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Keri Colabroy and her students record their observations during a visit to the Starbucks in downtown Allentown. Photo by Meghan Kita.

First-Year Seminar: Coffee, The Great Soberer


A caffeinated field trip helps these students learn to collect data they can use to develop an argument.

By: Meghan Kita   Thursday, December 7, 2017 04:31 PM

This fall, staffers from the Office of Communications sat in on a number of first-year seminars to observe how Muhlenberg introduces its new students to college-level writing. Professors from a variety of disciplines design and teach the courses. Some select a topic that’s closely related to their academic specialty, while others choose something they’re personally passionate about. While the seminars vary widely in subject matter and structure, they all share the same end goal: to teach students to think critically and analytically when constructing an argument.

“The difference between high-school and college writing is less a matter of style than of attitude," says English professor Jill Stephen, who co-directs the Writing Program with fellow English professor David Rosenwasser. “Rather than framing a single argumentative claim and repeatedly demonstrating that it is ‘right,’ students in first-year seminars learn to treat ideas as hypotheses to be tested.”

The seminars are small—limited to 15 students each—and each one has a paid writing assistant, a returning student who has completed a credit writing theory course, attends all the classes and works with first-year students inside and outside the classroom to develop their writing skills. Thirty-three seminars are offered in the fall, with another eight offered in the spring. Here’s a glimpse at one of the seminars taking place this semester.

The seven students on the bus headed toward Muhlenberg chat with one another. They’re much livelier than when they left campus an hour or so earlier. Now, they’re returning from visits to two coffee shops—the Starbucks in downtown Allentown and the independent shop on 19th Street, Hava Java—and obviously, they’re caffeinated. “We should do this every Tuesday,” one of the students jokes.

This is half of the group taking associate professor of chemistry Keri Colabroy’s first-year seminar Coffee, The Great Soberer—the other half took a separate shuttle, and visited Hava Java first—and they’re beginning their unit on coffeehouses. The purpose of the excursion was to collect data about each of the locations. Afterward, the students will need to claim, in writing, whether these shops qualify as a “third place,” that is, a place beyond the home or the workplace where people go to connect and communicate.

Colabroy guides the class as they observe and jot down notes at each location, saying things like, “Would ‘cozy’ be a detail word? Is ‘cozy’ data?” and, “It might be interesting to sketch a floor plan and think about how things are arranged.” On the bus ride back she quizzes them on how many people were having conversations at the Starbucks and how many seats were at Hava Java. The almost scientific approach to crafting an argument reflects the tactics found in “Writing Analytically,” Stephen and Rosenwasser’s book that’s used as a first-year seminar textbook, and a shared passion for all things coffee helps Colabroy engage the students as they learn this critical skill.