First year 411
- All Mac students must take a first-year course during their first semester.
- Learning how to study and write college-level material are among the goals of the first-year course.
- About half of first-year courses are residential, meaning the students all live on the same residence hall floor, adding another community aspect to the course.
- First-year course professors are their students’ academic advisers until those students declare a major during sophomore year.
- First-year course professors often teach students to use the library and other campus resources and frequently allow time during class for brief announcements about co-curricular activities such as clubs and sporting events.
Want to know how to get an "A" on your Cultural Anthropology paper? Get an op-ed on the Minnesota marriage amendment published in a newspaper.
This was the deal made between anthropology professor Arjun Guneratne and the students in his first-year course. “What does a study of cultures across time and space tell us about the whole question of same-sex marriage?” he asked them.
In encouraging his students to actually engage in anthropology, Guneratne assigned them to write this op-ed on a current, hotly debated topic in Minnesota. (The amendment lost on Nov. 6. Had it passed, it would have inserted into the Minnesota state constitution a passage that defined marriage as being strictly between a man and a woman.) By completing this project, says Guneratne, students are not only doing anthropology but also engaging with their communities on a socially and politically important issue.
For another major project Guneratne had students identify a microculture—a social situation like a sports team or club that occupies a significant amount of a person’s time—and find an informant to interview from within that social scene. Andrea Grimaldi ’16 (Villa Mercedes, Argentina) chose Mac Slams, the slam poetry student organization on campus, as her microculture. “Mac Slams is a really interesting microculture because it’s a very American thing to do. Slam poetry doesn’t really exist in other parts of the world,” she explains. “For me, it’s like learning a whole new genre of poetry as well as learning about a lifestyle—because these people take it really seriously.”
This particular project exemplifies what Grimaldi considers one the course’s best aspects—its practicality. Although she had studied anthropology for a semester at an Argentinean university, she says, “here at Mac we’re taught how to ask questions, how to analyze what we’re reading and then apply it. It’s not just reading theory.”
“Here at Mac, we’re taught how to ask questions, how to analyze what we’re reading and then apply it. It’s not just reading theory.”
The fact that the class is small and made up of all first years creates an ideal environment for students. “My favorite moments in class are when we get slightly off track, and get into class-wide discussions about really interesting things, like homosexuality in nature,” says Lucas Gagnon ‘16 (Ithaca, N.Y.). “Because it’s all first-year students, this class has a different dynamic,” says Grimaldi. “We all feel more comfortable speaking.”
Having both domestic and international students in the classroom further enriches discussions. “We non-native English speakers were used to help compare language differences, and from the U.S students we also learned the meaning of certain English expressions,” explains Grimaldi. For example, the class discussed the differences in how languages denote gender. In English, nouns do not show gender while in Romance languages, such as Spanish, they do. Says Grimaldi, “The domestic students shouted out random nouns and I had to qualify the gender of each in Spanish.”
Grimaldi is one of Macalester's Davis United World College Scholars.