Intellectual Odyssey

By Debra Holtz
Illustration by Carl Detorres

Inviting a new generation to join the conversation

Ask alums what their most valuable learning experience was at Saint Mary’s and they will likely answer: Collegiate Seminar. They are quick to list the valuable skills they gained from Seminar: analysis, articulation, critical thinking and appreciation for the opinions of others. All that, and having the opportunity to read the great works of the Western world — The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, The Metamorphosis and many others.

Alums often develop appreciation for Seminar in retrospect, once they are in the workplace and realize they are more well-read and better equipped to solve difficult problems than their peers. Some alums keep coming back for more by attending the monthly Brother DeSales Seminar on campus.

“We’re trying to teach people to be lifelong thinkers,” said professor Robert Gardner. “They come back to the alumni Seminar with a wealth of experience they’ve gained through years of living and revisit the same ideas they considered in College, but with different answers.”

While the Great Books are timeless, some say the changing nature of today’s College students raises questions about the Seminar curriculum.

Many faculty members complain this generation of students raised in the digital age is entering Saint Mary’s unprepared for the intellectual challenge and unwilling to do the extensive reading required for the Seminar experience.

“Some of our kids are lost,” says anthropology and sociology professor Lynn Meisch, who has taught Seminar for 10 years. “They’re just not coming in with the necessary experience, especially with the increase in first-generation students.”

At her own alma mater, Reed College, Meisch recalls that her freshman humanities seminars were supplemented with talks by professors, which gave historical and cultural background to the texts.

“Our students desperately need context,” Meisch says. “They’re not coming in well-read or with huge vocabularies.”

Jose Feito, an associate psychology professor, has been enamored with the seminar method since he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago; it even inspired him to be a teacher. Since 2001, he has been researching Seminar in projects supported by the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning.

“It’s improved my teaching,” Feito says of his research. “I’m interested in knowing more about what’s going on in my classroom.”

Feito says there are two competing perspectives on what students should learn in Seminar: One pedagogical intent of Seminar is to have students learn specific content. The other, which Feito subscribes to, sees the goal as developing intellectual skills through discourse.

That “process-driven” method has guided the Saint Mary’s Collegiate Seminar program since it began in 1941. With its roots in the Great Books tradition of St. John’s College, Collegiate Seminar follows a formalist model where the Great Books are read chronologically and without critical context.

The key difference between the two programs, says Feito, is that the Saint Mary’s Seminar compresses four years of study into four semesters. To illustrate a drawback to that approach, Feito points to the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, such as Summa Theologica.

“Aquinas is so central to the development of Western thought and particularly at a Catholic college, but Aquinas is deadly as a Seminar piece because it is so difficult to understand and it requires that you understand a lot of Aristotle, which (some students) don’t,” Feito says. He prefers his alma mater’s approach, where the Great Books are connected thematically in seminars, because he thinks it creates more opportunity for intellectual discourse.

Unlike students at St. John’s or in Saint Mary’s Integral Program who take the Great Book curriculum full time, most Saint Mary’s undergraduates view Collegiate Seminar merely as a general education requirement. That combined with the difficulty and sheer number of texts can make it a Sisyphean task.

“We assign too much reading in Collegiate Seminar,” Feito says. “They’re totally overwhelmed and they throw in the towel.”

Or they resort to SparkNotes, free online study guides that some students read instead of the books.

“We have an ongoing problem of how do we bring some students up to speed and prevent them from relying on SparkNotes,” Gardner says. “Most students don’t want to read. Their culture is to do the minimum amount of work instead of excelling at what they do.”

Outgoing Seminar director Brother Kenneth Cardwell says that although some students entering the College seem “reading-atrophied,” he does not share the view that the reading list is too long or that the curriculum should be supplemented with historical background lectures.

“What’s wrong with being lost?” Brother Kenneth asks. “It seems like a good place to start. It’s what Seminar is all about — a group of persons trying to find out where they are. We help each other find our bearings by talking to one another — akin to parachuting into a fog-shrouded forest.”

Nonetheless, Gardner says, many faculty members favor an academic boot camp for all freshmen, similar to those held in August for High Potential Program students where they read The Iliad.

Feito and Gardner say the College has not effectively communicated the purpose and value of Collegiate Seminar to students. To remedy that, Feito has developed an interactive video of a Seminar discussion to train faculty and students on how to best approach the method. Incoming freshmen are required to watch the video over the summer and respond to online questions about what the speakers say, and who they think the best student in the class was and why. They will discuss their impressions during their first Collegiate Seminar class.

That introduction could prove valuable since the success of a Seminar depends on the active engagement of its participants. Students learn from classmates, with teachers helping to pose the questions but not providing the answers. During Seminar discussions, students are expected to refer to specific lines from the text and are graded on participation.

“If students don’t read, the Seminar can’t happen,” says Feito, who teaches most of his psychology classes through Seminar rather than lecture. “I think a lot of students may attempt to read and then get frustrated and stop.”

To help students develop reading skills, Feito says teachers must first understand how they read. His new research is in comparing how students’ notes on King Lear differ from those on a philosophical argument by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Diverse educational and cultural backgrounds and students’ temperaments also play a role in Seminar participation.

Ashley Blackmon, a student in Meisch’s freshman Roman, Christian and Medieval Thought Seminar in spring 2007, says she was comfortable with the format because of her experience on the debate team and in Advanced Placement high school classes.

“Seminar teaches you how to interact properly with other students,” Blackmon says. “It also teaches you to come out of your shell.”

That was the experience of Alexis Taylor, who attended an all-girls high school and struggled as a freshman with speaking in a co-ed class.
“During the first semester, I kept quiet. Certain people in the class took over and I didn’t know where to jump in,” Taylor recalls. “I was getting a bad grade so it kind of forced me to do it. Now, I like it more.”

Meisch’s technique for encouraging participation is to have each student type up a question that they pose to the class. She also encourages students to develop their vocabularies by turning it into a game — they take turns trying to stump her on definitions of words they didn’t understand. During a class in May, Meisch won by successfully defining “cuckold,” dalliance” and “pickerel” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale.

Renee Rees ’07 says Collegiate Seminar was difficult when she was a freshman because of “the embarrassment factor — being uncomfortable to share what you thought and felt and back it up for fear of being judged and devalued.” Rees, who took Feito’s Psychology of Gender class in spring 2007, was more confident as an upperclassman.

“I feel like now I can engage in the material in a different way,” she says. “We digest it on our own and then come together and reach a mutual understanding.”

For Feito, that process of shared inquiry is at the heart of the Seminar experience. In his first research paper published in 2002, “Exploring Intellectual Community,” several students describe how they gained insights during a Greek Thought Seminar:

  • “It almost always happens while listening to others speak. Someone will say something that sparks my own train of thought.”
  • “I feed off of others’ ideas. I come to class with my own interpretation and listen to others to see if they can shape my own.”
  • “I think in almost every discussion I gain many new insights because I hear other people’s perspectives on the book, and everyone has different thoughts. Just listening to others, light bulbs flash in my head.”

If Seminar is successful as a teaching tool, students leave with social and emotional skills as well as intellectual capacity.

In his research, Feito found that Seminar students develop social bonds in the communal classroom that he calls “intellectual intimacy.” Students quoted in his study said those relationships were more profound than their friendships outside of Seminar.

“Without a safe and inviting social climate, the intellectual work of shared inquiry cannot proceed,” Feito wrote. “This shared inquiry, in turn, fosters an intimacy that is rarely apparent in our everyday social relationships.”

Michael Nerney ’79 says he has even fonder recollections of Seminar classes than of football games or toga parties. That’s why he started attending the alumni Seminars in the early ’80s.

“I thought the Great Books type of learning was really cool at the time, so to be able to continue that gave me a chance to stay connected to Saint Mary’s and stimulate my gray cells,” Nerney says.

One of his favorite Seminar texts was Laches by Plato, a Socratic dialogue about courage, which he read during his freshman year.

“It was a difficult concept for 18-year-olds,” Nerney recalls. “With the Socratic method it was humbling to realize that you thought you knew stuff, but you really didn’t. You had to slow down and really think about it.”