All incoming students are required to take an Argument & Inquiry (A&I) seminar during their first fall term. Professors teach about 40 classes each year, and students get to choose their top choices. A September convocation devoted to A&I further introduces freshmen to liberal arts expectations. And it highlights what to expect for the next four years. Namely: more discussion, more writing, and more interdisciplinary learning.
A Foundation for Learning
“First-year students have widely different understandings of the phrase ‘liberal arts.’ It’s not a concept that is well defined by the media or by other sources,” says English professor George Shuffelton.
“The A&I seminars show that the liberal arts are a model of education that develops freedom of thought, the capacity for rigorous analysis, and the ability to express ideas clearly,” he continues. “That’s why we focus on inquiry — showing how scholars ask questions — and argument — practicing the skills of writing and discussion. We want to show first-years that these same skills can be applied differently in a wide variety of contexts and in many different disciplines.”
Building a Community in the Classroom
Classics professor Chico Zimmerman got the idea for “Living Like a Stoic,” a recent A&I seminar, after serving as an academic adviser. Zimmerman saw his first-year cohort struggle with emotional ups and downs often related to social media. He thought of stoicism, an ancient philosophy that teaches the development of self-control and rational perspective. By constructing a seminar around stoicism, Zimmerman wants to help freshmen think about, not just react to, the “roller coaster ride” at Carleton.
“First-years are so eager. They’re ready to go, ready to learn,” Zimmerman says. “But it’s important to make sure that they’re ready for all college is going to throw at them. I really wanted this class to give them something they could use emotionally in their day-to-day lives.”
The A&I format encourages small-group work and free-flowing dialogue, Zimmerman says. In order to build community among seminar participants, he asks students to share personal experiences, and encourages them to hand out “learning assists” when a peer helps them grasp a concept or learn in a new way.
“The only thing freshmen know is what they experienced in high school. I’m looking to build a discourse community, a community of shared learning,” Zimmerman says. “And so they often have to be told, ‘You’re not trying to impress me. You’re trying to learn something as a group — so help each other.’ ”
The New Standards
French professor Stephanie Cox says there is often an adjustment period for once-proud academic all-stars in “Growing Up Cross Culturally,” her A&I seminar. Students may lack confidence in small-group discussions, where perfect answers aren’t the end goal. They are often unsure about how to “interact with big questions,” Cox says.
Professors are intentional about using the seminars to introduce students to the realities of academic life at Carleton. Students who aced their assignments in high school quickly learn that there’s a different standard for college-level work. And that even your “best effort” often results in several rounds of revision. Students who previously sat quietly in class and avoided participating will find that they can’t hide in a room of 15.
“Obviously these students saw something in Carleton and it’s why they are here. But it takes awhile for freshmen to figure out our expectations and that it takes a lot of hard work to meet them. The A&I seminar helps to clear that up,” Cox says.
“In high school, you focus on the format and the form. Here, we want you to dance.”