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Rethinking education

Oct 4, 2011
by Brian Thompson, '95

The past several years at Flagler have seen major changes to how students learn … and think

It isn’t often that you find a business professor teaching Shakespeare. Or an English professor talking to college freshmen about Spanish Renaissance architecture.

But step into a Keystone Seminar class — a required freshman course that is replacing composition classes — and that’s exactly what you will find. The seminar is designed to bring different teaching backgrounds to a class that goes beyond mere writing and reading. Instead, the aim is to do something college professors say students aren’t doing enough of: thinking.

“[With the keystone seminar] the goal is to establish a culture of reading, writing, thinking, engaging and talking,” said Professor Doug McFarland, who headed up the seminar in 2010-11. “They’re going to encounter that in their first year.”

The class is a far cry from typical composition classes with standard essay exercises. Students might have to look at a John Locke essay on government. Instead of being told about U.S. government, they have to work through the text and then analyze what it means to be a citizen of this country. McFarland said they want them to engage issues, think through what they mean and then express themselves in writing.

“What we’re trying to do is cultivate in them a questioning attitude and a passion for learning,” said Dr. Hugh Marlowe, an associate professor of philosophy who is taking over as director of the Keystone Seminar. “Of course we want them to learn some Rousseau, learn some Locke, but really what we’re trying to do is inspire them to ask some questions they’ve never asked before.”

Advancing Academics
The Keystone Seminar is just one example of how academics at Flagler has changed dramatically the past several years. This has included new programs of study like a math minor, new faculty, beefing up science courses and labs, and even a rewrite of the general education program — core classes that make up freshman and sophomore schedules. Until recently there had been no major changes to the general education program in 30 years.

“The [general education] requirements are more challenging and there is a great deal more writing required of students,” said McFarland, who helped implement the changes.

And there is more to come. The president and Board of Trustees recently approved an academic strategic plan, and Flagler is also launching a “First Year Experience” initiative that will seek to improve all facets of a student’s first year at the college.

“The last five years on the academics side, it’s been astonishing the amount of transformation,” said Dr. Art Vanden Houten, an associate professor of political science who is leading the First Year Experience with Student Services Dean Dan Stewart.

“It’s extraordinary to think of all the change that’s underway,” Vanden Houten said.  

Academics Dean Alan Woolfolk believes the First Year Experience, called Foundations of Excellence, will make a major difference for students. “The goal is to improve student retention,” he said. “This will look at how all the parts — from registration and orientation to classes — relate. We’ll be studying everything from bill paying to advising. It’s time to look at the whole experience.”

Woolfolk, who has been with the college for a little over three years, said all the changes taking place will help further the strong academic foundation that was already in place. He credits the college’s Faculty Senate with being a catalyst for many of the changes, and believes the new strategic plan will continue to push academics forward.

“I think Flagler has done a fantastic job on developing the physical side,” Woolfolk said. “The goal of the academic strategic plan was to put emphasis on the education side.”

Chaired by Marlowe, the plan sets out numerous proposals covering everything from what classrooms should look like to establishing new academic programs.

Changing how students learn
Marlowe said the academic strategic plan and adoption of the keystone seminar are great examples of how academics are not only changing at Flagler, but also changing how students learn.

He said part of a liberal arts college experience should be helping students better understand issues and why they believe the things they do by “working through a process of scrutiny and self-reflection.”

He said the first year of the seminar under McFarland was a success, and now all freshmen — more than 500 — are going through them.

The theme of the seminar has been the idea of the civilized and primitive worlds coming together. This ties in well with the history of St. Augustine from its Native American period through the arrival of the Spanish to Henry Flagler’s opulent hotel that today is the centerpiece of the college.

Building on the past
Woolfolk said the ultimate goal is to raise the level of academic challenge at the college.

“Part of my aim is to develop some programs that are highly distinctive,” he said. “To begin the discussion of where [academically] we want to go.”

But everyone involved agrees that the changes don’t break with what made the college successful in the past.

“What we’re trying to keep intact is how well Flagler has helped to transform the lives of its students,” Marlowe said. “You don’t ever want to change in a way that you lose that.”

Vanden Houten credits a lot of the academic changes to Woolfolk, as well as faculty who have worked on general education revisions, the academic strategic plan, the Faculty Senate or other initiatives.

“The college has laid a tremendous foundation and there’s an opportunity to continue that advancement and growth,” he said. “We’re not standing on our heels. We’re moving forward.”

What does it mean?
Flagler has seen some dramatic changes on the academic front the past several years, and there are more to come. Here is a sampler of some of the terms you might hear on campus in academic circles:

Foundations of Excellence First-Year initiative:
This new program, which promotes first-year students’ engagement with the college, is kicking off this year. It is being developed in collaboration with the John N. Gardner Institute and will evolve into a plan that covers every facet of a new student’s experience at Flagler.

Academic Strategic Plan:
Approved in the spring of 2011 by the Board of Trustees, the plan lays out 53 specific proposals developed by a faculty-led Academic Strategic Planning Committee. Proposals range from increasing the number of full-time faculty and improving classrooms to developing new majors like environmental science, public history or international studies.

Keystone Seminar:
Drawing upon materials from a variety of disciplines, this freshman course replaced composition. It investigates cultural identity and communal values with particular attention paid to the European encounter with the indigenous cultures of America, as well as the underpinnings of the architecture of the Flagler campus.

Ignite Learning Communities:
To improve the transition from high school to college, Flagler developed these clusters of courses designed around a central, interdisciplinary theme with each class attended by the same group of students. Focusing on active and collaborative learning, students engage themselves and each other in the learning process while also participating together in co-curricular activities and campus events.

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