One of the many exciting opportunities for a first-year Maryville student is the University Seminar course, which all first-year students enroll in during their first semester. But the University Seminar is much more than a required course. It provides a distinctive opportunity for students to work closely with peers and a trio of instructors on an important topic of mutual interest.
Maryville University is known for its high level of collaboration among faculty and staff. This past fall, that collaboration took on a new meaning when the University Seminar course, commonly known as USEM, introduced a new concept: team teaching in the classroom. Previously, the University Seminar course was taught by just one faculty member. The format changed this fall to have a trio — a life coach, a faculty member and a staff member — teaching a group of students together.
The University Seminar course offers first-year students an introduction to higher education and helps them develop skills that will support them during their transition to life at Maryville, as well as enhance their experience as students from first year to graduation. Throughout the semester-long course, students participate in activities such as writing, research, critical reading and presentations. This past year, course themes included “Setting My College Soul on Fire,” “Life Hacking Your Way Through College” and “Developing Your Personal Brand.”
“It was my favorite class,” said Lacey Snell, a first-year student majoring in communication. “I loved the way all three of my USEM instructors taught. But I also loved that all three were more than just teachers, they were also great connectors. If I needed something, I knew they would be there and listen to me, and give me the same advice they would give their own children.”
Snell’s trio of instructors — Laura Ross, associate director of the Finch Center for Teaching and Learning; Alex Wulff, assistant professor of English; and Brittney Williams, life coach — gave themselves the nickname “The Dream Team.” The three taught the theme of #YouthQuake, which was the 2017 Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year. The term is defined as “a significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”
Ross explains the trio wanted their students to make a significant change in their communities by creating off-campus and on-campus group projects. The students met the challenge with flying colors. They completed projects such as raising money through a bake sale for the St. Louis Crisis Nursery, advocating for mental health on campus, volunteering at a veterans hospital and hosting a diversity dialogue.
“I think our students were successful because they had access to all three instructors,” Ross said. In past years, Ross taught the University Seminar course by herself. But she found the new structure to be more rewarding. “It was incredibly exciting to see how much our students grew over the semester,” she said.
The trio of #YouthQuake instructors said that team teaching did offer up some challenges, and required them to step out of their comfort zones. “At first, I was nervous about having three instructors,” Wulff said. “I have limited experience team teaching, and all of my experiences as a student in team-taught classrooms were quite bad.”
But Wulff explains the team teaching concept was beneficial to the students, which is the most important takeaway from the experience. “We had the chance to get feedback from our students after the semester was over, and what we heard is that they enjoyed the course,” he said. “The students felt they had a chance to make good friends, get involved in the community and do some interesting work. We were thrilled to receive this positive feedback.”
But the work doesn’t stop now. The trio is already planning for next year’s University Seminar course. They will continue teaching together and have started discussing how they can improve the #YouthQuake curriculum.
“I’m looking forward to sharing more of our personal perspectives on the subject matters we cover in class,” Williams said. “I believe by sharing our personal narratives, our students are better able to understand different viewpoints. That skill is so important during their time at Maryville and when they leave this campus.”
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Maryville Magazine.