Puzzle pieces, two of which show faces, one showing a student taking virtual classes, and a fourth showing a student graduating college with balloons shaped like books
Illustration by Amelia Madarang

New year brings new first-year seminar, course requirements

The Spring 2020 semester brought the end of Exploration & Discovery (E&D), Lewis & Clark’s first-year seminar that had been in place since 2006. After years of discussion and planning, the 2020-21 school year is seeing the first cohort of the new first-year seminar called Words and Numbers, as well as a new General Education (GE) curriculum.

Words is similar to E&D, focusing on discussion, close analysis of texts and strengthening writing skills. Numbers is more math-driven and concentrates on quantitative reasoning and developing theories. When signing up for courses over the summer, first-year students indicated preferences for specific sections of both Words and Numbers sections. Students take one semester of each, but the order does not matter. Both classes are offered each semester, rather than following a specific two-semester sequence as E&D did.

The most significant changes to the first-year seminar experience during the COVID-19 pandemic have been due to restrictions on gathering sizes. This year’s kick-off lecture during New Student Orientation was completely online, as well as the first colloquium. Most Words and Numbers classes are taught in a hybrid format, though many are online-only. 

This year, LC elected Kundai Chirindo, associate professor of rhetoric and media studies and director of ethnic studies, as the GE director. Chirindo is also the chair of the General Education Steering Committee, a group that shares the main responsibilities of leading the GE curriculum.

“(The) steering committee passes policy internally for General Education, and also makes recommendations to the faculty if we need to make broader changes that require a vote of the entire faculty,” Chirindo said. “Our primary concern right now is the first-year seminar, making sure we have enough seats for people to take both Words and Numbers both semesters, making sure we have enough faculty teaching…(and) adapting everything to the environment that we’re in.”

The process of redesigning the first-year seminar and the GE curriculum took about eight years. The Subcommittee on General Education created an identity statement that vocalizes the qualities LC graduates are expected to have, as well as what students need to grow while at LC. The ideas of an ideal graduate and personal growth were major parts of redesigning the GE requirements.

“Once we realized the major structural requirements, the big principles, it was a matter of then filling it in and reorienting our General Education requirements,” Chirindo said. “We have many exciting, timely requirements that are part of this new General Education, and a lot of people spent a lot of time looking around the country at other institutions designing the requirements.”

Professor of Biology and Department Chair Greta Binford is teaching the Numbers course Biodiversity Through Eight Eyes this semester. Binford said the new GE program was designed to allow students to grow in areas outside of their major, starting with the core first-year seminar.

“Numbers is centered in particular on trying to inspire and incentivize student investment in quantitative reasoning early in their time at Lewis & Clark,” Binford said. “What we hope to do is elevate everyone with a solid foundation of being able to access quantitative intuition to apply it in whatever they do and to start their time at Lewis & Clark equipped with that.”

Students taking the new first-year seminar have expressed positive experiences so far. Cass Orr ’24 is taking the Words class The Space Between: Writing Across Difference in American Literature.

“I was really worried because I heard that this was a new curriculum compared to what they were doing before,” Orr said. “Overall I really like my class, it hasn’t been difficult at all … I’ve really enjoyed the pieces that we’ve been doing.”

Sebastian Williamson ’24 is also taking Words this semester. He described his experiences in Fictions of Identity as engaging, and “a big step up from high school.” 

“All the discussions are more advanced, the teacher knows how to lead them better, I feel like I’m just learning more about what we’ve read,” Williamson said. “I’ve never liked English class, but I like this class.”

Both Orr and Williamson expressed looking forward to taking Numbers next semester. For students taking Numbers in the spring, Binford said a growth mindset is important.

“Go into it with open minds, open hearts, about how it will change (your) relationship with quantitative reasoning,” Binford said. “It’s helpful to remember that these classes are not competitive, there’s no need to try to display what you know, rather come in with the humility of knowing that wherever you’re starting, you have plenty of room to grow, and there will be (an) opportunity for that.”

Although it is too soon to tell whether or not the introduction of Words and Numbers and the new GE curriculum has been well-received as a whole, Chirindo said that the steering committee is working on an assessment program in order to garner feedback from faculty. Chirindo and Binford each described a high level of optimism toward the new curriculum. Part of Chirindo’s job as chair of the steering committee is to maintain that optimism.

“I really hope that this is a program that Lewis & Clark can be proud of, that our students really take to heart this idea of a liberal arts education that prepares them broadly and deeply in a variety of different areas,” Chirindo said.

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