Many students come to Princeton with an expectation for personal instruction in small classes, and more often than not, they’re not disappointed. Almost three-quarters of undergraduate class sections (not subsections such as precepts or labs) had fewer than 20 students in the fall, according to a report prepared by the registrar’s office, and 209 classes had enrollments between two and nine. (At the other extreme, 30 classes had 100 students or more.)
Nowhere does Princeton live up to its billing for individual classroom attention more than in the freshman seminars like the one taught by ideological foes and intellectual partners Cornel West *80 and Robert George, which is described by Merrell Noden ’78 beginning on page 20. That course was one of 34 freshman seminars offered this spring.
The freshman seminar program started small, with nine offerings — all in the humanities — in 1986. In large part, it was a response to a concern that as Princeton was growing larger, freshmen and sophomores were spending more of their time in larger lectures and precepts and having less contact with senior professors.
Today the roster of seminars can make freshmen the envy of upperclassmen. Based in the residential colleges, the seminars have an air of intimacy that can spill into college life even when a class concludes. Professors emphasize classroom discussion and student presentations instead of exams and quizzes. And the instructors include both senior Princeton faculty and visiting superstars. Among those participating this year were Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83, teaching about the Supreme Court and constitutional democracy; former Harvard University president (and Princeton provost) Neil Rudenstine ’56, on 20th-century poets and politics, war, religion, and art; and bioethicist Peter Singer, on the “ethics of everyday life.”
Competition for the seminars can be stiff, and many students are turned away. This spring, about 60 percent of the applicants were accepted. But those students who do get one of their top selections know how lucky they are: “This class is the reason I came to Princeton,” Bobby Addis ’10, a student in the seminar taught by West and George, told PAW’s Noden. “You’ve got two of the most distinguished faculty members, and they’re teaching freshmen, in a small class. ... When I saw it was [to be taught by] Cornel West and Robert George, I was shocked. I thought, ‘Wow!’”
Also in this issue and on PAW Online, we continue our tradition of presenting recommendations for summer reading. This year, we asked alumni writers to suggest books that they have read recently. Contributors include writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and their summer picks run the gamut. Whatever your taste, one of these Princeton writers — from poet and novelist George Garrett ’52 to current best-selling author Mohsin Hamid ’93 — can suggest something to enliven a long, hot summer.