After years of consideration, the decision of the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP) to discontinue the First-Year Residential Seminar (FRS) is a welcome one. Though FRS presented a noble goal – to integrate academics into the entry – and provided a positive experience for many participants, student and faculty enthusiasm for and participation in FRS has been lagging for years. With the discontinuation of FRS, both students and faculty should evaluate the role of academics and faculty in the entry and consider how we can promote intellectual life in our entries without risking that which makes them such a unique social experience for first-years.
It appears that the CEP will now focus its resources on finding a replacement for FRS that will broaden the program’s goal of integrating academic and residential life in a manner that engages all first-years and all entries. We at the Record believe that while the promotion of intellectual life on campus is a critical mission, the CEP should not simply assume that this mission is best achieved through the forced introduction of formal academics into the entry. While a more expansive first-year seminar program might provide first-years a common intellectual experience in one of their four classes, it would also undermine a critical notion of the entry as a microcosm of the College: The entry system is designed to force students who otherwise might not pick the same classes or activities to interact with one another. The entry in itself is already a learning experience – characterized by off-the-cusp conversations between entry-mates about classwork, politics and any number of intellectually stimulating topics – that does not require a class setting in order to occur.
Undoubtedly, the division between academics and entry life varies dramatically between entries and while some first-years are already intellectually stimulated, others could use greater encouragement. We believe that programs such as the revamped Williams Reads hold great potential in their ability to gradually break down the academic/residential divide. However, this potential lies, in part, in the optional nature of some programming. Simply forcing students to engage in academic pursuits in the entry will never be as effective as programs that seek to generate genuine interest.
There is also a difference between academics and faculty involvement in entry life. Especially in the case of first-years, it is incredibly important that students recognize that professors can have an active and beneficial role in their lives outside of the classroom. An informal program in which Junior Advisors can select a faculty member as an entry mentor could facilitate such a blending of faculty and perhaps academic conversation within the social environment of the entry. Neighborhoods already have faculty mentors, and first-year entries should be provided with comparable faculty resources. Having entry faculty mentors could encourage students to approach their professors during office hours, prompt them to schedule an additional meeting with their academic advisor or, conversely, encourage professors to show up to student performances and games. Though members of each individual entry should be able to determine the extent to which their faculty mentor is involved in entry life the idea of having a willing, able and enthusiastic professor ready to introduce first-years to Williams student-faculty relationships is worthy of exploration.