L&S Curricular Connections

Freshman and Sophomore Seminars Celebrate Twenty Years

Twenty years ago, the campus launched the Freshman and Sophomore Seminars. Then Vice Chancellor John Heilbron remembers the occasion in this way:

“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.”

In fact, 732 Senate faculty members have taught in the program over the last twenty years. And many of those are so loyal to the program, so dedicated to our youngest students, that they teach repeatedly, year after year. At an anniversary party and awards ceremony on October 22, 2012, eighty-seven faculty members (some in absentia) were honored for having taught ten or more seminars. Twenty-one of these have taught twenty or more seminars, i.e. at least one per year, and three of them—Professors David Wright, George Chang, and David Wood—have taught more than thirty apiece.

The faculty members in attendance spoke enthusiastically about the contact with fresh, eager, bright students that the program provides. Several said that they offered their first seminar for the grant funding, but return to teach again and again because of the students.

The faculty and students also enjoy a wide range of activities and experiences in these courses, from sailing expeditions to poetry recitations, from conducting experiments to writing and performing theatrical monologues. If you can think of an activity you would like to engage in with a small group of lower-division students, the program would welcome your participation.

Approximately 3,000 students each year take Freshman and Sophomore Seminars. However, over 4,000 new freshmen arrive on campus each year, so we have never yet absorbed all of the demand for seminars. Faculty members who have not yet experienced the rewards of teaching in the program might be inspired by some sample comments by those who have:

“I decided to teach a Freshman Seminar initially because it represents yet another way of giving back to the UCB community, which over the many years has given me so much.”

“I enjoy the small seminar environment and the freedom to reinvent myself as a teacher in areas outside of my research expertise.”

“We cannot seriously claim that we compete with the Harvards and Princetons of the world when we offer a rather impersonal experience to our undergraduates (as we certainly do, in most cases). The freshman seminar program is a wonderful and tangible way to improve the undergraduate experience and get to know our students.”

“The group I got was really sharp and energetic and I enjoyed talking with them; in fact, I think I feel more encouraged in general about our undergraduates since teaching the seminar.”

“I was really struck by the students’ motivation and intelligence, very different from what happens in bigger classes.”

For more faculty—and student testimonials, check out the lively video produced on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of this beloved campus program.