FRS thrives despite critics

With all the mailings received upon acceptance to Williams College, it is easy to miss the lonely sheet of paper that advertises the First-year Residential Seminar (FRS). In the FRS program, an entry of students (traditionally Williams E) takes one class as a group during the fall semester. “The official purpose of FRS is to integrate the academic experience with the residential one,” said Professor of Physics William Wootters who taught three of the earliest FRS courses.

The FRS program was developed by the Gaudino fund, which is led by a Gaudino scholar. Robert Lee Gaudino himself was a Professor of Political Science who had exceptionally creative teaching methods. Kurt Tauber was the Gaudino scholar who established the committee and its purpose is to emulate Gaudino and develop innovative teaching methods.

Although different years and different combinations of people and course material yield varying results, the FRS program is gaining popularity and most FRS students, both past and present, have a positive attitude towards it.

Williams E looks like any other freshman entry. The common room where the professor periodically comes and holds extra classes has second-hand couches and a quote board with the same bawdy quotes that other entries have. The students lie around with their shoes off, in bean bag chairs, and on the floor as they listen to the professor. There is more laughter than in a normal classroom and everyone lounges comfortably, but they are also very focused.

The purpose of FRS is to fuse the classroom with the living environment and the professor’s coming to the dorm, a new practice this year, enhances the experience. FRS students of the past complained that they never saw their professors outside of the classroom.

The overlap between residential and academic life can lead to personal tensions being brought into the classroom. These issues can be accentuated by the fact that sometimes classes are held in the entry. “When FRS goes good, it is great. When it goes bad, it goes worse,” said Professor of Religion William Darrow, who teaches this year’s FRS. He said when students have problems with their living environment, it comes into the classroom with them and it can make things really tense.

Peter Adams ’00, one of the JAs in Williams E, doesn’t see any problems surfacing yet and describes the entry as, “a pretty tight group. They have class together so they get to know how each other thinks more than they might normally.” He said in a normal entry, there are always those few kids that you never see or get to know, but that can’t happen in an FRS entry.

Living with classmates also seems to create lasting relationships because of the tight bonds that are formed. “I’m still friends with the majority of my freshman entry,” Adam Bloom ’99 said. He thinks that probably has to do with how exceptionally close they were freshman year.

People choose FRS for many different reasons. “Some people might do FRS because they think it is some kind of honors program, but it is not,” Darrow said.

Most FRS students find living with their classmates an advantage especially because the class is quite challenging. “You can always get a fresh viewpoint if you are having trouble with a reading one night,” Eric Getty ’02 said.

Katherine French ’02 finds the course “really hard” and said it’s just as useful to have people to complain to as it is to have people to study with.

Another advantage of FRS is the diversity of the students, not always attained in other freshman entries. Nick Minekime ’02 finds this very helpful. “When I need to know about Islam, I can ask my Muslim entrymate,” he said, “I get a personal, real-life perspective.”

Darrow also noted some benefits of his FRS classes of which he has taught three so far. “The class is just much more intensive,” he said. Discussions tend to be better because people know each other well and he said it is convenient to have access to all his students in one place. However, there are some potential problems with FRS.

The success of FRS depends greatly on attitude and motivation. “My FRS was terrible because my entry was so apathetic,” Erryn Leinbaugh ’99 said. “No one cared.”

Rob Seitelman ’01 also remembers apathy in his entry. “Instead of collectively sticking with it, we collectively turned against it, which had terrible results,” he said. Seitelman attributes this problem partly to class choice. The FRS course that year was Philosophy 101. Seitelman said it is important to pick a class that, “people can get excited about and have to work together in.”

Bloom also feels that class choice is critical. He took “Baby Booms and Busts” which is what he called a “very specific Division II class that doesn’t apply to anything but other Division II classes.” He feels that FRS classes should be more overarching like English and religion so that they can be more applicable for everyone. The FRS course this year is Religion 101.

One reason behind the problem of class choice is that FRS is a purely volunteer activity for professors. Darrow said it is hard to find professors willing to do it. “To do FRS you have to volunteer and that often means giving something else up,” he said. It is hard to find a department each year that has someone to spare.

Problems such as these have led to the program nearly being terminated more than once since its creation in the 80s. Despite challenges from faculty, parents, and students, FRS is gaining popularity. Darrow says more students apply than can be accepted to the program. “I would like to see more FRS courses available,” he said. He thinks that there could be more than one per year.

One drawback to adding more FRS entries is the possibility of division among the first-year class. “[FRS] does definitely have a separate and exclusive identity,” Darrow said.

Many people already perceive the FRS group as being too disconnected. Measures such as housing the group on the Freshman Quad have been taken to counter these effects. At one point in its history, FRS was housed in Brooks, which, because of its location, had a segregating effect on the group.

FRS would like to shake the stigma of being exclusive. “We aren’t much different from other entries,” Adams said. He adds that he didn’t choose to JA FRS for any other reason than that he has known some really nice FRS people. He didn’t participate himself and hasn’t taken Religion 101. “I wanted to be in the freshman quad,” he said.

Seitelman saw the struggle against the stigma of being exclusive as a real problem for his entry. “We and our JAs tried so hard not to be exclusive, but as a result, we didn’t bond that well,” he said. Bloom said that he thought his entry only avoided the same problem because they were “a surprisingly well-adjusted entry.”

FRS receives some criticism just as every program does, but most participants find it an original and helpful way to learn. Wootters has seen students who didn’t think they enjoyed FRS much at the time come back several years later and reflect that it was a very valuable experience after all. With such interest and support from students past and present, the program will certainly continue to play a role in the first-year experience.