"Academic Literacy" Seminars:

Helping Students Participate in the Construction of  Knowledge

in the Academic Discourse Community



Doug Brent, University of Calgary

Kenneth Bartlett, University of Toronto

Teresa Dawson, University of Toronto


Presentation for the Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience

Addison, TX

February 2004


Draft speaking notes – not a finished paper.


Today we would like to explore with you an invisible construct: the first year seminar that focuses on academic content.


We call this an “invisible construct” because it is extremely difficult to find discussions of this sort of seminar, identified as such, in the literature – any literature, not just the Journal of the First Year Experience.  The category has existed fairly persistently from Murphy’s original taxonomy in 1989, which distinguishes between “Success/Survival/Orientation” seminars, perhaps better known as the “University 101” model, and “Academic Content” seminars.  Later National Resource Centre surveys break the latter down into courses with uniform content across sections and courses with variable content, generally chosen by the instructor and closely keyed to his or her research – a distinction which, we will argue in a moment, is more important than it looks.  The National Survey reports that this type of seminar (variable academic content) comprises about 12% of seminars reported (Table 1).


Table 1: Results from the 2000 National Survey


465 respondents (62.1%) indicated that their campus offers an extended orientation or college survival seminar. These courses offer a blend of topics essential for student success.

125 respondents (16.7%) indicated that their campus offers an academic seminar for which content is fairly uniform across sections. These courses may focus on a single topic such as "The Purpose of Higher Education" or they may be interdisciplinary courses that address a single theme from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

96 respondents (12.8%) indicated that their campus offers academic seminars for which the content is determined by the instructor and is different for each section.

The remaining 63 seminars (8.4%) were categorized as either basic study skills courses, professional seminars (taught within undergraduate professional schools) or "other."



One would expect to find more attention to academic-content seminars at universities with a declared research agenda.  The Policy Centre on the First Year of College recently conducted a survey that explicitly targeted Doctoral/Research Extensive universities (according to the Carnegie definition).  The database resulting from this survey does not break out academic content courses from other strategies, but by inspecting the individual program summaries it can be guessed that about 18 of the 70 responding universities feature academic content seminars as at least part of their FYE program – a bigger presence than in the National Survey but still a minority.


The academic content seminar, then, is obviously a “live” category though less common than the U101 model.   But at this point the trail goes cold.  A very small number of research studies mention that they involve academic content seminars (Maisto & Tammi, 1991, Hyers & Joslin, 1998), but the academic nature of the seminars’ content is treated as incidental.  None of these studies gives examples of the academic content, and the seminars are assessed according to exactly the same standards as U101 seminars – retention being foregrounded as the most important outcome, with academic skills, grade point average, and general adjustment following behind.


As we were preparing this presentation, it seemed intuitively that this type of seminar is more common in Canada than in the United States.  But again, it proves highly evasive as a category.  The only good survey of Canadian first year programs was performed in 1998 on a selective sample of Canadian universities, and in that survey, the academic content seminar does not appear as a discrete category (see Table 2) and its goals are not distinguished from those of other types of seminar.



Table 2: Categories of FYE Strategies used in From Best Intentions to Best Practices


  1. Prior to Admission
  2. Orientation
  3. Family and Support Networks
  4. Equity Access
  5. Aboriginal Student Services
  6. Race/Ethnic/Cultural Gender
  7. Academic Advising Course Placement Skills Assessment
  8. Language Development
  9. Mathematics Development
  10. Learning Skills Centre
  11. Short-term Success Seminar
  12. Introductory Discipline Course
  13. University 101 Term Course
  14. Course Cluster Formation
  15. Student Cohort Formation
  16. Tutoring
  17. Career Counseling
  18. Personal Counseling
  19. Faculty /Teaching Development
  20. Residence Life



This type of seminar is not even glorified by a name that neatly encapsulates its goals and philosophy.  Everyone pretty much knows what a “University 101” or “Success” or “Extended Orientation” seminar looks like, though details of course vary from institution to institution.  But “academic content” seminar, or, even less nimble on the tongue, “first year seminar with academic content,” does little to identify the seminar in terms of goals or methodology.  It simply flags the seminar as being “about” something that is presumably more “academic” than the mixture of social adjustment, college-level skills and career counselling that is usually associated with U101.


I submit that what we have here is another example of a familiar phenomenon: if you don’t name something – and, more important, discuss it publicly as if its distinctions matter – it doesn’t exist.  It is absent from the institutional agenda and from the research radar screen as something worthy of notice as a discrete unit of attention. 


What we want to do is to hail the academic content seminar into existence.  We want to establish the legitimacy of its name by attaching that name to a discrete cluster of goals, educational values and pedagogical methods.  In short, we want to show you what this thing looks like, why it looks like that, and to argue for its importance as a distinct and alternative way of fulfilling the goals of the First Year Experience in a research-based institution.


The University of Toronto program


(Kenneth Bartlett and Teresa Dawson)


Ken Bartlett spoke from brief notes so there is no written text for this part of the preentation.


The University of Calgary program


(Doug Brent)


The U of C program is similar to the U of T program in most respects.  There are some administrative differences that are probably more important to us than to you, most of which result from its being located in a small interdisciplinary faculty.  Rather than get to this level of detail I’d like to talk more about the pedagogical imperatives behind these seminars, and then report some preliminary results of a research project designed to assess some of the unique features of the program.


As with the U of T, our seminars are typically taught by practicing researchers: that is, by regular faculty members, often senior ones, not by sessional lecturers and graduate students.  Seminars are formed around topics that loosely reflect the instructors’ research agendas, covering subjects ranging from biotechnology to genealogy and urban studies.  (See list on handout.)  They are not introductory courses in a subject area, for the intention is to go deep rather than broad and to free instructors from the obsession with “coverage” that constrains most disciplinary-based courses (more on that in a moment).  They seek to engage students in “live” research (in secondary sources and often involving primary research as well) on a special topic. (See Table 3 for some sample topics.)


Table 3: Topics of General Studies 201: First Year Inquiry Seminars for 2003-04


Alberta Culture and Place: Historical and contemporary architecture, the evolution of landscapes, social life and change, economic development, and political life.


Image vs. Identity: Conflicting Representations of "The Other" in Canadian Cinema:  Canadian feature films that deal with the construction of otherness in Canadian society by insiders and outsiders to those identities.


Understanding Your Roots: Research into Communities and Families:  This course will introduce students to archival research through the study of their own family (or ethnic community’s) history.


Profiles of Calgary:  This course will explore Calgary's historic roots using material from the times, that speak of the times in the language of the times.

Race, Ethnicity, and Citizenship:  This course will explore the history and notion of citizenship in Canada, with particular reference to how it relates to race, ethnicity, and geographical origin of immigrants.


The Uses of Narrative:  This course explores how we use stories to complain, critique, confess, demonstrate, understand, connect, envision, reassure, heal?


East Asian Perspectives on the Environment:  This course explores traditional East Asian attitudes to the environment and recent developments in East Asia, and examines how traditional East Asian attitudes could potentially benefit the environment today.


see http://www.comcul.ucalgary.ca/Web/CC-Year1/F2003-W2004.html



For our seminars, in common with most academic content seminars, retention is an important outcome, but not necessarily the over-riding goal that it is for U101 seminars.  Likewise, “academic success” in the narrow meaning of getting good grades is important, but seen as a desirable by-product of academic engagement. 


By academic engagement, we mean two closely related things.  The first is simply the ability to engage in university-style research.  For this, we draw on what scholars connected with the New Literacy Studies movement mean by the expression “academic literacies.”  As defined by Lea (1998) and others connected with the movement, “academic literacies” means much more than the discrete cluster of research skills that often goes by the term “information literacy.”  It also means more than socialising students into a set of textual conventions that are presumed to characterize academic discourse.  Rather, it means recognizing that a set of complex discourse conventions, rhetorical moves, assumptions about how knowledge is constructed through contesting and competing voices, constitutes the epistemology of a given academic discipline or field of study.  These fundamentally social practices run the full spectrum from finding sources through reading, writing and documenting – with one of the most problematic aspects of  the process being to learn how to negotiate a voice of personal authority while still engaging dialogically with the voices of “the experts” (Hendricks and Quinn 2000).


This set of abilities is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the second, which is more attitudinal.  We hope to give students a sense that what goes on behind the curtain at most universities – academic research – can be meaningful, and even enjoyable.  We don’t necessarily expect or even want to turn them all into academics.  Perish forbid that we send thousands of clones of ourselves into the world.  But we hope to instil in students the restless academic curiosity that marks the academy when it is working as it should, as well as confidence that they can find answers for themselves and speak with a voice of authority on matters of intellectual importance.  This should improve their lives for the next four years, and we hope that it will improve their lives as functioning citizens after graduation.


In short, academic content seminars represent the response of research universities to take their research mandate seriously and to engage undergraduate students with that mandate from the moment they walk in the door.  If research is what separates us from other post-secondary institutions without such a mandate, we owe it to students to make sure that they know what research is and how to do it – not just as a set of technical moves but as a set of beliefs about how knowledge is constructed.


Essential elements


Despite the varying content, and a fairly wide tolerance for varying pedagogical style, all sections of GNST 201 are built around a common core of basic elements:



All sections of the course are built around a long research project which, though often broken into a number of smaller projects, builds incrementally toward a major project in which students will have invested several months.  This ability to make a long-term investment in a project is often denied students until an Honours year or graduate school.  The results are predictable:  students often seize the first half-dozen sources that vaguely relates to the topic and writes up a “research paper” that loosely summarizes them, hands it in, and rushes to the next project.  This simply underscores the often-held illusion that “research” means simply reporting information (Nelson, Bizell and Hertzog).  At worst, it means sufficiently low ownership of the process that students fail to see what’s wrong with copying or buying a paper.


When the research process is extended over time, the process of learning how to do research is driven by an inquiry context on a “need to know” basis.  Librarians know to their peril how little students retain of the standard fifty-minute library orientation.  By embedding the process of learning library skills in the context of a semester-long course, we can work with library staff to help students find resources for an ongoing project with a long time-line.  They are, in short, playing with live ammunition.  They also have the time to do what “real” researchers do, which is to go back to the library repeatedly as their understanding of a project deepens.  They can do the follow-back through references and follow-forward through citation indexes that reflects how real researchers generally track down literature on their subject.


Scholars of post-secondary composition also know the benefits of giving students time to work their way into a project, and personalized – not generalized – feedback on the various stages of a project.  One of the expectations of GNST 201 is that instructors will book personal appointments with every student at least once during the process.  This allows them to offer guidance when the project is still open – not feedback at the end, when the project is closed and the instructor’s thoughtful written comments can only be summative, not formative – a justification for a grade, usually, rather than helpful advice.


As a corollary issue, we want students to understand that their esteemed professors can be approached for help whether one is in serious trouble or not.  To many students, professors project an air of authority, reserve, and sometime busy-ness that makes them reluctant to seek help on a project unless they are drowning.  Pre-booked one-to-one meetings on proposals, drafts, or at other stages in the process break down the sense of aloofness that professors sometimes project, and puts them more in the place of a resources and of authority.


Inter-student collaboration is also integral to this process.  If we want to free students from dependence on the professor, we must show them how to depend not just on themselves as individuals but also on each other.  This does not necessarily mean formal group projects, which often end up simply making students angry at foot-dragging project members.  But it does mean that much of the knowledge that is brought into the course is found and shared by the students themselves.  In my section, students receive no more than a slim book of readings as a starter set.  All other materials are those which students have found, photocopied, often in multiple sets, distributed and discussed.  The construction of knowledge is fundamentally dialogic – which is why we have all spent a lot of our institutions’ money to come here and talk to each other.  Students need the same chance to see how knowledge grows communally.


Finally, perhaps the most important structural feature of the academic content seminars is that they liberate the professor from the burden of “coverage.”  Nurturing budding researchers is a time-consuming process, and requires innumerable classes to be turned over to matters of process – comparing results among groups, listening to presentations, talking to librarians, reviewing citation procedures, and perhaps most important, simply wallowing in the processes of discovery.  Most instructors of discipline-based courses, whether introductory or senior, feel constrained by a curriculum that demands that certain topics be covered so that later courses can build on them.  This not only makes it difficult to find the time for process, but also underscores the role of the professor as font of knowledge. 


In an academic content seminar with content chosen by the professor, it doesn’t matter if students spend all term uncovering the answer to a single narrow question.  It doesn’t even matter particularly if they get the answer right.  What matters is that they get dirt under their fingernails learning the process from the inside.


The Phenomenology of Research


Now I’d like to look at some of the research that’s been done on GNST 201. 


We have done a preliminary study of retention, and found that the course seemed to make no significant difference on this measure – at least, not in one year.  At the beginning of 2003, 79.1% of students who had taken GNST 201 the previous year were still here.  However, 78.4% of students who had not taken GNST 201 were also still here.  We are somewhat disappointed in this result but not alarmed, since brute retention is not really the point of the course.  What we really want to know is: are the students who are retained more engaged with research?


We have been through the usual surveys, asking students what they thought worked and what didn’t, and found that students think that the most important thing they learned from the course was how to find sources, followed by how to write a research paper.  We also compared students who had taken GNST 201 the previous term with students who hadn’t, and found that the GNST 201 group scored significantly higher on a number of measures.  They were more positive about the role of research in general, about their ability to learn collaboratively with others, about their ability to find material in the library, and about their comfort in approaching professors for help.  (See Brent, Using an Academic Content Seminar.)


This was all generally good news, but we wanted to get beyond these general survey responses – flattering as they on the whole were – and find out more about what was going on in students’ heads.  That is, we wanted to get beyond survey data and take a more phenomenological approach.  We wanted to find out what “research” means to students, and if possible make some comparisons between the meanings generated by students who had taken the course and those who had not.  We wanted to learn more about why they thought they did the things they did when they went to the library or sat down to pull together a paper.  Most of all we wanted to find out what, if anything, made research worth doing for them.


To this end, I interviewed 18 students and 4 professors who taught the course in Fall 2003.  I ended up with 11 students who had taken the course and 7 who had not – not nearly enough for a statistically reliable sample if that had been what I had been after.  However, this is not mainly intended to be a comparative study of “whether it’s working.”  Rather, it is an attempt to get a deep sense of the population we are dealing with and their attitudes to academic research.


The interviews are still being transcribed and I have just started to scratch the surface of them, but I have some preliminary observations that I’d like to share with you as food for discussion.


First, many of the students reported relatively meagre experience doing research outside of GNST 201, and had an attitude to the process that I can only describe as “disappointing.”  For instance, Anne (Student 4) described doing a “research paper” on Oedipus Rex in a Greek and Roman Studies class. 


We just took the textbook and had to go to the library and find other texts so it was like a literary research.  Um, and just found points and other information that supported my thesis.


When I pressed her on this a bit, she elaborated on how she had developed her thesis that Oedipus had caused his own downfall:


I had come to that conclusion before I found my sources.  I just so, then when I went through the sources I found points that supported what I had already thought was true.


This idea that research is a way to support previously held opinions runs through most of the interviews from both groups of students.  Not one of them suggested that they came to the library with an unanswered question and proceeded to look for answers rather than looking for support for a point of view.  I imagine that most professional researchers could be accused of this sort of prejudgement as well, although we are well trained to write up our studies as if we came to the problem with a blank slate.  But I like to think that most of us are more willing to be surprised than Anne seemed to be prepared to be.


In contrast, many of the students reported that the term-long project in GNST 201 allowed them to become personally engaged with the topic at a much deeper level:


I went into the library like five weeks basically before it was due and really wanted to get into it.  I found straight off so much you know?  I had aboriginal narrators that I wanted to do and Hollywood narrators to find out what is different in film stories compared to novels. I just bounced around quite a bit until I came to something that we actually read in the text book.  There was one little line in our text book that said that gossip was the foundation of narrative. And I was like, “okay.”  So I went into it and started reading it a little more, um yeah I took out probably six or seven books out of the library and just sat there and went through them and underlined things and just wrote it all out and it was very broad.   Then I handed in an outline to my professor and she handed it back and said that it wasn’t very good.  So I basically re-wrote it in about a week period.


That’s just the outline.  In this case the extended length of the assignment and the stages that the student had to go through allowed her to play with her topic and gradually find what she wanted to do from a tiny clue in her reading.


A number of students also began understanding how knowledge builds as a shared social act, not just as an interaction between an individual and the library stacks.  Here I am asking a student what helped him feel comfortable seeking answers to complex questions:


Not just the professor but the other people in my class as well because we kind of all worked together.  So if one person couldn't find the book or didn't know where to look they would you know, we would ask and we would all go in a big group together to the library and all kind of help each other find stuff.  And so it was a very good class that way, the professor helped you a lot and told you which floor to go to and stuff but if you couldn't figure it out you all helped each other. So that was very helpful for me. (Student 3)


In fact, this prof divided the students into two groups and told one group to come only on Tuesdays and the other to come only on Thursdays.  This gave the students an unparalleled opportunity to work together in a commonly assigned time that had already been booked off their timetables.. 


We had all assumed at the beginning that we were going to have all that time for class, right?  So all of a sudden we all had this chunk of free time.  You'd get an assignment on Tuesday, you'd go the library on Thursday, get most of it done and then you would have the next Tuesday and Thursday to polish it.  So we all went together on Thursdays.  (Student 3)


I am beginning to see a number of other patterns in the data.  One which is not surprising is that none of the students seem to have much of an inkling of why you should reference material other than to protect yourself against plagiarism:


Interviewer - Do you feel that the main purpose of those footnotes was just to protect yourself against plagiarism or ...?   


Respondent - Very much so.  When I write it's a stream of consciousness, I never even think about anything else.  There's no other reason for it.   


Interviewer - So, if you were writing now purely for your own benefit?   


Respondent - There would definitely no footnotes, no.  They have no purpose for me.  I'm sure everything I've ever written someone else has at some point before me written, so, no, the whole idea of original thought – because you can never keep track of who did what first.  (Student 1)


This is gratifyingly post-modern thinking on the one hand, but on the other hand it shows no awareness of the ways researchers depend on references to lead them back through the ongoing conversation about their subject, 


This matches the almost universal process that students used to find material.  They all reported starting with the library catalogue, the on-line databases, the internet – but not one of them reported following up a reference in another piece of reading to see if the ideas could be expanded on or if new information could be turned up.  It was as if each source was unique, picked out of space, and not talking to any other sources in what we as academics tend to think of as a vast web of discourse. 


The model of research that I am hoping students will take up is based on Kenneth Burke’s famous description of the unending conversation, from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941)


Imagine that you enter a parlor.  You come late.  When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about.  In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.  You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.  Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance.  However, the discussion is interminable.  The hour grows late, you must depart.  And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.


This is an alien world for undergraduate students, mostly because the idea that their work could genuinely be of interest to others – other than the professor who will assign it a mark and hand it back – is totally beyond them.  Why shouldn’t it be?  They have been introduced to research at high school as just an exercise, and see no reason why it should be different at university. 


Usually it is indeed no different. But if we want to induct students into true academic literacy, we need to be able to show them what it is that they are apprenticing in.  Even if no more than a tiny handful of them go on to be academics, the point of maintaining a research university is to help students take up the mindset of a research community, a community that sees texts as part of a communal knowledge-building activity.


Fundamentally, what I hope students take away from GNST 201 is not just a set of skills, but also a new epistemology.  I realize that this is at least a four-year task.  But if GNST 201 can at least scratch the surface of this new epistemology, it will have done what the Boyer Commission so earnestly recommends:


In the model the Commission proposes, scholar-teachers would treat the sites of their research as seminar rooms in which not only graduate students but undergraduates observe and participate in the process of both discovery and communication of knowledge. Those with knowledge and skills, regardless of their academic level, would practice those skills in the research enterprise and help to develop the proficiency of others. Even though few researchers ever escape the human temptation to compete for rewards, this model is collaborative, not competitive. It assumes that everybody--undergraduate, graduate student, and faculty member alike--is both a teacher and a researcher, that the educational-research process is one of discovery, not transmission, and that communication is an integral part of the shared enterprise.



Bizzell, P. & Herzberg, B. (1987). Research as a social act. The Clearing House, 60, 303-306.

The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. (1998). Reinventing undergraduate education: A blueprint for America’s research universities.  Stony Brook: State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Brent, D.  Using an academic content seminar to engage students with the culture of academic research.  Unpublished paper under review by The Journal of the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition. Draft available http://www.ucalgary.ca/~dabrent.


Database of Program / Strategy Summaries for the Support of First-Year Students at Doctoral / Research-Extensive Universities. Policy Center on the First Year of College http://www.brevard.edu/fyc/ruproject/data.htm

Gilbert, S., Chapman, J., Dietsche, P, Grayson, P. & Gardner, J. (1997). From best intentions to best practices: The first-year experience in Canadian postsecondary education. Columbia: National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Hendricks, M. & Quinn, L. (2000).  Teaching referencing as and introduction to epistemological empowerment.  Teaching in Higher Education, 5.

Murphy, R. O. (1989). Freshman year enhancement in American higher education. Journal of the First Year Experience, 1,  93-102.

Nelson, J. N., & Hayes. J. R. (1988)  How the writing context shapes college students’ strategies for writing from sources (Center for the Study of Writing Technical Report No. 16).  Berkeley: University of California.  Available from ERIC on fiche.

Nelson, J. (1994). The research paper: A “rhetoric of doing” or a “record of the finished word”? Composition Studies/Freshman English News, 22, 65-75

Leckie, G. J. (1996). Desperately seeking citations: Uncovering faculty assumptions about undergraduate research. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 22, 201-208.  Retrieved Sept. 17, 2003 from Academic Search Premier.

Lea, M. (1998). Academic literacies and learning in higher education: Constructing knowledge through texts and experience.  Studies in the Education of Adults 30, 156-71.

Lea, M. & Street, B. V. (1998). Student writing in higher education: An academic literacies approach.  Studies in Higher Education, 23.

The 2000 national survey of first-year seminar programs: Continuing innovations in the collegiate curriculum  (2000). National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.