Liberal Arts Seminar Evolves

Starting this fall, the curriculum of the Liberal Arts Seminar will change for the first time in over 40 years. The first-year College program has focused on the 19th century in its study of history, literature, philosophy and theology since its inception.

The Liberal Arts Seminar is an 18-credit, year-long seminar offered to first-year students in the College. Through collaborative and interdisciplinary teaching, the course load for the seminar comprises history and literature of the 19th century in the fall and philosophy and theology of the 19th century in the spring. The format of the seminar – the class size and the interdisciplinary element – will remain intact, according to College Dean Chester Gillis. The faculty of the seminar will alternate every four years, however, as will the content and the focus of the seminar depending on the faculty members in place.

“The proposed changes focus on the content area and the specialization of the professors of the seminar. We may shape this first seminar for one year and then recruit faculty on a competitive basis for a four-year cycle,” Gillis said. “Four years is enough time to create a cohesive unit and not too long since I want to offer this opportunity to a variety of faculty, which will also mean offering different periods and perspectives.”

According to French Department Chair Andrew Sobanet, who is a member of the committee in charge of proposing changes to the Liberal Arts Seminar, the new seminar will not focus strictly on literature, philosophy, theology and history.

“Consistent with the College’s new, more fluid vision for the [Liberal Arts Seminar], faculty will be chosen from a broader selection of disciplines and fields. Seasoned professors will be selected from many of the departments in the College, especially English, history, theology, philosophy, sociology, government and psychology, and any of the departments of the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics,” Sobanet said.

The faculty and the topic of the seminar have yet to be decided for the fall 2010 semester. Gillis has appointed a committee composed of Fr. William McFadden, S.J., the current theology professor of the seminar, and professors Sobanet, Alison Hilton of the art and art history department and Maria Donoghue of the biology department to head the process of recommending changes. According to McFadden, the committee will meet in early February and have the final report submitted to the dean soon afterward.

The seminar has enjoyed success for over 40 years since its establishment in 1968, according to McFadden. In 1970, the enrollment for the seminar was capped at 30 students, a standard that has been maintained ever since. In recent years, 75 to 85 students have applied to the seminar per year, according to McFadden.

“The [Liberal Arts Seminar], then, stands by itself and perhaps for that reason it has imperceptibly moved in the direction of becoming an honors program,” McFadden said.

However, of the four original faculty members – English professor Roger Slakey, history professor Donald Penn, philosophy professor John Brough and McFadden – only McFadden will remain in an active teaching position next year, as Slakey and Penn have retired and Brough will retire at the end of May. According to Gillis, this change makes now an appropriate time to rethink the seminar’s content.

“The seminar will address different periods from multiple disciplinary perspectives that may include some of those currently used, but other disciplines will be added to the mix,” Gillis said.

As he prepares to retire, Brough remains optimistic about the seminar’s future.

“Change can be a good thing. It just has to be thought through with care, which I trust and hope the people involved are doing,” Brough said.

Past participants attest that while the study of the 19th century is important, the class structure of the seminar is crucial.

“I think [the Liberal Arts Seminar] should retain its small class size – having an intimate setting is crucial to the experience,” said Matthew Hoyt (COL ’12), who took the seminar during the 2008-2009 academic year.

Bridget Power (COL ’12), another student of the seminar that year, said that although she enjoyed studying the 19th century, her experience was primarily enriched by the bond she has developed with her peers and the professors in the class of 30 students.

“LAS helped me with the transition to college. I developed strong relationships with my professors and classmates because we met on a regular basis throughout the year,” Power said.

According to Gillis, students will continue to apply for the seminar and be selected for it by the faculty who teach the seminar.

“Alumni of the seminar often attest that it was their most formative intellectual experience in the College,” Gillis said. “I am most grateful for the first 40 years of the seminar to [the] professors . who so capably challenged and guided students in the Liberal Arts Seminar.”

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