Freshman and Sophomore Seminars celebrate 20 years

Twenty years ago, the Berkeley campus launched Freshman and Sophomore Seminars, through which lower-division undergrads meet in small groups with a faculty member. Together, they explore scholarly topics of mutual interest — everything from science (such as a seminar titled “How and Why Do Birds Sing?”) to literature (“Reading Walden Carefully”) to campus-specific themes (“The Role and Place of Intercollegiate Athletics at Berkeley”).

three faculty

Freshman and Sophomore Seminars teachers Sam Mchombo (African American Studies) and Olga Holtz (mathematics), with Ravi Bhandari of St. Mary’s College, at the program’s 20th anniversary celebration.

“The Freshman Seminars owe their existence to the combination of a good idea and a bad budgetary situation,” recalls then-Vice Chancellor John Heilbron. Facing deep budget cuts, and complaints that faculty did not teach enough, “we asked departments to contribute a certain number of freshman seminars above their normal teaching program….

“Many faculty members liked the free format,” Heilbron adds, “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.”

Over the past two decades, more than 730 Senate faculty members have taught in the program — many of them so loyal that they do so year after year.

At an anniversary party and awards ceremony on Oct. 22, 87 faculty members (some in absentia) were honored for having taught ten or more seminars. Twenty-one of them have taught 20 or more seminars — at least one per year. Three faculty members — art historian David Wright, nutritionist George Chang and forest entomologist David Wood — have taught more than 30 apiece.

Faculty members spoke enthusiastically about their contact, through the program, with fresh, bright students. Several said they had offered their first seminar for the grant funding, but had returned to teach, again and again, because of the students.

Some 3,000 students take a Freshman or Sophomore Seminar each academic year, but demand for seminars exceeds space. Faculty members who have not yet taught in the program are encouraged to consider doing so. Need encouragement? Check out the following testimonials.

Considering teaching a Freshman or Sophomore Seminar? Read some testimonials

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

“The freshman seminar program is a wonderful and tangible way to improve the undergraduate experience and get to know our students.”

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

For more testimonials, see video here.