January 30, 2002: Features

Welcome to Princeton

Since its inception in 1986, the freshman seminar program has become Princeton’s most successful curricular innovation in a generation, and the most popular

By David Marcus ’92

Captions: Left, geophysics professor Jason Morgan *64 (in white and blue sweater seated on rock), who taught the seminar Active Geologic Processes with professor Robert Phinney, took the class to study in California during fall break. Below, economics professor Harvey Rosen works with Jeff Bozman ’05 in Rosen’s office. (photo by Ricardo Barros)

Many Princetonians who once lived in Blair Arch have doubtless gone on to careers filled with three-martini lunches. Some of those alumni may well have developed a taste for the cocktail in the very room where Harvey Rosen is asking 13 freshmen if they’ve ever heard of the three-martini lunch.

This isn’t a bartending class. The Blair Arch dorm rooms have been converted into classrooms, and on this October morning Rosen is teaching a seminar on tax policy.

The economics professor notes a recent article in the New York Times about the decline in business dining after September 11. To spur such spending, he says, some people have proposed raising the percentage of business meals that is tax-deductible from the current 50 percent.

“A subsidy,” Rosen says, “is a tax with a minus sign.” He instructs a student to draw the supply and demand curves familiar to anyone who’s taken Economics 102, which Rosen has taught regularly for years. He asks the student what the effect of a tax break for business meals might be. The student suggests that diners will be willing to pay more for meals because their after-tax cost will decline. Rosen agrees and asks the student to graph his answer. The student shifts the demand curve up and to the right; if the tax break is increased, business diners will spend more money on more meals.

If this were Econ 102, the student and several hundred others would be sitting in their seats, graphing away in notebooks while Rosen lectured. Instead, students in the seminar take turns standing at the blackboard and being grilled kindly but firmly by Rosen, who has taught at Princeton since 1974 and spent two years as a tax analyst at the Department of the Treasury.

Rosen’s course is one of 67 freshman seminars that Princeton will offer this year. About 800 students, or more than half of the class, will take one. The program has been remarkably successful since its inception in 1986. It has allowed freshmen to take courses with senior professors; it has helped faculty members develop new courses; and it has introduced students to fields of inquiry they hadn’t previously considered.

The breadth of courses is impressive. While Rosen teaches tax policy, renowned classicist Robert Fagles leads a seminar on Homer in the next room. Other courses range from introductory geology — which has a field component that takes students to the Sierra Nevada during fall break — taught by Jason Morgan *64, who set out the theory of plate tectonics, to a seminar on modern photography taught by Peter Bunnell, McAlpin Professor of the History of Photography and Modern Art.

“When you read through the freshman seminar guide,” says Howard Dobin, the associate dean of the college, “you feel like you’re reading the course guide of a small liberal arts college.”

The program was a response to the same concerns that led to the creation of the residential colleges after the student body was expanded in 1970. “Across the board, the lives of freshmen and sophomores had lost some personal attention,” says Joan Girgus, a psychology professor who was dean of the college from 1977 to 1987. “Academically, Princeton operated with large lectures and precepts. Many first- and second-year students didn’t work with primary materials or meet senior faculty.” The initial group of residential college masters devised the plan for the seminars, which are still held in the colleges.

In the 1986 school year, the program introduced nine seminars in the humanities. It took a few years for the courses to catch on, but the quality of the teaching attracted students, and the reputations of the professors in the program attracted their peers. “Faculty persuaded other faculty,” says Nancy Weiss Malkiel, dean of the college, who did some persuading herself. “‘Look at the roster of people who have taught in this program,’” she says she told professors. “‘You are too distinguished not to be part of this company.’”

Anthony Grafton, a history professor who was the program’s first director, believes that faculty themselves have benefited from the program. “For me, the main thing it did was to make people say how much fun it was to teach,” he says. “People are very proud of their well-crafted lectures. Students learn differently in a seminar. In a seminar, students have to do it for themselves.”

Students agree. “The seminar emphasized personal accountability — not so in most lectures,” says Matt Wagers ’03 of the seminar on Dante’s Inferno that he took with Robert Hollander ’55. “The seminar format both facilitated and required a participant to share his mind.”

Such advantages do not come cheap. About a quarter of the seminars are endowed, at a cost of $500,000 each. The freshman seminar program budget funds another quarter. The Center for Human Values and the Program in Law and Public Affairs each sponsor several seminars. Finally, the departments donate faculty time.

Few faculty donors have been more generous than Hollander. “Tony Grafton put the arm on me many years ago,” he says. “Grafton persuaded me to do Boccaccio with freshmen. It was a very good teaching experience.” Hollander has been teaching the courses ever since. “I like doing it the first semester the best,” he says. “These people are like Marine recruits. They’re going to be better. Their teachers are going to be better. They’ll do almost anything you tell them to do.”

That enthusiasm is needed in Hollander’s courses. “Hard work will reap proportional rewards,” he wrote in describing the Dante seminar for a course guide. Wagers says, “Hollander kept up his end of the bargain.” Others in the course agree that Hollander’s high expectations and close critiques of their papers in the course helped their own writing considerably.

But the value of the seminar went far beyond writing skills. Dana Caragine ’02 remembers that Hollander made his subject seem powerfully relevant to her own life. “It was literally my first Princeton class, 7 p.m. on the first day of the fall semester,” she says. “I’d been away from home for a week, was desperately homesick, and had total unsupervised control over my life for the very first time. The first canto of the Inferno actually meant something to me. Dante was contemplating suicide. I was nowhere near that, but I was really uncertain about the path of my life, and the study of the Inferno couldn’t have come at a more opportune time for me.”

Another student cited the same class meeting for the sheer intellectual excitement it generated. “Professor Hollander handed out a passage from the Inferno that talks about all the sinners ‘who are registered here’ and had us read it,” says Paul Hackwell ’02. “He asked us a simple question: Where is the ‘here’ in this passage? Eventually, a brave student stated what seemed obvious: Hell. Professor Hollander pointed out the myriad problems with the interpretation. Another student ventured that the ‘here’ was earth. This too was questioned and discarded. Now we were extremely confused. Eventually — I don’t remember if a student came up with this or if Professor Hollander had to lead us to it — we realized that ‘here’ was the poem. What chutzpah! Dante was setting up his record of Hell as an official description of the catalog of sinners.”

Initially, such revelations were limited to humanities students; the freshman seminars did not extend to the sciences. “There was an assumption that science was cumulative and was generally taught by lectures and labs,” Girgus says. “The idea that students could discuss science in a seminar setting was a tough idea for people to wrap their arms around.”

Eva Gossman, a former associate dean of the college who retired in 1996, set out to add science courses to the program as part of the university’s effort to improve the teaching of science to humanities students. “I thought the seminars would take a relatively narrow topic and introduce nonscience students in a small setting to what I thought was the magic of science. It would show students what science is about,” Gossman says. (“Even though I am a philosopher, I have science envy,” she jokes.)

She succeeded. Faculty in the sciences participated eagerly. Eric Wieschaus was teaching a freshman seminar in the fall of 1995 when he won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on how genes control structural development — the topic of his class that day. President Shirley Tilghman taught another. This year, 13 freshman seminars take up a scientific topic. Some are meant for nonscientists. Others attract students who plan to major in a science and want to vary their diet of lecture courses.

Maitland Jones, Jr., aimed at the latter group with his seminars on organic chemistry. The chemistry professor had taught “orgo,” long one of the most difficult requirements for aspiring medical students, since the 1970s but was rotated out of it in the early 1990s “much against my will,” he says. “The only way I could see to continue teaching this stuff was to teach a freshman seminar.”

Organic chemistry is usually taught in lectures, but in preparing for his first seminar in 1995, Jones realized he couldn’t lecture for three straight hours. “You need breaks from the really heavy-duty thinking that goes on,” he says. “I started breaking up the period by having groups of students work on problems. I might say, when you treat A with B and boil it in osmotic fog, you get speckled nitrogen. How does that happen? What relevance does that have to the reactions we were just talking about?”

The method helped students to better understand how to solve chemical problems. In high school, says Natalie Audage ’99, “I often got stuck in one way of thinking, especially in subjects like math and chemistry. Mait challenged me to try one way of looking at a chemistry problem until I reached a dead end, and then to try an entirely different way, and if that didn’t work, a different way yet.”

“It’s the way we in this building learn,” Jones says. “It’s the way we solve problems. We argue in hallways, we sit and puzzle over data. I say something, and my colleague says, ‘That’s really stupid for the following reasons.’ ”

The students’ increased sophistication allowed them to grasp that very process. “When new concepts were introduced, Professor Jones described the evolution of the concepts from their crude beginnings to the corollaries that followed,” says Jordan Cummins ’99. “He wrote the name of the researcher who did an experiment, the year it was done, and the actual experimental data on the board. Then he’d ask the class to predict the outcome. The fascinating thing was that, based on his treatment of the topics which led up to the experiment, students were not only able to predict the outcomes, but, in many cases, were actually able to predict the next experiment that succeeded the one in question.”

That sort of thinking impressed Jones. “I’m positive that those kids came out able to think about organic chemistry better, and therefore other things better,” he says. “Their ability to analyze scientific problems is substantially higher than if they just sat in lecture.”

Jones now employs the problem-solving method in his large organic chemistry course, which usually has about 130 students. To replicate the personal attention of the seminar, Jones hires a postdoctoral student and 10 to 12 teaching assistants. “The seminar program is directly responsible for this course,” he says. “Nobody does it entirely in this style. For a serious student, this is a better way to teach it. The talking-head method is easy and cheap, but it’s not the best way to do it.”

Other faculty members have developed entire courses from their freshman seminars. Froma Zeitlin taught a course on the Holocaust in the program’s first year. Though Zeitlin is a Greek professor and a classicist, she now directs Princeton’s Program in Jewish Studies and has continued to teach the Holocaust course to upperclassmen as a comparative literature offering. Psychology professor Eldar Shafir taught a seminar on reasoning and rationality that he has turned into a 200-level lecture course.

The program also allows faculty to teach the subjects they’re most passionate about. “It’s a lot more fun than teaching three lectures a week,” says molecular biologist Martin Weigert, whose research focuses on autoimmunity, the subject of his seminar. “You get to talk about stuff that you’re really interested in.”

Medievalist John Fleming *63 is interested in a lot of subjects, only a few of which he regularly teaches. “I thought if I were going to teach a freshman seminar,” Fleming says, “it’s going to be something I can’t teach in another format.” Last year, he taught one on the Franciscan order; this spring, he’s offering another on the history of the English language. Fleming teaches the same topic no more than twice.

Professors in small departments offer seminars in part to attract majors. “When I was in charge of comparative literature, I tried to make sure we had front-line people doing freshman seminars,” says Hollander. “You get the students you want: the ones who have the ability and wouldn’t know you were there otherwise.”

That’s one reason why John Wilmerding offered a seminar this fall on the late 19th-century American painters Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. The art history professor is an expert on both; he helped organize a 1995 show at London’s National Portrait Gallery on Eakins and a 1996 show on Homer at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. A recent Eakins exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art spurred Wilmerding to offer the course this year. “I wouldn’t have done this seminar were it not for the exhibition, being able to get them into a museum to see how these things look,” he says.

Photo: John Wilmerding’s seminar on Eakins and Homer looked at paintings in the newly reinstalled American gallery in Princeton’s Art Museum, left, and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (photo by Ricardo Barros)

When the students went to Philadelphia in December, they were familiar with the show’s contents; they’d been looking at slides of Eakins’s work all semester and had been assigned to read the catalogue for the exhibition the week before their trip. Wilmerding let his charges wander through the show, occasionally gathering them to point something out.

He stopped by The Concert Singer, a full-length portrait of a woman in a dress of pink satin with brocade flowers. “Don’t you want your sofa covered that way?” he said to his assembled charges. “I want a necktie.” He noted that Eakins often made his own frames, including this one, on which he carved the notes of the song the woman was singing. Looking with a curator’s eye, Wilmerding pointed out that the ideal vantage point for seeing The Concert Singer also offered a view from afar of another Eakins portrait of a woman. “Look at the contrast between the pink and the marvelous raspberry of the dress in the other painting,” he enthused.

Students came to him with questions or observations. One freshman noticed a few things that even Wilmerding hadn’t seen before. The student suggested writing a paper about Eakins’s frames, another of which he went to study more closely. Wilmerding smiled at the student’s savvy. “I’d love to get him into the department,” he said.

David Marcus ’92 covers law for The Daily Deal.

PAW ONLINE: www.princeton.edu/paw/plus

Peek into students’ geology field notebooks on PAW PLUS.

ON THE WEB: www.princeton.edu/pr/pub/fs

Gladly teche

Professors who have taught freshman seminars include, among many others: (left to right) historian Anthony Grafton, medievalist John Fleming *63, Jewish Studies program director Froma Zeitlin, classicist Robert Fagles, Dante scholar Robert Hollander ’55, and Nobel laureate and molecular biologist Eric Wieschaus. (Photos by Denise Applewhite)


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