The Freshman Seminar here at Baruch has long been a mystery to me. Although I’ve been a Freshman Learning Community leader twice, this has never afforded me much insight into the required but not credit-bearing class, taught by mostly non-faculty, that first-year students attend to learn about Things Freshmen Need To Know. Entering college is a profound transition for many first-year students at Baruch, including those fresh from their senior prom and Regents exams, those who spent the last decade running their own small business, those whose educational experiences up to this point have been outside of the U.S., and everyone in between. This semester I’m working on developing a communication-related enrichment workshop to be offered in conjunction with the Freshman Seminar program, which afforded me more knowledge about the program. Taking a closer look at its structure piqued my interest in the larger freshman seminar movement around the country.
I wondered, what is a freshman seminar, and what is its purpose? What forms does it take at different kinds of colleges and universities? Who does it really well? A bit of research led me to this observation: the form that a freshman seminar program takes at a particular school can communicate a great deal about how the school views its primary institutional function.
The first thing I noticed was that while many universities use the term “freshman seminar,” they use it to designate quite different things. There are two main forms that the seminar takes (and yes, this is a generalization that surely overlooks much diversity). At most “elite” (ranked as highly selective) private colleges whose websites I skimmed, the freshman seminar refers to a series of very small, highly focused courses designed and taught by faculty according to their specialized research interests. These courses are discussion based and often writing intensive, functioning as an opportunity for first-year students to experience the intimate and rigorous setting of an upper-level seminar at the start of their college career. A few examples are the programs at Harvard, Princeton, and Bard.
At many other schools—trending in the direction of public and less “elite” institutions, although there are exceptions to this—the freshman seminar is a non-academic program for first-semester students that orients them to the institution’s resources, helps them navigate new challenges of college life, and integrates them into the larger social body of the school. Here are a few examples, from SUNY Stony Brook and New Jersey Institute of Technology. The brief description of the Freshman Seminar at Baruch has more in common with this second group than with the first.
At first glance the two models may seem entirely different, but I think they attempt to do similar work from different angles. Both models share central aims of integration into a community. In the academic seminar model, the student is integrated into an intellectual community by developing a close working relationship with a professor and a small group of students bound by an interest in a particular set of questions or themes. In this model students often choose or even apply to particular seminars. This kind of seminar is meant to introduce freshmen to the intellectual work of college learning, in relation to a community of thinkers. In the orientation model, the student is integrated into a social community united by the process of managing new challenges and making use of the resources presented by the college institution. The emphasis is at least partially on professionalization and career planning.
Doug Brent’s article Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy draws a chronology in which the orientation model (what he calls the non-credit bearing “transition” model) preceded the newer “academic content seminar” model. He argues that such academic freshman seminar models resonate particularly with WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) pedagogy, because they affirm the idea that learning how to learn, like learning how to write, happens when learners are deeply engaged in discipline-specific inquiry, not prior to the inquiry or in a vacuum where learning is considered in theory.
If the pattern I detect is accurate, why does the orientation model persist more often at public and less elite colleges, while the most elite colleges have adopted the academic model? Can an academic content freshman seminar also sufficiently cover the kinds of skills that are covered in a not-for-credit orientation model seminar (and perhaps even do so better than the orientation model can)? What do these different models communicate to freshmen about their primary role as students?
Brent, Doug. “Reinventing WAC (Again): The First-Year Seminar and Academic Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, 57, no. 2 (Dec. 2005): 253-76.