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August term for first-year students debuts in 2012

Transylvania will launch an ambitious three-week academic and cocurricular program designed to introduce first-year students to what a liberal education means when it debuts August term as part of the 2012-13 school year.

Students in August term will take only one course, an intensive seminar titled First Engagements: Enculturation into a Scholarly Community, that will focus on a theme selected by a faculty committee each year. Each section of the course, numbering about 16 students, will look at common texts, which will be supplemented by material from each professor’s discipline. Besides course content, the emphasis will be on learning how to be a critical reader and thinker, which are seen as core skills in a liberal education.

“The course is designed to model Transylvania’s commitment to its liberal education mission,” said William F. Pollard, vice president and dean of the college. “Students will have three weeks set aside for them to take on the challenge of a college seminar, build academic skills and confidence, and get to know faculty and one another as members of a new first-year class. It will help them define their role as active participants in the intellectual life of the college.”

August term will allow all first-year students to learn what is expected of them as scholars before they take on the full course load of the regular fall term, and before they plunge into the social life of the larger university community.

“Before everything starts up with fall term, we want the first-year students to have this pure moment to themselves and to cut their teeth, so to speak, on some broad questions that impinge on what it means to be a human being,” said classics professor John Svarlien, faculty director for the August term project. “We want them to learn how to take creative and intellectual risks.

“This course will allow them to discover a different relationship to knowledge from their high school days, where they mostly absorbed information and gave it back in papers and on tests. Through critical reading, they will learn how to have a dialogue with the text, and then expand that into a dialogue in the class with their fellow students and professors. They will learn how to ask the large questions that are at the center of a liberal education.”

The First Engagements course is the central element of Transylvania’s Quality Enhancement Plan that was submitted to the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools as part of the university’s reaffirmation of accreditation process. SACS members go through this exercise every 10 years.

Michael Covert, associate dean of students, is administrative director for August term and coordinated development of various cocurricular programs that will be an integral part of the students’ overall experience. The initiatives will include traditional orientation events, but also outside-the-classroom academic elements to supplement the First Engagements course. The course itself will meet every day from 9 a.m. to noon, with 1-2:30 p.m. set aside for required cocurricular events. Options will be offered for the remainder of the afternoon, which will also allow student-athletes practice time. 

“The early afternoon sessions may feature book lectures, a film, or small group discussions,” Covert said. “These elements will be chosen to complement the particular learning theme chosen by the faculty each year for August term. We’ll also use that time for traditional orientation sessions on such topics as alcohol awareness, academic integrity, the Green Dot program for sexual assault awareness, and other topics.”

In an overall sense, Covert said the three weeks in August will be an ideal time for the first-year class to adjust to all of the factors involved in a transition from high school to college life.

“It’s our chance to really work with them and help them learn what’s expected of them at Transylvania, to help them feel comfortable in their role as a Transylvania student and scholar. We want it to be an enriching educational experience, but we also want it to be fun and enjoyable. We need many things going on to develop the total student.”

Entering into that larger Transylvania community also has a very intellectual purpose, Svarlien said. 

“A scholar is a public individual,” he said. “For knowledge to be valid, it has to be tested by other people, by other critical opinions. It’s a skill and an attitude that one acquires by doing it, and August term is our way of beginning that process in each student. You can hear the definition of a liberal education, but you can only experience it in face-to-face conversations. You can’t Google a liberal arts education.”

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