Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Washington and Jefferson College

A First-Year Program Fosters Academic Engagement and Intentionality at Washington and Jefferson


Since 1988, incoming students at Washington and Jefferson College have been introduced to the aims of liberal education through a program called the Freshman Forum. Like many other first-year programs, the Freshman Forum is designed to help students adjust to college while making clear Washington and Jefferson's academic expectations.

The forum itself consists of a cluster of experiences organized around a common first-semester seminar. Students in the seminar progress through three units—one that focuses on the nature of liberal education, and two that focus on rotating interdisciplinary themes. The first-year advising process and a range of cocurricular activities also are tied to the Freshman Forum. Together, these elements initiate students to the college and lay the foundation for later undergraduate study.

An Introduction to Liberal Education

Washington and Jefferson's first-year programming begins with orientation, convocation, and early advising and continues with the required Freshman Forum seminar in the fall semester. Sections of the seminar meet three times per week and are kept small—this year, the sections contained sixteen to seventeen students each.

In addition to facilitating small-group discussion in the seminar sections, the forum brings the entire freshman class together about once a week for "lyceum." The lyceum builds a sense of community in the class by providing a full schedule of cocurricular activities: students attend performances, watch films, hear lectures, and even travel to Pittsburgh to see an opera. These experiences, in turn, become the subject of class discussions.

The forum's distinctive blend of programming is designed to address some of the problems associated with the transition from high school to college. Mark Swift, director of the Freshman Forum and assistant professor of music at Washington and Jefferson, cites a number of these problems: some students have been "unmotivated and under-worked in high school"; some arrive on campus accustomed to being "spoon-fed information" and "do not understand what it means to be a critical thinker and learner"; some "do not understand what it means to study the 'liberal arts.'" At Washington and Jefferson, as at many other colleges, the first year of college has become a locus of innovation as educators have experimented with ways of helping students adjust to the demands of college-level learning.

The Freshman Forum explicitly addresses such demands. The seminar's first unit, titled "The Challenge of Learning," seeks to complicate students' notions of what "learning" is. Through readings of such texts as William Cronon's "Only Connect: The Goals of a Liberal Education," Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," and Annie Dillard's "Seeing," students learn about the philosophy of liberal education and the ideals of the liberal arts college. At the same time, "Socratic" discussions of the texts encourage the development of critical thinking abilities.

In the second and third academic units of the seminar, Mark Swift says, forum faculty "ask students to apply liberal arts skills to the themes selected." This fall, the theme of the second unit—"A Walk in Someone Else's Shoes"— compelled students to think critically about how categories such as race, gender, and sexuality shape one's identity; students then critically examined notions of psychological and social normality in the final unit, "Ab/Normal." Both units culminated with writing assignments and class presentations.

As an alternative to the second and third units of the forum seminar, students in a number of sections this fall chose to participate in a new pilot program, "Reacting to the Past." The "Reacting to the Past" pedagogy, developed at Barnard College, immerses students in history through elaborate role-playing games. (The two games piloted at Washington and Jefferson were "Confucianism and the Succession Crisis of the Wanli Emperor" and "India on the Eve of Independence.") If course evaluations and other data indicate that these classes were successful, more sections will likely adopt the "Reacting to the Past" pedagogy next year, Swift says. Such a change would affect the format and content of the forum seminar but not its core objectives of engaging students, helping them see the world from different perspectives, and equipping them for academic success.

Administering the Forum

Although the Freshman Forum centers on the first semester of college, running the forum is a year-round process. Planning begins in the spring semester, when faculty meet with the forum's director to determine course themes and the syllabus for the fall's forum. Faculty also continue to advise students from their fall forum sections until students decide upon a major.

Forum faculty come from a range of disciplines and bring a mix of experience with them—some have spent years teaching in the program, but many are new to it. The regular spring planning meetings provide informal faculty development opportunities for old and new professors alike, and participation in the forum also "gets them out of their focus area and into more interdisciplinary teaching," Mark Swift says. The benefits of such interdisciplinarity—and of exposure to the innovative pedagogies used in the forum—likely ripple well beyond the program itself.

Despite the success of the Freshman Forum, program administrators continue to face a number of challenges. Staffing is one consistent problem: although most of the forum sections are taught by regular faculty, the program often relies on adjuncts to "round out" the staff, Swift says. Adjunct professors are not part of the spring planning process and, as at other institutions, the use of adjuncts can create barriers to faculty engagement. Even among full-time professors in the program, working conditions can limit participation—forum faculty have full teaching loads and departmental obligations on top of their planning responsibilities with the program.

Such problems can seem daunting, but faculty and administrators "are continually seeking ways to improve the forum," Swift says. "This year, in particular, we are keen on comparing the effectiveness of the traditional curriculum with the pilot 'Reacting' curriculum." Other changes are likely to enhance the forum by connecting the academic program to different aspects of student experience: a task force of faculty and staff from across the college currently is considering how to bring together all aspects of the first year, including student life. Such an integrated approach to the first year can aid in the difficult transition from high school—and help students persist and succeed in college.

Washington and Jefferson College