Amherst Magazine

Seminars to Change

By Emily Gold Boutilier

In an effort to produce better writers and arguers, changes are coming to the First-Year Seminar Program.  
For more than 10 years, a first-year seminar has been the only course that every Amherst student is required to take. The seminars address quirky topics—“Secrets and Lies,” “Strange Russian Writers” and “Bad Science,” to name three fall offerings—that reflect the interests of the instructors. The courses will continue to be faculty-driven, but starting this fall, they’ll also follow a set of common principles: Each instructor will provide commentary on frequent and varied writing assignments. Each seminar will be discussion-based. Each will focus on close reading of texts and on the development of skills in written and oral argument.

Today’s students come from a secondary school system that does not often emphasize critical reading and oral argument, says Dale Peterson, the Eliza J. Clark Folger Professor of English and Russian. As compared to previous generations, he says, current Amherst students are, by and large, less prepared to express their views effectively and to follow and summarize arguments. Peterson chaired the faculty committee that studied the seminar program, reviewed surveys of students and faculty and recommended the changes, which the faculty approved last spring. From now on, professional associates from the Writing Center will offer workshops in the first-year seminars and work individually with students who need extra help.

The committee also reported that it’s an annual struggle to staff the seminars and that many regular instructors are nearing retirement. Peterson says the problem stems from academia’s emphasis on early specialization, which can make it seem “very forbidding” for an untenured professor to take on a non-departmental course. At the same time, he said, Amherst has a long tradition of collaborative and interdisciplinary teaching, with many faculty members seeking to pursue their own intellectual interests outside their regular departmental assignments. The committee suggested voluntary pedagogical workshops and other incentives to help recruit faculty to the program.