Seminars face growing

Nichol Nelson

Most of the 5,166 freshman entering the University this fall probably heard the rumors:
“You’ll just be a number.” “Classes are so big, teachers won’t notice if you’re not there.” “Only grad students teach classes to freshmen.”
Aware that many freshman felt lost in a sea of bureaucracy, administrators made an effort to counteract new students’ feelings of anonymity. This fall, University President Mark Yudof started a seminar program to provide freshmen with small classes taught by professors and administrators, including himself.
Although the new program met with mixed success — many students felt the workloads were too heavy for the credits received — administrators are optimistic about its future.
The program follows the example of honors classes that have been available for 15 years to incoming honors freshmen at the University. The seminars, worth one or two credits, are usually limited to 20 students and are taught by a professor who focuses on a specific topic of expertise.
Ann Waltner, associate dean for academic programs in the College of Liberal Arts, said the classes are intended to get freshmen excited about going to college by taking them out of large lecture settings.
“This is a shortcut to the nifty stuff,” she said. “If you get freshmen really jazzed about academic work, they’re more apt to learn.”
Administrators encourage professors to teach the classes on subjects that really excite them, Waltner said.
The 13 CLA seminars were a statistical success fall quarter with an enrollment of 168 students. This winter, CLA is only offering one.
“We urge faculty to do them in the fall because that’s when freshman are the freshest,” Waltner said.
Yudof has requested additional funding for 100 new faculty members to allow freshman on all four University campuses to experience the program.
But some students and faculty say that although the program is a good effort, it still needs polishing.
The faculty who instruct the classes are often new to the practice of teaching young undergraduates in a small setting, said Gordon Hirsch, director of the CLA honors division. He said the seminars present a challenge for faculty.
“It’s a good learning experience,” Hirsch said. “It puts (professors) in touch with our student population.”
Waltner agreed with Hirsch.
“It’s a different kind of teaching than most faculty are in the habit of doing,” she said. “It’s not a really easy thing to do sometimes.”
Chris Macosko, a professor in chemical engineering, said he had not taught freshmen in more than 25 years. He volunteered to teach his chemical engineering seminar. He enjoyed the experience, but found freshmen very different from upperclassmen.
“They are not used to dealing with ideas that disagree with each other,” Macosko said.
Breynne Fordahl, a freshman in CLA, took Yudof’s “Students and the Constitution” seminar last fall. She said although she received a B in the course, it was much harder than the course guide indicated.
“(Yudof) liked to push us and ask difficult questions and we’d all be like `We don’t know what you’re talking about,'” Fordahl said.
Kathryn Hanna, assistant dean of the College of Biological Sciences, co-taught a genetics seminar and acknowledged the courses were often difficult for students.
“We certainly took on some tough topics,” she said. “We realized that one credit wasn’t enough for the workload.”
Hanna said there were “bumps on the road” the first time through, and the college plans to make some changes in the next round of seminars. Expected changes include increased credit for the classes and better communication with students about class expectations.
The College of Biological Sciences asked students to complete evaluations of the seminars to help improve the program, she said.
“I didn’t see anything on the surveys that indicated that (the seminar) wasn’t a success,” Hanna said.