Freshman Year Key to College Career

Freshman yearVANCOUVER — The classes a student takes in his or her freshman year have the power to make or break the rest of their college career. Yet fundamental courses like first-year composition are increasingly relegated to the instruction of adjunct instructors or are moved online.

For the MLA, the topic of teaching first-year classes, particularly composition courses, is a critical issue, as evidenced by the many panels dedicated to the topic of first-year instruction at the 2015 MLA Conference.

With regards to entry level composition classes, one challenge arises from the fact that written communication is rapidly evolving with technology. So while a composition class dedicated solely to academic writing may have sufficed even five years ago, now students must also to learn to write for the web. Professors and instructors too must adapt with the times and learn to teach new styles of writing.

Dr. Jessica Beth Yood, a professor at Lehman College at CUNY, described some of the challenges her institution faces with regards to undergraduate writing courses. She told Diverse that the number of students taking such classes has increased dramatically, even as the university has asked instructors to compress the time spent on each course.

With her first-year writing classes, she said she often has less than a semester to help her students establish proficiency in academic and web-specific writing. As a result, writing is taught through online classes or “hybrid” classes, in which students send her their work, she critiques it and sends it back.

But compared to the traditional liberal arts format of face-to-face discussions of literature and textual analysis, Yood said, the new methodology “doesn’t work as well.”

Instead, she says that traditional freshman writing courses and composition courses are worth “fighting for.” “Because they may be the place where the questions around thinking become manifested,” she said. “[Students can] experiment with asking themselves ‘how do I think about things,’ without having to codify it yet.”

On the flip side, she said, moving classes online benefits the “non-traditional” student who has to work full-time or raise a family. That student can complete their coursework on a more flexible schedule.

Other first-year class instructors had the opportunity to voice their concerns about employment at the conference, such as at the Saturday morning panel “The First Year of College and Non-Tenure-Track Faculty.” Non-tenure-track faculty are faced with many challenges—professional uncertainty due to being left out of the tenure track and lower pay than their tenured colleagues being two chief concerns.

The plight of the adjunct or contingent faculty has been well documented. Their annual incomes from teaching tend to be so low they must cobble together a living by taking on other teaching gigs or part-time service industry work. At the same time, being an adjunct seems to disqualify them from even being considered for tenure track, even though the work they do is similar to that of their tenured colleagues.

Panelist Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette, a faculty instructional consultant at the University of Kentucky, described the ironies inherent in being a non-tenure-track employee tasked with working with first-year students, the very individuals whom the institution hopes to retain. How can contingent faculty make students feel like they “belong” when the faculty themselves do not feel like a permanent part of the university, she asked.

Previously, Dr. Skallerup Bessette taught at Morehead State University, where many of her students were first-generation to college. Even though she was helping to introduce them to college life, her “temporary” status meant that it was difficult to maintain a relationship with them after her courses ended.

“We build relationships with [first-year students]—that’s best pedagogy, that’s best practice for writing. But then, we never see them again,” Skallerup Bessette said.

Some institutions have found a way to more effectively include non-tenure-track faculty.

Dr. Heather Colburn, who spoke at the same panel, pointed to Northwestern University’s program for non-tenure-track faculty (NTTs) as a possible example for other universities. NTTs teach a substantial portion of first-year courses—Dr. Colburn cited institutional data that showed NTTs teach 54 percent of first-year seminars and 100 percent of first-year foreign language courses.

At Northwestern, NTTs are offered a path to semi-permanence at the university that “mimics” tenure-track professorial hierarchies. Colburn, for example, is an “associate professor of instruction” in the undergraduate department of Spanish and Portuguese. Instructors get multi-year contracts, giving them a better sense of professional stability.

In marked contrast with Skallerup Bessette’s description of instructors not having a voice on Morehead’s faculty senate, Northwestern’s faculty senate features a “non-tenure-eligible committee,” which Colburn chairs.