This school year saw the addition of a new class to the course catalog: Freshman Seminar 27e: “Big Ideas.” Headed by Professors Douglas A. Melton and Nicholas A. Christakis, the course is offered concurrently at Harvard, Yale, and Bard College. Taught through a combination of video lectures, essays, readings, and class discussions, “Big Ideas” takes a nontraditional approach, with the lectures conducted by academics exploring a range of specialized topics.
From statistics to the classics, the course is meant to introduce students to a spectrum of academic fields and prompt them to see connections between varying disciplines in an engaging fashion. The enrolled freshmen are exposed to many topics, introducing them to potential future fields of study which they may not have before had the opportunity to consider and explore. This seminar is a good way to make a diversity of information available to students in a palatable way. It is an interesting experiment and we applaud the initiative of these professors in starting it.
Freshman seminars are a great setting for pedagogical experimentation, making this format an ideal setting for the exploration aspects of both teaching and learning found in “Big Ideas.” The combination of utilizing technology through video lectures and engaging in more conventional avenues like readings and discussion sections sets the course’s teaching style apart. The same is true for the tactic of drawing from a selection of lecturers from the Harvard community and beyond, making “Big Ideas” distinct from the typical Harvard course taught solely by only one or two lecturers.
How students are learning is also unique in this seminar. Rather than focusing on a single overarching topic, the course’s main function is to introduce students to a wide variety of subjects from across academic disciplines within the context of a single course. Students also have the benefit of learning about topics from lecturers who know the subjects particularly well, like Professor Steven A. Pinker on linguistics and brain function. While this structure has its benefits, the “Big Ideas” model should be limited to freshman seminars, as it doesn’t allow students to go into any material in an in-depth manner. The course is best geared toward first-year students still in the process of determining a course of study.
Most importantly, however, we appreciate that the College is experimenting with new ways of teaching material in a time when students are bombarded with information in innumerable ways.