas gracefully back and forth around the infield of students, making sure each one is in the game.

Griswold, a sociologist, asks students to consider class and gender and demographic changes of mid20th century America. They’ve studied census and employment data to deepen their understanding of the Great Migration and prepare themselves for a richer and more complex discussion of the novels.

“I thought that it was going to be like a typical high school English class, but Professor Griswold made us think more intensely and passionately about what we were reading,” wrote a former Griswold student in evaluating the same class two years ago. “She will push you to your intellectual limits in the best possible way,” wrote another.

The Peer Adviser

The fall freshman seminar instructor is also the students’ first-year adviser. He or she helps students navigate through the system, often advising them on classes, registration, social and volunteer outlets, and suggesting professional resources for psychological counseling, should that become necessary. But even a seasoned teacher like Griswold admits that she can’t be all things to all students. She doesn’t understand the intricacies of online registration, for example. For this and other support she relies upon someone much closer to the students’ own age and experience: the peer adviser.

Laquita Brown, the daughter of a hard-working single mom, came from one of Chicago’s most distressed high schools, where she was an honors student. As a prospective biology major at Northwestern, she found daunting the differing expectations of her new school. Now a junior, she balances her pre-med status with a Spanish major, retaining her ambitions for medical school.

Because Brown struggled a bit at first Griswold saw in her a potentially empathetic and effective peer adviser. “I think the world of her,” Griswold says. “I thought she would be great as a peer adviser and she is wonderful. But she didn’t just sail through her first year.”

“I loved the small environment of my freshman seminar,” says Brown. “I loved the way Professor Griswold interacted with us. Her instruction prepared me for the writing I’m doing now. The class was a good transition for what I was to experience later.”

So far, Brown has spent hours helping freshmen move into their dorm, lugging boxes up five flights of stairs for some. She has held a tutorial on Caesar, the online registration system. She has offered students encouragement when they were struggling in their classes and has given them her cell phone number. She has suggested the Writing Center for extra help. Next on the agenda: a home-cooked meal Brown hopes to serve the group in her off-campus apartment.

The History

The seminars started in the history department in 1969 to encourage that discipline’s majors to take a more active role in their own education. They were a novel idea at the time.

“We had a sense of being innovators, of creating a wonderful new kind of connection with undergraduates,” says John McLane, Weinberg associate dean and history professor emeritus. “It’s not a coincidence that I and a number of my colleagues in history [who favored the seminars] had gone to colleges where we really knew the faculty well. I hardly ever ate a meal without faculty at the table because they lived in the dorm in the residential college.”

But the genesis of the seminars was not without controversy, he remembers. To bring something into the curriculum, something else had to go.

“Freshman seminars replaced Western Civilization and the U.S. Survey as requirements in the history department,” says McLane. “The argument was that in this new world, we needed a much more international focus. But without a core course in a field like history, students don’t have a shared vocabulary.”

Still, there was agreement that the seminars—groups of 15—were more effective than the old large lecture classes in teaching students to think critically and to write well. And so what began as an experiment in the history department spread to the other departments in the mid-‘70s, and remains today the launching pad of a stimulating Weinberg education.

In some ways, teaching a seminar is more challenging that teaching a lecture course, says McLane, who taught a popular freshman seminar on Vietnam when that war was at its peak, and has taught many since then. “You really have to pay attention to the individuals. You know very quickly if they don’t understand the material or they are not stimulated. In a lecture class of 200 or 300 students, you see their faces, but don’t know what’s going on behind them.”

The Writing

Robert Gundlach, founding director of Weinberg’s Writing Program and professor of linguistics, has been teaching freshman seminars for most of the 33 years he has been on campus. He underscores two reasons for their importance: “One is that you’re working with individual students to help them find a link between the subject matter and their own interests, and you’re trying to cultivate that development. For a scholar, it’s an opportunity to help beginning students who aren’t necessarily going to study in your field to understand some of the underlying themes of the work you care about most.

“Second, seminars are also are a powerful way to introduce students to the expectations of Northwestern,” says Gundlach.

He finds that no matter what their skill level when they enter, all students can be pushed to become better writers.

Many, he says, are not accustomed to writing about technical material from a point of view that offers an argument or thesis. That’s one of the things he emphasizes with students in his current seminar on language and childhood—the writer presenting material in order to make a point rather than merely summarizing what she read.

All freshman seminars are writing-intensive. There are no tests; evaluation is based on written work as well as class discussion. Much of the writing instruction, for Gundlach and other freshman seminar instructors, is conducted in frequent face-to-face meetings, usually over a draft the student wishes to revise.

“Revising is really re-seeing and re-thinking,” says Gundlach. “It’s where thinking more deeply and clarifying your points in writing come together.”

The results of this personal attention can be both striking and long-lasting. David Nyweide ’03, a former student of Gundlach, recently received a PhD in health policy from Dartmouth. He recalls the tremendous impact that Gundlach has made on his further education. “I should expect to see my writing style change over time,”  he wrote in a recent thank you to Gundlach. “But reading over the response papers and the writings related to the term paper made it quite apparent…. I realize how much time you invested in reading over my work from your comments in the margins and at the ends of the papers. It must take much patience to deal with college freshman writing!”

He goes on to thank his teacher for helping him see how the overall structure of a piece of writing knits together its key ideas logically and thoroughly. In turn, Gundlach’s instruction has inspired the careful feedback that Nyweide gives to his own students.

The Discoveries

Because the fall freshman seminar instructor is also the student’s first year adviser, a close relationship often develops between the two. For freshmen, it’s more than a professor greeting them in the hallway. It’s someone getting to know them well enough to point out possibilities for their future that even they hadn’t considered.

Jennifer Simpson ’08 remembers well her entry into life at Northwestern, as an aspiring pre-med student from Indian Springs School, a college preparatory in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father was a lawyer, her mom a television anchor, and most of her friends professed to being doctors- or lawyers-in-the-making.

“My parents didn’t pressure me but all my friends had high expectations of themselves and that rubbed off on me,” she says. Chemistry and calculus were sources of anxiety for her, until Gundlach met with her and really listened to her.

“It feels like everyone else knows what their future holds,” says Simpson. “But they really don’t; they are wearing masks. Professor Gundlach gave you a few minutes to not wear that mask. He created a safe space to explore other options.” With his guidance, she switched to majors in French and psychology, and is on her way to becoming a clinical psychologist, in a PhD program at the University of Virginia.

“I am studying anxiety disorders, which is very fitting, since we are talking about my freaking out freshman year,” she says with a laugh.

Simpson would counsel this year’s freshmen to take advantage of the seminars and advisers: “Give yourself room to explore, because what you can become is greater than anything you are imagining now.”

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