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Senators grapple with structure of freshman seminars

Ramón Saldívar, vice provost for undergraduate education, was praised by his colleagues on the Faculty Senate for "moving on several fronts simultaneously" to improve the undergraduate curriculum for first- and second-year students during a briefing on the status of Stanford Introductory Studies on Dec. 5.

At the same time, Saldívar faced tough questions from a handful of senators who were trying to hammer out the mechanics of the Freshman Seminars Program during a discussion that lasted over an hour.

The highly publicized program ­ introduced last spring by President Gerhard Casper as part of a larger university-wide effort to enhance the first two years of undergraduate education ­ will kick off next year with approximately 30 seminars in a variety of subjects. New courses will be added until approximately 100 are offered to accommodate all freshmen entering Stanford in 1999.

Student enrollment in the seminars will remain optional during the three-year pilot phase, Saldívar said. During that time, the advantages and disadvantages of making the program mandatory will be considered.

As an incentive for departments throughout the university to participate in the program, 20 new faculty billets will be created to support the first year of undergraduate education. In a novel arrangement, departments will compete for these new faculty positions by demonstrating how they will redirect senior faculty into teaching small seminars for freshmen and sophomores.

If a department demonstrates a need for extra resources in order to participate in the program, either a new billet or graduate fellowship aid will be allocated in support of the department's continuing agreement to provide a certain number of seminars per year. The faculty members hired with these new billets will not be tied to teaching freshman seminars directly. Rather, departments will distribute the first-year courses among their faculty as a whole.

In his report, Saldívar emphasized the program's flexibility. It will be up to individual departments to decide whether they want to offer freshman seminars, he said. Furthermore, he added, proposals for freshman seminars are discussed, first at the departmental level, then by the deans of the respective schools, before they are reviewed by the Undergraduate Advisory Council, which will make recommendations to the provost about resource allocations.

"In that set of deliberations, very important questions will, indeed, be raised and considered, not trying to impose one specific pattern that will fit all, but, rather, that responds to the particular needs and issues relevant to a department or discipline," Saldívar said.

The first senator to raise doubts about the program was David Abernethy, professor of political science, who wondered whether the first year of college is the best time for students to take a seminar taught by faculty.

"We currently require CIV and the Writing and Critical Thinking program to increase the knowledge base of students, increase their analytic capacities and improve their writing skills," said Abernethy, who suggested that students "are in a better position to learn and faculty to teach them if they already had those foundational skills."

Rather than launch a new seminar program for freshmen, Abernethy proposed a further expansion of the Sophomore Seminars and Dialogues, a program that gives second-year students the opportunity to explore potential majors in small classes of up to 10 students each. Close contact between faculty and upperclassmen, he added, also should be encouraged in certain departments and programs that place a high emphasis on honors theses.

"We want faculty to spend more time with undergraduates," Abernethy said. "The question is whether it's obvious that the most important time for the faculty to do this is the freshman year."

In Saldívar's view, the Freshman Seminars Program should not be pitted against other programs in the undergraduate curriculum. "It doesn't seem to me that it's an either-or situation," he said, pointing out that the needs of freshmen are different from those of sophomores and upperclassmen.

"Freshman year provides the great opportunity for students to make the very important and I think also difficult intellectual transition of ways of knowing as a high school student to ways of knowing as a university student," Saldívar said. "I don't think we should be delaying that to the sophomore year."

But Marsh McCall, professor of classics, said he feared the freshman seminars will attract the same faculty who are currently teaching the Sophomore Seminars and Dialogues.

"My anxiety is that if the hundred seminars are just for freshmen, the kind of teacher that . . . is able and willing to teach lower-level students will not continue to step forward and do the sophomore year," McCall said. "If that's the case, then sophomores may feel, to some extent like, 'gee, as freshmen we got the "A" treatment, but as sophomores, we're not always getting the "A" treatment.' "

Casper acknowledged that sophomore slump is a problem the university must continue to address. In fact, he added, the aim of freshman seminars is "to get students hooked to the academic challenge as early as possible. If we can manage that, then there won't be a sophomore slump, almost by definition, because they will be running more on their own from the very beginning."

John Taylor, professor of economics, said he believes the aims of the Freshman Seminars Program "are very worthwhile and important." Nonetheless, Taylor said, his department has decided against submitting a proposal to offer freshman seminars next year because faculty in the department think students need to take an introductory course before they can grasp the more complex topics that are commonly explored in seminars.

"You can't do a freshman seminar in tax policy or budget policy or political economics without some introductory economics," Taylor said. "So we have a structural problem, at least in the economics department, and I suspect other departments would have the same structural problem."

Taylor recommended that the seminars be linked to the large introductory courses as one way to get around this problem. "Maybe what we can do is have the teaching assistants be replaced or supplemented by faculty," he suggested. "That way, they can get involved with students in the large courses. It's a different model, but it seems to me it's in the spirit of the freshman seminars."

The physics department already has submitted a proposal for a freshman seminar that follows the model Taylor described, said Saldívar, who encouraged faculty to think creatively when designing the small group courses. "Even in the case of departments that have special requirements, special needs and address large portions of the undergraduate population already, there are ways that one can integrate small, faculty-led sections into those courses," he said.

Before a department shies away from participating in the Freshman Seminars program, Casper added, the faculty should remember that new students are better prepared in a variety of subjects than they once were. "Roughly 25 percent of our students have enough advanced placement credit to skip the entire first year if they wanted to," the president said.

Noting that some faculty find it very difficult to teach freshmen, Keith Baker, professor of history, asked what mechanisms have been developed to ensure that all of the seminars will be taught effectively.

Provost Condoleezza Rice responded that there is "no guarantee that faculty also teach graduate students particularly well, and we usually allow people to try. So I think we should encourage our colleagues to believe that teaching freshmen is not so difficult and, indeed, encourage those who want to try this pedagogically to do so."

The pilot program will be evaluated more thoroughly than some of the regular courses that are currently offered at Stanford, which should ensure teaching quality, Rice said.

Al Camarillo, professor of history, said he wholeheartedly embraces the Freshman Seminars Program and other initiatives that fall under category of Stanford Introductory Studies.

"I still think it's shameful that we have far too many of our students that will graduate from Stanford not knowing a faculty member very well, even enough to go and ask for a letter of recommendation," Camarillo said. "If we can make a dent in that problem with these introductory studies, then we need to go at it full force."

That's exactly what the university intends to do, Casper said.

"I do believe for the long-term survival of Stanford, it's absolutely crucial that in the first two years we offer our students as much contact [as possible] with regular tenure-track faculty . . . And I think we need to do that because our competition is doing it sometimes better than we are doing it now."


-Marisa Cigarroa-

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