Every freshman at the College of William and Mary takes a COLL 100 and a COLL 150. The courses offered this semester allow students to explore anywhere from Classical Athens to the Void as they do so.

The implementation of the COLL curriculum in 2015 brought with it changes to the terminology, but much has remained the same about freshman seminars. They are introductory courses, they cover every discipline under the sun, they’re taught by professors who love their subject and they are often wonderfully niche.

It’s a chance to take a class in a subject that a student might never take again, depending on their graduation requirements. For those firmly set on a pre-med track for instance, a COLL 100 might be a chance to delve into The Void. Despite its cryptic name, this class, taught by art professor Elizabeth Mead, is based in the material world. The course is designed to study an understanding of space — and the absence of it — and to develop a visual and verbal vocabulary for creating three-dimensional objects.

In the English department, one of the offered courses is Witches, Shrews and Amazons. This COLL 150 course, taught by professor Annelise Duerden, focuses on literary depictions of uncon-ventional women during the English Renaissance and places them in the historical context of 16th and 17th century England.

“One of the things that fascinates me is how simultaneously alien and familiar the distant past is for us now,” Duerden said. “This course highlights those overlapping differences and similarities by taking a live and important issue — gender politics — and looking at it through the strange labels of the past, when women who defied social norms were often branded ‘shrews,’ ‘witches’ or ‘amazons.’”

Additionally, Duerden said that freshman seminars, unlike more specialized major courses or large introductory classes, provide a uniquely dynamic energy to study the topic at hand, and that first-year students often have a sense of joy, energy and discovery in these seminars.

“Ideally, to my mind, a freshman seminar is a comfortable space for discovering and articulating new ideas. A good freshman seminar pushes students — and teachers — to learn something completely new and, in the process, reexamine what they already know,” Duerden said.

“It’s also a space where the students are new to each other and to William and Mary, and students get to know each other fairly well and develop friendships since they are at the same level, and it’s a small class where they do a lot of talking and sharing ideas,” Duerden said. “Ideally, to my mind, a freshman seminar is a comfortable space for discovering and articulating new ideas. A good freshman seminar pushes students — and teachers — to learn something completely new and, in the process, reexamine what they already know.”

If students want to go back even further back in history, one of the COLL 150 courses offered this fall is Revenge in Classical Athens, taught by classical studies professor Robert Nichols. This sem-inar explores the concept of revenge in Athenian society from 508-323 BCE and how the Ancient Greeks reconciled revenge with their developing democracies and the rule of law. Students can even focus on the unlucky Philippides’ final mortal endeavor with Physiology of the Marathon if Ancient Greece is not their desired topic of interest. In this course, taught by kinesiology professor Michael Harris, students develop their own marathon training program and have the opportunity to put that plan to the test by training for and even completing — if they so choose — a marathon or half marathon.

Some freshman seminars are seemingly perennial favorites, like Emerging Diseases. Biology professor Bev Sher has taught the course to first-year students since the mid-1990s, and the syllabus covers pandemics throughout history through thought-provoking literary texts. Yet, other courses are more experimental and aim to tackle issues that feel especially pertinent to contemporary politics. This year, history professor Jerry Watkins III is teaching Dixie Monuments for the first time.

Watkins’ Dixie Monuments class also coincides with the history department’s efforts to reconcile their values with the legacy of their namesake, Lyon Gardiner Tyler. At the end of the 2017-18 academic year, the department’s website was updated to include information about Tyler’s “troubling” legacy in matters of race and slavery. And to many Virginians, Watkins said, the history of the Confederacy and the folklore around the “Lost Cause” and the “Old South” are not remnants of a distant past, but ideas that continue to impact their culture.

“Since Charlottesville a year ago, the national conversation around what these monuments mean has become much more urgent,” Watkins said. “What should be really clear, not even to debate re-ally, is that if we take the people of the past at their word, these monuments are white supremacist.”

Beyond the scope of the history department, the College itself also frequently engages with the theme of its Confederate past. Only in 2015 did the College remove the Confederate battle flag from the College Mace and remove a commemorative plaque honoring rebel soldiers from the Wren Building.

“We as the history department and we as historians have a duty. Our duty generally is to help people understand the past, to understand our present, and, especially being this particular history department, we especially have a mandate to make comment, to do something, to help people under-stand, to help shape that conversation,” Watkins said.

“We as the history department and we as historians have a duty. Our duty generally is to help people understand the past, to understand our present, and, especially being this particular history department, we especially have a mandate to make comment, to do something, to help people under-stand, to help shape that conversation,” Watkins said.

The COLL 100s and 150s, Watkins said, are designed to allow freshmen to develop core academic research and writing skills, but they also allow both students and professors a certain freedom to engage with thought-provoking topics.

“This is one of the few times in life, unless you’re going into academia, that you’re going to have the luxury of the time to really deeply engage with those sorts of things,” Watkins said.

As freshmen tackle the challenges of course registration and of their first semester, that is something worth remembering.