Does life exist on other planets? What does Lil Wayne have in common with Dostoyevsky? Who invented satire, and what has Jon Stewart done to it? These are the kinds of questions that first-year students get to wrestle with in the Freshman Seminar, Vassar’s answer to the traditional freshman comp course. Instead of 660 freshmen all taking the same writing course, they get to choose from provocative course descriptions in departments ranging from biology to art history.
“The seminars tend to be a little quirky,” says professor of astronomy Debra Elmegreen, who created the course “Life in the Universe” when she first arrived at Vassar over 20 years ago. “They take odd little topics that you might not think about having for a whole course. It’s a way for freshmen to jump into something, whatever it is, and attack it at a deeper level than they may be used to doing.”
Elmegreen says her favorite part of teaching is seeing her students take on “those unanswerable but intriguing questions,” and not surprisingly, her course topics often provoke interesting classroom conversations. Throughout her “Life in the Universe” seminar, students are challenged to go beyond their initial assumptions and work with real NASA data to make calculations and develop rational arguments.
Curtis Dozier, visiting assistant professor of classics, says, “The writing seminars draw on faculty from across the whole curriculum, so it shows how seriously members of all disciplines at Vassar take writing, and how they see it as relevant to their fields.” In his freshman seminar “Satire from Archilochus to the Daily Show,” Dozier looks at the ancient origins of satire as well as modern examples such as theonion.com, Saturday Night Live, and the Colbert Report. “The Romans actually thought that they invented satire. In the course, we’ll look at some ancient examples of satire and see what they can tell us about how satire works in our own time.”
Dozier sees the writing seminar as a way for students to develop individually while also becoming members of their first scholarly community. “At the beginning there’s a certain amount of apprehension and excitement about being mixed together. A writing seminar can serve as a place where students can safely express what their college experience is shaping up to be.” Dozier aims to create a “community of scholars” who are comfortable exchanging ideas and also presenting them logically and clearly. “Writing is often conceived of as something that’s just between you and your teacher. It’s very important to start developing the kind of writing, and the kind of writing habits, that lend themselves to participating in a broader community.”
Assistant professor of English Kiese Laymon started a buzz on campus with the upper-level course, “Because Dave Chappelle Said So.” This year, he’s teaching a freshman seminar titled “Hip Hop and Critical Culture,” an equally thought-provoking exploration into music, race, and other aspects of culture today. “We take the music that students are listening to and dancing to, and we slow it down a little. We ask questions about what it actually says to us, what we hear, and what we may not hear.”
The course taught Raymon Azcona ’12 to think about the music in a broader way, which in turn broadened his approach to writing: “The conversation, the writing, everything about the class was very unconventional. Professor Laymon pushed us to think not just about the lyrics of the song but the beat, the CD cover, the video, and to analyze everything.”
Azcona, like many students, found himself a little culture-shocked when he first arrived on Vassar’s pastoral campus. “I was unsure of myself when I started my freshman year. Coming from an urban environment, a public school, I wasn’t sure if I could keep up with everyone else.”
But in fact, the diverse experiences of the students contribute to the richness of the discussions. Says Laymon, “You get different people from different places, different races, different orientations in the room, and that makes me optimistic about the kind of wonder that will eventually happen. A lot of folks I’ve met felt like home needed to be left at home. One of the things I try to do as a teacher is encourage them to bring home with them.”
More than a year after completing the course, Azcona is now revisiting his papers and preparing to submit a few for publication. “The freshman writing experience, for me, was very important. Being able to speak to Professor Laymon, on a daily basis sometimes, helped me to trust my writing and myself.”