Books that will be part of First-Year Studies beginning in Fall 2024.
First-Year Studies will be built around a theme that will change every four years. "Water" will be the theme beginning in the fall, with four books among the seven featured works. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

First-Year Studies, a staple of the academic experience at ýƵ since 1945, continues to evolve. Beginning in Fall 2024, the course required for all first-year students will undergo a significant realignment, all aimed at making the program more focused while keeping its intent of a collective introduction to the liberal arts.

The changes stem from recommendations made by a faculty task force that began its work in spring of 2022. It was approved in a faculty vote in May 2023. The revamped course, now lasting one term instead of two, will have a theme that stitches together the seven works to be studied. “Water” will be the theme for the next four years, then give way to a new theme. The writing curriculum has been reshaped with a sequence aimed at better preparing students for effective analytical writing.

“T First-Year Studies program has undergone many changes since its initial introduction in 1945,” said First-Year Studies Task Force Chair Scott Corry, Patricia Hamar Boldt Professor of Liberal Studies and professor of mathematics. “I, and many other faculty, felt that the time has come for substantial rethinking of the course. A guiding principle for me was to provide more coherence to the course, moving away from the current model in which the primary requirement is to feature works from all divisions of the university with little planning for connections between the works.”

The works selected for the water-focused thematic course beginning this fall include:

  • USGS Water Cycle Diagram (basic science of the hydrologic cycle)
  • Death and Life of the Great Lakes(by Dan Egan)
  • Flood narratives(Gilgamesh and Noah)
  • Selection of music in the Delta Blues tradition(various musical artists)
  • Blood Dazzler(poetry by Patricia Smith)
  • The Interesting Narrative(autobiography of ܻ岹Equiano)
  • Rising: New Dispatches from the American Shore(by Elizabeth Rush)

Since its establishment almost 80 years ago, theFirst-Year Studies(formerlyFreshman Studies)syllabus has been continuously revised to introduce a changing student body to the intellectual challenges of a liberal arts education, and to the resulting benefits of the interdisciplinary thinking it embraces. The course has gone through many iterations through the years. The earliest version of the course, launched by then-President Nathan Pusey, included a film, a laboratory component, and participation in music, art, or creative writing, along with the study of classic works by Plato, Machiavelli, and Thoreau. It was scaled back in the late 1960s, then discontinued for several years in the mid-1970s before returning in 1978. It then went through major revisions in 1986, 1997, and the early 2000s.

A view of the Fox River near campus.
Jeff Clark on choosing water as a theme:“ýƵ is situated on the Fox River and is in the Great Lakes drainage basin—it is intensely local, yet at the same time global.”

The new version of the course marks the first time it has been designed with a thematic structure.

“We surveyed students and faculty and used the responses to inform our work,” Corry said. “We were committed to retaining a common curriculum for all sections of the course, as well as retaining the tradition of selecting works from a variety of disciplines and a diversity of viewpoints.”

Jeff Clark, professor of geosciences, will serve as director of First-Year Studies during this iteration of the course. The water theme, he said, is more focused while still having broad appeal, touching on the sciences, social sciences, music and art, and the humanities.

“ýƵ is situated on the Fox River and is in the Great Lakes drainage basin—it is intensely local, yet at the same time global,” Clark said of the water theme. “Water is essential to life as we know it; water both creates and destroys, and it has served as a source of artistic inspiration, stirring awe and wonder for millennia.”

During your first term on campus, you’ll study works across disciplines and mediums in a unifying experience with every first-year student at ýƵ.

As the task force explored works to be included, it received more than 60 suggestions from faculty.

“T committee worked to balance geographical and temporal perspectives, different fields of study, different voices, different forms of media, and at the same time chose pieces that are interesting, approachable, and work well together,” Clark said.

While change can bring apprehension, it also brings a jolt of excitement to the First-Year Studies program. It includes a structured developmental writing sequence that focuses on the component skills of analysis, starting with summary and progressing through a thesis-based essay.

“Clear writing is clear thinking, and making this connection and developing this skill will lead to broad success in their undergraduate career,” Clark said. “In addition to these formal assignments, informal writing and reflection throughout the term will allow students to try out ideas in a low-stakes environment and challenge them to recognize their growth as writers and thinkers.”

See more on the history of First-Year Studies here

Other aspects of the program will remain familiar. Students will continue to share theirFirst-Year Studiesexperience with a small group of 15 classmates, with each section led by a professor from a different discipline. The entire first-year class will still gather in Memorial Chapel periodically to listen to experts or share experiences. And the works, while connected by a unifying theme, remain varied and include contemporary poetry, ancient manuscripts, environmental writing, journalism, and music.

“I will be teaching a section of the course, and I look forward to seeing this all come together,” Corry said.