Sophomore Connor Hann is double majoring in math and physics. But one of his classes last year stood out among the others on his schedule—Grief Work: End of Life Care in Russia and America—a course Hann took because he, like all Trinity freshmen, are required to enroll in a seminar.
“I actually feel this seminar really changed the way I think,” Hann said. “As a math and science person, I would never have been inclined to take a class like this, but I feel it’s certainly one of the most valuable courses I’ve taken thus far.”
A Trinity requirement for over 20 years, the freshman seminar is designed to provide students the ability to engage with faculty and excite their curiosity, said Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost of undergraduate education.
Offered by more than 20 departments, not all seminars are created equal. Students have had mixed reactions to the mandatory class.
“Based on what I’ve heard from friends the seminars can be hit or miss,” Hann said. “I know others really viewed it as a waste of class time when they could be taking something else.”
Nowicki said a professor’s teaching style has much to do with the success of the seminar.
“We have over 2,000 courses taught each semester here, so you can imagine there are going to be at least a few of those courses that aren’t going to be as good,” Nowicki said. “It also depends on the students—I know courses where some students love it and other students just hate it.”
Although the program has received criticism, some students see a real benefit to having the program.
“My favorite part was probably the discussion,” Senior Swetha Iruku said. “There were only 15 of us in class, so we all got to talk. It really pushed us to actually do the work, do the reading and think critically about it.”
She added that in bigger lecture classes, students do not try to engage in the reading and participate as much.
In addition to the freshman seminar requirement, Duke offers the Focus program, which allows freshmen to take two seminars in their first semester and provides opportunities outside of class.
“What’s so wonderful about the Focus is this idea of [a seminar] being a forum...that extends and intersects with other classes,” said Kristin Lanzoni, a postdoctoral associate teaching a Focus course this semester. “My hope for the Focus is getting to the point where you’re comfortable to throw out an idea, even if it’s not quite fully formed.
Nowicki, who taught a freshman seminar last semester, said freshmen are fun to teach because they are not cynical.
“In some ways, first year students are fun to teach because they’re just a little bit goofy. And I love that because they are newly realizing the possibilities of education,” he said. “Their naiveté leads them to ask remarkably great questions.”