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A Deep Dive into the Intellectual Life

From time to time, the faculty of multiple schools identify a committee of their members to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the learning environment at Georgetown. Their focus is the intellectual formation of students and the faculty environment that facilitates that formation. Such “Intellectual Life” reports were completed in 1997 and 2007.

In May, 2018, a new report of an Intellectual Life Committee was delivered after review by various bodies, representing Georgetown College, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, School of Foreign Service, McDonough School of Business, and the McCourt School of Public Policy. The committee dedicated hours and hours of work on the task and performed a real service to the university. We owe them our thanks.1

The report is filled with sophisticated commentary on the role of academic advising in undergraduate and graduate education, the nature of interdisciplinary scholarship in the future of Georgetown, evaluation of new developments of pedagogy, grading protocols, the synergies among undergraduate and graduate education, and a host of other issues. There are 51 recommendations for ways that Georgetown can improve its performance. Some of these are already being implemented. Some can easily be implemented; some require more clarification and review by stakeholders.

There are many important observations in the report deserving of their own blog treatment over the coming months. This post concerns the report’s evaluation of the research experiences of students. The committee forwards the recommendation that each undergraduate have a first-year experience in a seminar that introduces them to the process of original inquiry. The committee sees the first-year seminar structure helping the student move away from a notion that their job is merely to receive the information from faculty and course materials, later to be regurgitated in examinations. Instead, to prepare students for a deeper intellectual development in their studies, original research experiences are a key tool. Further, the committee finds strong support among students for access to research experiences. In a set of focus groups run by the committee, students expressed the desire to do “real” research and original scholarship, not just exercises that mimic research as part of a structured course.

Such experiences are not merely assembling research and scholarship results from Google searches and JSTOR, but rather more original inquiries. This usually means that the student needs to have a real role in defining the question to be studied, to be guided by a mentor on methods of approaching the question, and to have ongoing interaction with senior mentors as the project proceeds. Finally, a key feature is the production of the final product, designed to answer the research question. Oral, written, and other media of communication should all be part of the research experience.

Why is this important? First, the first year should be organized to shape the student’s perspective on learning. Original inquiry early permits more sophisticated and more challenging course experiences later.

Second, one of the key drivers for post-graduation satisfaction with one’s higher education is joint work with faculty, in which an intellectual focus is the meat of the relationship. Original scholarship is the most efficient route to those benefits. The moments of personal interaction between students and faculty around a piece of scholarship are the most precious at a university. The report argues to organize our curriculum to enhance those moments.

Third, original inquiry in a new knowledge domain will be exercised countless times during the long working lives of our graduates, as they navigate new career lines. Students are seeking such experiences in their curricula, to help them prepare for their lives. We know how to do this well. We should do so.


Paul Roepe (chair), Bernie Cook, Bryce Huebner, Amy Liu, Prashant Malaviya, Sheila McMullan, Jason Schloetzer, Iwona Sadowska; ex officio (Kathryn Olesko, Clay Shields)

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