FSEM Musings

Last week, Steve blogged about a meeting that I was also in at which a group of us tackled the program for an upcoming workshop at the University for faculty teaching freshman seminars next year.

I had to miss the meeting that preceded this one in which a smaller group had kicked off the conversation, so I wasn’t entirely sure what role anyone was imagining for DTLT at the workshop. Much of what I heard going into the meeting about how people were imagining this workshop didn’t really resonate with me. The program seemed rather conventional, with representatives from different service organizations coming to talk about what they could do to support FSEM faculty.

On a fundamental level, I know that DTLT has lots to offer FSEMs. Over the last few years, we’ve worked with many of these courses, and suggested ways in which technology could enhance or complement the goals of the class. That said, there was no really specific role for technology that I could speak to.

To a certain degree, this has to do with the way FSEMs are currently defined at UMW. All of the other service organizations — the Speaking Center, the Writing Center, the Library — “own” a part of the FSEM agenda. The courses are required to include certain kinds of speaking, writing, and research activities. However, technology is not explicitly defined as a part of an FSEM. As a result, I couldn’t walk into this meeting like some of my colleagues with a list of skills or pedagogical goals that DTLT could help faculty to infuse their courses with. I have some of my own ideas about how and why technology should be incorporated into more FSEMs, but those are my ideas — not the institutions.

(I should also mention that at the same time that I would love to see digital technologies and communication as a core element of FSEMs, I have some real concerns about how that would play out in the institution. The core skills or values that we talk about when we talk about writing, speaking, and researching have a certain amount of respectability in the academy that technology still lacks, at this time. In addition, there is an expectation that all faculty not only respect these skills but are skilled practitioners of them. Consequently, the role of those other service organizations isn’t to provide all of the support to teach students how to write, read, or research, but rather to support faculty as they incorporate those fundamental skills into their own courses. This just isn’t the case with technology. We still have a lot of work to do — and I suspect it’s not just at UMW — getting faculty to the point where they are skilled and comfortable digital practitioners. As a result, DTLT would need to play a critical supporting role in these courses, and with FSEMs now required for all incoming freshman, we’re talking about a lot of support — particularly if we’re committed to doing it right. All of this, of course, just makes me think of Gardner’s mantra that the only thing that scales is the person. If we really believe in the digital future of the University, than we need to find a way to get faculty to think about these tools and technologies the same way they think about reading, writing, and research.)

As a result, I was forced into thinking about ways in which we could “piggy-back” technology onto the skills and goals that I knew others would be talking about. Or, I could talk about more fundamental (and vague) ways in which technology could foster community, collaboration, and creativity.

During the meeting, as Steve has already described, the participants actually started to wrestle with how to deliver the very specific skills that were being outlined in the program of the workshop. At a certain point, however, the conversation shifted and we began to talk about the larger goals of the FSEMs. I mentioned how, while helping Steve during his first globalization FSEM, I had come to realize that the course had two goals: the content and the “sculpting” of the University student. In many ways, that latter goal became more important than the former. For some faculty, that may be difficult to accept. After all, many of them propose FSEMs because it affords them the opportunity to work with course content that they normally can’t teach.

However, I would argue (and did at the meeting) that if we can cast the “sculpting” part of this at a higher level than merely skills acquisition, if we can think about what faculty are doing in these courses at a “mission” or “vision” level, then more faculty may feel more deeply invested in the meaning of the FSEM. It was great to be in a meeting where these sentiments were shared, and we began to brainstorm not merely what skills needed to be conveyed during an FSEM but what values needed to be infused into the courses. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to turn our gaze upward and to have a deeper, richer conversation than we normally can about what our mission is as a University. What kind of students are we hoping to sculpt? How can the FSEM become a passage for students into a larger community of learning and scholarship? How can the FSEM become a microcosm of the intellectual life of a University, modeling for students what they should want for themselves?

(All of this is definitely complicated by the larger context we’re dealing with as Shannon has so clearly articulated. I have some thoughts about this as well, but this post has already gone on too long).

For me, once the conversation at the meeting shifted to one not about skills but about values, the role of DTLT started to become clearer. I can think of many ways in which we could demonstrate how digital tools and communication could underpin these values. I know Steve wants feedback about what those values are or should be. I have lots of ideas, but they haven’t really come together into a big picture yet. I promise to blog about my thoughts on them, next.