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FYS: From Creoles to Katrina

Freshman year can be an intimidating experience for incoming students. From the academic challenges to sharing a space with a new roommate, those first few months at school can be a tough adjustment, but may also be some of the most rewarding moments in a student’s life.   

The First Year Seminar (FYS) is a half-semester, two-credit graded course that helps students adjust to the rigors of college academics and prepares them to begin connecting their personal questions and perspectives to those of their peers and to the world.

In the weeks leading up to matriculation, the first-year students in Professor of History Thom McClendon’s FYS, titled “Funky City: New Orleans from Creoles to Katrina,” prepare for class by reading “Nine Lives” by Dan Baum, which examines the lives of nine New Orleans residents from the time of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 until just after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They also watch the first seven episodes of the HBO series “Treme,” a drama that follows the lives of ordinary (fictional) people living in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Mardi Gras Indian

Mardi Gras Indian at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Photo courtesy of Tulane Public Relations.

Once in class, students read a book that focuses on Treme, the historic New Orleans neighborhood for which the TV series is named. They get a broad view of the development of the city from its initial settlement to present day by reading another book by a geographer, which looks at both physical environments, how they were altered, and where different groups of people—often divided by class and race—settled over time. Finally, students read some sociological essays in a book about the rebuilding of New Orleans after Katrina, and the controversies over who has benefitted and lost in the process. Throughout, they come to understand some of the unique cultural traditions in New Orleans, such as Mardi Gras Indians and Second Line parades.

Although McClendon started teaching the FYS post-Hurricane Katrina, the storm and recovery efforts are only part of the material covered. He says students come to class with different expectations, from thinking it will be all about Katrina to hoping it’s all about Mardi Gras. However, what they discover, says McClendon, is that “just as life in New Orleans is both fun, but (for many people) hard, the course introduces students to the joyful traditions of this unique city, while also providing insight into the painful divisions that have developed and changed over time, as well as its environmental predicament as a city surrounded by water.”

McClendon’s overarching goal is for his FYS students to think of New Orleans as a unique and unusual place, but to also understand that other U.S. cities are similar in many ways. “I want them to realize that issues like slavery and racial divides are important to all of us,” he says. He also teaches that cultural traditions like Mardi Gras are about more than floats and parades. “Mardi Gras,” he says, “relates to many different traditions; it’s not just a random party.”

“I’ve gotten emails from students who have gone to New Orleans for the first time, and they always say having taken the class made their visit a richer and more rewarding experience.”Thom McClendon, Professor of History

Regardless, the feedback he receives after the class is typically positive. “I’ve gotten emails from students who have gone to New Orleans for the first time, and they always say having taken the class made their visit a richer and more rewarding experience,” he says.

Students in the “Funky City” FYS are immersed not only in the details of the city of New Orleans, but also in college-level learning; the latter, McClendon says, “comes as a bit of a shock to some, but really helps with their subsequent work in college.”

McClendon believes that by providing students with a discussion-oriented environment, serious reading, group discussions, research and writing papers, First Year Seminars help new students understand what it’s like to learn in a liberal arts college. “Funky City” is just one of 22 options first-year students have for their FYS, including such disparate topics as the science and culture of chocolate, portraying religion through animation, robotics, exercise, terrorism, and more.


Story by Kristina Moore

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1 comment

  1. Michael Alexander

    Having lived in New Orleans several times (3) and worked in South Louisiana,
    I would find this article very interesting. Dr. Alexander, my son, also lived in New Orleans during his early school years and the subject should also be of interest to him.

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