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What is childhood? What is the process of othering? How do we differentiate between humans and animals? How do humans experience time? How do we conceive of community and solitude outside of the boundaries of the ordinary?

This fall, new students will engage these questions and more while they sharpen their critical thinking, writing and reading comprehension skills in Whitman College’s new First Year Seminars program.

The program — which replaces the previous Encounters curriculum for first-year students — has been built over the past two years by Whitman faculty, with the goal of creating a first-year experience that inspires and prepares students to make the most of their liberal arts education. Taught by professors from all across the college, the seminars share common learning outcomes, yet give faculty the opportunity to draw upon their area of expertise. 

The result is a two-semester program made up of two classes: “Exploring Complex Questions” this fall, and “Making Powerful Arguments” in the spring. For fall, incoming students selected their top preferences from six Learning Communities:

  • Childhood
  • Inventing Others
  • Justice
  • Questioning Animals
  • Time
  • Thinking Together, Thinking Apart.

Each community is comprised of a group of four to five faculty members from different departments. Unlike the Encounters program — which used a common syllabus and shared reading list — each Learning Community chooses how they want to build connections across sections. Some are using a shared syllabus, while others will explore a topic in different ways, while bringing their individual sections together for a few key texts and shared events or experiences.

Mary Raschko“I think that there will be a lot of variation of experience across the communities,” said Associate Professor Mary Raschko, director of the First Year Seminar program. “The course goals are all in common. What’s really important is that all students get to work on reading, writing and discussion and information literacy in concentrated ways. The experience of doing so can be as varied as the students’ and the professors’ interests.”

For example, all students in the Inventing Others learning community will learn to read for nuance in the theoretical text “Orientalism.” But in one professor’s class they’ll also practice that skill while watching “Ugly Delicious,” a Netflix cross-cultural food show by chef David Chang, and in another, they’ll listen to The New York Times’ “1619 Project” podcast on the legacy of slavery.   

Making Powerful Arguments

In the spring, students will enter a new course, with new classmates and a new instructor. Where “Exploring Complex Questions” was about connection, “Making Powerful Arguments” is about diving deeply into an area of expertise for the person teaching the course.

“In the fall, we’re looking to think about interdisciplinarity and interconnection, and what comes about from this sort of liberal arts study where we’re putting subjects together in interesting combinations,” Raschko said. “The spring is about depth. Students will dive into a more focused academic conversation and explore how people make arguments and think about evidence in that field.”

Across fall and spring semesters, professors are planning seminars that reflect consideration of difference, cultural inclusiveness and contending perspectives. Students in the Childhood learning community, for example, will read the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child and watch a documentary that follows babies in the first year of life across four different countries. One spring seminar will address epic storytelling from the Ancient Near East, Ancient Greece, the Asian Subcontinent, and Central Asia. Another will explore perspectives on multilingualism and language diversity.

The variety of materials covered in the seminars will expand the texts Whitman students bring to vital discussions about race, power and building inclusive communities, Raschko said. 

Life-Enhancing Skills

Just like first-year programs before it, the First Year Seminar will help students adjust to the academic expectations of Whitman, learn to respectfully debate and find their voice. But it has an added benefit, Raschko said, of exposing them to topics they maybe hadn’t considered before, and opening new avenues of interest. Raschko is excited to see how students can connect what they learn in class to opportunities to engage in the community, other courses and majors, and even their life after Whitman.

“When you emphasize the skills more, it is easier to figure out the continuities between ‘what I do in class’ and ‘what I want to do later.’ Learning to engage in respectful debate is something you have to do in lots of settings,” she said. “I look forward to being able to better articulate how what they’re doing in class will serve them for the rest of their lives.”