Katherine Marshall teaches a seminar


Berkley Center Faculty Tackle Tough Questions in First-Year Seminars at Georgetown

By: Henry D. Brill

June 10, 2020

Berkley Center faculty are busy at work as they prepare to teach first-year seminars, held during Georgetown University’s fall semester, that tackle tough questions ranging from the search for self to the international response to COVID-19.

Senior Fellow Paul Elie and Managing Director Michael Kessler will each teach an Ignatius Seminar, a flagship course for first-year students in the College designed to create a small intellectual community. Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at the center, will teach an SFS Proseminar, a required course that allows new students to develop critical approaches to the study of global issues. 

“Part of the design for the first-year seminars is to introduce students to the challenges and opportunities of a liberal arts education in a small setting with close faculty and peer contact,” says Kessler. "The seminars build intellectual and dialogical capabilities that will serve students well as they read a variety of texts, as well as in their future jobs and community engagements.”

​Laying the Groundwork

Elie will teach an Ignatius Seminar on The Search, exploring different approaches to the personal search in the literature of our time. Reflecting on the search can be transformative for first-year students as they develop as writers. 

“One of the things that has become a sort of idée fixe for me is the experience of learning how to write by reading other writers,” says Elie. “Students will be invited to make use of this literary pattern of the search and use it to interpret their own experiences in brief non-fiction essays and reflective pieces.” 

Emulating other authors helps students to develop the writing skills that are central to the Georgetown education, according to Elie.

Marshall plans to take a similar approach in her SFS Proseminar on Pandemic Responses: Practical and Ethical Challenges. Students in the seminar will use the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and response to explore major challenges in international development. 

“I will focus on what the COVID-19 crisis has stripped away in terms of masks, particularly some of the broad challenges of inequality such as racial, ethnic, and class divides,” explains Marshall, who is currently leading a research project on Religious Responses to COVID-19

​Inspiring Critical Reflection

Marshall hopes to provide students with a broader frame of reference for understanding the challenges and possibilities presented by the pandemic, an ongoing focus of Berkley Center work.

“The basic idea is that every student has been living through the COVID-19 emergency, and each person will come with a set of individual experiences,” she explains. “The hope will be to set those individual experiences into a broader context, on the community and national levels but also globally, thinking about pandemics as critical points in history.”

Elie also plans to inspire critical reflection on current challenges, including the pandemic and protests against police violence, in his Ignatius Seminar, where students will explore past moments of crisis through literature.

“My experience as a reader and writer is that other people—people who have written books—have had experiences which are more akin to what we are going through than we may realize,” he says. “They’ve searched. Their books are their ways of making sense of their search, for themselves, and for us. The broader our range of references to other experiences, the better we can understand our own.”

​Educating the Whole Person

Understanding our own experiences is a primary goal of the Georgetown education, guided by the Jesuit precept of cura personalis (care of the whole person). 

Kessler will bring that holistic approach to his Ignatius Seminar on Creating and Making: The Moral Craft of Life, a course exploring the philosophical and theological visions of craft, labor, and creativity. 

“I would love for the students to explore how a full, thriving human life includes creating and making things for use and ornament, and how that making also shapes their own character,” says Kessler. “From shaping wood or baking bread to building a stone wall or stitching a quilt, creating helps situate us in a world of our making and aspiration.”

Elie hopes the writing at the center of his Ignatius Seminar will lead students toward a similar sort of self-reflection. 

“I am a believer in writing as a powerful and seductive way of understanding ourselves, our lives, our circumstances, and our place on Earth,” he says. “If the students come away with even a little of the passion that I have for figuring things out by writing about them, I will feel that my work is done.”