Faculty Senate hears proposal to make First Year Seminars mandatory

Faculty Senate heard a proposal Monday to require incoming freshmen to take a First Year Seminar course during one of their first two semesters at Wichita State. Provost and acting President Rick Muma said retention is the motivating factor behind the proposed requirement, which, if approved, will go into effect for the 2021-22 academic year.

According to the Gen Ed Committee, retaining just 30 more students would counteract the cost of implementing such a program.

First Year Seminars, which could be proposed and developed by all six of WSU’s academic colleges, would count towards a tier-two general education requirement in the arts, humanities, social sciences, or natural sciences — as determined by the Gen Ed Committee.

WSU’s gen ed policy states that “Courses within a student’s major department shall not count toward fulfilling general education requirements.”

“If [a course] exists in the College of Engineering and engineering students are taking it, it shouldn’t count as general education for them — even if it’s classified as a social science or a humanity,” Music Sen. Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn said. “Am I wrong?”

Muma assured Sternfeld-Dunn that the Gen Ed Committee would have the ultimate say in how First Year Seminars are categorized, but that each seminar would be coded as a general education course.

The committee provided a rubric for teaching such seminars. Phrasing on the proposal left some senators questioning whether it was a suggestion or a requirement that professors teach and grade by the rubric.

Jeffrey Hershfield, chair of the Philosophy Department and former chair of the Gen Ed Committee, said mandating a breakdown of the course grade is a violation of academic freedom.

“I understand that these gen ed courses are supposed to achieve certain outcomes, but that’s clearly a violation of academic freedom,” Hershfield said. “Now, if it’s a recommendation, that’s a different issue.”

Neal Allen, chair of the Political Science Department, has taught multiple First Year Seminars through the Honors College, where they are already a requirement. Allen said professors teaching seminars enjoy broad academic freedom.

“What this [rubric] tells me is that you can’t teach a class where you don’t take any attendance, you don’t pay attention to where they participate, and have one giant project at the end, which would not follow the kind of goals that we have,” Allen said. “I think any class that any one of us would teach in First Year Seminar could easily fit in here.”

The proposal notes that seminars should have a writing component of some form at the beginning and end of the semester to track freshman progress.

“There’s quite a few students who come from high school who have absolutely no idea how to put something together clearly on paper,” Health Sciences Sen. Ray Hull said. “I just think that’s a very important aspect of an early course.”

After the meeting, Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Andrew Hippisley said he is fully supportive of interdisciplinary First Year Seminars.

“If they were to do a course like that where it brings in the humanities side of engineering from their perspective, that’s just wonderful,” Hippisley said. “They’re buying into the fact that the human factors are important in everything that we do.”

Sternfeld-Dunn said his only concern would be making sure such a program embraces expertise instead of sacrificing it.

“The way that was being promoted is that an engineering faculty member is now teaching a humanities course,” Sternfeld-Dunn said. “I have no problem with an engineering course being focused around the humanities, but it should bring in experts from the humanities.

“I’m not worried about the diluting of a liberal arts education. I’m more worried about the diluting of our expertise.”

Hippisley said he doesn’t believe that would be an issue.

“At a level of generality, I think anyone can teach humanities, so I don’t think that’s encroachment,” Hippisley said.

Faculty Senate will vote on the Gen Ed Committee’s proposal at their next meeting on April 8.