First Year Seminar helps students sift out the nonsense

September 28, 2010

Whose word would you take about the effectiveness of a weight-loss program? The doctor’s, the athlete’s or the pastor’s?

A group of freshmen in a First Year Seminar called “Identifying and Avoiding B.S.” are learning to think more critically about the barrage of dubious communications they encounter in American culture. Why is it, for instance, that lying – the act of intentionally trying to make someone believe something that is untrue – is condemned as morally intolerable, but B.S. is generally accepted as benign and sometimes entertaining?

In Associate Professor of Philosophy Peter Bradley’s class, students rely on their own instincts as well as the work of contemporary philosophers to tease out lies from B.S. They look for examples in popular culture, they parse it out of a politician’s diatribe, they spot it in the classroom.

In addition to classroom discussion, Bradley’s students are required to maintain personal blogs, where they write about finding examples of B.S. in the world around them.

In a recent posting, one student lambasts promotions for Red Bull energy drinks.

“The small letters proclaim that a Red Bull energy shot is a ‘dietary supplement,’ which I have a hard time believing,” the student writes. “The facts are that an energy shot contains 80 mg of caffeine, the equivalent of a large cup of coffee, and coffee is a drug. … It is most likely that this term was used to slip by some FDA regulations and put a positive spin on what their customers were pumping into their bodies.”

First-year students at McDaniel are required to take a first-year seminar during their initial semester. The courses are designed to help students make the transition from high school to college. The courses, which include a focus on developing writing and research skills, also are devised with an eye toward encouraging students to work together.

First-year seminars are limited to 15 students, and the professor serves as the students’ academic advisor for the first year.

Bradley’s course – one of more than 30 offerings, including “Born to Buy: The U.S. Consumer Society,” “Reality Television: The Sociocultural Effect,” and “Horror in Fiction and Film” – aims to help students think twice about how to evaluate the messages they hear and see.

“This class opens your eyes,” Chris Urps said after a recent session in Baker Memorial. “Every commercial I see now, I think about this course and I start picking out the B.S. What about using Old Spice makes you manly? Or drinking a particular beer? Nothing.”