[Fresh] First Day of Class

John Immerwahr (john.immerwahr@villanova.edu)
Fri, 01 Sep 2000 18:11:16 -0400

This is the second posting from Fresh@News, Villanova’s E-mail news
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Interview with Dr. Thomas W. Smith, Assistant Professor of Political
Science and Acting Director of the Core Humanities Seminar Program.

Fresh@News: The class of 2004 just survived its first week of classes.
Regardless of what program the students are in, everyone in the class
takes a Core Humanities Seminar. What did they find when they went to

Dr. Thomas W. Smith: We hope that they found what they were looking for
when they chose Villanova, a small discussion-oriented seminar (with
usually 15 or fewer students), and a professor who is approachable and
enthusiastic about the subject. They also saw a demanding syllabus with
difficult primary texts, and a lot of writing requirements.

Fresh@News: What are we trying to accomplish in the Core Humanities

TWS: Ultimately, we are trying to help the students reach more of their
potential as human beings. We hope this course will help a student
further develop to be a free person, who can make choices about all the
important things in life: family, home, faith, career, relationships,
and other personal issues. Along the way we want them to sharpen some
very important skills. They'll learn to talk intelligently in class and
to read challenging primary texts. Their writing skills will improve,
and, at the same time, they'll get a good foundation in some of the
books and ideas that have shaped the contemporary world. Writing is
especially important. They'll often be writing a paper every week, and
these papers won't be summaries, but answers to difficult questions that
will require both careful reading and thoughtful analysis.

Fresh@News: What do the students actually study?

TWS: If you look at the syllabi you'll see that in the Core Humanities
program, Villanova is making a conscious decision to go back to the
basics. Typically the seminars begin the semester with an intense look
at some of the ancient Greek classics, especially Plato, but also Homer
and the Greek tragedies. Students also read material from the Old and
New Testament. Later in the semester, the course usually turns to the
encounter between the Greek culture and the Biblical world, and most of
the instructors spend a lot of time with St. Augustine and his attempt
to mediate those two cultures. Then, toward, the end of the semester we
see how that synthesis plays out in figures such as Dante, St. Benedict,
and finally Shakespeare. In the second semester we are into the modern
world, but that is a long way off at this point.

Fresh@News: As the joke goes, our students will all be Y1K compliant by
the time they finish their first semester. Seriously, it sounds
ambitious, but how do the students like it?

TWS: At first many of them hate it. It is like boot camp. We are
trying to replace old habits with new ones, so the process is inevitably
painful. In the beginning they feel like they've been thrown into the
deep-end of the pool without knowing how to swim. As the semester goes
on, however, they really begin to enjoy the process and to see the
benefits. They especially enjoy the stimulating class discussions, and
the chance to share their ideas with other students and the professor.

Fresh@News: What effects do you see on the students?

TWS: You know, I came to Villanova just as the Core Humanities Program
was being phased in. What struck me was the difference I saw between
the first and second year students who had been through the program and
the upper division students who hadn't. I was amazed by the difference
in their skills. The Sophomores were much better in class than the
Juniors and Seniors. Then I saw those same skills working their way
through as more and more students came to my upper division classes with
the background of Core Humanities training.

Fresh@News: A lot of colleges are emphasizing technical training, and
things that directly translate into a marketable skill. It sounds like
Villanova is going in the other direction, and putting a lot of emphasis
on the humanities and the classes.

TWS. If you have been on campus in the last two or three years, you
can see the visible reminders of Villanova's commitment to technical and
professional training. You would have seen a new Engineering building,
a major expansion of our Science building, and now an equally ambitious
expansion and renovation of our Commerce and Finance building. But we
don't see a dichotomy between our emphasis on the humanities and our
emphasis on technical and professional training. We feel that the
skills in self-understanding, perspective, writing, and communication
that we are trying to teach in Core Humanities are essential for any
field that the students choose to follow.

Fresh@News: What happens if students have problems in their Core
Humanities Seminar?

TWS: College is a big transition and sometimes students have trouble
adjusting. Especially in difficult courses such as Core Humanities, we
sometimes find that the student and the faculty member have different
learning styles and ways of thinking. Obviously the first thing we
always stress is that the student should go to the faculty member for
extra help. Students need to know that all faculty members have posted
office hours, when they are available to meet with students, and most
will make extra appointments to spend additional time with students who
need help. Villanova's writing center is an enormously useful resource
(http://www.writingcenter.villanova.edu/). At the writing center
students work with specially trained peer mentors, and I find that they
come away with a lot of new skills in how to outline a paper, produce a
draft, and especially how to develop the argument.

Fresh@News: We'll be doing interviews with the writing center director a
bit later on, but suppose the student is still having problems, what
happens then?

TWS: If a student is having a problem with an instructor, and can't
seem to resolve it through normal channels, he or she is always welcome
to come to our office in 104 Saint Augustine Center, and we will do
whatever we can to address the situation.

Fresh@News: What can parents do to help support their students?

TWS: A few things. First, parents should not be surprised if the
student is overwhelmed and frustrated. In high school, students get
pretty good at feeding back what they've heard in class, but in college
there is much more emphasis on discussing questions where there isn't an
official right answer, and where the student has to defend his or her
own position. Parents can gently remind their students that, after all,
going to college is an admission that one needs to learn, and students
should push themselves.

One of the biggest problems for first year students is always
time-management. Students who got use to writing the paper the night
before, may find that they need much more time. It is always useful for
parents to check to see if the student is managing his or her time well,
especially given the many distractions of college life.

Fresh@News: Should parents call the professor?

TWS: Generally speaking, I would not recommend that parents call a
professor directly. For one thing, professors are forbidden by law to
discuss individual students with third parties except under certain
defined conditions. In some cases it is illegal for a teacher to
discuss a students’ work with a parent, and the professor is usually not
in a position to know whether he or she may talk speak to a parent about
an individual student. If the problem is serious, and if the student
has been unable to work it out, please call or e-mail our office
(610/519-7325) and we'll do what we can to help. Parents can also find
out more about our program at our website

Fresh@News: Who teaches the Core Humanities Seminars?

TWS: Many of the teachers are our regular full-time faculty members,
who come from the departments of English, History, Philosophy, and
Theology. They usually ask to be assigned to Core Humanities because
they enjoy the close interaction with the students. A number of the
sections are taught by what we call the Arthur J. Ennis Post-doctoral
fellows. These faculty members are usually recent Ph.D.s whom we have
recruited from all over the country to come to Villanova for a few years
to teach Core Humanities. We look for people with top academic
credentials, but also with a passion for teaching in the kind of program
we offer. This year, for example, we have several new Ennis fellows,
who are joining us from Columbia, Fordham, Harvard, Princeton, and the
University of Chicago. We also have a number of part-time or adjunct
faculty members from the local area. They all have graduate degrees and
most of them have doctorates. Many of our part faculty members have
been teaching with us for years; some teach part-time in order to have
more time with their families, while others have a careers in the arts
or in other fields that allow them the flexibility to teach as well.

Fresh@News: Can you also tell us just a little bit about yourself? I
know that last year you won Villanova's coveted Lindback award for
distinguished teaching.

TWS: My Ph.D. is from The University of Notre Dame in Political
Science, and I am the acting director of Core Humanities while Dr. John
Doody is on leave. I specialize in political theory.

Fresh@News: Here is the question that all of us at Fresh@news are dying
to find out. Would Aristotle vote for, Al or Dubya?

TWS: Hmmm. That might be a topic for another interview.

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