[Fresh] Core Humanities

John Immerwahr (john.immerwahr@villanova.edu)
Thu, 21 Oct 2004 17:01:18 -0400

Interview with Dr. John A. Doody, Robert M. Birmingham
Endowed Chair, Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts
and Sciences, Director of the Core Humanities Seminar
Program, Professor, Department of Philosophy.

Fresh@News. Every first year student at Villanova talks a
lot about their Core Humanities Seminar. What is that all
about?

Dr. John A. Doody. This is one of our signature programs
at Villanova. It has been in place for 12 years and we are
extremely proud of it. The idea is that every first year
student is enrolled in a two semester program that we call
the Core Humanities Seminars. There are two different
seminars; the first is "Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance
Thought" and the second is "The Enlightenment to the
Present." About 80 percent of our first year students take
Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance Thought in the first
semester, then follow up with the Modern thought. The
others take them in reverse order.

Fresh@News. So what does a Core Humanities Seminar look
like? How would I tell it apart from another course?

JD. If you walked into the room, here is what you would
see. Instead of a professor standing at the front of a big
classroom giving a lecture, you would see 15 or 16 students
sitting at a seminar table. On any given day, they would
have one of the most important and central texts of the
western intellectual tradition open in front of them – in
October that might be Plato, Sophocles, or the Bible – and
they'll be having a lively discussion about what that text
really means. When things are working right that professor
won't be giving a lecture but will be driving the discussion
forward with probing questions, or maybe calling on one of
the shyer students to make a contribution.

Fresh@News. What is the theme of the seminar?

JD. We offer almost 100 sections of this course a
semester. In the Ancient course, the readings are pretty
similar from section to section, and all of them include
something from St. Augustine, usually The Confessions. But
each instructor gives the course a particular theme or
spin. For example, I was just talking to one of our
instructors whose course is focused on friendship.
Friendship is a critical topic of interest for college
freshmen and this instructor helps them explore the
intersections between the discussions of friendship they
read in ancient texts and what is going on in their lives
today.

Fresh@News. What are some of the skills that Core
Humanities emphasizes?

JD. We've already mentioned helping students hone their
skills in oral presentation, and an equally important
emphasis is on writing. Typically the students do thirty
pages of writing in a semester, and that also includes a lot
of rewriting. And of course, we also throw some very
difficult primary source texts at them, which really helps
sharpen their ability to read critically and think
analytically. Finally, we do a lot of work with writing
portfolios, so students start to learn to be more
self-critical of their own strengths and weakness as
writers.

Fresh@News. I've been hearing about learning communities.
What is that about?

JD. For us, learning does not stop when a student leaves
class at the end of the hour. We want students to struggle
with these ideas not just in class but also while they are
at lunch, or in informal discussions (and maybe even
arguments) in the residence hall late at night. One way we
have found to enhance that experience is to house students
with the classmates from their Core Humanities section. We
call this arrangement – where students live with their Core
Humanities Section – a first year learning community.
Parents may have heard about our two premier learning
communities, the Villanova Experience and Visions of
Freedom. But we also have many other learning community
programs. If a student lives O'Dwyer, Moriarity, or
Simpson, you'll hear that virtually everyone in those halls
has classes with the same Core Humanities professor. The
same is true on South Campus. If a student lives in
Catherine or Stanford, he or she has discovered that most of
his classmates from Core also live in the same residence
hall. We've been pleased with this approach, because it
makes it easy for the students to get to know each other,
and to work together in groups.

Fresh@News: What should parents do to support the work in
Core Humanities?

JD. I would suggest that parents probe a little deeper than
the usual, "How are your classes going?" They might ask
their son or daughter what the student is reading in Core,
and specifically ask what are some of the things they are
talking about. Parents might also ask the students to share
some of their written work. These students are doing some
very fascinating work, and I think many of our parents would
really be interested to read some of the details. If the
student says that he or she is struggling with Core or not
understanding the material, the student should definitely
seek out the professor during office hours. The Core
professors are used to teaching freshmen students, and they
are very good at helping students develop their skills.

Fresh@News: Thanks, Dr. Doody, and we want to remind our
readers that the Writing Center is another great resource
for students who are having a little difficulty with some of
those Core papers. We'll have an interview on that, coming
up shortly.

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