Contemplating a major change in direction

I’m considering changing First Year Seminar topics from American Roots Music to Global Climate Change. I have mixed feelings on the matter, and am soliciting feedback from my readers.

Hot licks I have taught sections of UMM‘s First Year Seminar (FYS) course pretty much solid since it was created back in 1999. My topic has been American Roots Music, a subject I love dearly and have greatly enjoyed exploring with my students. I’ve met a host of really wonderful folks through that course, including some of my best student connections outside of Computer Science. That topic has drawn in a broad range of students, many of whom have gone on to play major roles at the radio station and in the open mic night series, and it’s been a great excuse to buy, listen to, and talk about some really wonderful music.

Thus it is with very mixed feelings that I am considering changing my FYS topic for next year when I return from sabbatical. I’ve taught this for a long time and feel like I’m running out of steam on it. I also continue to struggle with lifting the subject from being about “entertainment” to being about human life and culture; I’ve found it difficult to convey my belief in the vitality of the subject. Another issue I’ve struggled with has been critical thinking. FYS replaced a course called Inquiry that had critical thinking as one of its core elements; I always thought that was very valuable, but never really felt like I included that in a consistent way in my roots music course.

Yeah, whatchoo looking at So I’m considering changing topics.

In particular I’m thinking of something like “Climate change: Global crisis, or a tempest in a teapot?”. I think this is one of the (if not the) major questions of our age, and that it can be damnedly difficult to make sense of all the contradictory things said on the subject. My vision is for the class to be an exercise in critical thinking, using climate change as the underlying source of questions and material.

In a one semester, two credit course it’s clear that there’s only so much that we’re going to be able to address, so they’re not going to become experts on the subject (just as I would never claim to be one). Hopefully, however, they’d have a better understanding both of this subject, and of how to approach complex subjects like this in the future.


Thanks in advance.

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11 thoughts on “Contemplating a major change in direction”

  1. That would be a difficult choice to make to be sure. But I think you’re right that teaching critical thinking in a FYSem is an important aspect, and so I applaud you (huzzah!) for making a difficult choice in the name of learning.

    I like the idea of climate change. I also have become made aware recently of the difficulty of eating responsibly/locally, and being a thoughtful consumer can be more difficult than people would think. For example, when deciding to buy locally-produced produce you may think you’re doing what’s best for the planet. But there are so many other things to consider (pesticides, where the seeds came from, where the profits go, how goods get transported from one place to another, etc) that sometimes the “most local” isn’t the best “green” choice. Another example: depending on which side of the Mississippi you live on it’s more “green” to get wine from France than it is from California because of how the wine gets to your city and how/where the glass of the bottle is produced, just for starters. Obviously, I don’t know much about that, yet, but I think an awesome FYSem idea would be to explore how to become a more responsible and more green consumer, which in turn helps protect the little seal in your picture. It gives students something tangible they can do while still educating about the effects of economy on global warming.

  2. Hmm. Good question. Inquiry had the issue of being all over the board grading-wise. Students with English teachers ended up getting nicked on grammer, that sort of thing. I got lucky. I had Kotter. He had us read “So Long, See You Tomorrow” by Maxwell. It was a book I had to go re-read years later because I kept thinking about it. The critical thinking element was the very core of that class for me. Kotter did this by discussion where he would literally let us sit there in silence until someone cracked and started talking. In my mind I remember the class being really loose in structure otherwise. It was the first time I (and many of my class mates for sure) were confronted with having to actually engage the material. It was work to just get us to talk about our views on the material instead of work at assignements in a high school rote recall kind of way. I can see your Climate Change class as supplying a more ready pool of discussion material. If you, say presented two articles, one saying climate change is happening and one that says it isn’t, the student HAVE to pick sides. There is no way to avoid a sort of positive conversational conflict. I can certainly see where American Roots Music (which is a class I would have liked to take!) presents less obvious oppertunities to teach or encourage, at a more basic level, dialogs that promote critical thinking. Students would be familiar with the topic at least in passing to start with which may get them to talk easier.

    In short, I am for your idea.

  3. Thank you both so much for your extremely fast and wonderfully thoughtful responses!

    Emy: That’s exactly the kinds of complexity that I would hope we’d address in the class, and I think there would be a number of opportunities to explore specific local issues. There’s an active local food organization here now, and some efforts are being made to increase the amount of local food is used by UMM’s Food Service, and the issue you mention are obviously important in any conversation like that. Similarly, we’ve got the big wind turbine turning away on the hill, and the new biomass plant under construction. What exactly do they accomplish? How do we best use those resources? What structural impediments exist? The real problem will be focus since there are so many possible roads to wander down.

    Cory: I think one of the most potentially valuable things about a class like FYS/Inquiry is simply addressing that need to engage instead of just observe. One of the challenges (with I’ve met with varying degrees of success) in exploring roots music is the tendency for the discuss to devolve to “I liked that — I didn’t like that” kinds of conversation, which often really don’t contain any critical thinking. I think we did usually manage to rise above that, but it presented yet another hurdle in a course that already has plenty of them. As both your comments point out, with climate change there is objective data out there that you have to acknowledge (even if it can be a bear to sift through), and I suspect there may be strenuous disagreement from the very beginning. My problem may be controlling the discussion more than coaxing it.

    And the grading consistency continues to be an issue in FYS, and will likely be a complaint to some degree in almost any course like this. Sigh.

  4. My only concern would be that there seems to exist a possibility for a significant overlap between this course and Pete Wyckoff’s classes on the topic (The State of the Planet and Apocalypse Now). Other than that, I’d think it’s an entirely reasonable idea that I would support.

  5. I was worried about the same thing, and have (belatedly) contacted Peter to see if he shares these concerns, but I haven’t heard back. Have you actually taken either of these classes? Do they focus primarily/exclusively on the science side of the equation, or is there some non-trivial emphasis on the social, economic, political, media, etc., aspects of the issue? My intention is to have quite a bit of the non-science bits, and I’m hoping that his courses are more focussed on the science side of things.


  6. Having had your Inquiry class, this is an interesting topic. I was a classic, classic science nerd and having to do critical thinking on, er, literature was something out of my comfort zone. So of course I sneered upon it. But that class was very clearly more than what I thought it was going to be, which was very nice.

    I’ve had “Gifted and Talented” classes in the past that also emphasized thinking, and Inquiry was structured similar to those. Once I figured that out, I fell right in. Engagement was a key part of that experience, and it’s something a lot of students don’t really get anywhere. And they need to! I knew far too many kids who managed to skate through classes without becoming more than just a face in the crowd to the teachers.

    Climate Change as a topic… it’s a dense one, and there is a lot of science and non-science in it. Media tie-ins are always good for upping engagement, as it’s stuff we see every day on our news-feeds. It seems that the BBC has a story every other day about some facet of climate-change. I strongly suspect that the topic is broad enough that you can act as a teaser to the Wyckoff classes, or even cover areas he doesn’t.

  7. I think your “major change in direction” is similar to ideas that I’ve heard thrown UMM around about the entire FYS course. Some have even been so bold as to suggest “sustainability” as a replacement for “human diversity” as a theme. UMM had a “first year experience” task force this year which just released its final document. They had a lot to say about FYS so you may want check that out, it’s on the Curriculum Committee webpage.

    From having talked with many prospective students this year, your ideas for the class would be right in line with either what they’re interested in or what I think they need to do some critical thinking about. I suspect you could get some help from the UMM sustainability coordinator in developing the course.

    FYI on a few UMM green tidbits: we have funding for 2 more wind turbines and a steam turbine for the biomass plant, the Environmental Studies major is full steam ahead and you don’t want to know about the Environmental Science major (take a moment to be glad you’re on sabbatical)

    PS UMM misses your “talent”

  8. Interesting discussion. I agree with the desirability of grasping critical thinking in a first year course. This is the type of shift that is important as students come out of high school. What I would add to the Climate Change topic is some focus on the problems that humans have in addressing long term issues … as one writer, Jim Kunstler ,”The Geography of Nowhere,” “Home From Nowhere,” “The City in Mind,” calls our oil society, ‘The Long Emergency’ would be a related topic.

  9. Here is something for you (Warning, it will make you sad):

    There is a giant billboard on the north side of Hwy 94 right in St Paul advertising this site.

    Why do I bring this up? Because the topic of climate change, as one of the commenters above rightly points out, is full of both scientif and non-scientific elements and in the society we live in it strikes me as paramount that students are able to apply critical thinking skills to what they see in the news, what they read on the internet, as well as scientific data.

    The more I think about your proposed course, the more I think you might be right that prompting discussion might be less of a challenge than corraling that conversation.

  10. I wonder if you might be able to shift the focus from a topic, and engaging in critical thinking around it, to a conceptual course oh say, “critical thinking 101”. The first question the students have to debate is, three things we want to discuss. Genres: environmental, musical, global economy. Can we analyze global warming, American Roots Music, and buying domestic products using the same skill set? When do you need to apply that type of thinking, who do you question, who do you trust, how do you recognize bias? I get the feeling that for many students there are “foregone conclusions” and definate feelings of “what the teacher wants” when classes have hot button topics covered. The inclusion of topics like American Roots Music might help break them out of their “please the teacher” mode, and get some of the more reticent students engaged. It’d be too bad to lose it completely!

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