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The Role of the Seminar in Intellectual Growth

The new Intellectual Life Report of the main campus faculty proffers the argument that first year seminars may be important tools for the growth of our students. It’s an idea worth pursuing.

Universities offer unique lessons when faculty members reveal to students the passionate interests they have in their area of expertise. There are many ways that this can happen. Sometimes, there is a component of a lecture-based class that highlights the research area of the instructor. Students recognize these components by a noticeable animation in the instructor’s behavior. The excitement in the lecturer’s voice becomes contagious. Laptops are closed. Attention is paid. Memories are constructed. Increasing the opportunities for our faculty to deliver such content is worthwhile. For first-year students, contact with an active scholar in his/her field of expertise is a new experience.

Another key lesson underlying intellectual growth is “going deep.” This means different experiences in different fields. In some, it is very careful reading, slowly decomposing thoughts, reassembling them, imagining alternative meanings. Going deep in other fields exposes students to the edge of a dominant paradigm. It reveals the questions that are not yet answered. It may reveal a nagging puzzle facing the field. For first-year students, such activities are novel.

These experiences often accompany critique of content that is being consumed by the students. They are asked to challenge the ideas, methods, or conclusions of the authors they are reading. This criticism requires a level of attention that goes far beyond that necessary to regurgitate the content. The reader is looking for gaps in the logic, weaknesses in the execution of the research, or flaws in the conclusions. Few first-year students have experienced such exercises.

Perhaps the most important experience is linked to all of the above – the act of original scholarship or research. While many experts in a field have suspicions about the real contribution of undergraduate research, they miss, in my opinion, a real benefit of the research experience to the student. Regardless of the topic, regardless of limited sophistication in the field, the act of trying to answer a question that you yourself have crafted, one that captures your interest, brings unique value. First, you discover the feeling of “living by your wits.” It’s your question; you need to figure out how to proceed. Second, answering such questions most often proceed in unanticipated directions before you can wrestle them into submission. Experiencing that life cycle of work is difficult but thrilling. Third, the feeling that you have created a new thought or a new finding, however small, is the seed of lasting creativity. Psychologists talk about a trait, the “need for cognition,” which, I think, is nurtured through these experiences.

All of these experiences are enhanced when the students have an environment that allows them to communicate their work to others. This communication forces a certain translation from their deeper understanding to others who may not share it. They are exposed to the comments and suggestions of peers in this work. They learn the give-and-take of constructive criticism in real time. Few first-year students have been active participants in such dialogue.

Successful first-year seminars, proposed by the Intellectual Life Report, are not merely classes with a small number of students. They are pedagogical designs that, through the actions above and others, reveal to the student the joys of the life of the mind. They succeed when the students conclude that their role is not that of a receptacle into which information is poured. Instead, they are capable of shaping their own learning. They can self-teach. They can invent new combinations of information to interpret the world. These experiences can change how they benefit from later courses at Georgetown. Indeed, these are experiences critical to a life well-lived.

2 thoughts on “The Role of the Seminar in Intellectual Growth

  1. We teachers need no convincing that genuine colloquy is far more gratifying for all than a ” listen up and take notes for tomorrow’s test ” situation, this latter being threatened anyhow, and in short order, by eventual AI replacement. We can all agree that constant
    expanding of gestalts, both in depth and breadth, is what the ” life of the mind ” is all about.
    And yet, the main obstacle, in my experience, is that the vast majority of entering students have neither the base knowledge of texts nor the grasp of conceptual fundaments to be able to engage in meaningful noetic exploration. Perhaps the best we could do, whenever possible, is to organize small-group in-depth exploration of texts alongside standard lecture-type classes which will necessarily be more content-rich and broad-brush in nature. This is the traditional British model and, at least in the Humanities, it has worked out pretty well.

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