Freshman discuss the successes and failures of the course as second semester begins
Since Notre Dame initiated the Moreau First Year Experience (MFYE) course in the fall of 2015, first-year students have been considering the benefits and drawbacks of the new program.
Last semester, students were required to complete two “integration” projects in which they had to “exhibit, reflect, and integrate through” a five-step process, examining what they had learned and accomplished so far during their time at Notre Dame. The first integration, assigned as a midterm project during the fall semester, consisted of three prompts, each of which was correlated to a course goal.
Due to student complaints that this project was excessively time-consuming, the First Year of Studies reduced the number of prompts in the second integration—assigned as a final semester project—to two rather than three.
David Carmack, who lives in Fisher Hall, said he never fully understood the underlying purpose of the integration projects or many of the prompts. “Much of the class is based on things that I learned growing up from my parents, and it feels repetitive for me. But for some people, they may not have had that opportunity,” he acknowledged.
Several students told the Rover that these integrations took up a large amount of valuable time because they were assigned at the same time as many other significant projects and tests in other courses. One student said the integration took most students a few hours to complete, if they took the project seriously and completed it well.
In addition to these integrations, throughout the fall semester students were expected to write a 250-word response to a weekly prompt, submitted by midnight on the day of class. This semester, the minimum word count was reduced to 200 words.
According to freshmen, some instructors have required students in their section to submit 500-word weekly responses, whereas others would accept responses of 200 words. This is just one example of the disparity between MFYE sections that has troubled many students.
“The prompts were very open-ended and left a lot of room for interpretation, so they could’ve been more specific,” said Jason Ballard, a resident of Fisher Hall.
“For one of the integration projects, one of my friend’s sections had to just write about what inspires them, whereas others had to evaluate their personal wellness using diagrams and other steps,” said Mackenzie Kraker, a freshman living in McGlinn Hall.
Dan Selhorst—Notre Dame student government’s former chief of staff, who also serves as the student undergraduate representative to the University Committee on the First Year of Studies (UCFYS)—spoke with the Rover about this tension.
“On one hand, the assignments could be really standardized busywork, which might not be good for personal reflection,” he said. “But if assignments are completely unstructured, then it’s hard to grade consistently across the sections. It’s important to meet certain objectives across the board, yet not make it so formulaic that the reflections aren’t useful.”
In order to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the new program, student government conducted a focus group during the fall semester with the 30 first-year students involved in the First Undergraduate Experience in Leadership (FUEL). These freshmen, all of whom applied and were selected for FUEL, met in groups of 10 along with student government leaders and discussed their reactions to several aspects of the MFYE.
The FUEL students seemed to react positively to the class conversations about personal wellness and health, such as those on exercise, nutrition, sleep cycles, friendships, and growth mentalities.
“Broadly, students really like it,” Selhorst stated. “They seem to be enjoying the opportunity to have these kinds of conversations, but you’ll always have people saying the class discussion is contrived and not genuine.”
Based on the results from this focus group, student government made several recommendations to the UCFYS, including ensuring consistency of academic rigor across sections and increasing students’ awareness of all available resources on campus.
One central focus of student government moving forward will be setting up free-of-charge physical activity courses, at Rolf’s or the Rockne Gym, to give freshmen the opportunity to be responsible for their physical exercise.
The UCFYS is reviewing the concerns brought up by the focus group and will continue to evaluate the course in order to implement changes for the upcoming academic year.
Several freshmen told the Rover that their MFYE section has been a place to meet fellow first-year students who live nearby on campus and get to know them in an informal setting.
“It’s nice to have a class where right off the bat you’re with a group of other freshmen,” said Matt Connell, who lives in Sorin Hall. “But I don’t find the readings and stuff particularly interesting.”
“I don’t enjoy doing the prompts, but I enjoy going to class to hang out with people that I know,” one student said.
“It has helped me meet people, now that I have a solid group of 18 or 19 people that I see every week,” Carmack agreed. “We get to know each other; that’s one positive thing about it. I’ve even gotten to know more people in Fisher because of the way it’s set up.”
“People will often go to dinner together, and some instructors will plan fun events for their section to do together outside of class,” Kraker explained.
Freshmen seem fairly divided on the topics for class discussion, with a few noting that the same few students would frequently comment, or the discussions would feel forced. One student remarked that the class structure can often feel similar to a high school homeroom class.
Several students noted that some early units focused on minorities and discrimination at Notre Dame were not very productive.
“There weren’t many minority students in our class, so we mostly talked about differences in privilege at Notre Dame between athletes and non-athletes, legacy and non-legacy students, and differences in socioeconomic status,” Kraker said.
According to Carmack, his section of the course was composed almost entirely of white students, so they had a difficult time addressing questions about racial discrimination.
Selhorst said these topics have been incorrectly characterized as indoctrination on diversity or sexuality. “Freshmen are appreciative of having those conversations,” he said. “A lot of people have appreciated hearing from people who are passionate about different issues.”
Overall, students expressed to the Rover a desire for the course to focus on practical discussion topics, such as class registration or other campus resources.
“We have this allotted time, and I feel like they could use it better, like teaching us how to use campus resources, like the Career Center,” Julia Perry, a freshman in Walsh Hall, said.
“They’re putting the resources out there, but they’re not making them very engaging,” Kraker said. She also said she was confused when her section spent a class session looking at and meditating on a raisin.
Connell said most students do not mind class discussion but wish the workload was lighter. “The workload for a one-credit class I think really bugs people, especially because we’ll talk about managing your time or doing things efficiently and effectively, while getting all this work from a class that’s one-credit,” he explained.
“The worst class was about study habits. I didn’t like that because I already know how to study,” Perry added. “A lot of it is almost like they’re parenting us, and they bring up discrimination a lot, trying to prompt uncomfortable discussion.”
Sam Fentress, a freshman from Keough Hall, expressed similar frustration. “We have all this time to be exposed to really helpful things, but instead we spend it watching YouTube self-help videos,” he said.
“What frustrates me the most is I feel like there isn’t a purpose,” Connell said. “We’ll talk about certain issues but we don’t talk about real, concrete steps to improve race relations or how to help people get … better opportunities and education. We talk about silly things that are a waste of time but we don’t talk about resolving them.”
Though many students are frustrated with some of the structure and content of the course as it stands, many had recommendations for improvement.
“Make the prompts more engaging,” Ballard suggested. “I like that class is free flowing but sometimes you leave class wondering if you actually talked about anything.”
Overall, students agreed that concrete prompts would make the assignments clearer.
Kraker pointed out a disconnect between the reflections written for class and the class discussions themselves. “It would’ve been interesting if [the instructor] said ‘Oh Suzie, interesting point in your reflection,’ or whatever,” she said. “People write things in their reflections but then they say completely different things in class.”
“I don’t sit in there and say my real opinion because I want a good grade and I feel like I’d be attacked if I said what I thought,” Connell noted. “It would help if they provided more diversity of thought in the assignments, articles, and reading.”
Alexandra DeSanctis is a senior living in Pangborn Hall who has a collection of nuts and fruits in her room that she has gathered from outside. They are for luring and feeding hungry squirrels. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.