[Fresh] Classes at Villanova

john immerwahr (john.immerwahr@villanova.edu)
Fri, 15 Sep 2006 12:04:58 -0400

Interview with Dr. John Doody, Robert M. Birmingham Chair and Director
of the Villanova Center for Liberal Education, Associate Dean for the
Core Curriculum, and Professor of Philosophy

Fresh@News. Our first year students have now had a few weeks of classes.
What are some of the issues and questions that they face in these first
few weeks?

Dr. John Doody. It was, for many of them, a lot different from what they
experienced in high school. For the most part, the courses are more
challenging, and the instructors expect them to be much more organized
and responsible about getting their own work done. I would really stress
the issue of learning time management skills in the first semester.

Fresh@News. How do they respond?

JD. The vast majority do extremely well. They are, after all, bright,
eager, and well-prepared and it shows. They have overcome the first week
of “homesickness” and settled in quite well. However, there is now a
second period of adjustment. The biggest issue, again, – 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 what we call the Augustine and
Culture Villanova Seminar (formally known as the Core Humanities Seminar).

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

Dr. John A. 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 called the Augustine and Culture Villanova Seminars. One of the
two courses is called Traditions in Conversation, the other is called
Modernity and its Discontents. About 90 percent of our first year
students take Traditions in Conversation in the first semester, then
follow up with the Modernity seminar. The others take them in reverse order.

Fresh@News. So what does an ACS 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 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. At this time of the year
that might be Plato, Homer, 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
Confessions (which is at least in part his autobiography), readings from
the Bible and a Shakespearean play, which this year is The Tempest for
most classes. 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.

Fresh@News. What are some of the skills that the ACS Seminar 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 writing
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 ACS section. We call this arrangement – where students live with
their ACS classmates – a first year learning community. Parents may have
heard about our premier learning communities back in May, such as the
Leadership Experience, Performers and Artists, Global Citizens, Visions
of Freedom, and Health and Wellness. But we also have many other
learning community programs. Most first year students have discovered by
now that all of the other students in their ACS Seminar live in the same
or in a nearby building. Often the other students in their floor will
have the same ACS 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 the ACS Seminar?

JD. I would suggest that parents probe a little deeper than the usual,
"How are your classes going?" They might ask their sons or daughters
what books they are reading in their Villanova Seminar and specifically
ask about the ideas and themes they are talking about in their classes.
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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