Freshmen flock to new seminars

More than half the members of the Class of 2010 applied this summer for the burgeoning freshman seminar program, which is larger than ever as it enters its third year.

This year, of the 688 freshmen who applied to the program, which admits students randomly, 527 were placed in 33 seminars ranging from “Exploring the Nature of Genius” to “The Court of Louis XIV.” In the program’s first year, 420 freshmen from the Class of 2008 applied. Students praised the program for introducing freshmen to small classes taught by top professors early in their Yale careers, although some sophomores expressed regret at the absence of a comparable program for sophomores.

Dean of Freshman Affairs George Levesque, who administers the program, said it is one of the first “success stories” from the 2003 Committee on Yale College Education review of undergraduate education, which included a recommendation for a wider range of small courses for freshmen and sophomores.

“Students have raved about the opportunity to study with eminent professors in an intimate context, and they have also enjoyed the social experience of taking a class with fellow freshmen,” Levesque said in an e-mail.

Graduate School Dean Jon Butler taught the first freshman seminar in fall 2002, before the freshman seminar program was formally instituted, as an experiment for the CYCE. Butler, a member of the CYCE, said the committee sought to introduce students to the kind of substantial seminars offered to juniors and seniors while they were still in their first year.

Freshmen already had access to small courses through Directed Studies, Perspectives on Science and introductory English classes, but the new seminar program offers a more diverse range of courses, professors said.

Humanities professor Jane Levin, who heads D.S., said she does not think the freshman seminar program has affected applications to the yearlong, three-course program in western civilization. According to Levin, the program enrolls about 125 students a year and the program has accepted about half of the students that have applied for it in the last few years.

“I think there was probably a great unmet demand to have seminars your freshman year because so many introductory courses are not taught as seminars,” she said. “I think there would probably be a lot of students who would like to be in a seminar but wouldn’t want to have it all be on western civilization.”

Several students who have taken freshman seminars said they would probably not have applied to D.S. or Perspectives on Science in the absence of the seminar program because they were not specifically interested in these programs.

Elizabeth Ludwig ’10, who is now enrolled in “The Divine and Human in Russian Fiction,” said she briefly considered D.S. before applying to a freshman seminar, but ultimately decided that the three-course commitment would be too limiting. But she wanted at least one small class to help her transition to Yale.

“Coming from a small high school to a college that’s much bigger — there were only 75 people in my graduating class — I wanted at least one class that was small,” she said.

Professors have also given the program positive reviews, Levesque said. Physics professor Peter Parker, who teaches “Radiation, Nuclear Physics, and the Universe,” said teaching the seminar is fun because freshmen are particularly excited about the work.

“They’re a blank slate to work on,” he said.

The CYCE also recommended additional small classes for sophomores, but there is not yet a sophomore seminar program to parallel the one offered to freshmen. Levesque said there is an ongoing effort to create new courses for underclassmen, especially in the sciences and mathematics, but most sophomores still have to compete with juniors and seniors for slots in departmental seminars.

Comments