5 Questions as I Design a First Year Seminar

Due to the high demand for computer science courses, my department rarely offers a first year seminar (or, as we call them at Carleton, Argument and Inquiry seminars, or A&Is for short). We last offered one in 2014: Human-Centered Computing, taught by me. So when the opportunity arose for us to propose an A&I seminar for 2021-22, I jumped at the chance. This fall, I’ll be teaching Ethics of Technology as an A&I seminar.

I adore teaching A&I seminars. I like having a class solely comprised of brand-new Carleton students, and watching as they adjust to college and to life at Carleton. I like having a hand in helping them navigate this strange new place. I appreciate the A&I as a gentle introduction and/or a “sampler platter” to a particular subject, rather than a comprehensive overview. The point of an A&I, after all, is to introduce students to how scholars ask and answer questions in a field — which means I can be creative in how I interweave the course topic with this goal. This venue gives me an opportunity to teach something we don’t currently offer in our CS curriculum — and perhaps a way to try out what this might look like as part of our regular curriculum. (Case in point: our Human-Computer Interaction elective grew out of that Human-Centered Computing A&I seminar.)

Designing an A&I seminar is challenging in the best of times, but even more so in I Thought We Were Post-Pandemic But Apparently Not times. As I plan out my course, I keep coming back to the same five questions.

What supports will my students need to adjust to full-time, face-to-face learning? Incoming first year students experienced all sorts of learning models over the past year and a half: fully online, fully in person, hybrid, hyflex, Hi-C (ok, maybe not that last one). Whether they graduated in 2020 and took a gap year, or graduated in 2021, their high school experience ended weirdly. What expectations will these students carry into the college classroom? How can I create an environment where we all feel physically safe to share the same air and the same small space? What can I do to help them learn in the presence of others, something we all took for granted as the norm pre-pandemic?

How can I best design my in-person course for flexibility? I remain skeptical that everything will be hunky-dory, back to normal for the entire term. Don’t get me wrong: I take a lot of comfort in the fact that the vast majority of our community will be fully vaccinated. But students will likely get sick or have to quarantine. Heck, I have an unvaccinated (because of age) kiddo at home who (as of now) will be back in school full time around (as of now) unmasked people. So I may get sick or have to quarantine. I feel like there’s less course design support for flexibility this summer, and while the lessons I learned last summer are definitely valuable, I still feel a bit lost here.

What trauma will we all carry into this year, and how will it manifest? Earlier this summer, I naively thought that we’d be heading into post-pandemic life more fully, and not back into the thick of the pandemic. Which, I think, means that some of the trauma we carry is the same old trauma of living through a global pandemic. But there’s also pandemic weariness, pandemic anger over how preventable this current wave was, pandemic grief over all those we’ve lost, pandemic uncertainty about the future, pandemic despair that we seem to be heading back to “business as usual” and not taking away any lessons about the precariousness of so many in our society….you get the picture. We’re grieving, we’re exhausted, we’re angry, we’re fed up. Our collective mental health is a dumpster fire. We don’t have the resources — at my institution, in our medical system, in society writ large — to deal with trauma on this scale. How do I help my students navigate this — particularly while I’m trying to navigate my own trauma?

What should my students read? This is more of an “embarrassment of riches” question. There is so much good writing on all sorts of aspects of ethics in technology. I flirted with the idea of a textbook for a bit, but abandoned that idea because there’s so much non-textbook reading I could assign instead. Should I have students read a few books and deep-dive into a few topics? Should I go broader and have students read more long-form journalism articles on a wider set of topics? I need to decide soon (technically, I needed to decide when textbook orders were due earlier this month), but I’ll admit to a bit of decision paralysis here.

What is the one thing I want my students to walk away from this course with? I haven’t settled on my central course question yet. And that’s certainly a big part of what I want students to take away from my class. But I also want my students to walk away with a sense of resilience. A sense of belonging. A sense of agency. And a strong support network. I want my students to leave my class thinking that it was a safe place to learn and to try out ideas, and feeling that Carleton is a home for them. To me, particularly this year, that’s at least as important — if not more so — than any of the course content or core ideas.

What questions are you asking yourself as we head into the later part of summer and the transition to a new school year?


What I’m reading: Black Boy Out of TIme: A Memoir, by Hari Ziyad.

What I’m listening to watching: The Olympics! Particularly swimming, and some of the taekwondo.