Academics and Research

First-year seminars set stage for college learning

Before students begin declaring majors, setting sail to scenic study-abroad destinations or collecting their diplomas, they all participate in the University of Denver’s distinctive first-year seminar (FSEM), which helps to set the stage for academic and social success throughout the undergraduate years.

Each seminar, typically capped at 18 students, first meets a few days before the start of the academic year during Discoveries Week, an orientation program that familiarizes incoming students with the campus and with University programs. The 4-credit classes meet four hours per week during the fall quarter.

According to the first-year seminar website, the courses are designed to provide first-year students “with an in-depth academic experience that will be rigorous and engaging. [Students will] develop the kinds of academic skills that will prepare [them] for successful college work, including writing, critical reading and thinking, discussion, argument and debate. Faculty members have selected course topics about which they have particular expertise and enthusiasm. For [students] to be able to engage with faculty in the exploration of these topics is an extraordinary opportunity for academic and personal growth.”

Just as important, the seminars provide a forum for students to build relationships with their peers and with the professor, who will serve as their advisor and mentor throughout the first year. Students may take seminars in any area they choose, regardless of their major.

“My seminar was a great way to get from high school and living at home to moving into college,” says senior Nick DeNapoli. “It made getting used to the style, format and difficulty of college classes way easier, and the transition smoother. It also made meeting new people in a new place really easy.”

In the seminars, says sociology Professor Paul Colomy, who heads the committee that selects which classes will be offered, “the boundary between a student and faculty member breaks down a bit, and there is some informality in a positive way. Certainly the barriers between students break down very quickly, and in most seminars a high level of cohesion develops among students.

“[Students] spend a lot of time with each other during Discoveries week,” Colomy adds. “Most students are leaving home for the first time, they are new to the Denver area, and they don’t know many people on campus. They are looking to make friends, and the seminar provides a wonderful opportunity to befriend other young people in the same situation.”

Discoveries Week includes Destinations, a day when professors take their FSEM students on course-related field trips around Denver. A class in ecology or biology, for example, may take a trip to the Denver Zoo.

By the time fall quarter starts and the seminar begins in earnest, students have developed a comfort level with fellow participants in the seminar and with their professor.

“When the seminar formally commences during the first week of classes, students are quite comfortable with one another and are very willing to speak up,” Colomy says. “First-year seminars tend to be much more participatory academic experiences than more traditional, lecture-based classes.”

Everything about the seminar is designed to help students become comfortable at the University and to impart the skills they need to succeed. According to Colomy, the committee looks for classes that are intellectually challenging and substantively engaging.

“The courses are designed to be academically rigorous. We want to convey to students that this is university-level work, and university-level work is more demanding than high school,” Colomy says.

The FSEM program also aims to help students understand that support is available if they need it. “The sense that a professor genuinely cares about you as an individual and wants you to succeed is a powerful impetus to learning,” Colomy says. If academic or other difficulties arise, the faculty member will do all he or she can to locate resources on campus to assist the student.

This fall, students have more than 80 seminars to choose from, including:

In Game Theory and Strategy, students will employ advanced mathematical principles as they aim to understand the basics of pursuing optimal strategies both in games and in life.

Global Hip-Hop takes students on a journey tracing the music’s roots and evolution. The class will delve into the sociological, economic and political significance of the genre, while also exploring how hip-hop has been mobilized, changed and represented.

Global politics meets classic works of fiction in Imagined Worlds. In an increasingly complicated world of uncertain futures and movement of people across traditional borders, students will be asked to take a global perspective when considering whether the fantasy genre is truly an escape from reality or a jumping-off point of social commentary. This is one of several seminars aimed at international students, allowing them to bring their own culture and experiences to the discussion.

Students’ familiarity with the concept of freedom is put to the test in Freedom and Its Opposites, a class in which students reflect on such questions as: What is freedom? Are there different forms of freedom? And how do we know if and when freedom is eroded or lost?

Media and Sexualization asks students to confront the relationship between the increased visibility of sexuality in media culture and their everyday lives. By unpacking the sexualization of culture, students are prompted to think critically about the effect of media messages on cultural approaches to sexuality.

A complete list of first-year seminars is available here.







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