When Princeton students enroll in the freshman seminars “Chemistry of Magic,” “Art as Science/Science as Art” or “The Evolution of Language,” they experience what lies at the foundation of a Princeton education — intellectual inquiry. Each year, approximately 75 freshman seminars are offered to new students on a wide range of topics. The students’ main responsibility is to think deeply about the material and bring their ideas to the table.
Each freshman seminar is limited to 15 students and is developed and taught by a member of Princeton’s renowned faculty, whose main role is to serve as a facilitator of ideas. Each freshman seminar is hosted by a residential college, which means that discussions started in the classroom can continue over meals or in other informal settings.
Class discussions dictate their own direction and students are encouraged to argue, get inspired and be passionate. Each semester brings new seminars to choose from, often with close ties to current events. Popular seminars in recent semesters have been:
Epigenetics, or How the Tabby Got Her Stripes In this seminar, freshmen have the unusual opportunity to learn from and exchange views with President Shirley M. Tilghman, one of the world’s foremost authorities on genetics. Once a week, in a fast-paced, three-hour session, President Tilghman explores with her students one of the deepest questions in the natural world: What is at the root of the intricate process that makes us all so different? Epigenetics examines the extent to which the expression of genes is preprogrammed or shaped by circumstance. President Tilghman says it is one of the most competitive areas of molecular biology. Yet under her expert guidance, she has achieved what only a skilled educator can do—make the course accessible to anyone who has taken high school biology.
Active Geological Processes
During a week-long trip to the Sierra Nevadas, students in this seminar observe changes in the Earth’s surface firsthand. Class meetings help students prepare for the trip and, afterward, provide a venue for presenting their findings and interpretations.
Life on Mars — Or Maybe Not
Following the thrill of a scientific discovery comes the difficulty of presenting it to the public. This seminar poses the question, “How reliable is science news?” and looks to understand the science behind the news reports, the factors that shape media coverage and ways in which that coverage tends to distort the findings.
Cultural Revolutions of the Sixties
From literature and comedy to journalism and war, this course surveys the upheaval of the 1960s, examines the major figures who acted as catalysts and traces their impact through the decades that followed.
Ethics in Everyday Life
Students are challenged to examine their values — and express them — in this seminar, while focusing on the ethical issues surrounding food, money, personal relationships, meaning and purpose, and the self.
Polarized America: Ideology, Inequality and American Democracy
Drawing on political science, history, economics and sociology, this seminar looks beyond the red state/blue state rhetoric to reveal more significant factors contributing to today’s sociopolitical climate.
Students in this course journey to underworlds as old as the eighth century B.C.E. and as recent as the recent 21st century — from Homer’s “Odyssey” to “The Sopranos” — at the same time examining the role of the underworld in epic literature and related cultural traditions.
Both students and professors consistently cite freshman seminars as among their finest academic experiences at Princeton. As Deputy Dean of the College Clayton Marsh notes, “The freshman seminars program holds a special place in the Princeton curriculum, as it provides our students an early opportunity to form lasting connections with faculty and fellow students through the course of an intellectual journey that is adventurous and inclusive. Indeed, many of our alumni consider their freshman seminars to be among their most memorable and formative experiences at Princeton.”