Ticklish Ears

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University Academic Experience

Believe it or not, we had our first Freshman orientation today. It’s smaller than the ones that take place in June, and it’s only one day, whereas the others will be two-day events. This one is designed generally for kids who are closer by (say within 50 miles or so), although I met one student from Charleston, SC, and another from New Jersey.

Anyway, one of the ways that faculty get involved in orientation is through the University Academic Experience (UAE). This is a 50 minute session where a faculty member talks to a group of 10 or 12 students about college academic life and runs through a simulation of a class. I’ve been involved in UAEs for the past couple of summers, but I knew this would be a busy summer, so I only signed up for the April session.

I began with the usual pleasantries (who are you, what are you majoring in, yada, yada). The I had them break up into groups of three and four for a roundtable exercise. They had a piece of paper that they were to pass around and write answers to this question: How will the academic experience be different in college than it was in high school?

It went better than I expected, and I got some surprisingly accurate answers - for example, I got several answers dealing with independence and self-discipline.

We discussed those for a while, then I handed them a sample syllabus (for my Software Design course - about as “normal” as I could come up with). I also gave them a list of suggestions for how to succeed at Western (e.g., take notes, visit your professor, make use of the Writing Center and other such resources). I talked through each item on the list and asked for questions.

I think it’s good to expose students to all this before they begin college, but I’m not sure how persistent the information is. There is so much else bombarding them when they get here in August, and for many it’s a terrible culture shock. Follow-up is critical, and I think that might be where the university is falling down on the job.

We used to require them to take a course their first semester called the University Experience, but that requirement disappeared a few years ago. We do have Freshman First-Year Seminars and Learning Communities, but they don’t seem to be getting the message across. The problem is more fundamental, and what’s really required is a sea change in the way the academy is run. We’re trying to force these fixes into a broken model. Wow! This is getting more dramatic than I intended. I’ll try to take on the “broken model” in the near future (another of my many promised posts).
I’ll also discuss the second part of the UAE (the “classroom simulation”) in a later post. This one’s getting a tad long.

In spite of my misgivings about how much students retain from the UAE, I still applaud the Admissions Office for keeping academics in the orientation.

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