Department offers a symposium for all first-year English majors

First-year university students often struggle with the transition from high school to college. Many of those struggles are due to factors that can make students feel isolated and overwhelmed.

One of the unique features of the English department and its various concentrations at CSU is the implementation of a symposium for all first-year students. The symposium, led by faculty members from each concentration, seeks to mitigate some of that overwhelm. In the same vein, the symposium aims to break down some of the divide between areas of study by providing an interdisciplinary approach to English.

Inspiration for the course

Although the course has been taught only twice–once in fall 2019, then again in fall 2020–its inception goes back several years.

“About four or five years ago the department conducted a set of focus groups, talking to students, faculty, staff, and people outside of the department, to see what all of us felt was needed for the 21st century English student,” Creative Writing professor and Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies Dan Beachy-Quick said. “Many things were revealed, and one of the most pressing was creation of a class that could serve as a threshold for the vision of the department as a whole.”

Beachy-Quick and other members of the Undergraduate Committee began to unravel what it would mean to create a class that addressed the “cross-disciplinary threads that weave [the English] programs together.” This meant creating a complex course: one that felt both cohesive and comprehensive. It meant giving students the opportunity to experience everything the department has to offer under a single thematic umbrella. The first iteration of the course tackled this subject by looking at “Creation,”while the second explored the theme of “Monsters.”

Literature instructor and co-creator of the course, Ashley Davies, also said that the department wanted a course that demonstrated the wide variety of possibilities as an English major. “Many students enter the major with a clear vision of what they want to do, others don’t,” Davies said. “Regardless, the symposium offers students the chance to see each of the concentrations and how they work together, opening up more possibilities for their interests and career choices.”

Creation of community

In addition to offering a cross-disciplinary approach, one of the main goals of the course is to introduce students to the major with a sense of community.

“We learned that we needed to help foster community for students and show them the possibilities of the major earlier in their time with us. We developed the symposium to bring together students and faculty from each concentration to work together,” said Davies, referring to the fact that the course is also taught by five faculty members, one from each concentration.

One of the most difficult transitions from high school to college for many students is feeling isolated and separated. For many, it is their first time living away from their home communities. Where students were previously surrounded by the same family members, friends, and faculty, now they find themselves somewhat disconnected. The symposium allows new English majors the space to cultivate those connections intentionally.

This sense of community stretches beyond peer-to-peer or peer-to-instructor interactions, according to Beachy-Quick. To the creative writing professor, building community also means “to build in them a wild enthusiasm for wandering the boundaries of disciplinary distinctions, and a courage to trespass, to cross, to dwell, to abandon, to return—all those fundamental motions that make learning a form of genuine experience.”

Dr. Ricki Ginsberg, who represented the English Education concentration in the symposium’s inaugural semester, said that “this course was powerfully thought-provoking, and I loved hearing all of the perspectives from different professors from multiple concentrations. The students offered powerful classroom contributions, and by the end of the class, the large section felt like a small family.”

This is perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the course: the opportunity to help students get excited about learning while also feeling less alone.

Cross-disciplinary approach

Perhaps one of the most innovative elements of the symposium is its cross-disciplinary approach. With one faculty member from each of the five concentrations, the course invites students to experience English beyond their chosen field of study.

Composition instructor Amanda Memoli discussed her excitement for this aspect of the course, saying “One of the amazing things about this course is that it allows students to see the connections that exist between seemingly unrelated concentrations within the department, which in turn allows space for the forging of broader interdisciplinary connections between English and other fields.” To Memoli, this helps students discover how “English as a field of study… is not only valuable but also necessary to the contemporary questions and concerns that pervade our local, national, and global context.”

Beachy-Quick and Davies offered similar perspectives regarding the benefits of this cross-disciplinary approach to the study of English. Davies explained that “part of doing [the symposium] is being willing to break from what has traditionally been done in order to accomplish our goals. The idea of having a first-year symposium taught by 5 faculty members to represent each concentration was a major shift in thinking about what could be done.”

Similarly, Beachy-Quick said that much of what makes the symposium–as well as the English department as a whole–unique is the cross-disciplinary ethos quickly spreading through the program. “I’ve come most to feel that what we offer is a way of thinking, a way of making thought and expression, that can move fluidly between many different demands—the analytical, the synthesizing, the creative; the empathetic, the moral, the iconoclastic,” Beachy-Quick said.

Looking to the future

Much of the purpose behind the symposium’s creation stems from overall department shifts in recent years. Many of these changes have focused on the same cross-disciplinary goals that are embodied in the symposium. Those instructors involved in the course during its two semesters emphasized the power of working across concentrations. The course design also encourages students to explore their futures. During the first iteration of the course, in Fall 2019, students, faculty, and TAs engaged in a Possibilities Fair.

According to Beachy-Quick, “The Possibilities Fair came out of a Provost-funded initiative to help create support systems for 1st Generation students. We decided we’d create an event that highlighted the wide variety of opportunities, possibilities, and resources the English Department houses. But we wanted to do so in a way that was a celebration and exploration. So we created the Possibilities Fair, with the hope that majors, and would-be majors, could arrive and find ways to celebrate all their diverse and overlapping identities as students of English Studies.”

The Possibilities Fair allowed students to identify themselves with buttons: 1st Gen / Poet / Linguist / etc.. Students also had the opportunity to talk to English faculty. This granted students time to begin making connections both with each other and with faculty members to foster their success in the future. The ultimate goal of the Possibilities Fair was to create an empowering space for students to explore both the major itself and what happens after graduation as a student with an English degree.

In his final thoughts on the course, Beachy-Quick said, “the Symposium is the seed for the whole blossoming vision we’re building…. our students [work] in ways that are both human and recognize the deep value of that which isn’t human. That is to say, I think English is one of the most important educations a student right now can have.”

First-year students considering English as a major can look forward to the community and interdisciplinary work that the symposium provides.