Freshman Seminars

The First and Last Time a Professor Will Know Your Name

Associated Press

It's almost like taking a big boy class--almost.

Apparently, someone figured out that sitting through a 700-person Ec 10 lecture didn’t cut it for personal attention, so this year’s course catalogue devotes 26 pages to 130 frosh-only classes, including 56 brand new ones. Considered a must-have by many eager first-years, the most popular of these seminars, such as Professor David H. Hubel’s “The Neurophysiology of Visual Perception,” can draw over 100 applications for one of their coveted spots. But fear not, young Skywalker. Most of the others don’t solicit enough interest to fill their 12-person caps, and with courses ranging from “Beethoven’s String Quartets” to “A Cultural History of the Banana,” you’ll have no problem finding the perfect class to make all your academic dreams come true.

At this point, you must be wondering—so what is this freshman seminar business all about anyway? The answer, it turns out, can vary depending on what you take. In its ultra-specific description, the Freshman Seminar Program states that students work with faculty members “on a variety of selected topics in a variety of ways.” So, basically, this means that Profs can teach about whatever interests them, from popular Japanese legends (see: “The Tale of Genji”) to broad, sweeping genres that attempt to cover the entirety of the space-time continuum (“Galaxies and the Universe”). You can rub elbows with Nobel Prize winners such as physicist Roy J. Glauber and star professors like Louis Menand in an intimate setting and, if you’re lucky, may even manage to score a Spring Break fieldtrip to Tokyo.

Though these courses may officially be “freed from the usual constraints associated with a regular course offering” (i.e. letter grades and final exams), they aren’t all a walk in the Harvard Forest (although you can do that too). Many have full-length term papers and a hefty reading load. Having not yet mastered the art of BS, it becomes painfully apparent (and mildly amusing) when frosh don’t do the readings, which they often neglect in these pass/fail seminars. Thus, it might be worthy to note that the workload varies significantly by course. The more masochistic Harvardians might like Professor James Russell’s two-semester “Literature Humanities,” a survey of the Western canon that will teach you how to speed-read the Bible. If you’re feeling a little gutsier, check out Professor James Hanken’s “Museums,” where the weekly class is often replaced by outings to a new exhibit.

Perhaps the program’s greatest plus is that it introduces freshmen to others of the same ilk. Nerds can plot their revenge in “Calculating Pi” while kleptos can swap prison stories in “The Idea of Crime.” Who knows? You may even find your first-mate in “The Golden Age of Piracy.”