Each July, reluctant hands flip through pulpy pages. Corners are folded, pages are marked, highlighters run dry. At the end of summer, every moment is bittersweet, but the arrival of the Yale College course catalog heralds the end.
Except for freshmen. I remember my first Blue Book, dog-eared within hours and scrawled full of marginalia within the week. I declined Directed Studies that summer, deciding I had too many choices to be directed.
Instead, I applied for a freshman seminar. A small class had three chief virtues in my mind: It would allow me to get to know a professor the way I’d known my high-school teachers, it would introduce me to freshmen with similar interests, and it would point me down a track toward a major, or not. I picked “Revolutionary America,” taught by Jon Butler, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. A big name, a big topic, a big disappointment: I was rejected in August.
Butler, I learned this week, is short and grey-bearded. His voice is lilting, and when he’s excited, he giggles. He reminds me of my grandfather, except my grandfather is not a world-famous historian. Though Butler is “too busy dean-ing” to teach a lecture on religion and modern America, the topic that made him famous, he is teaching it as a freshman seminar. This is a major loss for the upperclassmen who would have filled his lecture hall. After all, his seminar garners glowing reviews year after year: “It was personal and real,” one effusive freshman writes. “Having an opportunity to learn with teh [sic] Dean of the Grad School is priceless,” exclaims another. “He truly helped improve my writing and has made me a better student in the process.” Asked if he or she would recommend the course to others, one freshman notes, “I already have. Unfortunately, none of them can take it because they’re not going to be freshmen again.”
To Butler, such accolades are the highest form of praise. He is not merely the professor of one of the most popular freshman seminars, but the person who catalyzed the program’s creation six years ago. Butler served as a member of the Committee on Yale College Education (CYCE), which convened in 2001 to “assess the adequacy of the current undergraduate program and to consider changes and improvements.” It was he who suggested that the College take a new approach to educating freshmen, and it was he who taught the first freshman seminar in the fall of 2002.
That seminar was “Revolutionary America,” the class I triple-underlined in green highlighter two years later. When Butler first offered it, he admits he was offering it as a test case to prove that the format could work. “I probably wasn’t the right person to do it,” he says with a laugh. “I had a bit of a vested interest.” After an underwhelming start in 2002, when only 1 students showed up for the first day of class—“no one knew quite what it was, so the registrar had assigned the course to a lecture hall”—the course developed a reputation. One year later, 55 freshmen crowded into a seminar room eager to sign up.
While no one doubted that Butler’s seminar would find success, a single stellar seminar does not make a program. Freshman seminars, however, have achieved success in their own right. Their small size and twice-weekly meetings nurture relationships among students and faculty. Their interactive dynamic encourages freshmen to engage in their own education. “This isn’t Math 112,” says Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque, who runs the program. “You’re having an actual conversation.”
Six years after Butler’s test run, as the program faces its first full evaluation, the freshman seminar experiment has only one glitch: too many freshman eager to take too few courses.
In 2004, the college offered 16 seminars, with room for just under three hundred freshmen to enroll. This year, there are 2—enough to seat one third of the class of 2011. Add that to the Directed Studies and Perspectives on Science populations —the three programs are mutually exclusive—and that figure rises to almost 50 percent.
Nonetheless, plenty of freshmen are left out. This year, over eight hundred freshmen applied for just under five hundred seminar seats, despite the dean’s office’s avowed desire to create a space for every interested student. At liberal arts colleges scattered throughout the country, the idea that only half of all freshmen take a single small class would be laughable. But first-years in the freshman seminar program, Directed Studies, and Perspectives on Science are not the only ones experiencing the intimacy of the classroom.
The English, mathematics, and language departments have offered small introductory classes for decades. A few years ago, even the economics department, which is not known for its attention to pedagogy, added a small, lottery-based alternative to its large introductory lectures.
Still, the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from students in freshman seminars seems to indicate that the program is unique. “Among students, I think the satisfaction rate is probably 85, 90 percent,” Levesque estimates. Asked to evaluate the classes at term’s end, freshmen describe their seminars with exclamations like “awesome” and “TAKE IT!” Many freshmen ask their seminar professors to serve as second-year advisors. Associate Dean Penelope Laurans, who converted a longstanding poetry course to a freshman seminar in 2005, estimates that 1 of her freshmen students from last spring now come to her for academic advice.
Loyal converts include not just students but professors. Of this year’s 2 seminars, 2 are taught by professors who are returning to teach a second course or to repeat a first. These names, which include physicist Peter Parker and jack-ofall- trades Bill Summers, are among Yale’s most notable; almost all have tenure and several have won teaching awards. All agree that the program has become one of Yale’s finest commitments to its students. “The pedagogical value of these seminars to freshmen is very clear,” says German Professor Emeritus Cyrus Hamlin, who taught a seminar on German culture using the Beinecke Library’s collections in 2004. “In freshman year, a genuine intellectual transformation takes place.” Hamlin retired in 2005 but is considering returning in two years to teach another freshman seminar.
Butler is pleased. “Faculty have come up to me and said, ‘This is the best teaching experience I have ever had. Period,’” he said. “I think the program’s working.” The doubts expressed by CYCE members, which centered on concern that the expanding program would eventually run out of interested faculty members, have largely dissipated.
The program has also had a positive effect on first-year advising. “The advising system needs an overhaul,” says Levesque. “The hope for freshman seminars is that students and faculty develop long-term relationships.” Sighing, he continues: “I don’t think the freshman seminar program alone can solve that problem, but it’s seemed to provide a much more organic way for freshmen to get to know faculty members.”
Hamlin’s experience proves the point. His seminar, which required a reading knowledge of German, consisted of only eight freshmen—and he has kept up with many. “I loved the attention that we got, says senior Janice Wong, a molecular biochemist who took the class. Intrigued by the material, she continued to study with Hamlin as a sophomore and spent the following summer studying abroad in Germany. Hamlin’s colleague, German Professor Carol Jacobs, is just as happy to have contributed to the program. “My experience teaching a freshman seminar was exhilarating,” she says. “In no other seminar I’ve taught at Yale have I seen students grow as much as in that semester.” But the recent signs of stabilization portend difficulties of their own. Growth has slowed: Last year’s seminars were followed by this year’s 2.
“We’re at a plateau right now,” admits Levesque. Nevertheless, he is excited to shepherd the program into its fifth year. Several notable faculty will teach new freshman seminars, including John Gaddis, who will lead a course entitled “How History Teaches”; others will return. But as the program attempts to continue its growth, it faces the challenges that come with provoking entrenched academic structures.
One obstacle is the program’s reluctance to engage junior faculty members. The vast majority of freshman seminar professors are, like Gaddis, tenured or tenure- track faculty with long records of service to the University and reputations as devoted teachers. Such a teaching force is one of the program’s strengths, of course, and Dean Levesque’s office has resisted the temptation to fill holes with non-ladder faculty who might not be around for four continuous years to develop the sort of long-lasting relationships the program is meant to inspire. But the fact that only eight of this year’s 2 seminars are taught by ladder faculty still working to achieve tenure—a demographic which dominates the college’s teaching corps—suggests that the program’s strength also diminishes its ability to expand.
Junior faculty remain largely disinterested in the program. The primary culprit is the incentive structure created by the academy’s so-called tenure ladder. “Tenured faculty often have more flexibility in what they can do,” says Levesque. “For a lot of them, teaching a freshman seminar is a welcome opportunity to do something new.” Junior faculty, on the other hand, confronted with the pressure to publish, often need to gravitate toward large lectures and advanced seminars. The former require little in the way of course design, and the latter are more helpful in advancing one’s own research. Under a system that subordinates teaching skills to publishing prowess, the freshman seminar program is butting up against a teacher shortage.
Other challenges may not be intractable —just expensive. “I don’t know that we’ll be able to get beyond this plateau without significant additional resources,” Levesque states. Funding, which is beginning to stream in from committed alumni donors, could be directed to one of two areas: Either to a long-term investment in administrative support or to understaffed academic departments. The first need is clear: Levesque and a single assistant oversee not only the freshman seminar program, but also freshman counseling, pre-orientation programs, and first-year advising. Additional funding could hire a full-time seminar coordinator and build a training program for professors who wish to teach but do not feel pedagogically prepared to teach freshmen.
Donating the funds directly to academic departments is more complex and ties into an issue addressed in the recent report on Yale College expansion: The alleviation of pressures within individual departments, particularly in the social sciences. For example, the incredibly popular political science department has offered only three freshman seminars since 2004, and all were in the program’s first two years. “We simply don’t have the faculty,” said Political Science Professor Susan Stokes, the department’s director of undergraduate studies. Departments as strapped as political science must save their seminar resources for upperclassmen.
Still, Levesque suggests that an increase in freshman seminar funding could alleviate one deficiency while also helping to solve the other. “With more resources,” says Levesque, “we could work with departments to find creative solutions to staffing needs.” One approach—shared by several of Yale’s peer institutions—would be a permanent endowment that would compensate Yale departments for teaching time, allowing them to hire visiting or full-time faculty to fill programmatic needs. By contributing funding to the departmental pot, the program could secure a commitment from individual departments to offer a small number of freshman seminars each year.
Butler, for one, is skeptical. “I’d say we need to expand the faculty in political science,” he says. “If we can do that, we’ll have some room for freshman seminars. But I personally wouldn’t go for visiting people—and I think it’s most important that we grow political science to a decent size.” While Levesque prioritizes immediate challenges and Butler long-term obstacles, both agree that there are gaps to fill. The question is how—and when. yale’s peer institutions have grappled with, and largely resolved, similar problems. Harvard’s freshman seminar program traces its roots to the 1960s and has experienced something of a renaissance in the last five years. Its offerings have quadrupled in number, reaching 122 this year. “Departments were asked to look at giving freshman seminars as part of their overall curricular planning,” explains Sandra Naddaff, who directs the Harvard program. “That went a long way towards getting departments to offer seminars and to think about it as something that was part of their service to the college.” Roughly a third of Harvard seminars are taught by non-ladder faculty members, and another quarter are taught by professional school professors who are directly compensated by the program. “Harvard’s a bigger place—they have a lot more of those people running around,” notes Levesque. “We’ve always wanted to keep the program under departments’ control.”
Princeton’s freshman seminar program resembles a more developed version of Yale’s own. Most of this year’s 8 seminars are taught by senior faculty, including Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, and the college’s former provost, Amy Guttman. Moreover, since its inception in the late 1980s, the program’s financial structure has echoed Levesque’s ambitions. Roughly half of Princeton’s freshman seminars are funded directly by endowments, and the program reimburses departments for the teaching time contributed by their professors. Some of the endowment funds can also be used to subsidize activities like dinners, field trips, or summer continuations of certain courses.
If other Ivy League colleges can offer Yale’s freshman seminar program a lesson, it is the necessity of funding. Hamlin makes a blunt case: “Yale is rich. Lately, their endowment is doing so well that they ought to commit to staffing the freshman seminars in sufficient numbers such that any freshman who wants to take one, can.”
Four years ago, smarting from my rejection, I might have agreed. Though it would be nice to allow rejected applicants spaces in a seminar, the gap between supply and demand is not the only factor that influences scheduling. Students often drop classes they sign up for, leaving some seminars unfilled while others remain overbooked. Incoming freshmen who intend to pursue majors in science and math are particularly problematic, and those departments have resisted heavy participation in the program. The freshman seminar program may have expanded to just about its limit. Levesque, for his part, seems to be moving onto new challenges. “What would it be like to teach CHEM 114 in a thirty-person class?” he asks. In his eyes, freshman seminars are incubators of educational innovation rather than a one-size-fits-all solution.
“We have to accept that there is no perfect way to make every single freshman have a great experience,” says Laurans. Yale’s challenge in coming years will be to accept this reality, adjust to it, and still live up to the sky-high expectations of Blue Book-gripping freshmen in July.