Sun flare off exterior of Healy Hall at Georgetown University


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

By: Henry D. Brill

December 1, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic presents major challenges to undergraduate learning, especially for first-year students who are just entering university life. In fall 2020, three Berkley Center faculty helped new students build the intellectual skills and community necessary to thrive at Georgetown by teaching first-year seminars that tackled tough questions, ranging from the search for self to the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior Fellow Paul Elie and Executive Director Michael Kessler each taught 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, taught an SFS Proseminar, a required course in the School of Foreign Service 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 taught 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 were 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.”

Marshall took a similar approach in her SFS Proseminar on Pandemic Responses: Practical and Ethical Challenges, where students used the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and response to explore major challenges in international development. 

“I focused 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. 

​Inspiring Critical Reflection

Providing students with a broader frame of reference for understanding the challenges and possibilities of the pandemic—this was the primary goal Marshall had for her course. 

“The basic idea was that every student has been living through the COVID-19 emergency, and each person will come with a set of individual experiences,” she says. “The hope was 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.” 

Critical reflection on current challenges, including the pandemic and protests against police violence, was also a goal Elie had for his Ignatius Seminar, where students explored 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 brought 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 wanted 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,” explains 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 hoped the writing at the center of his Ignatius Seminar would 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.”

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