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?