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Freshman seminars are an integral part of many Harvard students’ first years, and the enrollment levels continue to reflect as much. Last week, Director of Freshman Seminars Ofrit Liviatan said that freshman seminars have received “unprecedented demand” this academic year, with the total number of applications rising to 43 percent and more than 2,100 freshmen applying.
This is a promising trend. The range of seminar choices allows students entering the College to explore their academic passions and curiosities in an environment that encourages academic exploration between freshmen and a professor. A seminar's 12-student cap allows for ample personal interaction with sought-after professors. Law School professor Richard H. Fallon, for example, teaches a freshman seminar about the Supreme Court's history in addition to his popular and significantly larger "American Constitutional Law" course. The satisfactory-unsatisfactory grading system lets students learn for purely the sake of intellectual growth, while the low-stress environment helps ease their transition into college academics.
Other introductory classes that freshman and sophomores take to satisfy prerequisites, conversely, often involve large lectures with the professor and more intimate interaction with graduate student teaching fellows. Office hours are generally more of an afterthought than a priority, making for a less personal experience than students receive from a freshman seminar. The comparative value of a freshman seminar is often not clear until students begin taking more of these classes where developing the kind of relationships that come naturally from a smaller seminar is much rarer.
The College has thus facilitated the freshman seminar program’s growth in recent years. It has pushed for offerings from a wider range of departments—cementing permanent offerings in fields like statistics and sociology—and continued to aggressively advertise the program. As students seek to determine their eventual field of concentration, a freshman seminar is quite valuable.
“As a result of active recruitment, collaborative efforts on the part of the entire administration, and partnership with department chairs, we have managed to reconfigure the program in 2015-2016,” Liviatan said. “We have really made wonderful strides in our partnerships with departments and with the higher administration.”
The College should look to continue this progress by investing more in the program. Of course, this investment does not have to be entirely financial. Encouraging advisors to recommend the seminars to students and ensuring that professors from across the University consider teaching a freshman seminar is critical. The administration should continue to grow the program by attracting new professors and offering a larger array of courses. Students often look back on freshman seminars as a highlight of their college careers, and the College should carry on in facilitating this experience. In Liviatan's words, “this is the best experience we can offer a College student.”
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