First-Year Preceptorial

Course Background and Goals

Precept (FYP) is different from most courses taught at Union. It is an interdisciplinary course led by instructors from a variety of disciplines who explore profound and interesting ideas, often in areas outside of their expertise, with their students. It is also a foundational WAC course with an emphasis on critical reading and analytic writing. The essential elements of the course are described below.

Course Content and Goals

  1. The course is organized around general themes that are selected by the FYP Committee in consultation with the Preceptors. Themes are both broad and flexible (Dialogue and Diversity, The Outsider, Freedom and Oppression, etc). Themes are normally retained for at least three years; however, at its discretion, the FYP Committee can change themes at any time. The current themes are Nature and Culture and Ways of Knowing.
  2. Faculty prepare their own syllabi based on the theme they select and are free to choose their own readings.
  3. In the creation of syllabi, faculty should emphasize gendercultural diversity, and interdisciplinarity. Sections should not be considered as "departmental seminars" focusing on one discipline.
  4. Writing is to be a significant element in FYP. Students are expected to complete frequent writing assignments that receive written faculty response. The nature of the assignments may vary depending on the instructor. They could take the form, for example, of expository essays, creative writings, response journals, "microthemes," etc. At least two of these assignments should be substantial in nature, involving revisions and individual meetings between the faculty member and the student. Some Precept instructors ask their students to buy a handbook or style guide.
  5. The development of critical thinking and critical reading skills is to be a significant element of FYP.
  6. Speaking, whether through participation in discussion, debates, formal presentations, or the use of "student discussion leaders," should also be an important part of the course.

Minerva Houses and Co-Curricular Activities

Preceptors are encouraged to teach in the Minerva House seminar rooms. In addition, Preceptors are encouraged to link their first-year seminars with co-curricular activities that help create a sense of community and introduce students to the intellectual life and values of a liberal arts college. Special Precept funds for this purpose are available from the Dean of Studies (currently $300 per instructor per term for activities such as theater admission, film tickets, outings, or meals).

Support for Preceptors

  1. Each year there are regular opportunities for Preceptors to get together to discuss pedagogical issues and the chosen themes. Usually these take the form of informal luncheon meetings.
  2. An FYP committee will create and provide workshops, handbooks, instructional materials, and a fully developed website and will work with the Library liaisons.
  3. An FYP committee will develop a program linking trained student writing tutors to individual seminars.

Background of the Course

Faculty developed First-Year Preceptorial in 1977 to provide a common intellectual experience for all first-year students. The fundamental assumption of the course was that well-educated people could intelligently read, discuss, and write about important texts in literature, philosophy, and science although they were not "experts" in the area. The common syllabus, which has been substantially revised several times, was originally designed to introduce students to "great books" in the western tradition and to be multidisciplinary. In 1993, in response to the significant "western" component of our General Education program, introduced several years earlier, a new reading list and format were introduced. With information gathered through an assessment process funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, faculty and students working together changed the course to emphasize controversial issues and cross-cultural conversations. The writing component of the course was also changed at this time to include opportunities for more "in-class" writing and peer evaluation.

In 2001, First Year Preceptorial was restructured in response to faculty and student concerns. The new FYP allows instructors much greater flexibility to choose subject and style and to determine the length of time spent on any particular text or issue. Since we are still using common themes and common pre-course readings, we retain some unity, but in all other ways we trade unity of content for flexibility as an enticement to instructors and as an acknowledgement that there are many good ways to approach each theme. We maintain that the FYP should be interdisciplinary, but give faculty the freedom to create their own syllabi in compensation for requiring them to teach outside their field for at least part of the term. FYP's common themes will be broad enough to encourage scientific or engineering faculty members to put together new FYP syllabi. Moreover, faculty members now have the freedom to determine, according to their own principles, what is the proper balance between time spent discussing reading and time spent discussing writing. They will also have the flexibility to adapt this balance to the needs of an individual class.

FYP includes support for regular discussion of pedagogical issues, whether centered on writing or on course content, not only to address the concerns of faculty who feel unprepared to teach writing, but also to maintain FYP's current status as an important venue for faculty from a variety of departments and divisions to exchange ideas about teaching.

The new FYP helps assuage student complaints about content disparities among sections in two ways: first, by eliminating the expectation that everyone is taking precisely the same course; and second, by allowing students to list preferences -- the idea being that, since they will have chosen the course based on its description, they will complain less about its content. In addition, the new FYP addresses student complaints about disparities in workload by requiring all students to do roughly the same amount of writing. At the same time, FYP continues aspects of the course that students especially appreciated, such as rewrites, being taught by a non-expert, multicultural elements and the discussion of profound ideas.