Call it a visual form of academic introspection. This semester, a new Freshman Seminar, “Photographing History in the Making,” used the campus itself as a source for, and subject of, scholarly inquiry.
“Berkeley is a fascinating university that often plays a leadership role in higher education,” says the seminar’s creator, computer-science professor Brian Barsky. “It makes sense that freshmen new to the campus be given the opportunity to study and learn about Berkeley as part of their formal education. And what better time to pursue this than a time when the university is in the throes of major changes.”
During last fall’s campus turmoil, Barsky, who harbors a deep passion for photography, began to view student shutdowns and union picket lines as suitable subjects for another photography seminar he was teaching at the time. The students’ positive response confirmed his sense that examining “history in the making” through the camera’s lens brought new relevance and meaning to the course.
“My intent is to provide a delicate balance of the study of photography with developing critical-thinking skills related to the unfolding controversies swirling around the university,” Barsky says. “We discuss current events, exploring the underlying issues that drive them, while also developing photographic skills and learning about both the artistic and scientific aspects of photography. The class emphasizes developing awareness and more knowledge around current events, primarily on campus, but not just limited to such a local perspective.”
Students enrolled in the seminar are expected to shoot photos on a weekly basis, participate in critiques and engage in discussions about university issues and how photographic documentation can convey and affect political change.
Freshman and sophomore seminars have long been a signature offering on the Berkeley campus. Designed as an alternative to the large lecture class, they allow small groups of students to engage in what the program’s website describes as “the spirit of learning for its own sake.” This year, there are close to 100 offerings, ranging from “Physics and Materials Science of Skateboarding” to “The Science, Technology, Policy, and Politics of California Air Pollution.”
For many of the faculty involved, the seminars are an opportunity to explore unexpected topics that may not directly relate to the focus of their departments. Or, as Barsky puts it, “In some sense this reflects one of the aspects that makes Berkeley great: its tremendous breadth of fields of study, and its professors who refuse to be ‘pigeonholed’ but instead embrace an enriched cross-disciplinary approach to their intellectual endeavors.”
More information on Freshman and Sophomore Seminars is online.