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Interview with Dr. John Doody, Robert M. Birmingham Chair and Director of the Villanova Center for Liberal Education, Associate Dean for First Year Studies, and Professor of Philosophy
Fresh@News. Our first year students have now had almost two 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. When I asked my class what they were most surprised by they spoke of having so much unorganized free time with less supervision than they were used to. Their 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 in 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?
Dr. John A. Doody. 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.
Fresh@News. Since you are the director of that program, can you tell us a bit about it?
JD. This is one of our signature programs at Villanova. It has been in place for 17 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. In a few weeks they’ll be reading St. Augustine. The idea behind the seminar is that the professor, instead of lecturing, is 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. But each instructor teaches her/his 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 enables them to sharpen their ability to read critically. 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. And why do they call it the Augustine and Culture Seminar?
JD. The most obvious reason is that all of the students will read the work of St. Augustine, which, as I said, is often his Confessions. In it, Augustine talks about the struggles he faced when he was a college-aged student, so our students find a lot there to identify with. Of course, we also stress the emphasis of Augustine on western culture generally, and as the year goes along they understand his impact on religion, philosophy, political science, and many other fields. But finally, we don’t just want students to learn about Augustine, we want them to learn to be like him, in certain ways, especially his passionate dedication to the search for truth, his powerful understanding of the role of love in human life, and his focus on community. In other words, it is all about Villanova’s Latin motto veritas, unitas, caritas (truth, unity, love).
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 – the Villanova Experience. Parents may have heard about our premier learning communities last spring, such as the Leadership Program, Citizens for a Diverse World, the Wellness Experience, and Politics of Freedom. But we also have many other learning community programs, including programs for our commuting students. 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 ACS class 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. I actually suggested to my ACS class that they send their first paper they wrote for me back home and share it with their parents. 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.