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A Program in Progress

Nearly 50 years after its founding, Freshman Seminar Program popular, but still marked by early challenges

Nearly 50 years after its founding, the Freshman Seminar Program has grown exponentially and has become a welcome contrast to large introductory lecture classes for first-years, but still suffers from some lasting problems.
Nearly 50 years after its founding, the Freshman Seminar Program has grown exponentially and has become a welcome contrast to large introductory lecture classes for first-years, but still suffers from some lasting problems.
By Bita M. Assad, Crimson Staff Writer

Finding herself lost in the impersonal vastness of a computer science course her freshman year, Sandra A. Naddaff ’75 stopped attending class. But she was able to find the saving grace of her first-year college experience in the intimate intellectual outlet of her freshman seminar.

Naddaff recalls the excitement of delving into a discussion on Virgil with Zeph Stewart, the legendary Harvard classics professor and former Lowell House master, while his wife would serve tea out of a silver teapot. Naddaff’s freshman seminar brought her into the upperclassman House at a time when women still lived in the Radcliffe Quadrangle.

Today, over 30 years later, the small-group experience of a freshman seminar still stands in stark contrast to first-year schedules otherwise inundated with large introductory lecture courses in a crowded Sanders Theatre or the Science Center.

Now the director of the Freshman Seminar Program and Mather House master, Nadaff says her firsthand experience as a student and instructor in the program has demonstrated to her the importance of establishing close contact with faculty and developing intellectual habits to navigate the demanding academic challenges at Harvard.

When it began in 1959, the program only allowed students to apply by invitation. Although it has moved away from these exclusive origins, some of the dilemmas the Freshman Seminar Program faces today echo its early challenges. Now on the eve of its 50th anniversary, the issues of selection and enrollment that were apparent in the program’s initial yearlong pilot run still persist.

GROWING PAINS

The Freshman Seminar Program was introduced in the 1959-1960 academic year to provide first-years with the experience of small-group instruction by Harvard faculty members.

Traditionally, the program offered 30 seminars each year. Since 2000, the program has grown exponentially and now provides a cross-sections of all disciplines and all Harvard schools.

This year, the program offers 82 seminars in the fall term and 50 in the spring. These 132 courses mark the most that have ever been offered in one academic year. But this record-breaking number was paralleled this fall by a record-breaking number of applicants. In Fall 2008 alone, 1,547 freshmen applied to at least one seminar. Students can apply to multiple seminars in one semester (though they can enroll in only one), yielding 4,624 total applications this term.

Despite the dramatic increase in the number of seminars and the breadth of subject matter offered, some applicants will be rejected due to the small-scale sizing constraints of seminars. This semester, 502 students, or approximately one third of the applicant pool, were unassigned.

The process of assigning students to seminars is based on an algorithm developed by Harvard Business School professor Alvin E. Roth and takes into account student preferences, seminar capacity, and faculty selection based on students’ essays and sometimes interviews. It is also the same algorithm that Roth uses to find pairs of compatible kidney donors and recipients.

A DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

While the students who were rejected this semester can apply again in the spring, they are not guaranteed a spot and are no likelier to be accepted than those who are applying for the first time.

These limits are particularly problematic in light of the consensus on the advantages of the program.

The small, engaging seminars are intended to offer a strong environment for learning that encourages students to experiment beyond their traditional academic comfort zones.

The unique format of the freshman seminar grants both instructors and students an opportunity to concentrate entirely on learning and experimenting within a focused subject field.

Lori B. Harrison-Kahan, a freshman seminar instructor and History and Literature lecturer, said the nature of the program “transforms the dynamics in the classroom” and allows her to experiment with unconventional assignments.

For example, the students in her freshman seminar, “Rewriting America: Race, Feminism, and Classic Narratives,” are re-interpreting a classical text through the medium of written work, performance, dance, film, or music for their final projects.

This academic freedom is reinforced through the satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system, Naddaff said.

By allowing the pressure for grades to be lifted, students can evolve past the high school mentality of learning solely for the sake of a final grade, said professor of applied biology Ralph Mitchell.

Freshman seminars also allow first-years to build intellectual relationships with their professors.

“Instead of a professor standing in front of an audience and essentially performing, the freshman seminar is an interaction between the faculty member and the student,” said Mitchell, who teaches a seminar entitled “Germs.”

Freshman Seminar Program Department Administrator Corinna S. Rohse described the program’s courses, which allow students to study subjects that vary from Sanskrit to the mathematical basis for chess, as “jewel-like: small and incredibly well-cut.”

THE NEXT 50 YEARS

While the seminar is universally lauded as a unique facet of the first-year learning experience, a conclusion has yet to be reached on how to effectivfely accommodate each applicant to the program.

“For many students, the first experience is one of rejection,” Naddaff said. “This is absolutely the wrong message to be giving.”

One solution that Naddaff recommended to avoid the pitfalls of rejection is encouraging students to “cast their net more broadly” and apply to more seminars.

Another idea on the table, also proposed by Naddaff, is that students who applied and were rejected in the fall receive first priority in the spring.

Though the program’s traditional base in the humanities and social sciences has been expanded to include the full spectrum of disciplines, merely scaling up the number of course offerings to accommodate more applicants has not remedied the problem. This counterintuitive result stems from the skewed distribution of applications for the most popular seminars, often as a product of the high-profile names of their instructors. The 20 most sought-after seminars this term each received over 100 applications—nearly the same total as the other 62 combined.

Freshman Matthew R. Vines, had hoped to take a seminar with Samantha Power, a distinguished human rights scholar and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, since before he was accepted to Harvard. Out of hundreds of applicants to her seminar, “Extremism: Causes, Consequences, Cures,” Vines was one of the select few accepted.

While some instructors said that the inherent value of taking a seminar is more important than the specific subject matter, others maintain that when a professor designs a course around her specialized area of research, she should be able to choose students that have expressed a particular interest in this narrow field of study.

This translates into a point of disagreement as to whether the essay element of the application should be eliminated in order to encourage students to apply more openly, thereby increasing the number of students assigned to seminars, or to maintain the integrity of having students carve their own path for the exploration of a new area of interest.

In addition to considering solutions for accommodating more applicants, professors still continue to grapple with other ways in which the program could both improve and progress.

While professors including Mitchell have suggested granting concentration credit for seminars—a policy already practiced in certain concentrations—Rohse said the Freshman Seminar Program must find a way to integrate itself seamlessly into the new General Education curriculum.

Naddaff said that these curricular initiatives, and others they are spawning, may limit the growth of the program at this time, as they place new demands on faculty time.

As the anniversary of its conception inaugurates a period of reflection on the many benefits of the program, now may also be the time to look for ways to enhance the program in the future.

According to Naddaff, the tremendous growth of the program, made possible through both generous faculty and donors, is being met with innovative and open thinking about policy changes to the program—which are essential because of how much freshman seminars have historically enhanced the first-year experience.

“Word on the street amongst the freshmen is that this is a great way to get started,” said Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67.

—Staff writer Bita M. Assad can be reached at bassad@fas.harvard.edu.

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