Stanford News


CONTACT: Marisa Cigarroa, News Service (650) 725-9750;

Introductory Seminars are a big draw

Hundreds of freshmen jammed into Kresge Auditorium at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday to listen to a panel of speakers talk about Stanford Introductory Seminars.

"Every seat was filled. Students lined up on the side of the aisles and out the back door. It was crammed," said Todd Benson, director of the Freshman and Sophomore Programs office.

The meeting, which lasted more than an hour, featured a panel of faculty and students who discussed their perspectives on the benefits of taking small group classes with top-notch faculty. Benson was on hand to discuss the nuts and bolts of signing up for the seminars, which will be offered during fall, winter and spring quarters.

The seminars appear to be quite popular with students and faculty. Shawn Harmon, a freshman from Jackson, Mich., was excited when he received the 104-page course catalog on the small group courses in the mail. The catalog describes each course in detail and contains a picture and short biography of the faculty members associated with the courses.

"I think it's a great idea," said Harmon. "Freshmen don't often get this type of [learning] experience with professors." Harmon hopes to take "Antigone ­ From Ancient Democracy to Contemporary Dissent," taught by Rush Rehm, a professor in the drama and classics departments.

Forty-nine departments and programs are offering a total of 77 new freshman-preference seminars and more than 100 sophomore-preference seminars (also called sophomore seminars and dialogues). Topics for fall 1997 range from "Bioscience and Biotechnology" and "Downside of Computing Systems" to "Art and Revolution in Russia," "The Evolution of Christian Doctrine" and "Physics of Terrorist Bomb Detection."

"The magnitude of the faculty response to this program is a clear sign that faculty at Stanford really like to teach," said John C. Boothroyd, professor and co-chairman of the department of microbiology and immunology. Boothroyd is teaching a seminar this fall called "Modern Plagues."

"It's going to be fun!" he said, echoing the sentiments of many professors who have volunteered to teach introductory seminars. "This new program allows me to share my excitement about my subject and introduce new students to a fascinating field."

The prospect of showcasing a department's best teachers to students who might be convinced to major in a particular field is enticing to many department chairs and faculty. So is the idea of teaching in a small group setting.

"These freshman seminars will be small and intimate. What could be better?" said Norman Naimark, professor and chair of history, who will be teaching "Ethnic Cleansing in 20th-Century Europe" during winter quarter.

All Stanford freshmen and sophomores are eligible to apply to any of the seminars. Freshmen have priority for freshmen-preference courses, and sophomores have priority for sophomore-preference courses. Students can enroll in one seminar each quarter (though priority is given to students who haven't taken an introductory seminar), and may enroll in a second course if spaces are available after the initial sign-up period. Class lists will be posted by the end of the first week of the quarter.

The introductory seminars program is the centerpiece of the Stanford Introductory Studies initiative that was announced by university President Gerhard Casper in May 1996. The initiative is aimed at creating special opportunities for first- and second-year students that will help them to select a major field of study and participate in independent research and honors projects.

Twenty new billets were created to help support the new freshman-preference seminars program. The faculty members hired in these new billets will not be tied to teaching freshman seminars directly. Rather, a department will distribute the courses among its faculty as a whole.

In order to determine where the additional billets and resources should be allocated, all departments were asked last year to demonstrate their "full and efficient use" of existing faculty billets in support of first- and second-year undergraduate programs. They also were asked to show how current teaching loads could be redistributed and, in some cases, increased to help meet the demand for introductory programs.

Departments that received billets in the first round of allocations include computer science, philosophy, classics, psychology, biology and physics.

"Those were the departments that were deemed to have put forth proposals most in keeping with the guidelines we asked for," said Ramón Saldívar, vice provost for undergraduate education. "They were ready to make a long-term commitment to the program and they had an appropriate allocation of their own resources devoted to teaching first- and second-year students."

Ian Morris, professor and chair of classics, was thrilled at receiving news that his department had been awarded a billet. "We are looking to hire a classical archaeologist," Morris said. "This should help the department a lot, since archaeology has never been firmly established at Stanford, even though it's a major resource for understanding the ancient world, and there's always great student demand for archaeology classes."

Other departments can re-apply for a billet next year. Billet or no billet, however, most departments participating in introductory seminars seem to agree that the university is offering them enough resources to make their participation in the program worthwhile.

"I think we are and will be compensated fairly for our contributions to the program," Naimark said. The history department, he added, views introductory studies as a departmental program as well.

"This means we will allocate some of our own resources to help those who teach in it," Naimark said. "We also want to meet as instructors to talk about the special problems of teaching freshmen. . . . We need to talk to each other and support each other in this very interesting pedagogical endeavor."


By Marisa Cigarroa