[Fresh] Interview with Dr. Doody

Kelly Donio (kelly.donio@villanova.edu)
Tue, 06 Sep 2005 08:58:04 -0400

Interview with Dr. John A. Doody, Robert Birmingham Professor of Core
Humanities, Assistant Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Fresh@News. Our first year students had their first classes last week.
What do you think the experience was like for them?

Dr. John Doody. It was, for many of them, a lot different from what they
experienced in high school, especially for those who had attacks of
“senioritus” after they received notification of acceptance into college
and coasted for the last half of senior year. For the most part, the
courses will be more challenging, and the instructors will expect them
to be much more organized and responsible about getting their own work done.

Fresh@News. How do they respond?

JD. The vast majority do extremely well. They are bright, eager, and
well-prepared and it shows. However, there is often a period of initial
adjustment as well. The biggest issue – and we stress this a lot in our
New Student Orientation – is time management. We did a survey recently
where we asked freshmen after their first year whether the workload was
what they expected. Interestingly a lot of students told us that the
workload at Villanova was lighter than they expected. Then we asked,
“What about your grades, were they higher or lower than you expected?”
Many of the same students said that their grades were lower than they
expected. Sooner or later they figure out that there is a relationship
between these two answers, and that the workload only seems lighter
because no one is telling them what to do on a day to day basis.

Fresh@News. Tell us a bit about the courses that the students are taking?

JD. There is enormous variation in what our students take in their first
year. Almost everyone takes math, and I understand you’ll also have an
interview with Doug Norton, the head of our Math department. The other
thing that they all have in common is their Core Humanities Seminar.

Fresh@News. Since you are the director of that program, can you tell us
a bit about it?

Dr. John Doody. This is one of our signature programs at Villanova. It
has been in place for 14 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, Ancient Medieval and Renaissance thought and Modern
Thought. About 90 percent of our first year students take Ancient and
Medieval 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 (after the first introductory class),
here is what you would see. Instead of a professor standing at the front
of a big classroom giving a lecture, you would see 16 students sitting
at a seminar table. Typically they would have one of the most important
and central texts of the western intellectual tradition open in front of
them – in late August or September 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, and maybe calling on one of the shyer students to make a
contribution.

Fresh@News. Do the seminars all have the same theme?

JD. We offer over 100 sections of this course a semester. Typically the
readings are pretty similar from section to section, and all of them
include something from St. Augustine, often, his highly regarded
“autobiography” Confessions, readings from the Bible and a Shakespeare
play. But each instructor teaches his/her course with a particular theme
in mind. For example, I was just talking to one of our instructors whose
course is focused on friendship. Friendship is a big topic of interest
for college freshmen and this instructor tries to get them to apply the
discussions of friendship that they read in the ancient world to what is
going on in their lives today.

Fesh@news. What are some of the skills that Core Humanities tries to
emphasize?

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 more than 30 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 sharpens their
ability in analysis. Finally, we do a lot of work with portfolios, so
students start to learn to be more self-critical of their own strengths
and weakness.

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 discussions in the
residence hall that go late into the 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 back in May, the Villanova Experience and Visions of
Freedom. But we also have many other learning community programs. Most
students will soon discover that all of the other students in their Core
Humanities Seminar live in the same or in a nearby building. Often the
other students in their floor will have the same Core professor even if
they are in a different section. All of this stimulates a lot of
discussion and interaction in the halls.

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 sons or daughter what
they are studying 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 hear some of the details.

Fresh@News. And how about some general advice for parents, to support
academic work?

JD. If there is one thing I would like to emphasize it is that parents
should always focus on learning, not on grades. I think parents should
ask students what they are finding new and exciting in their courses,
what new ideas they are dealing with, and what books and articles they
are reading. I would avoid a focus on tests and grades. The students had
so much emphasis on that in high school, now we need to get them to
focus on the excitement of learning.

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