Southern Virginia Offers New First-Year Seminar

· September 4, 2013

To enhance the experience of the 318 new students who began fall semester classes at Southern Virginia University this week, the university has created a new set of courses designed specifically for first-year students.

The university is providing this year’s incoming class — which has an average high school GPA of 3.38, the highest-ever GPA for an incoming class at Southern Virginia — with five sections of LIB 105, the university’s new first-year seminar.

“During the last year and a half, the curriculum committee has been looking at the Core requirements,” said Dr. Timothy Knudson, associate professor of physics and head of the university’s curriculum committee. “We’ve made a number of changes, but the provost and a number of the faculty still felt that we needed to do something more for new students.”

Knudson said that the new first-year seminar will present instruction on how to develop good learning habits “within the context of really exciting, new material that you never learned in high school.”

The different sections of the seminar are titled: “This Class Will Make You Smarter and Happier,” “Science, Pseudoscience and Rationality,” “From the Page to the Stage,” and “Cracking the Code.”

Dr. Madison U. Sowell, provost at Southern Virginia, said that with the new first-year seminar, the university hopes to provide students with the four conditions for college success outlined by Vincent Tinto in the book “Completing College: Rethinking Institutional Action.” Tinto’s conditions, which Sowell quoted, are “clear expectations,” “support,” “assessment and feedback,” and “involvement.”

“We want to set up clear expectations, be supportive ourselves wherever possible and help them understand where they can find support here, give them useful feedback, and get them involved both inside and outside of the classroom,” said Provost Sowell. “That’s the goal of LIB 105 — to help them make that transition from high school to college and to be successful.”

Provost Sowell will teach a first-year seminar titled “Cracking the Code: How to Read Medieval and Renaissance Art.” The course will introduce first-year students to many of the topics covered in his upper-division course, “Saints, Signs and Symbols.”

Another section of LIB 105 — “This Class Will Make You Smarter and Happier” — taught by Dr. Ariel Rodriguez, associate professor of family and child development, will focus on recent research in the fields of positive psychology and neuroscience.

“There’s a lot of research on happiness that didn’t exist 15 years ago,” said Rodriguez. “We’ll also study how the brain works and read books about managing our habits, willpower and emotions. We’ll learn what things about ourselves we can change and how we can change them. The course will help students learn how to be the kind of people who can set goals, form good habits and accomplish what they want to achieve.”

Associate Professor of Philosophy Jan-Erik Jones’ section of the first-year seminar will teach students about the difference between science and pseudoscience and “by what criteria we determine that any theory is a scientific one or a pseudoscientific one.”

“It’s a foundational question about rational belief formation and how we go about discerning truth from error,” said Jones. “I hope that students in this class develop a real interest in science and philosophy and some of the philosophical questions about science. I want there to be a lively debate in class. We’ll pick fundamental issues that are not just of historical interest but of contemporary interest as well — like palm reading, Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster.”

Two sections of LIB 105 will be taught by Dr. Debra Sowell, professor of humanities at Southern Virginia. She said that her course, “From the Page to the Stage: Literature and Performance,” will teach students about the process of “staging a play” and of “transposing literary text into a new medium.”

“As a scholar, I’m really interested in adaptation theory,” said Sowell. “What happens when you take a novel and turn it into a play? This happens a lot in popular entertainment. We’ll also cover the elements of film technique and learn how to look at a film critically to see how these cinematic elements figure in an adaptation. I hope that this will enrich the way students view theatre and movies for the rest of their lives.”

Knudson said that each section of LIB 105 will be included in a learning community — part of the university’s first-year experience in which a group of students take two classes together and participate in course excursions together.

“The idea is to form friendships based on which classes you’re taking,” he said.

Additionally, he said that he hopes all of the sections of LIB 105 will help students “love to learn and become lifelong learners.”

“College is all about becoming an independent learner, you’ve got to have a different set of skills,” Knudson said. “The idea with a [first-year] seminar is that these are the skills you’ll need to use in all your classes so you can have confidence and better yourself. Another advantage is that now in this day and age, in any career you choose, you’re going to have to continue to learn. The way the world used to be, you could choose a career and continue to use those same skills for years. Now you have to learn how to teach yourself and learn new things, so having these learning skills will continue to benefit you.”