FYS replacement connects college to Windy City

By Campus Reporter

“Big Chicago” courses—the college’s experimental replacement for the soon-to-be discontinued First-Year Seminar program—are in the final stages of development as the college works to create its third attempt at the required freshman course.

The 14 currently proposed classes, which will enroll 80–200 students in a lecture hall-style classroom, will be divided by major, said Suzanne Blum Malley, interim dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences. However, incoming freshmen will be encouraged to choose a class outside of their major, Blum Malley said.

“Ideally, this will be an experience [for students] to be exposed to something a little different,” Blum Malley said.

Though the class sizes will be larger, new technology and multimedia give faculty members the chance to have a more interactive experience, Blum Malley said.

“The class is designed to have some aspect of a lecture  style, which, yes, is unusual for Columbia,” she said. “But there are also some interesting things you can do in a larger classroom. To have presentations more interactive and interesting—this isn’t your mom or dad or grandparent’s lecture hall.” 

Diana Vallera, adjunct professor in the Photography department and P-Fac president, said she has concerns about lecture-style classes fitting Columbia’s traditional format of smaller classes.

“My first concern regarding the imposition of ‘Big Chicago’ is that it circumvented college procedures for curriculum development,” Vallera said in an emailed statement. “The proposed class sizes are in conflict with recruitment materials that advertise small class sizes. Finally, data on learning outcomes suggest that students’ success declines when classes are enlarged unless you have significantly dummied down the curriculum or provide sufficient teaching assistants.”

Blum Malley said she is aware of faculty concerns about the large classes, but additional breakout sessions will be held either online or in person led by graduate teaching assistants.

“I think the knee-jerk reaction [to larger classes was] that that’s terrible—if that’s all we were doing then I would say that’s maybe not the greatest thing, but there’s this whole other component being developed by the instructors and being developed in the way that fits with the course they have chosen to offer,” Blum Malley said.

Jim DeRogatis, a lecturer in the English Department who has proposed a class called “Music and Media in Chicago,” said faculty and students should not be worried about the size of the class.

“It’s the sort of class that doesn’t hurt from being a big lecture because there is this second part,” DeRogatis said. “Monday will be a two-hour big lecture for 100 or 180 kids and Friday will be smaller, breakout groups of 20.”

During the process of choosing the faculty members to represent their departments in the “Big Chicago” courses, Blum Malley said she and the deans of the School’s Media Arts and Performing Arts spread the message about the opportunity to the department chairs, who then invited faculty members to draft rough class proposals and a curriculum.

“What we were looking for is someone who wanted to do this, someone who had a great idea and thought they could make the course in a way that there would be a large-scale classroom for two hours a week and then ways to integrate student engagement and student participation through [multiple types of] activities,” Blum Malley said.

Raquel Monroe, an assistant professor in the Dance Department who is developing the class “Chicago: Dance, Sex and Popular Culture,” said the faculty asked to create the courses were given the opportunity because they are the top faculty members in their department, which is reflected through their evaluations.

“I know that was a concerted effort—to make sure when you are launching something of this magnitude that you have your top teachers in charge of it,” Monroe said.

The idea of making the classes Chicago-centered came from Stan Wearden, vice president and provost, when he first began at Columbia, Blum Malley said.

“[Wearden spoke] about wanting to radically revise what we were doing with the First–Year Seminar and re-envisioning what we were doing with that—having it more connected to both the life of the college and the city of Chicago,” Blum Malley said. 

Karla Rae Fuller, assistant professor in the Cinema Art + Science Department who was asked to teach “Chicago Film History,” said giving students the opportunity to learn about the city is important.

“We are so much a part of Chicago,” Fuller said. “We’re so much a part of this city, and I think the emphasis on Chicago is a really good one for entering students to connect with their location.”

A committee of faculty, staff and possibly students will be arranged for the Fall 2015 Semester to review how students receive the “Big Chicago” courses, Blum Malley said, adding that the review of the courses will include evaluations additional to the ones normally distributed at the end of the semester.

Blum Malley added decisions regarding FYS’s permanent replacement may be affected by “Big Chicago” but will likely not be the exact setup.

“We don’t know and we shouldn’t know yet because we want the group of people who takes a look at what we want to do for this course, the core and for the learning outcomes to use this as a springboard for potential ideas,” Blum Malley said. “We also want them to be completely open to what it might become. If it’s wildly, fabulously successful in all ways—which is probably unrealistic—then that will weigh heavily into what the team of folks taking a serious look at this will think about.”