I smile nervously at the fourteen other freshmen who line the hallway. We all filter into the classroom, picking out our seats and pulling out fresh notebooks. Yesterday, we were part of an orientation squad. Today, we’re starting our first class as Amherst students: the first-year seminar.
Under Amherst’s open curriculum, the first-year seminar is the one academic experience all first-year students share. According to the Amherst College website, first-year seminars “will have an enrollment limit of 15 and will provide discussion-based classes; writing-attentive instruction with frequent and varied assignments; close reading and critical interpretation of written texts; and careful attention to the development and analysis of argument in speech and writing.” The aim of these courses is to prepare new students for college-level work and writing.
But does every Amherst student come out of their first-year seminar with these skills? After interviewing administrators, professors, and students, it became clear that these courses vary wildly in the amount of writing expected and support offered. While many students leave their seminars prepared for college-level courses and writing, others do not feel the same.
The First-Year Seminar Committee — composed of Professor of Sexuality, Women’s, and Gender Studies Katrina Karkazis; Professor of Anthropology Christopher Dole; Bertrand H. Snell 1894 Professor in American Government in the Department of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Martha Umphrey; and Director of the Writing Center Jessica Kem — determines the list of seminars offered each academic year after first putting out a call for professors interested in teaching a seminar.
“We do a lot of advertising. We try to find a range of people who might be interested in teaching these courses,” Umphrey said. However, seminars tend not to be focused on STEM-related topics.
“Because of the enrollment pressures in the STEM fields, most of the STEM departments cannot put forward very many first-year seminars,” Epstein explained, “So, in practice, most first-year seminars, but not all, are taught by professors in the humanities [and] the arts [and] the social sciences.”
Professors have few restrictions when creating curricula besides the general guideline that their classes should develop students’ writing skills.
“I had complete license. I was able to do whatever I wanted. It was really fun,” Professor of Geology Rachel Bernard said.
If a seminar did not have an emphasis on writing, the Committee would look into the situation, Epstein said. However, without quantifiable expectations, it is not clear what exactly a class that emphasizes writing looks like, and there are no obvious mechanisms by which the Committee would make this determination.
After talking to various first-years about their experience, a clear pattern emerged: seminars that work well tend to have lots of support and resources available to students for writing.
Marvin Oprean ’27 took a class called Encounters with Nature taught by William McCall Vickery 1957 Professor of the History of Art Nicola Courtright. “The good thing about this professor is that she allows rewrites for the essays, so once you get your grade back [you can] improve on your mistakes,” Oprean said.
Professors also adapted their teaching style and assignments to the challenges that come with first-years with a range of previous experiences in the classroom.
“There are some students who come from very large schools who have never spoken in class, and some of them come from small classes who have poetic writing gifts but haven’t yet developed the analytical [writing], or vice versa,” Professor of the History of Art Natasha Staller said.
Professor of Political Science Jonathan Obert has adjusted his approach to teaching his first-year seminar, Violence and Politics, over many years.
“I had this notion that you really needed to master the content,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve gotten much less worried about that. I’m much more interested in helping students ask questions, just learn how to ask the right kind of questions.”
Obert assigns a 10-to-15 page paper in his class but breaks it down into smaller assignments so students have more support. Students start with bibliographies, then move on to topics, literature reviews, and eventually drafts.
“I don’t feel like [a semester is] enough time to transform [students] from being average writer[s] or thinker[s] to doing exceptional work.” Obert said. “It’s more to provide them tools, which then hopefully they’ll be able to practice [in future classes].”
Alfred Sargent Lee ’41 and Mary Farley Ames Lee Professor of Black Studies and Chair of Black Studies Olufemi Vaughan believes that first-year students need to spend lots of time understanding the context and concepts around the material of his Africa and the Globalization of Football seminar before they can start their weekly writing assignment. He factored that in when he designed the course.
“I don’t just simply teach the class as a simple, straightforward seminar,” Vaughan explained. “I give them extra [in the first class of the week], explain the concepts, explain the context.”
Oprean is an international student and said that the seminar helped him not only improve his writing, but also helped him acclimate to American-style education.
“I definitely improved on my writing abilities because it has been a few years since I’ve read a lot of texts, especially older texts, texts from different cultures. Because it's not usually something we do outside of the U.S.,” he said.
What Doesn’t Work
While many students had positive and beneficial experiences in their first-year seminar, others were left wishing they had gained more from their courses. Many students wished that expectations for the course were made clearer from the start.
Khadija Doha ’27 expressed a desire for more explicit instructions for writing assignments.
“I would like a rubric,” she said. “A lot of this first-year seminar was coming up with my own points instead of having the structure I had in high school.”
Ben Tamburri ’27 said that his seminar, Goya and His World, “definitely helped [him] adjust to some of the nuances that come with [college-level writing] that aren’t always apparent in high school,” but remembered that there was a learning curve at the beginning of the semester.
“We’re just thrown right into it, which there’s good and bad to that,” he said. “It’s easy for this being your first class and your first dive into the college world to get lost.”
Dakota Costa ’27 felt frustrated that there was no set syllabus for her seminar, Political Autobiography. Instead, homework was assigned the class before it was due.
“I had no idea what we were doing next,” she said. “And sometimes you want to prepare.”
Costa also said that she did not feel prepared for college-level writing. There was only one writing assignment at the end of the course, an eight-to-12-page autobiography about herself, and it was worth 40 percent of her grade.
“We didn’t do any writing assignments [beforehand],” she said. “So I did feel unprepared when it came to my first essay in one of my other classes the same semester.”
While not all felt that first-year seminars achieved the goal of preparing freshmen for college-level work and writing, across the board, students and professors felt that the first seminars established a strong community essential for getting acclimated to a new environment.
“One of my main goals in the first-year seminar is to help foster a sense of community,” Bernard said. “[Especially in] that first semester of college, where it can be really hard to find that and make friends. So just having a class where it’s pretty comfortable. You know everyone.”
“I made a lot of friends,” Annalise Knop ’27 said. “I see people for my seminar all the time. So I think that it really helped.”
Professors also form long-term relationships with students in their first-year seminar. “Students take your classes, and they go away, and then you never get to see them again,” Vaughan said. “But with first-year seminars, you get to see quite a bit of them again, and in a number of cases they actually show up and take [more] courses with you.”
Staller said she has even attended some of her former first-year seminar students’ weddings.
First-year seminars successfully help students adjust to being a part of the Amherst community, and many also feel that they prepare students for college-level work. But a portion of freshmen still do not take away the writing skills and experience that the college hopes they will. The level of variability from seminar to seminar means that not all students leave feeling prepared for future coursework. Reforms to the first-year seminar system, such as having the First-Year Seminar Committee review syllabi or having an avenue for students to provide feedback, would ensure that seminars achieve their mission of developing all first-years’ writing skills.