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This issue of CDTL Brief features articles based on select presentations at the Teaching Workshop on Freshman Seminars conducted by the Faculty of Science on 22 April 2009.

August 2009, Vol. 12 No. 5 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
A Freshman Seminar in FASS: “Representing War”
Dr Barbara Ryan
University Scholars Programme
Professor John Richardson
Director, University Scholars Programme

The FASS freshman seminar, “Representing War,” had two main objectives and two peculiarities. The objectives were for the students to learn to ask good academic questions and for them to take charge of the module as much as possible. The peculiarities were that the module had a tiny enrolment of six, and that it was taught by two people, both of whom were present at every class. The small enrolment caused us to think hard at the beginning of the semester about whether or not to continue in that way. We decided to go ahead because of the module’s experimental nature.

Asking questions

We tried to make explicit from the start the first objective of encouraging disciplined questioning. The IVLE schedule began with the module’s overarching questions, and each section included sub-questions. We reinforced this by emphasising in class the centrality of questions in academic study.

Even so, the message did not get home in the first half of the semester. The aim was for students to ask about how war, warriors and victims are represented, and about what kind of assumptions about war underlie different representations. Instead, they tended to describe the poem, song, movie or play they were dealing with, and sometimes, to forget that it was a representation. So, they moved straight from the text to talking about war itself.

By the middle of the semester, we felt we were failing, and we tried to turn things round with two kinds of intervention. Firstly, we focused in two classes on academic questions, showing with specific examples how they can be formulated, framed and answered. The examples came from our own experience. Secondly, there were individual conferences preparing students for the final assignment timetabled for the end of the semester. We devoted a good portion of these to pushing students to articulate and improve the question behind their assignment.

The final assignments were good, and most of them pursued a valid and well defined question. One considered the war novel, Catch 22, for instance, in which the central character, Yossarian is represented as a hero who will do almost anything to avoid fighting. This student asked what kind of hero Yossarian is, and answered with a finely modulated and wide-ranging account of different kinds of heroism. Another paper examined how three characters in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms realised, or failed to realise, a warrior code we would analyse in the Iliad, while yet another parsed an exchange from the film Dr Strangelove. We were pleased with the vigour, and variety, of the questions students had developed.

We wondered about two things as we reflected on this element of the seminar:

First, was it our interventions which changed students’ perceptions, or would they have got there anyway? The answer is probably the usual one in teaching—a bit of both.
Second, should we have intervened earlier? We reached a point that was almost a crisis halfway through the semester. The students were not developing the central    skill we wanted, and we felt we had gone wrong somewhere. Could that have been avoided?

This question is more difficult than the first, but probably, the timing was about right. When we discussed questioning in the abstract at the beginning of the semester, the students missed the point simply because there was no point for them. They were just beginning to become familiar with the materials, and their energies were properly concentrated on that task. It was only once they had read and watched and heard a number of different representations that they could begin to understand why questions were needed and what form they might take. In other words, the crisis was probably inevitable; it probably even helped.

Students taking charge

Freshman seminars give students a chance to take charge of a module while they find their way at the university. We think a dawning sense of group endeavour helped students take charge with a feeling of intellectual adventure. We think, moreover, it was vital for each student to realise he or she had information, interests, perspectives and life experiences which others did not—with those others including their instructors. Once that was recognised, students had plentiful and apt suggestions for materials we might study and shouldered the responsibility well.

Key we think to this was care, at the start, to open the door wide to students’ input but to set limits, too. The most important limit was that we chose a definition of war and stuck to it. This stricture was simple but focusing. An early discussion of its merits gave students a chance to practice taking a stand, and replying to dissenting views. This discussion also justified the texts around which we structured the seminar (one epic, one play and one novel). Recognition that texts had not been selected randomly, or for a trivial reason, helped students explain how they chose materials for later discussions, presentations and papers.

Due to the size of our group, we were able to host four lots of presentations. We made the first an ungraded trial run and emphasised the importance of Q&A. We expected stumbles, nerves, laughter, and saw all three. But we saw this too: once students started reflecting, in ungraded writing, on their presentations, they asked us to revise the syllabus to provide more presentation opportunities. Talk about taking charge of the module! Over the course of the term, students found representations of war in a death metal video and a folky pop song, assorted films old and new, Shakespeare, WWI recruitment posters, an NS marching chant, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” historical accounts in comparison to pictorial images of the face-off at Agincourt, a Chinese television serial—and more. The instructors supplemented this variety with a bit of their own. But we made sure when, for instance, we discussed photographs of the Vietnam War or a few episodes of “Blackadder” that students did most of the selecting and initiated the analyses.


The seminar’s success owes a great deal to the students who thought they would give this educational initiative a try. We learnt later that some of our students’ friends wished they had been as daring. Evaluations were positive about our ability to create an encouraging and open environment, and to set limits yet provide freedom and multiple opportunities for students to lead the class. One suggestion for improvement was nonetheless to give students even more teaching responsibilities. That is a good suggestion we may be able to implement next time.

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Inside this issue
Freshman Seminar: A Forum to Learn More by Teaching Less
FSE1202: Great Discoveries and Inventions
Freshman Seminar Module: A Mathematical Experiment
Promoting Individual Learning Through Small Classes
Teaching Sustainable Development to Freshmen
A Freshman Seminar in FASS: “Representing War”
At Last, Learning Can Really be Fun!