Nothing to declare?
That’s true of a third of incoming L&S undergrads,a group poised to profit from a new survey course focusing on the college’s ‘intellectual landscape’

By Alix Schwartz, L&S Undergraduate Division



Chancellor Robert Berdahl took the podium for the opening lecture in a new freshman seminar designed to acquaint incoming students in the College of Letters and Science with the full breadth of the college’s offerings.
Genevieve Shiffrar photo

02 October 2002 | All freshmen in the College of Letters and Science start off their undergraduate careers as undeclared, not specifying a particular major. They are invited to indicate an intended major on their application forms, but this is in no way binding, on them or on the college—it’s just an informal expression of their hopes and preferences.

More than a third of the college’s freshman registrants decline to state even a preference: they are completely undecided about their choice of a major. Are these students hopeless dilettantes? Academic wayfarers tossed hither and yon on the waves of their own indecision?

Not according to Steven Botterill, Associate Dean of the L&S Undergraduate Division. He thinks these undecided students are right on track.

Botterill defines the essence of a liberal arts education as “the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and in whatever direction it opens up to us.” He adds that “students who have decided exactly what they want to study before they take their first step onto Sproul Plaza may already have closed off possibilities they hadn’t previously been aware of.”

This fall Botterill is the lead instructor of an new course for undecided freshmen, L&S 1: Exploring the Liberal Arts. The course is the brainchild of Kwong-loi Shun, Dean of the L&S Undergraduate Division. Designed as an alternative to traditional orientation courses, the class offers an overview of the academic landscape of the college. While other orientation courses are covering such topics as stress management, learning styles, and interpersonal relationships, L&S 1 takes students on an intellectual tour of the five divisions of Letters and Science — with deans and faculty members as their tour guides.

The first day’s lecture was given by Chancellor Berdahl, who provided a whirlwind history of the Berkeley campus. He began his narrative in the days of the founding of the university, a time that might seem dusty to today’s students if it weren’t for the enduring relevance of the issues he raised.

For instance, he provided a historical explanation for the perennial tug of war between research and teaching: “German universities were created for the benefit of the faculty, and colonial American universities were created for the benefit of the students. These two models have always been in conflict in the American university. The liberal arts college, with its goal of nurturing the intellects of students, is the heir apparent of the English colonial college,” Berdahl said.

The great advantage of attending a liberal arts college within a world-class research university is that students experience the best of both traditions. Throughout the semester, the speakers in L&S 1 will highlight both the curricular treasures of the college and the opportunities for undergraduates to participate directly in the research activities of the campus.

Lectures by each of the deans alternate with faculty panels drawn from the departments within their divisions: Arts & Humanities, Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, and the Undergraduate Division.

The deans each give an overview of the field, while the faculty members focus on their own experiences, especially the turning points in their educations and careers. Since entering students are at a turning point in their own lives, they are especially receptive to hearing from others who have traveled this way before.

It’s early in the semester, but already there are signs that the class is reaching its intended audience. When asked why she signed up for the class, first-year student Kristina T. Ordanza said, “I want to be more aware of my opportunities on campus before declaring a major.”

Her classmate Will Traer agreed: “I signed up for this class because all of my older friends told me that I’d change my major a thousand times, and I figured this class might help me narrow down the field.”

After a recent faculty panel, Mishana Hosseinioun raised her hand not to ask a question but to thank the trio of speakers from the biological sciences. “I never considered majoring in biology before, but after hearing you speak with such passion and enthusiasm about your work I am now considering it.”

Botterill, clearly pleased that the faculty’s enthusiasm was so contagious, said he hopes L&S 1 students will be “equally inspired by the other faculty panels to fully explore the resources of the college in quest of their own particular intellectual passions.”


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