First Year Seminar:  Bodies, Minds, and Social Norms

Popular Core Course Combines Critical Thinking with Social Issues

First Year Seminars at Marist are designed to help freshman students hone crucial academic skills such as critical thinking, information literacy, and writing while allowing them to think about new topics in innovative ways. One such seminar that does all this is called Bodies, Minds, and Social Norms taught by Dr. Moira Fitzgibbons.

According to the course syllabus, this class “asks you to think about bodies, minds, and all the weird norms surrounding them, by drawing from gender studies, disability studies, critical race studies, and other perspectives.” It is essentially a course that helps students understand themselves and those around them through the lens of social conditions.

“This was originally a course on disability in film and in literature, but as it’s gone on, the class has become more intersectional,” said Dr. Fitzgibbons. “We start with disability studies, but we also talk about other issues related to bodies throughout the semester such as sexuality, race, body image, and more. So it’s really broadened its focus.”

Students utilize library materials and online scholarly resources to research these topics in depth and sharpen their public speaking skills by presenting in front of the class. Fitzgibbons says that the four primary skills the course aims to develop are critical thinking, research, writing, and public presentation.

“The whole point of these first-year seminars is to make students realize that this is not the fifth year of high school. You’re going to be able to explore real, cultural issues now. So it’s a skills course, but along the way I want them to broaden their sense of what learning is really all about.”

Along with research, students read a variety of texts, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me,  Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, and Wonder by R.J. Palacio. They also work with multimedia by watching movies, TED talks, and clips throughout the semester.

“We end up talking about a lot of pop culture that’s out there along with the more historical, scholarly resources,” Dr. Fitzgibbons explained. “For example, last year a student brought in an Instagram photo of one of the Kardashians posing in a wheelchair and we discussed that controversy. So it’s very interesting even for the students because coming from high school, they’ve been doing academics their whole lives, so now they get to apply that to pop culture too.”

FYS Bodies, Minds, and Social Norms Combines Critical Thinking with Social IssuesAnother crucial element of this course is the field trip to the FDR library, pictured at right, where students learn about FDR’s struggle with his disability while looking at the museum in a unique way they may not have thought about before.

Fitzgibbons said, “The museum trip is great because it lets us explore how FDR and the country at large dealt with his disability, but also, how the museum presents that experience. They frame it in a very interesting way so I almost want the students to read the museum as a text and analyze it, just to get them thinking in different ways.”

According to Dr. Fitzgibbons, this class lends itself to participation and lively discussion, as personal experiences tend to relate to the larger forces at play that the students discuss.

“A class like this could easily go wrong. Students don’t all think the same way, and different professors have different attitudes about this but especially this past fall, I held back from putting my own political agenda out there. Everybody needs to be taught to critically think, and I have to make the classroom a place where that will happen. Sometimes students discuss their own lives and experiences, but I think it’s also important for students to feel like they don’t have to represent a particular group or experience. ”

Students seem to leave this course with enhanced academic skills required for higher education along with a new mindset about how to approach sensitive social issues such as the ones discussed in this course. “This first-year seminar, for me, was a very beneficial experience. Professor Fitzgibbons’ passionate approach to the material made learning and studying much more interesting and fun. I learned how to better focus and formulate my arguments in papers and question the validity behind others in order to make an argument my own,” said Marist student Olivia Carl. “The topic of Bodies, Minds, and Social Norms was also interesting to me as it focused on mainstream issues along with historical ones to see how to connect theories and different types of context.”

Professor Fitzgibbons said that this has been one of her favorite classes to teach in her time as a professor. “I’ve been so lucky. The past two semesters I’ve taught this subject, fall 2015 and fall 2016, were two of the best classes I’ve ever taught anywhere, and I’ve been teaching for 20 years. The students were just wonderful. It really made me feel good about Marist and what it means to teach students in the 21st century.”

Written by Shannon Donohue '17

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