Making informed food choices is the theme of a first-year seminar taught by food science professor Peter Purslow. His students are discussing supermarket psychology, food-related health issues like obesity and diabetes, and the social and moral aspects of eating. Photo by Susan Bubak

Found your passion at Guelph yet? For faculty members and new students alike, the place to explore what moves you might be in a first-year seminar (FYS) course.

Seminar courses for first-year students returned to the U of G course calendar this fall. Up to 18 students are enrolled in each of 16 offerings taught by faculty and staff members.

Never mind the benefits to first-year students of learning with an instructor in an interactive, small group. The program also gives faculty members a chance to explore interests complementing or even going beyond their workaday research or scholarship – an exciting opportunity, says FYS director and history professor Jacqueline Murray.

“Sometimes it’s a thing that’s just off to the side that they don’t get a chance to focus on,” says Murray. This fall and winter, she will teach a total of four seminars involving gender and sexuality, cultural dilemmas, the environment and world hunger. “It’s really a treat to be able to interact with students deeply and intensely about something everyone’s passionate about.”

This fall’s seminar topics include sustainable development, economic decision-making, poverty, literacy, communications and life support for space missions.

“Why Do People Believe Weird Things?” is a new offering from psychology professor Ian Newby-Clark. Course texts include How We Know What Isn’t So, written by Tom Gilovich, his post-doc adviser at Cornell University, and Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things.

The class explores beliefs in phenomena that routinely appear in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, including ghosts, extraterrestrials, psychics, dowsing and alien abductions.

“I’ve encouraged students to try to find a psychic fair or two,” says Newby-Clark. “If you go to a psychic fair with a skeptical eye, it’s a fascinating experience. It’s a money tree for people who work there.”

Beyond the obvious, he plans to discuss other questions that students might not have considered. Why do some people equate beauty with goodness? Why might people believe that all debt is bad? Or that vaccination can cause autism?

He hopes students will learn how to hold up ideas to scientific scrutiny and learn about the psychology of belief. He also wants students to write and present ideas more effectively.

Fostering independent, critical thinking is also the goal in the seminar “Should We Be Told What to Eat?” taught by food scientist Peter Purslow. Making informed food choices is the theme of this course, which ranges from diabetes and obesity, to social and moral aspects of eating, to supermarket psychology.

Purslow will assign students to debate the topics of meat-eating versus vegetarianism, genetically modified foods and personalized genomics. The class has visited a supermarket to discuss shopping psychology.

Students will also learn to assess often-contradictory and overwhelming media coverage and advice about food and nutrition. “We’re bombarded daily with hundreds of bits of advice about what to eat, what not to eat.”

Buddha, Julius Caesar, Muhammad and Vasco da Gama are central characters in a seminar taught by philosophy professor John Russon. “Each launched a major, world-shaping development,” says Russon, whose course is called “Freedom and Power: Four Decisive Moments in Philosophy, Politics and History.”

He hopes students will appreciate events and accomplishments of different world cultures in history. “By focusing on individual events, it gives new students an easy and exciting way to grasp something very memorable.”

Russon’s class reads authors from Livy to Adam Smith and uses varied artworks in more detail than larger classes allow. “There’s something much more personal about knowing the 18 students,” he says. “We’re actually developing a conversation. It’s our ongoing talk that is shaping how the course goes.”

The first-year seminars began in 2004 but were suspended five years later because of lack of funding. Reviving the program became a priority for The BetterPlanet Project campaign, and new funding from several donors has allowed the program to resume this fall. Murray hopes to see up to 20 seminar courses offered in each fall and winter semester.

Says Newby-Clark: “This is a wonderful opportunity to interact with these students when they are first arriving. There’s a certain excitement about that for them and me.”

An information session about first-year seminars for faculty members will take place Oct. 21 at 10 a.m. in UC 442.