Teaching a first-year seminar affords faculty the opportunity to explore their interests and expertise and to connect with first-year students in a way usually associated only with senior-level work. Part of the challenge of teaching a first-year seminar is balancing the seminar’s distinctive blend of subject matter, writing instruction, and advising. As faculty members teaching these courses, we often struggle to find the time to fit together the content we love, the writing goals we know are essential, and the advising moments vital to the academic lives of our students. The trick to finding the time for so many worthy goals is not to have the three aspects of the seminar compete with each other, but rather to have them work together. For the last two years, I have found a way to begin to do this even before a single first-year student has arrived on campus.
As advisors, first-year seminar faculty get to know their students well in a matter of weeks. I wanted to speed up the process and get to know my advisees before they came to campus. Thanks to Middlebury College’s own course-management tool, SEGUE, the students in my last two “Jane Austen and Film” seminars learned about each other, discussed the content of our course, and displayed their writing skills on line before they packed their bags and left home.
Because of the ease of the SEGUE interface and because most of the entering first-years are computer savvy, my instructions for entering the on-line discussion were brief:
Log onto our segue site with your Middlebury user name and password. Once you are on the Segue site, click on Summer Assignment, click discuss, and then new post, and then you can type in the box or upload a file with your response. After you have responded yourself, check back and try responding to two other students’ responses.
In early August, I wrote to my students (both by e-mail and by snail mail), and asked them to respond on line to four questions before they came to campus, and to respond to each other’s answers before they came to class. The questions ranged from academic to personal. Here are the questions I asked this year:
1. Tell us what you know about Jane Austen. Do you know anything about her life or when she wrote? If you don’t know anything about her, that’s fine–just say so. Why was Jane Austen & Film one of your first-year seminar choices?
2. Which novels by Jane Austen have you read before? Did you read them in school? On your own? As part of a book group or club? If so, which of the novels did you like best, or find most entertaining or provocative? Why? If you have never read a Jane Austen novel before, tell us another novel that you like or that you have found entertaining or provocative, and why.
3. Have you seen any of the film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels? Have you seen any modern film adaptation of Austen novels, such as Clueless or Bridget Jones’s Diary, or Bride and Prejudice? If so, which did you like best, or which did you find most entertaining or provocative? Why? If you have never seen an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, tell us another film that you like or that you have found entertaining or provocative, and why.
4. Now tell us a bit about yourself. Where do you come from, and how did you end up coming to Middlebury? How would a family member, close friend, special teacher or mentor describe you? What are some subjects you want to study at Middlebury? What are your interests and passions outside of class? What do you wish you could bring with you to Middlebury that you cannot bring? Tell us anything else you want about yourself that will help us get to know you better.
The three-week electronic discussion that followed these questions revealed students’ prior knowledge of Jane Austen and prior knowledge of film and novel genres as well as their academic aspirations and personal interests. From across the country and around the world, my students debated the merits of the 1995 and the 2005 film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and vowed to attend each other’s games and to debate each other about politics, the NFL and Keira Knightley’s performance when they hit campus. While students posted with each other, I wrote to them on our course blog, where I was able to track them checking in on our blog from across the globe.
This year, reading my students’ comments allowed me time to make changes in my syllabus and move some of my film showings around because I knew which Jane Austen novels most of my students had read in advance. My students’ 59 summer posts helped make our class a community before any of us met face to face. Now that we have put faces to names, our discussions about Jane Austen, writing and life continue in the classroom, in my office, over a movie, in the dorms, and yes, they continue on line, too.