Freshman and Sophomore Seminars turn 20

Members of the campus community are invited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of UC Berkeley’s renowned Freshman and Sophomore Seminars. The reception and awards ceremony — taking place from 4 to 6 p.m., Monday, Oct. 22, in the Alumni House Toll Room — will also be an opportunity for interested faculty members to learn more about the program.

The campuswide program dates back to March 1992, when the campus’s Council on Undergraduate Education developed a plan to ensure that new undergraduates would experience direct intellectual contact with Berkeley’s outstanding faculty. To balance out students’ experience in the large lecture halls, the council decided to create a program of small, interactive, one-unit courses, to be offered by faculty in every department on campus.

Then-Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien and Vice Chancellor John Heilbron met with department chairs that month to announce the program. When the departments responded with unexpected enthusiasm — resulting in 184 seminars in the first year — it became clear that the idea resonated with faculty across the campus. The Freshman Seminar Program was born.

Berkeley undergraduates were enthusiastic as well: No matter how many seminars were offered annually, they all filled up quickly. Freshman Seminars offered an environment of learning for its own sake: professors were not required to teach them, and students were not required to take them, so all parties met in the classroom motivated by mutual interest in the topics. The seminars welcomed, and continue to welcome, new students into the campus’s intellectual community, while offering them an opportunity to participate in classroom discussion as they explore new fields of inquiry.

Today the program continues to offer some 200 seminars, enrolling approximately 3,000 students each year. More than 700 faculty members have participated over the last two decades. At Monday’s event, professors who have taught 10 or more seminars will be honored.

Related information: ‘Pockets of intimacy’  for undergrads (Berkeleyan article, February 2009)