L&S Curricular Connections

Celebrating 30 Years of Freshman and Sophomore Seminars at Berkeley

Three people smiling

“The Freshman Seminars owe their existence to the combination of a good idea and a bad budgetary situation. In 1992 the University suffered deep cuts in its state budget and threats of further curtailments. The legislature resounded with the old complaints that the faculty did not teach enough. To demonstrate that we could do more with less, we asked departments to contribute a certain number of freshman seminars above their normal teaching program. Many faculty members liked the free format and welcomed the opportunity to teach their subjects or any others to clever self-selected students. The response was most gratifying especially among senior professors. The fervor reached the upper reaches of the administration, which furnished some expensive volunteers. It is a tribute to Berkeley that the program continued after the financial threat subsided. We are again under threat. If we scale up the Freshman Seminars in proportion to its seriousness, half the faculty should be teaching them.” —Vice Chancellor John Heilbron, 2012

At an awards ceremony and reception on November 1, 2022, the campus celebrated the faculty members, administrative leadership, and staff who have supported and sustained the Freshman and Sophomore Seminar Program in its first thirty years. The event honored the hundreds of faculty from every corner of campus who have taught in the program, with special acknowledgment of 136 faculty members who have taught ten or more seminars. Chancellor Carol Christ and Executive Dean of College of Letters and Science Jennifer Johnson-Hanks spoke about the impact of the program as well as their own experiences teaching seminars. Along with Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Oliver O’Reilly, the Chancellor and the Executive Dean personally acknowledged and thanked the nineteen faculty who have taught thirty or more seminars (averaging one per year since the start of the program), nine of whom have taught forty or more each, a remarkable commitment to the program and to our new students.

The program continues to thrive thanks to the dedicated faculty who teach seminars year after year. Among them is David Presti (Molecular and Cell Biology), who has taught over thirty seminars:

“It has been a privilege and delight to offer seminars in this wonderful program! I try to teach one every semester, and have done so for many years. It offers an opportunity for students to develop new connections and friendships, some of which I know have continued long after students graduate from UCB. And it is an opportunity to explore and offer support for the shared experience of being first-year students on campus. I always let students know they are likely to have their worldview and belief systems shaken up in my seminar. And indeed, if they don’t have their worldview rocked as students at UCB, perhaps they are not getting their money’s worth. Why not begin the process as freshmen?”

In 2022-23, faculty and students in the program have engaged in weekly seminars on “The Story of the Earth in 15 Rocks,” “History and Ecology of East Bay Regional Parks,” “How and Why Do Birds Sing?,” “Animals in Ancient Egypt,” and “The Writings of Valeria Luiselli.” If you can think of a topic or activity you would like to engage in with a small group of first- and second-year students, the program welcomes your participation.

For more photos from the 30th Anniversary Celebration, click here: FSSP 30th Anniversary Event Photos