Freshman Seminars Grow

The Freshman Seminar Program is no baby—it has been around since 1959—but in the last three years, it’s done a lot of growing up.

Ever since former Dean of Undergraduate Education Susan G. Pedersen ’81-’82 took up the cause of revitalizing the program, it has been the focus of efforts to increase and diversify offerings and to simplify its notoriously laborious application and selection process.

This year, the Freshman Seminar Program came into its own as a record number of first-years applied for a record number of courses—although not without a few computer glitches along the way.

An increase in the number of both humanities and science seminars, growing departmental support, and a new web-based application system all contributed to a total growth of 250 percent in course offerings over the past three years, according to Elizabeth Doherty, director of the Freshman Seminar Program.

“The aim of expanding the Freshman Seminar Program was enthusiastically endorsed” by members of the Faculty, Doherty says. “Many more faculty have subsequently come forward to teach freshman seminars.”

More, More, More

During her tenure as Dean of Undergraduate Education, Pedersen made expanding the program one of her office’s priorities.

In the fall of 2001 she released a report on the status of freshman seminars, in which she stressed the value of a small group setting and interaction with a faculty member for first-years who do not yet have the benefit of concentration tutorials. The seminars, typically composed of 10 to 15 students, are graded “Credit” or “No Credit” and have no formal examinations.

Assistant Director of Social Studies Karen Zivi, who led a seminar last fall, says that its structure helps first-years adjust to the rigors of participating in a college classroom.

“The small size, the length of the meeting time, the fact that it’s pass-fail, and the fact that it is only open to freshman—the combination of which makes the course unique—lends itself to the creation of an intimate and intellectually exciting learning environment,” Zivi says.

Pedersen and former Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles worked to convince departments to support the program and encouraged faculty members to teach seminars.

These efforts were taken up by their successors, Dean of Undergraduate Education Benedict H. Gross ’71 and Dean of the Faculty William C. Kirby, last spring and this fall.

The result is a dramatic increase in the number of courses offered—88 total, up from 61 offered last year and 36 the year before that.

More offerings likely spurred more applications—a record of 1,054 applications were submitted for just the fall seminars, according to Doherty.

The historic high far exceeds previous records, 851 applications in the fall of 2001 and 852 applicants in the fall of 1967.

But because both the number of courses and the number of applicants rose drastically, about half the students still found themselves rejected from their choice of seminar, according to Doherty.

“There were simply not enough spots in seminars to accommodate everyone,” says Doherty. “The limiting factors are the number of slots available and some degree of unevenness in number of applications to individual seminars.”

Adding Science into the Mix

In the past, the Freshman Seminar Program was often dominated by humanities courses, leaving first-years with an interest in the sciences with few options.

But Doherty says that increasing science and math offerings has been a priority for her office, and this year there are 23 seminars being offered in the natural sciences, including mathematics.

Thirty seminars are being offered in the social sciences, and 34 in the humanities, leveling the field from previous years.

“Clearly the number of science freshman seminars has increased dramatically,” says David H. Hubel, research professor of neurobiology who is teaching a seminar this year. “Last year and the year before there were only about three hard sciences offerings.”

Faculty members stress that the seminars provide pre-med and science track students with a welcome alternative to the typical science course.

McKay Professor of Applied Biology Ralph Mitchell, who is leading a fall seminar on microorganisms in the biosphere, says the small size of the seminar is its major strength.

“The seminars give first year students an opportunity to interact with a faculty member in a small informal setting, and this is particularly important in the sciences where freshmen frequently find that their first courses at Harvard are large and impersonal,” he says.

Hubel points out that seminars, with a less intensive workload, can give first-years a chance to enjoy the subject matter.

“Big science classes are often dreadful at Harvard. The problem sets, the mid-terms and term papers can make life such a rat-race for undergraduates,” he says.

First-years can also benefit from seminars because the courses focus on new research, rather than simply teaching basic concepts, according to Daniel Fisher, Professor of Physics and Applied Physics.

The future for science offerings within the Freshman Seminar Program looks bright—and Hubel says there is still a ways to go.

Even more courses could be offered with the collaboration of the graduate and medical schools, according to Hubel, who says faculty members at Harvard Medical School are unaware of the opportunity to teach a seminar.

“The medical school could be a major source of teachers, with its faculty of thousands and only about 600 medical students to teach,” Hubel says.

A Bumpy Road to the Web

In an effort to make the application and selection process easier for both students and professors, the Freshman Seminar Program used a new web-based application this year.

“The application process was technically simple. The website was easy to use and the application questions were straightforward,” says Daniel J. Feith ’06.

The new application process also asked students to rank their preferences—a step that professors hoped would make it easier to match students with their top choice and prevent some students from being accepted into multiple seminars, taking others’ places in the course.

“Students were assigned to only one seminar as opposed to the past, when one student might be accepted into two or three or more and turn down spots in all but one,” Doherty says.

But the online application program also saw its share of technical glitches.

Doherty says that a number of students still had to submit paper applications this year due to computer problems, and a handful of first-years lacked the necessary PIN code to access the application.

“All in all, it was quite smooth, all things considered, and we’ve learned a lot about what refinements the system may still need,” Doherty says.

More Work Ahead

Despite the rapid expansion of the Freshman Seminar Program over the last three years, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

While the number of offerings rose, many first-years were still denied the opportunity of participating in seminars—something Doherty hopes to remedy in the future.

“We’d like to continue to expand both the number and range of seminars so that more—even all—interested students can be accommodated,” Doherty says.

She says she plans to address the persisting problem of popularity of some courses at the expense of others.

“We need to fine-tune the range of offerings so that there are fewer variations in application numbers among seminars,” she says. “This will make it easier to ensure spots for students.”

Doherty is also pushing for departments to consider granting concentration credit for Seminars so that more first-years would be encouraged to make the seminar part of their plan of study.

“For example, more than one student told me that in going over their long term plans with advisors, they were told that a freshman seminar would not ‘fit’ into their plans, that there wasn’t enough time in their schedules,” says Senior Preceptor in Romance Languages and Literature Elvira G. Di Fabio. “Obviously this type of advice does not support the Freshman Seminar Program.”

But that attitude might change as the program lobbies to be recognized as a valuable and relevant part of students’ studies.

“Last year, we asked all concentrations to consider whether, under what conditions freshman seminars might count for concentration credit,” Doherty says.

A number of concentrations—including English, History, Math, and Music Departments—have agreed to evaluate the Freshman Seminar Program over the next few years.

—Staff writer Anat Maytal can be reached at