Freshman Seminars

I now understand why people do not get assigned to teach Freshman Seminars every semester or every year. I also have come to understand why people treat a colleague who teaches a Freshman Seminar like s/he’s sick and needs to be comforted and approached very gently.

I don’t mind having had the experience of teaching a Freshman Seminar but I can’t wait to go back to my juniors and seniors. The vacuous stares, the silence, the exasperated sighs, the absence of any questions about anything and the general environment of passivity and boredom are getting to me. You can bring all the enthusiasm in the world into the classroom but trying to transmit it to people who have no use for it on a regular basis gets very daunting. I just miss hearing questions, seeing some interest in something, anything, whatever it may be.

I’ve tried everything in this course, people. Poetry, beautiful works of architecture, powerful documentary footage. I talked about politics, music, traveling, television. I even tried discussing video games and fantasy literature. But students just yawn, fall asleep at their desks, or stare vapidly. I understand how a class on the uses of the subjunctive might bore people. But how is it possible for anybody not to get excited about the indigenous civilizations of the New World, Columbus’s journey, Cortez’s first impressions of Tenochtitlan, Cortes de Cadiz, the Modernist art, the poetry of Alfonsina Storni, the political manipulation of sports, Subcomandante Marcos, the ideology of bullfighting, and all the other fascinating things we discuss in this course?

Mind you, I’ve been teaching this course to upper-year students for years, and they love it. It’s just the freshmen who are indifferent to everything. I can’t even make a joke in the classroom because nobody reacts. Ever. At all. This is the only classroom where nobody greets me or acknowledges my existence in any way when I come into the room. The students remain as silent as they are before I come in and continue to stare straight ahead of them.

14 thoughts on “Freshman Seminars

  1. I think our freshman seminar in mathematics tries merely to entertain students. I suspect it would be better if we got them involved in more hands-on acitvities. Have you tried to get students to give reading or presentations themselves? Or is that too terrifying a prospect for them.


    1. I’ve given up on the presentation format altogether, to be honest. Students just do an Internet search, copy paste some stuff into a PowerPoint and then read it aloud in bored voices. Alternatively, they just read out loud the notes from one of my lectures. It’s a royal waste of time.


  2. You just reminded me of a surreal short story I think is hilarious. It’s called “Sleep,” and it’s by the Russian writer Victor Pelevin (I have it in the collection A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, though it might also be in other anthologies). So you could read it in the original Russian, if you wanted.

    Anyway, it’s about a college student who can’t stop falling asleep in class, and this bothers him until he discovers that everyone else in his classes — even the professors — is also asleep. So he learns to walk, take notes, and talk in his sleep, too, and spends the rest of the story in an indeterminate state of consciousness where he finds it hard to separate out his dreams from what’s really happening around him.

    I think the story speaks to a lot of the common anxieties of college students, like not understanding a word the professor is saying (which, in the story, is because the professor is sleep-talking and what he says actually *is* gibberish), not being able to make head or tail of your notes when you try to read them, etc. It probably also has some allegorical post-Soviet subtext that went straight over my head.


  3. You’re not the problem. Your class sounds amazing – half of those things we never covered at my university in four years of Hispanic Studies. But you know what, there are probably students in your class like me, always waiting desperately to get into a class which people actually take seriously. Try to find those students. They undoubtedly appreciate your efforts


  4. I was a very different person as an undergraduate. I found a lot of topics interesting, but I had no idea where I stood on matters. When it came to the end of my degree and I was tossing up whether on not to to my honours level course, I think I went to far as to submit a proposal and then withdraw, because I felt that I knew nothing about the world and it was pointless for me to pretend I had something to say about it at that point.


  5. I’ve taught some version of the first year seminar on and off for like ummmm at least 10 years. It mostly sucks unless you get so dman lucky in the combination of students, which has happened exactly once. At our school the admin even realizes how sucky teaching the class is as you get extra $. The sole upside, less grading, but way offset by the massive prep required. Possibly never doing it again unless I co-teach with someone


  6. I’m so glad I found your blog post today, because I have the same experience with my freshman seminar, and it’s getting to me. My other classes are wonderful, and I constantly ask myself what I am doing wrong in one class. Thanks for your post and others’ comments, which makes me think maybe it’s not just me.


  7. What is the point of the freshman seminar? Is it seen by the students as a way to discharge any “distribution requirements” ( x hours in humanities, y hours in sciences, etc)? Do the students get to choose seminars or are they randomly assigned? If the students get to choose, do they indicate why they made a choice? (fits into rest of schedule? sounds easier than Calculus or Chemistry for majors? not at 8:00 AM or 6:00 PM?) Is the seminar intended to teach the students how to research a topic and write a paper? (In other words, is it “Freshman Comp” in disguise? ) Are the number of students in the seminar reasonable for the format? Is an effort made to shush the know-it-alls and make space for the quiet ones to speak?

    I took a wonderful freshman seminar, but that might have had a lot to do with the size (15 students), the relatively broad topic of “history of law”, the use of primary materials, the use of multiple formats (short oral presentation, 1 page analysis, 250 word abstract, longer essays), the teacher’s experience and skill at moderation, and perhaps the college setting and era (all women’s “Seven Sisters” liberal arts residential college without an affiliated university, 1973). That class remains in my memory 38 years later. I also distinctly remember that I was not too thrilled to be taking a non-science, non-maths class – little did I know!


    1. Yes, they choose them. But in my case at least, didn’t have the foggiest idea what the course was going to address.

      We also have a small group, a very broad, interesting subject. I don’t shush the know-it-alls because there aren’t any. 😦 There is no research paper. Usually, this course has a very different environment in the classroom. This one, though, is just dead.


  8. Were the juniors and seniors who are engaged students also bored, lethargic first-year students? What I’m asking is – what changes?


  9. My supervisor told me three weeks into my course, when I confessed to feeling overwhelmed and worried that I was not getting everything, that the purpose of uni to his mind was to learn to learn, and that therefore I should concentrate on doing that this first year. With that in mind, it’s so much easier to ask questions in seminars and volunteer opinions – he effectively gave me permission to be wrong. Perhaps your first years are less responsive than the second years because they haven’t yet learned to do this?


    1. This is precisely the idea I’ve been trying to transmit to them. But I have a feeling that the strategy of listening, memorizing and regurgitating that they have carried over from high school is still very much informing everything they do in college.


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