Futility of Freshmen Seminars

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Higher education may never be more irrelevant than when it tries hard to be relevant. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Dan Berrett surveys a trio of seminars that await incoming freshmen at the University of Richmond (UR).

“About 90 percent of freshmen attending colleges with enrollments of 5,000 or less take a seminar, according to the John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education, in Brevard, N. C.,” Berrett reports. If they’re anything like the ones at UR, these kids are in for some major league mind games.

“Joe Troncale’s course, ‘St. Petersburg: The Myth and the City in Literature, Painting, and Music,’ served as a vessel for his knowledge of and passion for Russian literature,” Berrett writes. “His students read Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol, pored over paintings, and listened to music as a way of understanding Russian culture.”

“Collectively, he told them, those works of art conveyed the essential spirit of St. Petersburg.”  Arguably a demanding curriculum but not unreasonably so, nor is Troncale’s  insistence that students take notes an unreasonable one: “If I’m talking you should be writing,” he tells them.

Then, he goes off the charts: “With eight minutes to go, he asked the students to take out a piece of paper and respond to a statement: ‘In the realm of culture, “outsideness” is the most powerful lever for understanding,”’” Berrett reported.

Another professor, Mavis Brown, also expects her students to read the classics: Plato’s Phaedo, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Her students spend, “about two class periods on each one,” Berrett reports. What do they do the rest of the time?

“Before the first class, she had her students wait in the hallway. When she opened the door, she asked them to enter two by two, then sit at desks arranged in a circle. The intent, she says, was to create a buffer between the world outside and the classroom. Ms. Brown then handed each of her students a dry-erase marker and a slate sized white board. They had to write the first letter of their first name somewhere on the board. Next they had to incorporate the letter into a self-portrait.”  Thus Ms. Brown seems to channel Noah’s Ark, Karl Rove and “What’s my line?” into one opening lecture.

Economist Jonathan B. Wright actually attempts to connect the Ivory Tower with the outside world, yet his course in “Moral Antecedants of the Global Economic Crisis of 2008-9” could be too rooted in the faculty lounge to make much of an impact on Main Street. “Your job here is to engage yourself and improve your human capital,” he tells his students. Yet, his method for doing so might prove a hard sell to employers.

“The seminar’s first lesson was on the importance of ambiguity and the unknowable nature of truth,” Berrett relates. “The students had come to the first class having read an essay by Andrew W. Lo that appeared in the Journal of Economic Literature in 2012.”

“It compared academic and popular analyses of the financial crisis to Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 file Rashomon, in which a crime is recounted by four people, whose interpretations vary drastically.”


Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.
If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org.