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I’ll be co-presenting at the Dalhousie Conference on University Teaching and Learning at the end of April. We are still working out the details of the presentation, but an abstract is available here. I’m quite excited about this for a couple of reasons. First, is that this will be my first conference presentation and the second is that I’m just so damn happy we managed to get this thing off the ground.

“This thing” is what has eventually become known as Connections: Acadia’s First Year Option. This has really been a labour of love for me and everyone involved. A small group of professors, librarians, and instructors came together after a symposium on the first year experience at Acadia in January of 2008. I realized at this symposium that there were a lot of people on campus who were really interested in doing something unique and innovative that was focused on really engaging students and getting them passionate about learning. I didn’t want all that energy and those ideas to go to waste, so I contacted a number of individuals that I thought would be interested and we gathered at the University Club to throw around some ideas. It took some time for these ideas to coalesce and form into something concrete – something that we could present to others to start to get broader support. The process was far from easy (have you ever tried to get a room full of academics to agree on anything?) and it is this process we will be discussing at the conference.

It is Connections itself that I am most excited about. I won’t go into all the details of how the first year option will work, but I would like talk about it some and would welcome any feedback. As I already mentioned, our main goal in creating Connections was to offer students an experience in their first year that would encourage them to get passionate about learning for the sake of learning. We wanted to give them something that was non-disciplinary (eventually we used the term transdisciplinary), that got them to engage with big ideas, that would connect them with the local community, with each other, and with faculty. We wanted them to realize that knowledge is dynamic and alive – that they play a role in its construction. We wanted this to be a truly transformative experience that would have a huge impact on their next three years of study and hopefully the rest of their lives.

Far too many students today(and people in general) see a university degree in purely practical terms. Will this get me a good job when I’m finished? What do I need to do to get good grades and get through these four years? What do my professors want and how can I give it to them? We wanted to give our first year students a chance to discover that learning can have real significance to their own lives and the lives of others. We wanted our students to see more than grades and degrees.

After much lengthy discussion and concessions necessary to fit this option into the existing structure of the university and to overcome certain objections, we eventually found something we are all happy with. This is how it will work:

A small group of no more than 50 students will take 3 block courses together per term. The remaining two courses students can choose for themselves. The block courses will each run for 4 weeks and will be tied together by 3 major projects that span the term. The courses for the pilot year are: Popular Culture and You; Human and Environmental Diversity; A Guided Tour of Our Universe; Self Identification: Narrative, Play and Performance; Perspectives on Climate Change; and Motives and Ethics of War. All courses will be team taught by two faculty members from completely different disciplines. Pop Culture will be taught by a Music instructor and a librarian; H&ED will be taught by a Sociology professor and a Biology instructor; Universe will be taught by a Physics professor and a Kinesiology professor (also a published poet and philosopher); Self-Identification by an English Professor and Rec Management/Kinesiology professor; Climate Change by Business and Geology professors, and War by a Classicist and a Biologist.

Each semester students will be graded on each of the individual modules as well as 3 major projects. Students will write a major research paper (with personal guidance from one of the course instructors and a librarian), be involved in a community project related to one of the modules, and give a major presentation (or public performance of some kind).

More details are available on the website for anyone who is interested and I would be happy to answer any questions. We are still looking for students for September if anyone knows any potential students who might be interested. If anyone is planning to be at the Dal conference, please drop into our session. I’ll post here to report on how it goes.

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