Exploring Identity in First-Year Seminars – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Exploring Identity in First-Year Seminars

First-year students at Hobart and William Smith are examining the complex nature of identity through the lenses of race, privilege, personal experience and national character. At HWS, the First-Year Seminar program gives new students a strong academic foundation while they explore vital subjects from new perspectives.

Who gets to define what America means?

“One of our first readings in the semester asked, ‘Who gets to define what America means?’” says Assistant Professor of English Alex Black, whose First-Year Seminar “Performing America” introduces students to various scholarly disciplines and research approaches as they explore what art says about American history and identity. “Over the course of the semester we’ll interpret and contextualize different cultural works — a contemporary musical play and historical oratory and poetry — but we can ask of them similar questions: How does this reckon with the nation’s past? How does it represent an American form of art?”

Assistant Professor of English Alex Black teaches during "Performing America." Assistant Professor of English Alex Black teaches during “Performing America.”

These are the questions that drew Cole Cassano ’23 to Black’s seminar. “I was interested in digging more into these fields of studies,” Cassano says, “even though they didn’t explicitly connect to my academic interests. Now, a few months into college, it’s one of my favorite classes because of the material we read and the eye-opening discussions we’ve had.”

From an essay on Frederick Douglass to the study of the musical Hamilton, Alexandra Venero ’23 says that “Performing America” has challenged her “to draw on more than just my experience as a performer.”

“Overall, my biggest takeaway from the class (and in general from all of my classes) is how much information can overlap,” she says, noting the connections she’s made between the seminar and her other coursework. In an essay for Black’s seminar, Vereno focused on the “women in the life of Frederick Douglass and how [they] played into his work as an abolitionist and feminist. It was interesting because a lot of what I talked about in my paper, I had also been discussing in my Intro to Women’s Studies class.”

Associate Professor of Russian Area Studies assists students in her First-Year Seminar. Associate Professor of Russian Area Studies assists students in her First-Year Seminar.

Making connections across disciplines is a defining feature of the Colleges’ First-Year Seminar program, says Associate Professor of Russian Area Studies Kristen Welsh, whose students are investigating transnational identity in the seminar “Russians Discover America: Imaginers, Observers, Immigrants.”

Jenna Hyman ’23 says the course has challenged her to see the U.S. through new perspectives. In the semester’s major project, students “choose an American icon, explain how it is iconic, then encourage others to ‘re-see’ the icon by making it strange,” Welsh says. Through this process, students wrestle with “the concept of ostranenie, ‘enstrangement,’ the idea that we no longer really see or know things that are familiar to us, and that this automatization can be disrupted by art.”

Automatization can be disrupted by art.

This is a universal lesson, Welsh says, “an idea that is valuable for every student in the class, whether they end up studying physics or sociology or Russian literature.”

Meanwhile, students in “Face to Face: Interrogating Race,” are engaged in a deep “consideration of global racism, white privilege, and forms of resiliency and the power of telling one’s own story,” says Assistant Professor of Africana Studies James McCorkle ’76.

Assistant Professor of African Studies James McCorkle '76 leads a discussion. Assistant Professor of African Studies James McCorkle ’76 leads a discussion.

Examining the U.S. Civil Rights Movement alongside South African apartheid, the seminar challenges students “to interrogate or question with evidence how we have come to be who we are,” McCorkle says.

“I have participated in many discussions and dialogues on race in America but had yet to learn about South Africa’s history of race before this course,” says Molly Dutton ’23. “One of the most interesting aspects has been the similarities between the experiences of marginalized groups during the Jim Crow era in the U.S. and the apartheid era in South Africa.”

As they practice critical thinking and communication skills, McCorkle says his students are examining issues of race, identity and public policy from individual, national and international perspectives, “stretch[ing] across historical analysis as well as cultural and literary analysis.”

Memoirs raise political as well as personal issues.

The personal and political, individual and international all collide in “First Person Singular.” The seminar, organized around memoir writing, not only exposes students to different kinds of essays but to international voices, experiences and identities. “We start with Africa, move to the Middle East, then on to Latin America, and finally the United States. Many of the memoirs, therefore, raise political as well as personal issues,” explains Professor of Writing and Rhetoric Cheryl Forbes.

Students in "First Person Singular" discuss a class assignment. Students in “First Person Singular” discuss a class assignment.

Like the rest of the other First-Year Seminars, Forbes’ is focused on interdisciplinary teaching and learning to foster a depth and breadth of knowledge that students can apply and communicate. In “First Person Singular,” Caitlin Carr ’23 has found “a ton of creative freedom to explore different writing styles…and I feel that my skills are improving with every sentence I generate.”

Learn more about other First-Year Seminars that explore “identity” — including “Knowing Bodies” taught by Associate Professor of Dance Michelle Ikle and “Monkeys, Morality & the Mind” taught by Associate Professor of Philosophy Gregory Frost-Arnold — as well as dozens of others with a range of themes.