Transylvania University freshmen get early start on first semester

Herald-Leader Staff WriterAugust 10, 2012 

First-year students at Transylvania University are hitting the books three weeks earlier this year.

Through an intensive three-week seminar course called First Engagements, the college is hoping to ease the transition from high school to college for incoming freshmen and to help them develop college-level critical thinking skills before the fall semester starts. The class of 2016 arrived on campus Friday morning for a three-day orientation for new students.

"Many orientation programs lay the stress on just orientating students, giving them a bunch of information," said John Svarlien, a classics professor and faculty director for August term. "We want students to come immediately and start reading and writing and thinking, and getting used to what it means to be a college student."

On Saturday, the freshmen will be inaugurated into the Transylvania community. Class pictures will be taken Sunday; Monday will be the first day of August term; and classes will begin Tuesday.

The course ends Aug. 30. All returning students will arrive on campus and start fall term classes Sept. 4.

The idea of an August term has been "brewing for a while," Svarlien said, and is a part of a larger rethinking of a the first-year experience that includes redesigned first-year seminars in the fall and winter sessions. Transy already has a May term which all students are required to take three times to graduate. One term in August, added to the graduation requirements, is not adding to students' tuition, Svarlien said.

The curriculum was developed by nearly two dozen faculty members working with 22 "August term scholars" — Transylvania juniors and seniors who will serve as mentors for the incoming class. Each course section of about 16 students will study common texts Come and Go Molly Snow by Mary Ann Taylor-Hall and The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester as well as additional course materials added by individual faculty members.

In addition to academic studies, optional activities include an excursion to Red River Gorge, movies at The Kentucky Theatre and classes in tai chi.

Emily Shepp, a senior philosophy and political science major, said she became an August term scholar because she remembers the boring days before her first college class.

"I was sitting around and twiddling my thumbs, and lonely because all my friends had moved away," Shepp said, noting that Transy starts much later than other schools.

Shepp described her section of the course as analytical and "discussion-based." She said she will use her own academic experiences to assist music professor Larry Barnes with the novel Come and Go Molly Snow in varying contexts.

"He will be looking at the musical aspects of that first novel, but I'll be able to look at it philosophically and politically, and kind of get a different perspective and encourage them to see it through many different eyes," Shepp said.

Barnes and Shepp's curriculum also includes critical thinking exercises, such as teaching students how to think like a musician as they study film clips and listen to musical scores. Barnes has produced award-winning compositions and musical scores during his career, according to Transylvania's Web site.

Students' grades will be pass or fail, meaning it's not factored into their grade-point average because they won't receive a letter grade. Svarlien said the idea is to expose them to honest feedback without jeopardizing their GPA.

"We really want the students to come and take some intellectual and creative risk in the classroom," he said.

Because the orientation changes are part of Transy's reaccreditation process, he said, it has certain mechanisms in place to evaluate the new term, including an August term advisory group. Informal discussions about what worked and what didn't are scheduled for September among faculty who just completed the term and those who are taking over next year.

"The idea is to have all the faculty rotate through teaching an August term," Svarlien said. "Part of this is to introduce students to faculty, and we want to make sure we have a broad cross-section."

Svarlien said he expects enthusiasm from first-year students.

"I would imagine when you're waiting around in August for school to start, in a way, it's great to be back in the classroom for your first college class," he said.

Freshman Sam Ives of Nashville, who plans to major in exercise science, said he wasn't particularly nervous about going to college, but he likes the idea of more time to settle in with the rest of his classmates.

"It's a whole new experience," Ives said. "It gives me a chance to go to school and to have my own interpretation of it and feel it out for myself.

"Going from middle to high school, you really know more about what you're getting into, and you're not really excited about it."

Ives' mother, Renee, said she was thrilled when she heard about the idea.

"I think it'll be a great thing," she said. "I feel like most freshmen struggle in some way, so this will hopefully alleviate the problems."

Daniel Moore: (859) 231-3344. Twitter: @heraldleader

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