Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Foundations User Guide

Franklin & Marshall's general education program is distinctive among national liberal arts colleges. Students are required to complete a writing intensive course during the first year (most often a first-year seminar)and two Foundations courses. Its distinctive character lies in the Foundations courses, which fall outside but draw from the knowledge base and methodologies of traditional academic disciplines.

The Foundations program attempts to create courses that reached across disciplinary boundaries to articulate and address questions of enduring importance and interest. The faculty hope that such courses will introduce students to a variety of perspectives on questions that have and continue to invigorate inquiry into the nature of human existence and the essence of the physical world. The Office of the Provost can provide modest funds for equipment, materials, and books for preparing Foundations courses. In addition, the library has an account that can be used to order books needed for a Foundations course. In collaboration with the Associate Dean of the Faculty and the Curriculum Sub-Committee, the Dean of the College also coordinates summer and academic-year seminars to support faculty developing Foundations courses. Faculty who participate in these seminars receive stipends.

This User's Guide has been designed to assist faculty, especially new faculty, in developing Foundation courses.

Learning Objectives

Students often do not understand clearly the nature and purpose of Foundations courses. This concern can be addressed by focusing on three specific learning objectives can be derived from the Catalog language describing Foundations. You should keep them in mind as you conceive, design and develop your course. We recommend that you explain and frequently reiterate the connections between a particular reading, assignment or discussion and one or more of these goals.

  1. Assist students in coming to appreciate the value of free inquiry about questions and ideas that are central to human existence. In this way Foundations courses introduce students to the concept of an examined life that lies at the heart of a liberal education.
  2. Learn how to approach a topic through a variety of perspectives drawn from several academic disciplines. Through Foundations courses, students learn about different approaches taught at Franklin &Marshall in a variety of departments.
  3. Develop the skills of gathering, evaluating and integrating knowledge, which are needed to confront complex issues. In this way, Foundations courses help students prepare to contribute to their occupations, communities and the world of the 21st century.

Foundational Questions

In developing a Foundations course, perhaps the most critical task is arriving at the foundational question or questions. No simple method for achieving the appropriate level of inquiry can be recommended. We can, however, share some approaches that have been found useful.

Michael Billig, Department of Anthropology, describes the approach he used as convener of one of our more successful summer Foundations seminar. "My strategy for getting things started was for the group to read one of the books I assign in my "Exploration and Conquest" (CCS102) course, and for me to model the way I use the substantive material in that book to get students thinking about foundational questions. I assigned Bernal Diaz's The Conquest of New Spain. The argument I presented to my colleagues was that it is profitable to think of a Foundations course as being structured as three tiers or levels. At the most superficial level is the subject of the course as reflected in its title (e.g., exploration and conquest; Western encounters with non-Western peoples from ancient to modern times). It would be fascinating to teach a course about that topic, per se. But such a course would not be appropriate for the Foundations rubric. It is the second and third levels that accomplish those aims. The second level is, "What is the course really about?" My course is really about how encountering and learning about people unlike ourselves affects the way we think about our own lives and makes it more difficult to take our own values and norms for granted. That level generates questions‹foundational questions, one hopes‹that are open to debate, discussion, and conflicting reason. Those questions form the third level, the level of critical thinking and precise writing about important and difficult questions. In my course, for example, we ask: "At what point‹if any‹can we no longer accept other people's practices or beliefs as acceptable or 'relative' to their own cultures? Is, say, cannibalism or human sacrifice an artifact of culture like any other? If we condemn other practices or beliefs, on what grounds do we do so? Where do our moral precepts come from?" These are just examples of some of the foundational questions covered on the third level of my course, and the Bernal Diaz book provided an excellent example of how to move from the more superficial to the deeper levels".

Issues of Pedagogy

Developing the content of a Foundations course is a time-consuming act of scholarly work. Designing the pedagogic strategies also requires systematic planning and examination of resource materials. Foundations courses pose pedagogic issues different from disciplinary courses. In a Foundations course faculty in a sense model the behavior of an engaged or informed citizen. This component of the curriculum invites faculty to design courses at the periphery or outside the boundaries of their scholarly expertise. In this way faculty invite students to become co-inquirers.

This feature of Foundations tends to make the courses uncomfortable places for students. Foundations courses invite students into a learning situation radically unlike their other courses, especially high school courses. Grades often inform student behavior and students develop routines in which they have confidence. These routines assume faculty expertise and information that must be mastered. Foundations courses disrupt these routines. These challenges of teaching Foundations courses are compounded because faculty and students approach foundational questions from very different starting points.

Although Foundations courses stretch faculty beyond their disciplinary expertise, a faculty member will normally approach foundational questions from the viewpoint of their discipline. They draw upon the knowledge that the primary discipline can contribute to understanding the animating question of the course and rely upon methods of inquiry typical of that field. For example, a political scientist thinking about the nature of justice would draw upon her knowledge of Plato, Kant and Rawls. This knowledge forms the intellectual apparatus upon which the faculty member draws when thinking about the idea of justice. First and second-year students, however, do not possess an understanding of Plato, Kant or Rawls.

While students have notions of disciplines, they do not possess enough disciplinary expertise to approach the question in this manner. Rather, the student is likely to approach the question from the perspective of popular culture. In turn, students are likely to experience arguments of the type advanced by Plato, Kant or Rawls as strange and confusing. These factors and others make teaching Foundations more challenging for faculty. Faculty need pedagogies that create bridges to student understandings and construct effective situations of co-inquiry. Faculty need to spend as much time being thoughtful about the "how" of Foundations as the "what." A common pedagogical error is for faculty to make the course too much like a graduate course both in terms of volume of reading and difficulty.

Some concrete suggestions from veteran foundations faculty include the following:

  • Create a syllabus, then cut the readings in half.
  • Keep the readings focused on the foundational question.
  • Remember that at least half of your students have just completed high school and must learn to do college-level readings and interdisciplinary analysis.
  • Make the questions driving inquiry in the course as explicit as possible, on the syllabus, in class, in assignments
  • Create class activities which ask students to become active participants or co-inquirers.
  • Recognize that preceptors can often help with determining the proper level of difficulty.

Preceptors in Foundations

Preceptors are upper-class students who assist in teaching First-Year seminars and Foundations courses. Faculty generally choose their own preceptors. Most faculty think of these students as collaborators. Preceptors have played a variety of roles and completed a range of tasks in Foundations courses. For example, some preceptors have been asked to read and provide feedback on student writing and/or provide individualized writing instruction to students. They have also assisted with course design and development, helped devise teaching strategies, led discussion groups, organized study groups and/or conducted exam review sessions.

Preceptor Guidelines
  1. Preceptors earn an academic credit for their experience. To earn this credit, they must both attend a bi-weekly discussion organized by the Office of the Provost and satisfy the expectations for the preceptorship. To receive this credit, preceptors register for INT 480. Like internships-for-credit, INT 480 is graded P/NP. Preceptors do not need to pre-register for INT 480. The Office of the Provost handles this task.
  2. Preceptors will be expected to attend an evening event in April, a one-day session in early May, and to return to campus for New Student Orientation to receive some training as a writing tutor. Exceptions can be made in consultation with the Office of the Provost.
  3. Preceptors are also expected to assist the faculty collaborator with course development and design. This work should be done during the summer, but the preceptor is not required to be physically present on campus.