Adventures in Teaching First Year Students.

by Harry on March 18, 2022

Last week I met with a student, B, who took my class as a freshman in 2007, and was making a brief visit from Australia, where she has settled. Shortly after her freshman class ended she made a suggestion to a classmate, which has been rather fateful for me. She’s forgotten that it was her suggestion.

My university has a program called First Year Interest Groups (FIGs). The design is simple: 20 students opt into a 20-person seminar with a specific theme, and are required to take two other, thematically linked, courses in other departments. B took my first offering, in Fall 2007 on the topic Children Marriage and the Family. (Students also took a sociology course on marriage and the family, and an Ed Psych course on human development.) I would see them all in class twice a week, but they would see each other 5 additional times a week. Students opt into the program, but first generation students and students from low-income backgrounds and other underrepresented groups are heavily counselled into them, so participate disproportionately present. About 20% of the incoming first year students participate.

I’ve written a bit elsewhere about how dreadfully I taught that first FIG, and how the experience influenced my pedagogy in the classroom. It has had just as much influence on my interactions with students beyond the classroom.

Teaching a FIG comes with an expense account of $1000. You can use the money however you like, within reason: research, field trips, whatever. I was telling a friend who was a senior administrator that I didn’t know how to spend it (field trips in Philosophy?), and she suggested, “take them out to dinner: students love free food.” I thought it might be nice to do that in February, a couple of months after the class ended. So I did, and all the students attended. It was fun.

A couple of days later I saw one of the students, let’s call her Emma (more about Emma here). She said that as they walked home together B commented that it would be nice to have another class together, maybe in junior year. When I saw her the next day Emma asked me if that would be possible. I couldn’t see a way of doing it on my regular schedule, but it would be easy enough to teach an extra class in the fall of their junior year. If I taught it for free, on top of my regular classes, I would feel fine restricting enrollment. I’d also feel fine if it didn’t fill. So in Fall 2009 about 10 of them took the additional class. It was exciting for them. But it was also exciting for me. Seeing how they had changed and developed, both as people, and intellectually, over the previous couple of years. And, of course, getting to know them in a way that is difficult when you just see people for a single 15-week stretch. One student in particular had been close to silent as a freshman, but had really come out of herself in a way that amused the whole class. It was like having a different person in the room. [1]

I taught the class again in 2010, during the school year at the end of which the 2007 cohort graduated. By then I knew several of the 2007 students pretty well. One had encountered pretty traumatic and difficult hurdles, and I had helped her get over them; we’re still friends. As detailed in this piece Emma came to the 2010 class once a week to coach my pedagogy and, of course, got to know the 2010 students.

Emma had also identified a problem for the FIG students.

When we were in the FIG we all saw each other 6 times a week, and really got to know each other, and you. It was like high school, but with intellectual rigor, and on a huge campus, so gave us a sense of belonging. But then, in the spring, we were all exclusively in 300 person lectures where we couldn’t get to know our classmates, and our professors had no interest in us.

She made two suggestions for mitigation. First, in October, when the timetable is published, create space in class for students to look at it and work out how to take classes together in clusters of 2-4 (or more). Second, she pointed out that every spring I teach a large-lecture applied ethics course that is entirely intellectually accessible for first year students. Her suggestion was that I add a discussion section that I would lead, just for the FIG students, and that she would encourage the FIG students to sign up for it (she would encourage them so that they would not feel pressure from me). So we did that: about 15 of them took it. And, then, when they were juniors, I offered a class just for them, which only about 8 of them ended up taking.

When the 2010 group were seniors (Fall 2013), I taught another FIG. Two of the 2010 group attended those classes, one to criticize my teaching, and the other to act as a sort of peer mentor to the first years. Almost everyone in the 2013 group took my large lecture in the spring.

In 2015 I taught a junior level class for the 2013 group and then, in 2016, I taught the FIG again, with four of the 2013 group attending to peer mentor. So I had settled into a pattern: teach the FIG once every three years, teach a discussion section for them in a large lecture class during the subsequent spring, teach a full class for them in fall of junior year, and, sometimes, run a reading group in the semester during which they graduate. If you do that then you end up getting to know a substantial group of students pretty well.

My department and the program would allow me to teach the FIG more often, but realistically I lack the bandwidth to be fully accessible in the way I want to be to the students over the course of their undergraduate career. And that was the big change in my professional life. Usually I’d get to know students in their junior or senior year, usually philosophy majors, and only occasionally might get to know a first year student and keep up with them because they became a major. But now I was getting to know a swathe of 20 first year students, few of whom had any interest in majoring in Philosophy, and with whom I’d keep in touch throughout. I found I could keep track of about 20 at a time, with 3 year spacings.

About half the times I have taught the junior course as an unpaid overload, but the other half of the times I have been allowed to teach it as part of my normal course load, and filled it by topping it up with non-Fig students. In 2019 so many of the 2016 students wanted to be involved in mentoring that I formally allocated each 2016 student to 2 or 3 2019 students. Several would come to each class session, which enabled me to deploy them to monitor small group discussions. This makes those much more productive and provides me with quick information about how good/bad my discussion prompts are, whether I am providing enough/too much time for the small group discussions, which students might need more encouragement, etc, as well as giving the first year students access to a lot of advice that, frankly, I can’t give. I anticipate the same uptake from 2019 students next fall.

Some of the consequences are charming. A 2010 student and 2007 student were bridesmaids at each other’s weddings, and are close friends (they met through the FIG connection). Two pairs of 2007 students (that I know of) are lifelong friends. I just heard from two of the 2016 students who live together in Hawaii (they barely spoke to each other in class). Several other 2016 students, all of whom graduated during covid, are close friends with one another. Those who are not always want to hear about the others when they talk to me. I was recently at the wedding of a 2013 student in Door County, and her photographer (completely unbeknownst to her) was a prior FIG student of mine. One of the few who subsequently majored in philosophy took the FIG because her sister (who hated philosophy) had taken it 6 years previously. Four girls in her cohort majored in Philosophy, and they led the students in the major for a few years.

But some of the consequences are more serious. Obviously, in a group that large, over a 4 year period a number of them face real challenges, some of which seem insurmountable to them. I think they know – well, I know they know – that they can ask for help, and that they trust me to give it. Early on one student thought she needed to drop out because she was failing a class, but if she dropped it her financial aid would lapse: I was pretty confident that she was wrong, and made her see a financial aid counsellor who solved the problem.

Another is amusingly grateful to me because when she was having a series of panic attacks I told her to invite another student out for lunch, who, as I anticipated, provided the ballast she needed: they’ll be lifelong friends. Another stopped coming to class, and, after me chasing her up a few times, it became clear that she was not going to any classes, and on the verge of dropping out. My (possibly reckless) advice included taking, in second semester of freshman year, a very hard upper-level class with one of my most rigorous and demanding colleagues: she flourished in that class, and although I wouldn’t say she enjoyed college, I’m pretty sure that she’s in a better place than if she’d dropped out.

Another wanted support navigating an issue in student politics (around a political issue concerning which she knew there was a good chance I would disagree with her). I helped her figure out exactly what she wanted, and then connected her with the student politician whom she was upset with, knowing that she would get a satisfactory outcome. His immediate reaction when she talked to him, was “I’ve fucked up, I am sorry, what you’re asking for is completely reasonable, can I just apologise to you and do what you’ve requested?” [2]

A number of stories are too personal for me to feel comfortable sharing in print, even with details changed to protect anonymity; but many of them involve simply being sympathetic, listening, smiling at people while they cry in my office, and getting them to the agencies that can provide professional support, which, often, they just don’t realize are there. I’ve convinced several more students not to drop out (all of them ended up enjoying college and being very successful). I failed with one, who dropped out at the end of her freshman year; I encouraged her to stay, but I knew it wasn’t going to work. She says, many years later, that having someone to talk to regularly over that dreadful year was a lifeline. She’s doing well. One student, who never had any problems at all, said that she enjoyed college more knowing that if something did go wrong she had someone to tell about it straightaway. And that she could send her friends my way (which she did).

Our outgoing Chancellor told me a few years ago that when she was an assistant professor at the university she’s about to return to as President, she was assigned a random 17 students every year with whom she had to meet and keep in touch over the course of their first year; basically as a point person. I figured at one point that 1:17 is round about the ratio that would work at Madison; if each faculty member had a conversational relationship with about 17 undergraduates then every undergraduate could have some faculty member with whom they have a conversational relationship. That doesn’t seem an unreasonable expectation really: I had maybe 5 faculty members throughout my undergraduate years with whom I could chat casually and, if necessary, in a lot of depth. Of course, not everyone is well equipped to provide this kind of support, so it seems reasonable to expect someone like me, who is well positioned, to take on more than 17 (average of 25 through the FIG program, plus another 10-15 students at any given time who know my door is fully open to them).

Of course this is all voluntaristic. It doesn’t solve the systematic problem of the anonymity of the student experience at the large research university. It’s not supposed to. Nor does it solve the problem of anti-intellectualism in the student body. It’s not supposed to. It just mitigates those problems for a handful of students. And of course it carries costs for me: primarily the time costs of teaching extra classes from time to time, and chatting to and getting to know people. And the letters of recommendation, which I imagine I write more of than average (but who would ever know, because I have no idea how many other people write, because we never talk about it!).

But I’m extremely privileged: my job is secure, I have enormous control over how my time is used, and my regular course load (2 courses/semester) is sufficiently light that adding an extra course here and there leaves me plenty of time for research and committee meetings. And of course there’s lots of reward! Students have lots of successes, and it’s a joy to learn of those. And, perhaps, even more of a joy to see them enjoying one another’s successes (I was recently chatting after class with two students who, I knew, had just had very major professional successes, and got to see the thrill on each of their faces as they heard about the other’s). It’s so much easier to teach people well if you know them. You can much more efficiently calibrate the level of challenge to what those specific students need at that particular stage of their intellectual development. You can create discussion groups that are more productive, because less randomly chosen. Far less time needs to be spent establishing the level of trust a classroom needs to foster productive discussions about difficult issues. And I think seeing how particular groups of students changes intellectually over a 4-year period has enabled me to intuit quicker and better where other students are in their development when I teach them.

It wasn’t actually the meeting with B that prompted me to write this. Last Fall I met a few times with a student who had graduated in 1998, having taken the first, really disastrous, course I taught for freshmen (not in the FIG program which didn’t exist then) in 1994. She remembers feeling lost and disoriented during her first two years of her undergraduate degree, and getting help from me in reorienting herself. She asked about my career, and after I described the FIG experience, which I suppose has been the highlight, she told me to write it up for others to read. And emulate, if they have the energy, and are similarly privileged.

I’ll end with a moment that I really valued. Toward the end of one of the junior year classes a black, working class, student countered something I had said with an argument I couldn’t respond to. I hesitated, and then said “I don’t know how to respond to that”. Her response was instantaneous and joyous: she punched the air and cried “Yes! I’ve never done that before!” If she had just had the normal one-semester experience she’d never have had that moment because for her, at least (as for me when I was her age), one semester just wasn’t long enough to have learned the habits of mind that enabled her to do that.

[1] We read Our Underachieving Colleges by Derek Bok. I asked them one thing they had learned from the book and the previously silent student jumped in “Well, I learned why it is that our education sucks”

[2] “My friends asked me, ‘why are you going to talk to your philosophy professor? How is he going to help. What if he’s on the other side?’. I said “I don’t know. I don’t know what side he takes on this issue, but I know that he’ll be on my side and will help me find a resolution”.



Phil 03.18.22 at 11:41 am

I applaud your success in enabling an enduring group of motivated learners to develop (and look back with a pang of nostalgia of my own single success in that area). I read Carl Rogers when I did my teacher training (some years into the job), and found his wide-open, unstructured approach a source of both joy and depression – it was great when it worked, but most students pulled a Bartleby and preferred not to turn up.

But I’m also struck by this comment:

then, in the spring, we were all exclusively in 300 person lectures where we couldn’t get to know our classmates

Is this normal? At neither of the (very different) UK institutions where I’ve taught have I heard of a course consisting solely of lectures, let alone lectures to 300 at a time (I’ve never taught in a lecture theatre that could seat more than 200, in fact).

Course Structures I Have Known (all for full credit) include
3 x Lecture x 12 weeks, 1 x Seminar x 6 (alternate) weeks
2 x L and 1 x S x 12 weeks
1 x L and 1 x S x 24 weeks
2 x L and 2 x S x 6 weeks

The word “seminar” has stood for everything from “you four people come to my office and tell me about the reading you’ve been doing” to “you 40 people (or those of you who have turned up for the lecture) go straight from the lecture to classroom 1, the other 40 (or, etc) go to classroom 2, and await further instructions” – but even when it’s the second of these, there has always been the opportunity for a group to get together, sometimes in quite rewarding ways. Is this not A Thing where you’re teaching?


Harry 03.19.22 at 8:52 am

The experience I describe is, I think, pretty normal in a large public research university. And to a lesser extent in private ones. Its dependent on the course of study pursued — probably more than half the students who’ve taken my FIG have majored in Psych, and came in intending that. In Philosophy it would be a bit different. But even so, they’d take various breadth requirements in other departments which would be large lecture format. Plus, anyone entering the medical field will experience this. Business less so (I’m impressed with the attention our Business school gives to undergraduates). Many nowadays have programs like the FIG program to mitigate the anonymity, but even so, it accounts for less than 25% of first year students at Madison.

The organization of the courses of study mostly reflect the values of the faculty, which has enormous amounts of control now, by department (here, at least). Obviously there are budget constraints, but those allow a great deal of latitude. (Some faculty will deny this, but typically they don’t understand the budgeting structure). One thing I learned by scrutinizing reviews of nearly every program in my college is the wide variety of how much departments value undergraduate teaching and learning. And, without wanting to sound snotty (but sounding it anyway), that my department values it a lot, comparatively.


LS 03.19.22 at 8:58 am

This is a great read and a real reminder to me. I am an academic in a completely different field (physics) and recently moved from one national system to another, with major differences in approach (in teaching and organisation) that have cut off this sort of long-term student contact, and the contact between students in different stages of their education. This article remotivates me to consider how to build this up where I am now.


Scott P. 03.19.22 at 4:43 pm

Course Structures I Have Known (all for full credit) include
3 x Lecture x 12 weeks, 1 x Seminar x 6 (alternate) weeks
2 x L and 1 x S x 12 weeks
1 x L and 1 x S x 24 weeks
2 x L and 2 x S x 6 weeks

But who is teaching the seminars? Graduate students, presumably. In my department we have zero graduate students, and no prospects of ever having any. Other departments in my institution are losing their graduate programs.


oldster 03.19.22 at 6:07 pm

Two reactions:
1) I’m glad I didn’t read your stuff before I retired, or I would have felt even more profoundly inadequate as an educator. It still stings a bit in retrospect, but at least there’s nothing I can do about it now.
2) And was there anything I could have done back then that would have allowed me to reproduce your extraordinary results? Or are you simply an exceptionally talented teacher and flagrantly decent person who is able to interact with students in ways that most of us are not able to do? Are you just a Pelé of pedagogy saying, “anyone can do it, you just dribble past the other players and then kick it in where the goalie isn’t standing”? I genuinely applaud your results — you have made a difference to many young lives — but can other people produce those results?


LFC 03.19.22 at 6:42 pm

I’ve read the post and comments quickly, but I just want to be sure I understand what Harry is saying in response to Phil, namely that in a typical large lecture course at UW Madison there are no discussion sections (led by grad students, e.g.). Is my understanding correct?


LFC 03.19.22 at 6:49 pm

And a follow up question: do undergrads majoring in any of the social sciences or humanities get an opportunity to take, either on an elective or required basis, a small seminar course or courses — apart from the FIG program — or can a history major, say, at Madison do his or her entire program in large lectures? I wd assume there are at least one or two smaller courses they take, maybe as juniors or seniors typically (?).


Harry 03.20.22 at 6:19 pm

You’re much too kind, oldster. My strong belief is that people can be trained, and offered incentives, to teach well (I think I’m good for some students, but definitely far from all). And there are constraints: eg I find it much harder to run productive discussion in which the students are fully engaged and learning with even 28 students than with 20. And, as I keep saying, in circumstances about as propitious as one could possibly ask for: so, for example, when my class enrolled 28 students last semester my privileged situation allowed me to add a 75 minute period to the week, so that I met all 28 once a week, and half of them for once a week each. And I think I have gotten better at relating to students as I have aged, for all sorts of reasons.

LFC: I gave the wrong impression. In most STEM large lectures (and all Philosophy ones) there is a lab or discussion section, run by a graduate student. In philosophy we have just started a compulsory course for TAs to take during their first semester of teaching, which is skill-focused. Students report to me a high level of satisfaction with the skills of our TAs, and low levels of satisfaction with the skills of TAs in other departments.

But, in Psych many large lectures do not have sections. And that’s true in many other disciplines too, I just really notice it with Psych because that’s what most of the students entering my FIG intend to major in.

In most (but not all) social science and humanities fields most majors will take a number of smaller (20-40) classes during their junior and senior years. But I am struck how many non-Philosophy majors I know who don’t know and aren’t known by any of their major professors even in senior year. I don’t think UW-Madison is atypical in this.


LFC 03.20.22 at 6:39 pm

Thank you for your responses to my questions.
p.s. A close relative of mine, a senior in high school, has been accepted to UW Madison and I’m sure this post and thread will be helpful to him as one (more) data point as he decides where to enroll. I’ve told him that if he does end up going to UW he must take one of your classes. ;)


John McGowan 03.21.22 at 12:47 pm

Inspiring, as are all your posts on teaching. My spouse and I are both recently retired after 30 years at the University of North Carolina. And our experience echoes yours. We frequently taught 15 person seminars ( and twice got to take small groups for a study abroad semester in London) and developed very close relationships with those students—relationships that were a huge benefit both to us and to them. There was no way we could have reproduced that with the 80 to 100 students we taught each year. The bandwidth problem. But college is a much different and better experience for students who have access to that kind of experience. Right now I am facilitating a reading group for eleven people who take a full year seminar together at UNC forty years ago. It’s been magical, but largely because many in the group have been in fairly regular contact with one another over that 40 year span.

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