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Student-initiated seminars fill holes in curriculum

Every September, Joe Wardenski '00 scoured the undergraduate course catalogue, searching for intensive courses on the history of education. He phoned departments and pursued professors, inquiring if there were plans to incorporate a non-policy oriented class during any of his four years at Princeton. The answer was routinely no.

This year, Wardenski took one last frustrated look through the University course offerings and realized that if he wanted a class that provided a comprehensive overview of American education, he would have to create it himself.

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So, with the help of fellow education-enthusiast Kamilah Briscoe '00, he did.

HIS ST37: History of Education in the United States began meeting this spring under the instruction of Cally Waite, a professor at Columbia University's Teachers' College, three months after Wardenski and Briscoe began navigating through a process that sometimes felt like treading water.

"I'm not going to lie to you — I wish it was easier," Briscoe said, regarding her experience organizing the class. "There's a lot that has to go on behind the scenes in terms of finding someone, making sure the money's there, getting a department to support it."

But, she said, the small speed bumps were well worth slowing down for. "It's great that you can find all these students to work together on something that you might not find in the regular curriculum. Since Joe and I were the ones who put this class together we were able to see our vision through."

This class would have been impossible at any other Ivy League institution. Brown and Dartmouth universities are the only other Ivies that offer student-initiated seminars, but neither school provides funds to support professors from outside the regular faculty.

But whereas Brown offers about 32 to 38 student-initiated seminars per year, and Dartmouth offers between 3 and 10, Princeton averages only 2 to 3 seminars each year, according to officials at those institutions.

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This can be attributed to a combination of factors. For instance, Brown sponsors student-led discussions about student-initiated seminars and encourages students to explore this option by posting flyers around campus and sending out e-mails; Princeton limits its description of the process to the undergraduate announcement.

Brown posts sign-up lists of potential topics suggested by students in the Resource Center, the office in charge of academic initiatives, and does not impose a minimum class size; Princeton gives the initiators full discretion in gathering the 12 required students. Frequently, this means that classes are limited to friends or Princetonians on relevant e-mail lists.

Dartmouth's process is more similar to Princeton's. "It's a lot of work and that's what students find out," Dartmouth Assistant Dean of the Faculty Jane Carroll said. "A course must be able to pass the rigorous academic standards of this institution."

Dobin explained the rationale for not following Brown's lead. "It takes a good deal of initiative and energy and determination," he said. "We're not going to send out e-mails every semester to tell students how to do this. We don't want to encourage everybody to go out there and try and create one — there really needs to be the drive to do it."

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But the small number of Princeton students who have participated in the program find it to be a uniquely rewarding experience that allows them to take a course singularly suited to their own personal preferences.

Last term, Brian Fujito '00 and Wilmot Li '00 created a computer animation production class that culminated in a five -minute animation that will be submitted to a festival next month.

"I think maybe if more students knew about the system and how to go about doing it, then more seminars would crop up," Li said, describing how, near the end of the term, members of class would come to class and stay the entire night, squinting into computer screens.

"It was a lot of hours — a lot more than I think a normal class would take," Li said. "But it was kind of self-imposed. We'd work on it to make it look the way we wanted it to look. It was a great experience."

The process at Princeton seems straightforward: after identifying a topic of interest, students then approach faculty members on campus who might be potential instructors. Should that fail, students may contact experts from other schools, who must then undergo the normal process for appointing a visiting professor to a department.

The syllabus must then be approved by the department chair, 12 to 18 students must commit to the class and the course must meet a minimum of two hours a week.

Although students receive grades and may use the class as a departmental, the course cannot be counted toward fulfilling distribution requirements, a rule established before Dobin assumed control of the program.

Students seeking an alternative academic experience may also enroll at Rutgers, or create a tutorial — referred to as a reading course — with a professor that is limited to four students and usually includes only one or two.

"This was something that was missing from my education," said Wardenski, who received responses from 57 students interested in the class after sending out a message to the Student Volunteers Council, the African-American studies program and the teacher prep program e-mail lists — or around 800 students. "When I came across the student-initiated seminars, it was like, 'This is something that I can do.' I thought it would be a great way to get an education class offered.

"I think that if people at the University knew that this was an option and can happen, then I think it would be easier to get seminars going more often."

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