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Faculty Notes: Fousing on the First Year

by Kim Johnson
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"The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without a teacher."

That quote hangs in Associate Professor of Psychology Bobby Horton’s office in Baxter Hall, and it doesn’t take a long conversation to realize how serious he is about preparing his students to "get along" without him. In fact, after earning tenure in 2006, Horton spent his sabbatical year working on a project he hopes will be a great start to that process.

Horton and Professor of English Tobey Herzog are leading a group studying the first-year experience at Wabash.
With his own first year at Wabash still relatively fresh in his memory, Horton sees many parallels between the first-year experience as a faculty member and the student first-year experience.

"The first semester was amazingly hectic—trying to understand the culture and figure out the all-male thing," Horton says. "I’m sure that’s true of the students as well. They are away from home, many for the first time, in an all-male environment, in Crawfordsville—which for some is the smallest place they’ve ever been. They are just trying to get their feet wet and make connections with people.

"Wabash works very well. Our students are pretty happy, pretty successful. We are satisfied with the direction the College is going, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get better and we can’t do things better."

Funded through the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash, Horton and Herzog’s group includes 14 faculty, staff, administrators, and students who are "assessing what our first-year experience is at Wabash, how effective it is, and to see what other colleges are doing vis-‡-vis the first-year experience in hopes of making our program better."

The committee has been focusing on three areas of interest: residential life, academic experience, and preparing for the first year of college. Each of those areas was carefully dissected at Wabash before the group explored other similarly sized and focused colleges and universities around the nation.

After months of research, surveying, meeting with representatives from other campuses, and combing through hundreds of pages of data, the group compiled recommendations in late winter for Dean of the College Gary Phillips, faculty, and administration.

The list of recommendations includes creating a director of First-Year Programs who would oversee all of the related activities.

"The types of programs that fall under that person’s jurisdiction would include all freshman courses, orientation of first-year students, advising, common summer reading programs, and some residential life programs," Horton explains.

Other recommendations include moving course registration from August during orientation to earlier in the summer, increasing training for academic advisors, and expanding the role of upper-class men as mentors.

"Students report the August orientation program is hectic and it’s stressful, seemingly because their primary focus is, ‘What classes am I going to get?’ So first-year students come to campus for this five-day, very good orientation program that our Dean of Students has put together, but all they are really concerned about are the courses they are going to get and how they are going to get them.

"It just destroys any focus they could have on anything else. All those other orientation sessions get clouded completely by the stress and hectic nature of course scheduling.

"By moving freshman course registration from August to June, we want to allow the orientation in August to really be that—an orientation to campus life, a time to start forming bonds with fellow students, and really orienting to the campus."

Horton also hopes that by having freshmen register in June, they’ll feel a connection to the College earlier in the year.

"They get an ID card. They talk to a faculty person. They talk to an upper classman mentor," Horton says. "They leave June registration with their course schedule and ID card in hand and now they are a real part of the College two months earlier than they might have been otherwise.

"June registration for freshmen also allows the College to focus its energy and faculty and students on that singular effort of advising first-year students—meaning that we can train people for those first-year registration sessions very deliberately."

Horton also describes recommendations by the committee to more deliberately use upper classmen as mentors in the orientation process, then take that one step further by continuing the relationship throughout the entire first year.

One idea has the first-year program director "working with existing student groups—including MXIBS, fraternities, UPS, and other student groups—to either create or improve a first-year student mentoring program within that group for students who seek out that group as a social refuge.

"A more radical idea would create a first-year mentoring program in which upper classmen would be assigned to one group of first-year students," Horton explains. "That upper classman would meet with his students during August orientation, would sit with those students in their freshman tutorial class, and would be responsible for guiding those students in programming that would happen during a common meeting hour for freshmen."

There may be a few smaller pilot programs put in place yet this summer and fall, but Horton says the most noticeable changes will not occur until fall 2009.

Throughout the research process, Horton was impressed with the focus and energy many other colleges put in to their first-year programs. He hopes eventually Wabash will have a similarly coordinated effort.

"We have a lot of good components, but other places like us have really decided to invest significantly in the first year," he says. "That was really enlightening, and showed us what the possibilities are.

"No one thinks that the Wabash first-year program is broken and that our first-year students are doing things poorly. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—we know they are doing well by many measures.

"But I am excited about it because there are just some neat programs that we are talking about, and I think they will be good for our students."