In my ideal design, I’d find a class on a subject I haven’t yet studied in detail. It would be open to those with no background and thus would cover introductory-level material. It would, however, quickly move from theory to application and focus on a particular smaller subject within the field — sort of combining an introductory lecture course and an upper-level seminar. In fact, it would veer more toward seminar in size and structure. It would be small, meet for a longer period, incorporate discussion into class meetings — there would be no precept — and be taught by a professor who specialized and was personally interested in the topic.
Suddenly the structure of my dream course sounded familiar. It would be a freshman seminar. For seniors.
Here’s my pitch: Princeton should create a program modeled after the freshman seminars for second-semester seniors.
The more I think about this, the more I love the idea: courses offered in the spring term, open exclusively to seniors. Many of us are looking for courses that need not fit any requirements but that will excite us in our final college semester. The classes could — and should — still be application-based but should also require that interested students have not taken departmental basics in the seminar’s field. This way, seniors in the class would be on equal footing to explore. To further promote that goal, senior seminars should be pass/D/fail only.
The wisdom behind the P/D/F option — whether or not most students use it this way — is that it allows students to take an exploratory course in a new subject without worrying about the effect this foray away from expertise will have on their GPAs. Senior seminars would stem from a similar encouragement of academic exploration. In order to allow seniors to best embrace that option in their final semester, the seminars should be ungraded.
Though there are plenty of upper-level seminars in the course catalogue, many require concentration or at least prerequisite introductory courses in the department. Even the few courses that might allow one to enroll without such a background are generally populated by students who do. This stops many upper-class students from exploring the topics in these seminars. Nor are those classes designed or intended for the casually interested student. Most upper-level seminars are intended for students in the department to pursue more focused topics after completing introductory classes. Unlike a normal 300-level seminar, the senior seminars would be intentionally created for studying such a topic without a background in the field.
The Graduating Class Commencement Committee runs a series of “Last Lectures” in the late spring. The subjects of these talks range from presentations by the economics department on how to manage your household finances to tours of Gettysburg to “A Physicist’s View of Life.” The lectures, generally given during the “post-thesis” period, are well attended, demonstrating seniors’ continued desire to benefit from Princeton’s academics far beyond the requirements of their own degrees.
A senior seminars program would adopt the same wisdom of the Last Lectures: that seniors want to explore new academic fields until the very end of their Princeton careers. Furthermore, it would be a nice capstone to the Princeton liberal arts experience. After seven semesters of participating in precepts and taking courses in each of the distribution categories, we should be able to enroll in a course and, in 12 weeks, move from an introduction to the field to a focused study and discussion of the course topic.
The Freshman Seminar Program is a wonderful program and, as the University describes it, helps new Princetonians “discover new ideas, new fields of knowledge and the adventure of learning.” While seniors aren’t embarking on a new adventure of learning, our particular case of having met most, if not all, requirements, renders us equally capable of taking a course just to discover new ideas or new fields of knowledge. Further, unlike incoming freshmen, for most of us, the opportunity to do so is quickly coming to an end. Freshmen are gearing up for four years of such exploration; they are looking forward to picking a major and finding certificates. They are looking to narrow their search. We have emerged from that tunnel and are looking to have fun by broadening our academic experience. After years of focusing on our major, we are, perhaps, more excited than freshmen to branch out and try a new subject.
Senior seminars would allow seniors to finish off their Princeton experience with a course that is solely about their ungraded, academic enjoyment — which would be a perfect ending.
Lily Alberts is an economics major from Nashville, Tenn. She can be reached at email@example.com.