Seminars Help Freshmen Ease Into Academic Life
Published: Friday, September 7, 2012
Updated: Friday, September 7, 2012 02:09
Amid the chaos of freshman year, Ignatius Seminars offer a comfortable setting in which students can acclimate to the rigors of collegiate academic life.
Designed exclusively for first-year students in the College, Ignatius Seminars were instituted in 2006 by former Dean Jane McAuliffe. Since then, the program has expanded from six seminar offerings to 11 this year.
According to Dean Chester Gillis, the seminars’ main objective is to introduce first-year students to intellectual life at Georgetown.
“The idea of these courses is for first-year students to have someone they can look to as a mentor … and have someone to introduce them to university life during their first year and hopefully in the future as well,” he said.
Gillis personally selects all Ignatius Seminar professors, who then teach a seminar for the next three years.
“I want someone who will invest himself or herself in this seminar in a personal way. This is not just another course. It means developing a relationship with 15 other students, and I am looking for people who are good at that and want to do it,” Gillis said. “If you take this seminar, these students will know you really well.”
The group of professors chosen to lead the seminars spans nine university departments and includes University President John J. DeGioia.
For the past three years, DeGioia has taught “Working on Ourselves: Imagination, Interior Freedom and the Academy,” which explores the opportunities that are available in the context of the university as they relate to establishing one’s own sense of self.
According to DeGioia, the course encourages students to scrutinize the meaning of authenticity.
“Part of [the course] is an exploration of what it means to decide and act on our most deeply held values and the obstacles we confront that prevent us from doing that,” DeGioia said.
According to DeGioia, freshman fall is a perfect time to take the course, since it serves as a period of exploration and experimentation for new students.
“The most powerful thing is watching the trajectories of students. … We were all first-years once. We all had different expectations … and this material requires a certain kind of approach that has to be learned,” he said. “Watching the material come alive is the most powerful experience that you can have.”
Department of English professor John Pfordresher, who teaches “Italy and Imagination,” said that the small, discussion-based nature of the seminars also helps acclimate students to a potentially overwhelming university teaching style that consists mostly of lectures.
“Many faculty members have been concerned about how some incoming first-year students find themselves in several large enrollment classes and feel enmity and may get turned off [because they] feel like one of many,” Pfordresher said.
According to Peter Jorgensen (COL ’15), a student in department of government professor James Lengle’s seminar, “Following in the Framers’ Footsteps: Rewriting the Constitution for the 21st Century,” the class eased his transition to campus life during his freshman fall.
“Everyone was in the same place — transitioning to college — so being with a small group of people who were in the same position and who held, to some degree, the same interests you did was a great way to get acclimated,” Jorgensen said.
Capped at 15 students, the seminars encourage students to work closely with their classmates and professors. According to department of Slavic languages professor Marcia Morris, many students form strong bonds during the first semester.
“There is something about this particular seminar where everyone really wanted to be there — isn’t doing it for some particularly practical purpose — that brings them all very much together,” Morris said. “[My students] learned to respect each other. … There gets to be a camaraderie.”
Students praised the intimate setting of Morris’s class, “Shifting Selves: Changelings and Doubles,” which they said facilitated the formation of friendships.
“My favorite part was how supportive professor Morris was. … She offered so much advice on things not even related to the class and genuinely cared about how we were all doing,” Gianna Maita (COL ’15), who took Morris’s seminar last year, wrote in an email. “I miss the rest of the class. We all became friends.”
Professors say they also benefit from the close-knit community formed in the seminars.
“It’s been a joy for me, getting back with a small class of first-year students,” Lengle said. “It has reinvigorated my enthusiasm for teaching because of that one-on-one relationship you can have with the students in this setting.”
Gillis encourages Ignatius Seminar professors to bolster their courses with unusual approaches to the material of their choice.
“It’s a perk for the professors as well as the students because the professors get to teach anything they want. And it doesn’t have to be anything in their field,” department of Spanish and Portuguese professor Barbara Mujica, who teaches the seminar “Faith, Fiction and Film,” said.
The seminars are also unique because the university grants each professor a $2,000 stipend to fund activities outside the classroom.