Though it may seem slightly cliché, as I approach graduation (yes I know it’s still two months away), I find myself looking back on my time at Penn. I have seven semesters under my belt and an eighth is quickly coming to a close. With 30-odd classes completed, what have I really learned at Penn?
Here’s the solid conclusion that I find myself walking away with: Most of the lectures I’ve taken at Penn have left me wanting more, while the few seminars I’ve found myself in have actually challenged me intellectually. I suspect that most of you feel the same way.
Lectures at Penn are impersonal. There is little-to-no chance that the professor will know who you are. The teaching assistants don’t really care about undergraduates. I’ve had to sit through a lot of lecture classes (Psych 001, Introduction to International Relations, and two geologies!) and, with a few exceptions, I’ve hated them all.
No offense to the professors, but there’s only so much you can actually process when you’re sitting in a room with about 150 other students.
Seminars, on the other hand, provide the opposite experience. Because the topic is much more focused, you can tell the professors actually care about what they’re teaching. This translates into an intellectually stimulating academic environment. The limited number of students fosters a more discussion-based learning experience.
On top of that, most professors who teach seminars are much more flexible than they are in lectures. They’re willing to let the conversation go where it may, regardless of what the syllabus says, because they prioritize delving into a subject and really questioning it.
For example, during my sophomore year I took a history seminar about World War I. When our professor realized a lot of us were interested in the role of colonial troops during the war, she decided to add it to the syllabus. We ended up dedicating an entire class to it toward the end of the semester. I can’t imagine this would ever happen in a lecture.
I strongly suspect that my experiences in seminars and lectures are not unique. If this is true, then I think that Penn should rethink the way the curriculum is shaped.
I understand that lectures serve a vital purpose — we need them to function as introductions to certain academic fields. But at the same time, I believe it is too easy for Penn students to continually take lectures to fulfill both sector and major requirements.
The focus here should be on individual departments at Penn — advisors in particular. Advisers should actively work to steer students away from the large lectures that can so easily fill a student’s schedule. Instead, once a student is comfortable with their major, advisors should steer students toward smaller, more intimate classes. I know that had I been encouraged to take more seminars, I undoubtedly would have found my classroom experience more fulfilling.
The registrar can help too, by ensuring that seminars more easily fit into students’ schedules when they also have to take required lectures. Since many seminars occur in three-hour blocks, it can be tough to find one that doesn’t conflict with the more standard Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday classes.
If I could somehow magically go back in time and start freshman year over again, I definitely would do anything I could to avoid taking so many lectures. It’s a shame that in four years at Penn I’ve only taken three seminars. Had I realized earlier the striking difference in the quality of the classes, I absolutely would have approached registration a bit differently.
Dennie Zastrow is a College senior from Wilson, N.Y. He is the former chairman of the Lambda Alliance. His e-mail address is email@example.com. A Dennie For Your Thoughts appears on Thursdays.Comments powered by Disqus
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