Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Freshman Seminars and the Tyranny of Transfer

Every so often, an enterprising professor proposes that we establish some team-taught interdisciplinary freshman seminars, both to stimulate student interest (read: retention) and to stimulate faculty interest (by breaking the monotony of teaching yet another section of the same intro course). It’s a great idea, I’d love to do it, but we can’t.

As a two-year school in an affluent area, we live and die by transfer. If a given course doesn’t transfer cleanly to the relevant four-year schools, we can’t do it. And, for reasons known only to them, four-year schools don’t accept our interdisciplinary offerings (even though they have no problem with their own, even in the freshman year).

Sometimes they’ll try to finesse the transfer issue by accepting a course as a ‘free’ elective. This sounds okay, until you realize that they’re classifying 24 credits as ‘free’ electives, and their program only accepts 12. In effect, they’ve disallowed twelve credits, without actually owning up to doing so. ‘Free elective’ status is where credits go to die.

I don’t think it’s a ‘quality’ issue. I t.a.’d at a respected university as a grad student, and can say with confidence that a student who gets a small intro class with a real professor here gets at least as much, if not more, than a student in a lecture hall of 300 at State U. (Esp. when a t.a. does the discussion sections and grading!) In a team-taught course, this would be even more true.

It isn’t an issue of ‘giving away’ credits, either, since the local four-year schools accept a full two years from students who stick to the traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Honestly, other than a certain obtuseness in admissions departments, I don’t know what the reason is. Class snobbery, maybe? Maybe freshman seminars are intended only for residential, as opposed to commuter, students? (If that’s the case, the argument strikes me as a very slippery slope!) In trying to negotiate ‘articulation agreements’ with some local four-year schools, I’ve run repeatedly into issues of internal governance. Even if a dean or provost wants to accept our students as juniors, the faculty in a given department frequently block the courses, claiming ‘academic integrity.’ I’ve seen the way some of those schools teach their intro courses: academic integrity is not the issue. Other than either snobbery or turf, I can’t explain it.

I understand the virtue of the traditional disciplinary intro courses, and certainly wouldn’t advocate moving away from all of them. But if a student were to replace, say, a traditional, discipline-based elective with an interdisciplinary, theme-driven course, I just don’t see the academic issue.

Oddly enough, at a two-year college, new preps are actually exercises in faculty renewal. Between the truncated curriculum and the reality of attrition, faculty spend most of their time teaching the same intro course, over and over again, indefinitely. A team-taught seminar would give them a rare chance to take a fresh look at their teaching.

(Full disclosure: for four semesters, I team-taught a course at my previous school with someone from a different, but related, discipline. It was incredibly valuable as a development experience, and, on good days, was one of the best courses I’ve ever taught.)

Do other folks at two-year schools have this problem? Can anyone at a four-year school enlighten me as to the reasons for this?

I can't provide any real insight about why four-year institutions won't accept interdisciplinary first-year courses. But I can tell you that the problem is not confined to two-year institutions.

I teach at a four-year regional campus of a state university system. A fair number of our students transfer to the main campus after 1, 2, or even 3 years. Quite consistently some of our courses are not accepted for transfer credit, and interdisciplinary courses, at any level, are almost certain not to be accepted.

So you're not alone.
Our Millenium Scholars program (www.montgomerycollege.edu)offers something like what you're talking about--interdisciplinary, team-taught courses. I'm not certain about the particulars of transferability, but I'm sure that it's there.
Our learning communities (well, anyone's learning community)take existing courses and develop interdisciplinary approaches to them, so depending on the two courses, the student will or won't have transferable credits. For instance, our EN 102 transfers as the freshman comp course at the U of Maryland. Twinning that with another course, let's say, Clowning 101 (I'm making this one up), which would not transfer to the U as anything other than an elective, means that the student won't lose the freshman comp class because the two courses remain distinct.
I would comment on this, but the nature of the interdisciplinary programs at my SNEPU is unique and nationally recognized, and talking about it here would disclose my secret location (but maybe I'll e-mail you about it later...)
By the way, I used the title of this post to compose a Cento poem. Check it out on my blog!
Adjunct Kait
I'm not sure of the justification either, but what you say isn't surprising. My previous institution had an interdisciplinary first-year course and I suspect it wouldn't transfer to other schools very well (I'm not sure what the school would have done about taking other peoples' versions). The only thing I can think of is that in my previous institution, the first-year interdisciplinary seminar had a socializing function as well as academic one - introducing students to the community and creating a bond between them - the kind of function that wouldn't really transfer to another school. I'm not saying this is a good reason, nor do I even know that this actually *is* a reason behind the way schools treat these courses, but it's the one thing that occurs to me.
New Kid -- good point! Some schools do a college skills/freshman orientation/group bonding thing in the first semester, and give credit for that. It wouldn't be surprising if they, knowing the fluffiness of what they're teaching, assumed that everyone else's interdisciplinary stuff was fluffy, too. I hadn't thought of that, but it makes sense. Thanks!

Doc -- solidarity!

Joanna -- I don't know that program; I'll check it out. Thanks for the info.

Adjunct Kait -- I'm flattered. On the meme you sent my way a week ago, I mentioned Kristin Hersh, late of the Throwing Muses. Does this make me a Blogging Muse? Very cool. Suburban Dads don't usually get to be muses.
Interdisciplinary courses almost never transfer anywhere -- it's not a slam on 2-year places -- unless you can convince a department to back you up with paperwork that says they'll accept the course for their major (which usually requires substantial paperwork from the original institution).

It also makes it harder to offer history courses that don't divide in all the same places.
Doc, muses were lady people and you aren't. You may muse or create music but, bemusingly, you'd look out of place among them! :)

Re transfer. It's a case of appearing to fill squares with an accreditation-agency axe hanging over your head. If the offered course doesn't demonstrably and defensibly fit, well enough that you can convince a doctrinaire examiner during reaccreditation, you disallow the transfer.

I say doctrinaire because I owe my present adjunct status to a sentence from an accrediting association. The previous adjunct was doing wonderfully at Intro to Psychology but his 18 hours were in Counseling Psychology. So the school had to find someone with 18 hours with a Psych prefix. ... That adjunct was experienced, known, local, and prepared. I was inexperienced, unknown, 50 miles away, and caught flatfooted (Can you come pick up this course? Today at 3 pm?)

So what you deplore is an artifact of arbitrary policy two levels away. ... Or do both reflect a certain mindlessness and unwillingness to accept risk (read get fired and have to find another job in a down market) on the part of rather financially insecure folk?
always amusing, never a muse...

The accreditation thing is beginning to look more important than I had realized. Thanks for the tip!
we do interdisciplinary courses, but make sure the credits transfer separately.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?