Life at Transylvania: First year experience stands unique with autonomy, ‘foundation of democracy’

What does it mean to be a Transylvania Pioneer? This is a question that The Rambler is going to explore and attempt to answer through looking at specific and unique aspects of Transylvania life and explain what they are and what they mean to the campus. This will not only explain the campus culture for audiences outside of Transy, but also capture campus life in this specific moment in Transy history.

As the semester winds down and first-year students are wrapping up their third writing assignments for FYS and FYSE, many may be wondering why they have to do so in the first place.

Currently, every Transylvania student goes through a first year experience of First Engagements in August Term, First-Year Seminar (FYS), and First-Year Research Seminar (FYRS). Some students also take part in Expository Writing (FYSE).

These courses are all part of the first year experience and are meant to prepare students for their future career at Transy and what will be expected of them.

First-year Christine Lee explains FYS specifically as “like an introductory course to college” that helps students “transition into college.”

First-Year Seminar, or FYS, is approaching an end for many students as they work to complete their third formal writing assignment.

Writing, Rhetoric, and Communication professor Scott Whiddon describes FYS as “an introduction to the types of rhetorical moves that college writers make.”

The goal of FYS is “honing the kind of liberal education approach to knowledge,” said English professor and FYS coordinator Martha Billips.

“Not just memorizing information and repeating it, but really synthesizing it and entering the conversation with other thinkers,” she said.

The core [of FYS], the values—close reading, argument building, understanding other people’s arguments—it’s the foundation of democracy.

Although many other colleges have similar first year experiences, and specifically an FYS-like course, Transylvania’s stands apart as unique for many reasons.

One of the most prominent reasons is, as Billips describes, the balance of “an individual and a common experience.”

FYS, however, provides a lot of choice for the students. Although each section of FYS has the same assignments, the sections vary in the readings (both long and short) and the overall theme of the course. Students are given descriptions of the long texts from each course prior to registration so they can make their choice based on interest.

As Lee points out, this is an important aspect of FYS because it allows students to have a say in what they are taught.

“You get to pick what book you want to read so you have somewhat of a choice in what you get to learn,” said Lee.

The level of individual choice is not only present for students, but for faculty as well. Although the faculty have to accomplish certain goals and assign certain types of writing assignments, each faculty member has a lot of autonomy in regards to their specific section. Each faculty member chooses their own long text and short texts that will be discussed within the class as well as the theme that discussion and student writings will focus on.

Billips enjoys this aspect of FYS because it means faculty are “not bound to teach or learn a body of information.” She explains that when she teaches her course on nineteenth-century American literature, she has to teach about Hawthorne and to not would be a disservice, but when teaching FYS there is not a specific author or literary work that she must cover.

Another unique benefit of Transy’s FYS, in terms of faculty, is the camaraderie it builds between faculty members of different divisions. The professors that teach FYS have an initial meeting together during August Term and meet every two weeks throughout the semester.

“It’s one of the best sites on campus of bringing varied faculty together to talk about teaching, and pretty much solely about teaching,” said Billips.

Billips continued on to credit FYS with giving opportunities for faculty to interact with other members they may not see on a daily basis.

“It helps us come together to learn from each other,” said Billips. “We get to share disciplinary knowledge. So if I’m going to teach the Allegory of the Cave and feel way out of my field, I can talk to a philosopher.”

Similarly, Whiddon believes the program to be particularly beneficial for first-time professors who are adjusting to Transy.

“You want a snapshot of what students are like. You want a snapshot of what students are interested in, of how students value literacy and literacies,” said Whiddon.

Although the program has its benefits, it is at time met with great criticism, especially from students. FYS can at times be seen as unnecessary and unimportant. Some students may even see FYS as nothing new.

Whiddon says that’s a problem.

“Now, a student may come in and think that they have a really good background in argumentative writing, and that may be true,” said Whiddon. “But they haven’t had to sit around a room and talk about a text at the level of engagement that we’re asking for. They haven’t had to speak everyday about a series of arguments, they haven’t had to listen to someone else who’s radically different from them in terms of their religion or in terms of their ethnicity or their background or their economic class. FYS does that incredibly well.”

The benefits it gives students in relation to their career at Transylvania is apparent in the correlation between FYS success and retention. Rhyan Conyers, Director of Strategic Planning and Institutional Effectiveness summarized the data in an email:

“For students who earn an A (that is, A+, A, or A-) in FYS, 94.2% of them return for the sophomore year.  87.5% of students who earn Bs return for the sophomore year.  83.1% of students who earn Cs, 66.7% of students who earn Ds, and 27.3% of students who earn Fs return as sophomores.”

“It’s one of the best sites on campus of bringing varied faculty together to talk about teaching, and pretty much solely about teaching,” said Billips.

Although FYS provides students and faculty with numerous advantages, it can and hopefully will continue to change in the future.

Billips believes that “we should always be thinking about change” and would like to see more varied faculty from more divisions in future years since there usually tends to be a higher concentration of English and WRC professors than any other division.

Whiddon would also like to eventually see some changes implemented such as incorporating more digital media and perhaps even showcasing student work and using it as a recruiting tool. However, he also hopes that no matter the changes, that FYS sustains its core values and goals.

“The program has to continue, and it can change, it should change overtime. I don’t like static things,” said Whiddon. “But the core, the values—close reading, argument building, understanding other people’s arguments—it’s the foundation of democracy.”