Yesenia Cardenas, a freshman at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) who plans to be fully entrenched in the study of criminal justice in a couple years, is already gaining the experience and exposure to the rigors of upper-division curricula in the university’s new First-Year Seminar program.
Launched in fall 2015, the program is a “re-imagining of the university 101 course” for students to experience discipline-specific lecture that encourages debate and student engagement during class and activities. Taught by full-time faculty with doctorate degrees who are active in their fields, the program provides freshmen a learning experience similar to upper-division study in classes with no more than 25 students.
“Freshmen can be very introverted, but our professor has really tried to break us out of that shell. We’ve had to do things like talk in front of the class, which was good for me,” said Cardenas, an 18-year-old Palmdale resident. “During class I usually keep to myself, but I will speak out in class, especially if it’s kind of quiet. In this class I’m able to voice my opinion, and I like that because I like being the leader.”
Faculty in the First-Year Seminar program commit one year to teaching the course, which they choose and develop themselves. Their course proposals must be in their area of research, “exciting and inventive,” and “kindle their passion for shared inquiry and exploration.”
Cardenas is enrolled in the course “False Memories and the Law.” It was designed by Shari Berkowitz, an assistant professor in Criminal Justice Administration at CSUDH, to explore claims of sexual assault due to the discovery of “repressed memories,” which are often used to file criminal charges and civil suits against alleged perpetrators. This area of study is commonly known as the “Memory Wars” due to questions about the validity of such claims; the students are also looking at how they are handled in the U.S. legal system.
Berkowitz usually teaches juniors, seniors and master’s degree-level students at CSUDH.
“My freshmen, perhaps more than my other students at Cal State Dominguez Hills, have really been engaged in their reading. There’s a lot of lecture and I do my best to encourage group discussion,” said Berkowitz. “What is also interesting and fun about this course is trying to integrate tips, skills and other content regarding how to succeed in college, which is part of the UNV 101 program. In a recent project I had the students do a scavenger hunt and take selfies in front of places where resources are available to them on campus.”
Other First-Year Seminar courses being taught this semester include: “The Economics of Discrimination,” taught by Jose Martinez, an assistant professor of Finance and Economics; “Designing Your Future STEM Experience,” taught by Antonia Boadi, an assistant professor in Physics; and “Multicultural Literature: Reading and Lifelong Learning,” taught by Lisa Hutton, chair of the Liberal Studies program.
“There are certain things I can take for granted with juniors and seniors that the freshmen need to double check on, and in certain situations they won’t know how to handle something yet, so I spend time on those things in our class discussions,” said Berkowitz. “I check in with them regularly to see how they’re navigating certain problems, so instead of them thinking ‘This is college, it’s hard and I want to give up,’ they begin to realize that their experiences are normal and that succeeding in college is something they can all accomplish.”
During the first half of the semester, one project required Berkowitz’s students to analyze two hypothetical research studies – one claiming support for repression and one claiming support for false memories — during class discussions and in groups, then each had to write an in-depth and lengthy essay that required critical thinking.
“It was a good assignment. We were looking to find flaws in the case study. It proved to be a really beneficial project in preparing for my midterm,” said Cardenas. “I think this kind of work will also be good after college because it really involved critical thinking and analyzing the positives and negatives of the case study, and us adding what we could to make it better.”
This kind of work will also be good after college because it really involved critical thinking and analyzing the positives and negatives of the case study. -Yesenia Cardenas
With their midterm behind them, Berkowitz’s students have begun a more physical project that examines false memories in the field. Guided by the research they have already done, the students will try to plant false memories in people about events that never really happened, then report their findings in writing.
Berkowitz’s student Manuel Robles, a psychology major who is considering changing to criminal justice, already has a false memory planned out.
“My idea is to tell my friend that I had ice coffee then convince him that he spilled it on me. This is an unlikely event because I don’t like coffee, so it would never happen,” said Robles, an 18-year-old Monrovia resident. “It’s pretty simple, but the goal is to open our eyes to how people develop false memories, and to be able to determine what it true and what is not in these cases.”
Berkowitz is happy with her students’ performance so far and how they have delved into the topic with enthusiasm.
“They seem to really be enjoying the topic, lecture format and discussions. I feel they are appreciative and comfortable with me, but I can tell from their midterm scores I may need to adjust a little bit more,” she said. “I assign them much of the same reading as an upper-level honors class, but I don’t think that they’re struggling. As a matter of principal, what a senior or graduate student can learn, a freshman can learn as long as it’s taught in the right way.”
Two things that Robles has already learned in the First-Year Seminar program is that most upper-division work is done “up front” during the research phase, and that he needs to be more “proficient” in his essays.
“This class in more interesting and far more interactive then in my freshmen classes where we just learn the basic materials,” he said. “In this class, I’m discovering that there are more options—that there is more than one answer most of the time.”