Fall Freshman Seminars Fall Short
Through its freshman seminars, The University of California, San Diego – like many universities throughout the country – offers entering students the chance to explore and discuss unique subject matter in a casual classroom setting. At UCSD these one-credit classes are offered pass/no-pass and focus on asking, and attempting to answer, “outside the box” questions in narrow and unique areas of interest. According to the program description, “The seminars are taught by faculty in their fields of expertise and explore topics of intellectual importance while participating in critical discussion with a small group of peers and faculty.” The benefits of these seminars include smaller class sizes and the chance to engage with a professor about matters of interest – both rare opportunities for freshmen students who will spend the majority of their first year at college in large, anonymous lecture halls or being taught by teaching assistants.
This chance at discussion and relatively self-guided exploration is a fitting introduction to college studies. A university education would not be complete without the chance to think outside the box, to banter over theoretical questions, and to learn how to learn. But a closer look at Freshman Seminar course offerings reveals that at UCSD, the “topics of intellectual importance” and “critical discussion[s]” the seminar program promises might be more trivial and biased than students or their parents would hope.
The UCSD Department of Literature offers freshmen the chance to explore the background of what Google defines as “a soulless corpse said to be revived by witchcraft” in the seminar “Zombies: An Unnatural History.” The same department gives students the chance to “study gender, race, and sexuality in family drama, sitcom, TV news, and reality TV” (without mention of literature itself, despite the department’s name) in the seminar entitled “Reading Television.”
Perhaps the most predictable course offering of all, the Department of Biological Sciences seminar entitled “Earth’s Fragile Biosphere,” will address “species extinction, global warming, habitat destruction, individual responsibility to future generations, and human values/morals.”
Finally, in the Department of Cognitive Science, freshmen enrolled in “How Minds and Groups Make Religion and Superstition” are promised the chance to explore such questions as: “How does the human brain accept religious beliefs, even in the face of contradictory evidence?”
The Freshman Seminar program also includes opportunities for legitimately critical discussion, such as the Department of Bioengineering course entitled “Engineering of the Heart.” And the program offers exploration of matters ofÿintellectual importance, such as the impact Jane Austen had on society, women, and etiquette, in the Department of Literature’s “Jane Austen’s World.”
But for a large number of these courses – and the similar ones that fill university course catalogs throughout the country – there surely are better alternatives. There must be topics of more “intellectual importance” and offering greater opportunity for “critical discussion” than “Zombies: An Unnatural History” and “How Minds and Groups Make Religion and Superstition.”