Program History

A Brief History of the Freshman Seminars Program: The First 25 Years

The Freshman Seminars Program was formally initiated in 1985.  Invited by the Ford Foundation to apply for funds designated towards improving American undergraduate education, University President William Bowen charged Dean of the College Joan Girgus to create a plan and produce an application.[i]  In response, Dean Girgus built upon existing momentum towards initiatives impacting the first-year academic experience.  She had convened a special faculty committee on the topic in the fall of 1984, charging the committee was to find ways to “help students early in their careers at Princeton discover the excitement of humanistic learning and the range of resources Princeton has to offer.”[ii]  By Spring 1985 a “Program of Freshman Seminars in the Residential Colleges” was in place.  After vetting this plan through the Committee on the Course of Study, and then the wider Faculty, Girgus was able to secure the Ford Foundation funds.  The Program was established under the auspices of the University’s Council of the Humanities.  Anthony Grafton of the History Department was the inaugural program director and would be joined by Dean Eva Gossman in the Office of the Dean of the College.  The first courses, each sponsored by one of the Residential Colleges, were taught in Fall 1986.[iii]

Anthony Grafton teaching his Wilson College FRS, Fall 1986
Anthony Grafton teaching his Wilson College Freshman Seminar, "Magic in Europe," Fall 1986

The opportunities and benefits of seminar-style teaching—the small class size, the close contact between and among students and the instructor, the depth of focus enabled through sustained engagement and conversation—had long been recognized and appreciated at the University (and in higher education more generally).  Starting in the late 1960s, the faculty had permitted “student-initiated seminars,” allowing interested students to propose courses treating topics (some falling within the scope of an existing Department, some that were interdisciplinary) that were not addressed in the existing curriculum.  Interest in this format exploded, quickly producing a range of courses that in many cases would then become part of the University’s regular offerings.[iv]

President Harold Shaprio teaching his FRS, AY1996
President Harold Shapiro leads his Freshman Seminar "The Idea of Education," Fall 1995

The Ford Foundation initiative allowed Dean Girgus to act on a longer-term concern, shared by the Residential College heads, that first-year students did not have access to the benefits of seminar learning, or much sustained interaction with primary texts, as opposed to textbooks.  The freshman year, she later explained, “didn’t provide students any opportunity for any kind of academic experience except big lectures, precepts, [and] exams.”  Freshman Seminars would put these students in close contact with faculty around a focused topic and in a setting in which they could collectively and actively engage.  The courses would model academic inquiry, allowing students to experience different sets of disciplinary approaches, methodologies, and practices.  They would also introduce, and embody, the idea of the University as a residential academic community.[v]  

Taken together, these experiences were meant to mirror, and complement, the University’s emphasis on independent work during the junior and senior years.  Other coursework taken early on in a student’s career would provide breadth of knowledge, and help them move towards a departmental concentration.  In contrast, the Freshman Seminar, in addition to its express content, would be a venue for thinking about academic thinking itself.[vi]  “Our basic strength is the quality of the faculty and the commitment of the faculty to ‘delivering the goods’—to being there, to doing the teaching themselves, getting into real person-to-person contact with students throughout their undergraduate education,” Humanities Council chair and Classics professor W. Robert Connor explained in introducing the Program, “That commitment is already very strong at senior-thesis and junior-independent-paper levels. The freshman seminars are an effort to broaden it at the underclass level.”[vii]

The first slate of Freshman Seminars, taught over the 1986-87 academic year, reflected these goals.  Nine seminars were offered.  In addition to being taught in Residential College classrooms, their instructors were made College Fellows, and were encouraged to interact with their students in college spaces outside of the seminar rooms.  Members of the incoming Class of 1990 were made aware of the Program after being admitted, and were directed to send an application essay to Grafton over the summer.[viii]  While only two courses received so many applications that students had to be turned away, most had between eight and twelve members.[ix]  The students who took part left enthusiastic reviews.  “Class discussion,” one wrote, “was, in a word, rich.”  Another described the seminar as “incredible…far beyond anything that I have so far experienced in the University and my academic past.”[x]  “The moral seems clear,” Grafton wrote in his year-end report on the Program, “Give our freshmen an informal, small-scale course, a gripping topic and a good teacher –and they are altogether a pleasure to teach and to know.”[xi]

Bill Gleason teaches his FRS

Bill Gleason teaches "American Best-sellers," Spring 1998

This success continued in subsequent years.  As part of her commitment to ensuring Princeton was “a world-class research university with the heart and soul of a liberal arts college,” Nancy Weiss Malkiel, newly the Dean of the College in 1987, oversaw a steady expansion of the Program’s offerings, both in numbers of courses and breadth of disciplinary offerings.[xii]  Student interest followed apace, leading many instructors and administrators to agonize over the need to turn interested students away so as to maintain the requisite small class size.[xiii]  In order to widen student opportunities, University-wide seminars were added to the College-sponsored courses starting in the Spring 1990 term.  In 1992 each College began sponsoring multiple seminars.  Malkiel also encouraged the development of courses beyond the Program’s original emphasis on the Humanities.[xiv]  Ten years after the Program’s creation, its offerings had grown to 45 courses, in which more than half of the first-year class were taught.[xv]  The significance of this experience was reflected in the University’s capital campaigns, starting in 1995, which raised endowed funds that currently support the majority of all seminars offered.[xvi]  Over 1200 students applied to take part in the 75 seminars offered in the 2009-2010 academic year, numbers so great as to require the use of a computerized algorithm to place students.[xvii]

A quarter century after its inception, the Program had become a mainstay of the curriculum.  “In the best circumstances here at Princeton,” President Shirley Tilghman offered, reflecting in 2014 on her experience as an instructor in the Program, students “become interested in taking an active role in [their] own education.”[xviii]  Through this capacity to engender engagement, as well as by providing spaces for deep study and in which intellectual communities are fostered, the Freshman Seminars had come to serve as a gateway into the University’s academic community. 




[i] Bowen to Girgus, December 23, 1985.  See also Peter W. Stanley (Ford Foundation) to Bowen, December 16, 1985 and “News from the Ford Foundation,” press release, December 26, 1985, all in “Freshman Seminar Reports” folder, FRS records, ODOC.  Princeton was one of 39 institutions invited to apply for the funds.

[ii] “A Program of Freshman Seminars in the Residential Colleges,” Committee Report [undated]. See also Girgus to Faculty and Student Committees on the Course of Study, April 3, 1985, both in “Freshman Seminar Reports” folder, FRS records, ODOC.  The faculty committee was chaired by W. Robert Connor (Classics and chair of the Council of the Humanities), and included Paul Benacerraf (Philosophy), Margaret Bent (Music), Marvin Bressler (Sociology), Victor Brombert (Comparative Literature/Romance Languages and Literatures), Natalie Davis (History), John Fleming (English), Stanley Katz (History/Rockefeller College), James Seawright (Visual Arts), and John Wilson (Religion/Forbes College).  See also “Fresh Focus on the Humanities: Residential College Seminars Follow Traditional Princeton Model of Personalized Learning,” Princeton Weekly Bulletin vol. 75, no. 4 (October 7, 1985), and Harold T. Shapiro, “The Freshman Seminar Program,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, March 18, 1992, 41.

[iii] Luis Fajardo, “Freshman Seminars receive grant from Ford Foundation,” The Daily Princetonian vol. 110, no. 108 (November 7, 1986) 10.  “Ford Foundation awards grant to freshman seminars,” Princeton Weekly Bulletin vol 76, no. 8 (November 10, 1986).

[iv] James Axtell, The Making of Princeton University: From Woodrow Wilson to the Present (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006) 208-209.  Ten student-initiated seminars were offered each semester in 1968, the first year of the initiative.  132 were offered in 1974.

[v] W. Raymond Ollwether, “Q&A: Joan Girgus on Fostering Change,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, June 17, 2017, 12.  Rockefeller College head Stanley Katz advocated for the integration of the Seminars into the University’s Residential Colleges.

[vi] Girgus referred to the need to allow space and time for this sort of thinking while also providing adequate preparation in a student’s area of concentration for independent work as “a tension almost inherent in the undergraduate curriculum.”  Margaret M. Keenan, “Six Deans and Three Decades: The job has changed with changing times,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, June 10, 1987, 21.

[vii] “Fresh Focus on the Humanities: Residential College Seminars Follow Traditional Princeton Model of Personalized Learning,” Princeton Weekly Bulletin, vol. 75, no. 4 (October 7, 1985).  Bob Durkee suggests a parallel impetus from alumni surveyed before the creation of the Program.  While many felt that the junior and senior-year curriculum prepared them to do moments in their career when they worked independently, they “felt less well prepared for the more common occasions when they worked on teams or in groups, much as occurs in a seminar.”  Robert K. Durkee, The New Princeton Companion (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2022), 222.

[viii] Thomas E. Weber, “Seminar program to offer freshmen close contact with senior faculty,” The Daily Princetonian vol. 110, no. 67 (May 16, 1986) 4.  “Draft of Letter from Dean Joan S. Girgus to Admitted Freshmen, Class of 1990,” April 12, 1986, Office of the Dean of the College Records (AC #149), box 145, folder 1 (1986-1987), Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.  “The Program of Freshman Seminars at Princeton University, 1986-1987,” program brochure, “Freshman Seminar Reports” folder, FRS records, ODOC.

[ix] “Report on the Program of Freshman Seminars 1986-1987,” 1, in Girgus to Peter Stanley, July 24, 1987, “Freshman Seminar Reports” folder, FRS records, ODOC.  Though any student could be enrolled, instructors were encouraged to fill their rosters with a portion of students from their sponsoring college.

[x] Anthony Grafton to Admitted Freshmen, Class of 1991,” [spring 1986?], Office of the Dean of the College Records (AC #149), box 145, folder 2 (1987-1988), Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University.  See also “Participants give high marks to freshman seminars,” Princeton Weekly Bulletin vol. 76, no. 8 (November 10, 1986).

[xi] “Report on the Program of Freshman Seminars 1986-1987,” 3, in Girgus to Peter Stanley, July 24, 1987, “Freshman Seminar Reports” folder, FRS records, ODOC.

[xii] Jack Goodman, “Trustees select Weiss as new dean of the college,” The Daily Princetonian vol. 111, no. 3 (March 23, 1987). Shirley M. Tilghman, “President’s Page: Nancy Weiss Malkiel,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, May 11, 2011.  Dean Eva Gossman played an important role in shaping and expanding the Program.  Elizabeth Arens, “Gossman decided to retire from post,” The Daily Princetonian vol 120, no. 89 (October 8, 1996) 1.

[xiii] Justin Harmon, “Grafton reports to faculty on freshman seminars,” Princeton Weekly Bulletin vol. 80, no. 3 (October 1, 1990).  Approximately 30% of the Class of 1994 applied to the Program in 1990; more than half were turned away.

[xiv] Buster Kantrow, “Seminar students to travel to Scottish isle next spring,” The Daily Princetonian vol. 116, no. 77 (September 16, 1992). Stephen C. Vella, “Freshman seminars win accolades from enthusiastic students, faculty,” The Daily Princetonian vol. 117, no. 110 (November 9, 1993).  In its May 1994 report, the Committee on Diversity and Liberal Education” recommended that FRS offerings be expanded “to encompass topics relating to the sources and the effects of differences in class, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation, region, nation, empire and power.”  Tom Krattenmaker, “‘A distinctive model for linking diversity and liberal education,’” Princeton Weekly Bulletin vol 83, no. 29 (June 13, 1994) 5.

[xv] Amy Gutmann, “Undergraduate teaching: How are we doing? Where are we going?” Princeton Weekly Bulletin vol. 85, no. 28 (May 27, 1996) 4.  In AY 1995-1996 624 students were enrolled in FRS courses.

[xvi] Durkee, Companion, 226.  Axtell, Making of Princeton University, 109.

[xvii] Anne Lee, “Freshman seminar placement determined by algorithm,” The Daily Princetonian vol. 133, no. 108 (November 20, 2009) 1.  The algorithm first maximized enrollments and then student preferences, after which instructors with spaces left in their courses would then receive application essays so as to round out their classes.  For a critique, see “Editorial: Fairer FRS applications,” The Daily Princetonian vol. 133, no. 112 (November 30, 2009) 6.  The Program has since moved towards a model that solely maximizes student preferences.

[xviii] Konadu Amoakuh, “Former U. presidents Shapiro ‘64, Tilghman lead freshman seminars,” The Deaily Princetonian vol. 138, no. 70 (September 15, 2014).