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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Expanding the Freshman Seminar Program

By Benjamin P. Solomon-schwartz, Crimson Staff Writer

They were Harvard's solution to the problem of student faculty-interaction.

In 1963, the University offered freshman seminars--" experiments designed to intensify the intellectual experience of the Freshman year"--for the first time.

In 2000-2001, thirty-one such courses are being offered. It's expected that 450 students will enroll.

More may come. Because the Faculty, and its dean, Jeremy R. Knowles, have publicly praised the value of students closely interacting with faculty, the Faculty Council has begun discussing ways to expand the program. So far, in preliminary discussions, members have posed questions about how to convince more Faculty members to teach seminars and whether to count them for departmental or core credit.

Other universities have been much quicker to expand their programs.


The Princeton program began in the 1986-1987 academic year with nine seminars.

"The key issue [then] was providing students with the opportunity to work in small courses with regular faculty on a focused, but accessible topics," says Hank Dobin, associate dean of the college at Princeton.

The program has grown rapidly to include 65 seminars with an average of 11 to 13 students in each.

Dobin estimates that out of a class of 1150 students, approximately 750 take a freshman seminar either in the fall or spring. Some take one both semesters.

Most of these students are among the 900 B.A. candidates, he says, because the heavier first-year requirements of engineering and science students leave them less room for seminars.

Supply almost perfectly fits demand--less than 30 students were not accepted to their top two choice seminars this fall, Dobin says.


The program at Stanford also grew out of discussions sparked by former Stanford University President Gerhard S. Casper about undergraduate education.

Eight years later, there are several different programs, including freshman seminars and sophomore seminars, of which 110 of each are offered each year on a quarterly basis.

By the time students in a class of 1600 have completed their sophomore year, 75 to 80 percent of them have taken a seminar, according to Sharon R. Palmer, director of freshman and sophomore programs and assistant provost for undergraduate education at Stanford.

"Students get to know faculty. We hope they have long term mentoring relationships," Palmer says.

The courses aren't surveys. Like Harvard's, they are specific, often hewing to the interest and research of the professors.

"It can bring students into the discipline [of the seminar] because it really uses the skills and methodology of it."



Yale also has a system of college seminars, but they are part of different system than that of Harvard, Princeton or Stanford, according to Paul Fry, a professor of English and director of the college seminar program.

Like Harvard, these seminars have their origin in the 1960s, but they are more similar to Harvard's House Seminars than to Harvard's freshman seminars.

Like Princeton's, they are based in the university's residential colleges.

"When the program began forty years ago, there was not much in the way of interdisciplinary study. Now, that happens more frequently in the departments, so these seminars are not so radical anymore," Fry says.

They serve purposes other than those of introducing freshmen to small-group instruction with tenured faculty. In fact, preference is given to juniors and seniors in obtaining spaces in the seminars, Fry says.

But unlike Princeton, Stanford and Harvard, instructors are generally not tenured members of the faculty.

They are more often, says Fry, retired business professionals and former diplomats that like to "come down and tell students how to do it."

But does it count?

Harvard's seminars are graded pass/fail. They count as electives and do not meet concentration or Core requirements.

But the courses at Princeton and Stanford can fulfill part of their distribution requirements.

"They count as regular Princeton course, have methodological approaches and content area, so there is no reason not to let them fulfill distribution requirements," Dobin says.

Both Stanford's Palmer and Princeton's Dobin say the courses are often enjoyable ways for students to fulfill science and math requirements.

For instance, Dobin says, the laboratory requirement can be fulfilled with a course such as "Life as We Know It: A History of Biology." In this course, the weekly labs replicate the laboratory experiments as they were conducted, way back when.

Stanford boasts that one seminar studying jet engines flew to Arizona for a day-long field trip to an engine factory.

For students known at Stanford as fuzzies--non-math or science majors--these courses are often enjoyable ways to satisfy their natural science requirements.

"We are encouraged those [science and math] departments to certify freshman seminars as fulfilling the [general education] requirements," Palmer says. "It is ideal for students that are not going to major in that area."

The Four Year Plan

The Four Year Plan

For Princeton students, the program has grown from a patch for a problem to what administrators say is the heart of an undergraduate's education.

"It is one of the bookends. The education peaks early and then again [is] matched by the thesis senior year," Dobin says. All undergraduates at Princeton write a senior thesis.

Even though the seminars are generally a positive experience, according to Dobin, departments must engage in a balancing act to insure that enough faculty remain to teach their introductory courses and the courses aimed at their majors.

Nevertheless, this expenditure of department resources may provide benefits to smaller departments and encourage them to have more faculty teaching in seminars than large departments.

"The small esoteric departments may not have large enrollments or large number majors," Dobin says. "And if they offer wonderful seminars, they may actually be able to do some recruiting."

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