W&M Freshman Seminars: Private Education at a Public University

W&M Freshman Seminars: Private Education at a Public University

Having just completed another
freshman seminar I am reminded of what a rewarding experience it is for student
and professor. Although, I suspect that most students don’t quite recognize it as
the “luxury” it is-at least while they are in the midst of the experience.
What’s so special about these seminars? Several things come to mind. First,
small enrollment (mine had 16 students but most are capped at 15); this allows
for significant interaction between students and between students and
professor. Second, the structure allows for students to pick a seminar that
involves an in-depth exploration of a topic that is of interest to them (mine
was on “Identity and Society”). Third, our seminars are typically taught by full-time
professors-and, in a number of cases by full professors. Fourth, students are
required to re-write a high percentage of their assignments and they are given
significant (and constructive) feed-back from their professors on their drafts.
In my seminar, for instance, students wrote three drafts of their research
paper and they also had the option (which most took) to revise their mid-term
essay. Suffice it to say, this approach entails a major time commitment on the
part of both student and professor but, in the end, all agree that revising
papers and essays produces a noticeably more polished product. Interestingly,
very few of my students claim to have prior experience with revising and
rewriting papers before coming to college.
So, that’s the mechanics of the
freshman seminar. What’s the in-class experience like? First, let me give some
thoughts on the student experience in my class. Student comments and
evaluations suggest that the vast majority of them find the seminar experience
to be very rewarding-even exciting. It helps when the material they read and
discuss has relevance for their own lives. Thus, when we read and discussed how
our identities are shaped by multiple forces (race, social class, gender,
nationality etc)-many beyond individual control-students begin to see their own
identities in a very different light. Because class participation is mandatory,
students quickly learn that they must
do the reading and that they must
come prepared to discuss what they have read. Putting two students in charge of
leading discussion for each class quickly teaches them to engage with the
material. Over the years, I have learned not only a greater patience with
students in these regards but also various techniques for creating an atmosphere
where students feel that they can talk without fear of being considered stupid
or inadequate. I try to model what I call “thinking out loud” for them. This
involves showing them how to present a thought generated by readings or
comments of others and then analyzing what it means or why it matters (or
doesn’t). Some love to talk, others are shy and hesitant. My job is to
encourage and cajole each one of them to talk. At the same time, I face several
challenges as a teacher. First, while encouraging them to talk, I have to also (delicately)
find ways to remind them that talking for talking sake doesn’t cut it.
Sometimes it works to ask the class to reflect on a particular comment and
explain why it is relevant to the topic under discussion; how does the comment
help us better understand an idea. Often, peers find ways to tell those who make
irrelevant comments that their comments are ill-conceived and this form of feedback
is particularly effective. A second challenge is to teach analytical thinking.
Not an easy task. Students at this stage of their academic development are
prone to make observations without much analytical connection. As a result, I
spend a lot of time asking them to talk about why a particular observation is
relevant. What, for instance, does it teach us about how various social forces
impact identity construction if one observes that female students generally
care more about how they dress than male students?   A third
challenge is to teach students how to be effective public speakers. Throughout
the semester I emphasize the need to speak in more formal prose than if one
were talking with a friend. Also, I try to discourage use of filler words such
as “like”. With this in mind-and after we have few classes under our belts, I
introduce a system whereby they are “fined” 5 cents each time that they use
such words inappropriately (2 students are assigned to keep the tally). It
becomes a game of fun and frustration (and a certain amount of gleeful “got
you”) but, ultimately, it teaches them to think before they talk and to be more
reflective of their language usage. In their formal presentations on their
research topics I provide them, in advance, with the rubric I use to assess
their presentations-and it includes many different factors from how
convincingly they present their arguments to whether or not they use
appropriate language and documentation and use them effectively. I also have
peers evaluate each others’ presentations using a set of established criteria-this
is an especially valuable exercise because students learn how their peers
perceive them when they talk. I encourage constructive comments to each other
(without names) and, apart from typical words of encouragement and praise, they
also give each other a host of useful tips about what not to do when giving a
presentation such as: not to fidget, not to look only at one person in the room
(usually the professor), not to talk too fast, not to read from note cards too
much. In addition, the astute critics tell their peers that their arguments are
weakly documented or that they assume too much knowledge on the part of the
Finally, let me comment briefly on the written
components of the seminar because it is here that the W and M freshman seminar especially
provides our students with what I earlier referred to as a luxury typically
associated with small, private universities. It requires a significant
commitment of faculty resources to provide each of our entering students with
this intense attention. To have professors provide freshmen detailed comment on
multiple drafts of papers on an individual basis is rare in the extreme in
today’s public universities. It is also, beyond doubt, a highly successful way
to teach students how to think and write effectively. For many students the
experience is a novelty. Yet, all agree that, in the end, the hard work of revision
and rewriting pays off. At the end of the semester when I discuss overall
performance with each student, it is typical to see students beam with pride as
we look back over their drafts and they recognize the transformation they
wrought on their papers. That such experiences are confidence builders for
young people at the beginning of their college experience is beyond doubt.
Therein lies at least one of the major rewards of teaching freshman seminars at
William and Mary. For my students there is an extra reward: they get to have
dinner at my home and they get to see that I am a pretty normal human being who
is also a pretty decent cook!

Diversity: A Complex Issue

Diversity is a highly charged and sometimes misunderstood
concept. The academy faces its own share of tensions and misunderstandings
about what it is and how it should or should not be conceived and practiced
within our universities and colleges. While the term commonly connotes notions
of race, ethnic or gender balances in various aspects of how our society is
organized, I (and many of my colleagues) experience diversity as a much more
complex notion. This is especially true in a liberal arts setting like William
and Mary where we are deeply committed to providing our students with the academic
(and social) skills that will allow them to critically understand how societies
work, as well as to function effectively on a global stage.  From this vantage point, a diverse student
body, a diverse faculty and a generally diverse campus provide us with a
win-win scenario. All of us profit from the wealth of experiences and
perspectives that people from different backgrounds bring to our campus.  I know my classes will be enriched
immeasurably when students represent a healthy mix gender-wise; when various
races and ethnicities are represented; when students represent different social
classes and when there is a solid mix of students from different states and
countries. Finally, let us not forget the importance of having students who
hail from different parts of the state–who represent a sound mix of rural, urban
and suburban locations within Virginia. My only regret–especially as I teach a
course on Aging–is that our student body is so homogeneous when it comes to
Teaching sociology provides me a wonderful opportunity to appreciate
not only the complexities of diversity but also the many ways that a diverse
student body adds intellectual vigor and interest to the classroom. Let me
provide a brief example that illustrates my point. In my introductory sociology
class, some of the liveliest discussions in the classroom are those in which we
examine dominant values in contemporary U.S. society. One such value, freedom,
led to a lively discussion on the right to bear arms in a recent class. A young
woman from rural Virginia argued that her rural culture so celebrated this
freedom that her high school canceled classes on the first day of the hunting
season; several other students from rural backgrounds chimed in with similar
observations. Some students from urban areas, taken aback, presented counter
arguments on the dangers of open access to guns, with some inner city students
vehemently decrying the problems in their neighborhoods that resulted from easy
access to firearms. I complicated the debate by weighing in with the
perspective of one who grew up in a society (Ireland) where citizens are
legally forbidden to carry arms. In the end, students gained a greater
appreciation for how complicated are the issues that surround a society’s
values-especially how they are shaped and how they change over time to reflect
changes in society. Thus, our discussion was deepened by perspectives that
might not come immediately to mind when we think about diversity: rural/urban
perspectives, as well as the views of those who have lived in countries other
than the U.S.    
Of course students learn from professors and from what they
read. Learning from peers, however, has special import for them; students tend
to remember discussions where they and their peers have actively engaged a
topic. Consequently, to the extent that we can have not only lively discussion
in our classes but also discussion from multiple and diverse viewpoints, we
provide our students with a critical foundation to nurture intellectual curiosity.
We also help meet one of our most important goals as educators–to foster
intellectual breadth and depth.

Ten Essays and a Cup of Tea

Grading papers is a necessary chore for faculty and it is
one that is the subject of much dread and complaint on the part of most of
us.  I’ve been doing it now for over 30
years so it is no surprise that I have developed my own techniques for getting
the job done. By way of background, grading takes different forms for us. One
type of grading exercise involves individual student papers (typically on
different topics) that require significant comment and critique. Such papers
are very labor intensive, time consuming and require a high degree of
intellectual engagement on the grader’s part. Often these papers come to us in
trickles throughout the semester. Depending on length and topic, each of these
papers likely requires several hours of a professor’s time. Another type of
grading involves mid-term exams. Here, students typically are responding to a
set of questions and professors are looking for a set range of acceptable
responses to each question. There is a predicable component of repetition in
this grading exercise and, because of this, we are challenged to find ways to
stay alert and engaged. Final exams or papers are another type of grading
exercise and, given end-of-semester time demands, we are not required to
provide comments. All other papers or exams require comments geared to provide
students with useful feedback on their performance.  Staying positive and providing constructive
critiques requires effort, much patience and more than a little kindness. Gone
are the days (I hope) when irascible professors felt free to write comments
such as “How did you get admitted to William and Mary?”  
So, how do I approach grading? Well, I can’t stand to have
papers hanging over my head-especially around the holiday season. Consequently,
my way of dealing with the inevitable is to take a “marathon” approach to the
task.  I block off huge chunks of time, I
stay at home and I force myself to deal with the piles of papers. I usually
start before 7 in the morning and I often keep going until well after dinner
time. Now, this level of intense activity requires strategies and tricks to
keep sane. That’s where the cup of tea becomes important. The tea becomes the
reward for getting through a set number of papers-usually it is ten for me. In
recent years I have switched to decaf tea-heresy for an Irish woman but
necessary to keep my nerves from getting totally out of whack as the day
progresses! Another technique I use to keep things interesting is to assign
questions that allow me to see how students have progressed over the
semester.  In my introductory sociology
class, for instance, I always ask a final question that requires students to
analyze how their race, social class, age, gender and sexual orientation shape
how they construct their daily lives.  Their
answers are fascinating in their detail and rewarding for me as their teacher
because I can see how their insights and analytical skills have improved over
the semester. Thus, grading brings its own rewards and, as the piles diminish,
one inevitably feels a sense of victory and relief that one has conquered the
pile and lived to tell the tale.

What’s to Like About Committee Work?

A lot. And I am not being a Pollyanna when I say that. Of
course, there are negative sides to committee work-and I have personally
experienced most of them over my years in academe and beyond. But, here I want
to concentrate on the many positive aspects of serving on committees. First, one
gets to know colleagues that one might otherwise only know by name or sight. One
also gets to see different sides of colleagues one knows already–and some of
these sides are decidedly humorous. This academic year I serve as co-chair of
the provost’s search committee and, while it has been an enormous amount of
work, it also has provided me with many positive experiences. First, I have
gotten to meet and spend time with colleagues from across the campus.  Many of these colleagues I did not know-or
knew only vaguely. These contacts remind me that we are a university community
and they force me to see the world and William and Mary beyond the confines of
my own discipline and department-a very good thing, indeed.  Additionally, I am reminded how committed to
excellence, and to William and Mary, my colleagues are. I have listened to them
debate and argue and, as a result, I have a new appreciation for how smart and,
sometimes, downright funny they are. I have had the pleasure of wining and dining
with these colleagues and have left those moments with a renewed sense of
community and a renewed appreciation for why I really like being a faculty
member at William and Mary.  Another huge
benefit of serving on this particular committee is that, through the interview
process, I am again reminded by outsiders that William and Mary is not only
hugely respected in the academy at large but that we are recognized as a gem in
the higher education crown.  Furthermore,
in these tough economic times outsiders remind us that we have suffered less
pain than many.
My other committees bring similar rewards: contact with
smart, committed, articulate and funny colleagues. In addition, most of my
committees this year have student representation and this allows me to see
another side of our students-one where they play the role of university citizen
and I get to see how they engage this role with enormous commitment and
When we talk to friends and family members who work in a
world very different from the academy, we are reminded of “how good we have
it.” Committee work is part and parcel of university governance and when one
looks at the positive side of this work it recommends itself.

Tough Love

Every fall for the past 10 years or so the student affairs staff invite me to talk to their student leadership group which meets once a week throughout the academic year. The participants are all women who were nominated by faculty or administrators because they are seen to have special leadership potential. Over the years my talk has come to be known as “tough love” by the staff. I am not sure I would label it thus but that’s what the students seem to think best describes both my approach and my content.
What do I talk about? Well, as a sociologist who studies gender I am keen to impress on them that they will face challenges as women leaders and as women in the workplace; that it is unlikely (unfortunately) that they will be treated as equal to men with similar talents and intelligence. I talk about how gender shapes issues like careers, salaries, decisions about marriage and family. In truth, I am just giving them an overview of extant sociological data but, because I begin with these realities, they tend to find my news depressing– a “downer” as some describe it in their comments later. Over the years I have learned to anticipate that they do not particularly like to hear what I have to tell them. I explain that part of the reason they find my points so unpalatable has to do with the fact that the data cited do not match their own life experiences yet. These young women have grown up being told they can be anything they want to be—the sky is the limit. Also, they are currently at a stage in life where they experience relatively little discrimination as women. Consequently, to hear that things will likely change when they leave college and enter the world of work or when they marry and have children is not happy news. They have an understandable “let’s shoot the messenger” reaction! Yet, in the end almost all agree that they have been given very useful information that will help them make critical decisions in their lives: decisions about careers and about relationships.
One of the aspects of the talk that students seem to really enjoy is a hands-on exercise that I call “identifying your non-negotiables.” I give each of them a blank card and ask them to proceed as follows: imagine that you have just committed to marry or to enter a long-term relationship with someone. You must convey to your loved one three things that are extremely important to you, things about which you feel so strongly that you will not change your mind – even if your partner disagrees. I give the students examples of my own non-negotiables when I entered my marriage almost 30 years ago (and I tell them that, luckily, mine were totally acceptable to my future husband). My three non-negotiables were: to not change my name in marriage, that my career must have equal weight with my husband’s and, lastly, that I would visit my family in Ireland on a yearly basis. I tell the students they are free to pick whichever values they hold most dear—they will be personal to them. The results are fascinating. Students write about topics such as the importance of career choices, of the requirement that their partnerships be equal on all scores, of what they expect from partners when it comes to balancing work and family (and some decide that they want to be stay-at-home mothers), of spending time with parents and siblings, of raising children in a particular religion, of having parents live with them. We then talk about the importance of communicating these non-negotiables to their partners. Better to have these realities known earlier than later, I advise.
We end the session by my telling them that “knowledge is power” and that now they have some facts and tools at their disposal that will help them face their future lives in a purposeful way. If this is “tough love” so be it!

My Version of "TMI"

Spend any time around teenagers or college students in recent years and one becomes familiar with their slang expression “TMI” (“Too Much Information”). I think that, in general, it is used to convey to speakers that they are (as Wikipedia informs) divulging “too much personal information” and, as a result, their listeners are made to feel uncomfortable. The expression offers us much potential for other uses, however—especially as we live in an age of information overload. Let me play with that idea a little.
A few days ago I was interviewed by my student assistant, Nick, for one of his class projects. Nick is taking Professor Royster’s class on “love” and as part of his assignments, he had to conduct some interviews on issues of love with real, live people. Once we sat down and Nick explained the project (and, as a good researcher, told me that our conversation would be confidential; he would never use my name or associate it with a particular quote), he then proceed to explain how he had picked his 3 interviewees. This is where TMI (my version) first reared its ugly head.  Nick explained that he had picked 3 women who represented 3 different generations: a college student, a 40 ish woman who represented his mother’s generation and then a woman who represented the grandmother generation. “Ah, ha” said my internal voice, “guess which generation you represent, Professor Slevin?” Yes, indeed, as Nick confirmed, I represented the grandmother generation. Did I really want to hear this? I think not–I’m not a granny yet and I don’t think of myself as representative of grannies! A fast and furious internal conversation with myself ensued–made all the more intense by the fact that my own scholarship is on aging and I know well that most people north of 50 claim to feel younger than their chronological age. The scholar has clay feet—she joins many baby boomers who have a hard time grasping that others—especially younger people—see them for the age they are not the age they would like to be. 
Nick proceeded to ask me a series of questions about my dating behaviors as a young person, about sexual activity, about when I first fell in love and so forth. TMI to the fore yet again—but this time poor Nick was the recipient of TMI, I fear. I am quite sure I told him more than he wanted to hear about intimacy—especially from his professor. Additionally, I couldn’t resist critiquing some of the questions and, again, telling him way more than he probably wanted or, indeed, needed to hear about how to construct interview questions.
And so, dear reader, as we come to the close of this particular blog it seems appropriate to ask whether you too are now a victim of TMI. Did you really need to know any of the above? I doubt it. But, then, can’t one argue that the very nature of blogging encourages TMI—no matter how we define it?

Faculty Mentors: Making a Difference

Shannon (a pseudo name) graduated 2 years ago. We were in regular contact while she was a student at W and M and we kept up quite regular contact after graduation.  Chatting with her on Saturday when we met for lunch—just a few days before she departed to attend graduate school at Harvard–reminded me that faculty often play a very important role in the lives of their students. Shannon is that special student who profited enormously from having an advisor/mentor who gave her extra attention. Six years ago she came to my office as a shy, deeply religious and somewhat insecure young woman schooled in an inner-city Virginia school. On one hand she was thrilled to be at William and Mary; on the other, she felt like an imposter who would not fit in—either academically or socially. Throughout her four years she often struggled–both academically and socially. Yet, she and I had built an early bond and she never hesitated to email me with issues or to come by my office to seek help or advice. It helped that she decided to major in Sociology and that she was a student in two of my classes. It also helped that her classes were mostly on my floor in Morton and, on a daily basis, we could chat—if only very briefly sometimes. I knew I was a friendly and supportive presence in her William and Mary life and I was very conscious of the responsibilities that accompanied that knowledge. When times were tough she would come to my office and throw herself in a chair and unload her frustrations. She knew I would listen but also she knew that I would push her to keep on going. I loved her gritty persistence and I admired her strength of character. I also liked the fact that she found balance in her life and didn’t let her academic life totally dominate. A dancer, she found joy and accomplishment in this avocation. For me, her recitals were special evenings where I saw this young woman glow with pride in her accomplishments. Overall, a little sympathy went a long way with Shannon—she mostly needed to know she had someone who cared about her and that there was a faculty member who believed she could make it through William and Mary.
After graduation, Shannon taught for 2 years in the public school system of her childhood. Late last semester she found a graduate program at the Harvard School of Education that focused on bringing the Arts (in her case, Dance) to inner city children. A flurry of emails and drafts of letters and personal statements later, her application was in the mail! Not long after that a phone call from one of the program’s faculty confirmed that she was accepted to Harvard and that, indeed, she was a prize candidate. Words are not adequate to convey how thrilled Shannon was when she learned of her success. As she herself told me, all of her struggles at William and Mary were worth it. So, here we have a wonderful story of success—a story that illustrates a student’s persistence and that also underscores the importance of faculty care and support for our students.

A Day of Academic Advising

Half hour appointments started at 9 a.m. and ran through 4.40. p.m; one half hour break for lunch. While I have been doing academic advising for first year students for about 25 years, I am always curious to see what each new crop of advisees is like. Will they have their acts together when they hit my door or will they present themselves as works of chaos and indecision? Truthfully, the latter is the exception and, in some ways, I find a student in doubt and indecision to be a “healthier” one that the other extreme where they come to me with note cards laying out all of the courses they intend to take in their college careers (I kid you not, I have experienced this!). Over the years I have honed my techniques for advising and my current approach seems to work fairly well. It is a holistic one where, after a few welcoming words, I ask them to tell me why they chose to attend William and Mary. I then launch into 3 points that I suggest they bear in mind in the months ahead: 1. Their first year in college, and especially the first semester, will be a time of significant personal adjustment. They will likely be lonely at times, perhaps homesick, they will miss their high school friends and family a lot and, indeed, they may question their decision to attend William and Mary. I suggest that all of these reactions are pretty normal. 2. They will be an exceptional student if they attain mostly “A’s” in their courses—especially in the first year. Indeed, I tell them that they should expect B’s and an occasional C (faces convey pain at this news!). 3. I advise them to seek balance in their daily lives—to find something non-academic that they are passionate about as a release from the pressures of the academic. I myself am biased toward the physical and so I encourage them to find some form of physical exercise—a club sport, a pick-up game of soccer, a visit to the gym–anything to counter balance the intensity of their academic demands.
Conversation then moves to the nuts and bolts of their class schedule for the upcoming semester. Most were only one, at most two, courses short of a full schedule and so we debated back and forth the merits of particular courses that would help meet their General Education Requirements (GER’s). I warned them that, when they registered the next morning, they would find most classes closed and that they would have to hustle to fill their schedules. We talked about various approaches to gaining entry into chosen classes—emailing professors, getting on wait lists, going to the first (and second and third) class and asking the professor if slots had opened up etc. I had one little gift to give them that would (hopefully) reduce their anxieties: an override into my Soc 250 class. This I gave them with the advice that they should use it as “their security blanket”—keep it in place in case they could not gain access to all their chosen classes; I assured them that they should feel totally free to drop my course if they found a better deal! With a few words of encouragement, and a commitment to always promptly answer their emails, they left feeling a little more secure than when they arrived—at least that is my hope!