How, Then, Shall We Learn?

Holy Cross expands first-year living-learning program built around small seminars to the entire freshman class.
November 26, 2007

For 15 years, the College of the Holy Cross has offered a living-learning experience to first-year students, about a fifth to a quarter of whom opt to share a dormitory and take seminars together all developed around variations of Leo Tolstoy’s question, “How, Then, Shall We Live” (i.e. “In a world marked by tension between individual and community, how then shall we live?”)

By almost any measure, the program has been a success. Despite the similar profiles of participants and non-participants at matriculation, internal data suggest that students in the “First-Year Program” are highly engaged inside and outside of class and, compared to their peers, earn significantly higher grades throughout their college careers, assume campus leadership positions at higher rates, and are involved with fewer disciplinary cases and alcohol-related incidents.

But Royce A. Singleton Jr., a professor of sociology who completed the internal evaluation of the program in the 1990s, also found a strong stigmatization of the program as one for nerds and geeks – a stigma that persists today. “The norm at Holy Cross has been that you don’t want to be too studious; you don’t want to appear too studious to other students. There’s a premium placed on a social life that relies on fairly heavy drinking," says Singleton, who adds that faculty designed the First-Year Program specifically to challenge that norm. “You can well imagine how other students will see these students differently.”

Holy Cross is now attempting to shed the stigma, expanding a revised version of the First-Year Program to the entire 700-person freshman class starting next fall. Now named Montserrat -- after the Spanish mountain where the founder of the Jesuit order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, laid down his sword in 1522 and set upon a pilgrimage in search of meaning and direction -- faculty have high hopes that the first-year program will benefit the student body as a whole and create a student culture built from the beginning around serious intellectual inquiry.

“It’s going to have a huge impact, I think, on the nature of the social life of the college,” says Nancy Andrews, director of the Montserrat program and a professor of classics. “[The first-year program] was not a merit or honors program, so the students coming into it actually had a range of abilities, but it was amazing what you could do with them just by having these small seminars and getting to see them more outside of class and getting to do these co-curricular events."

“FYP had been so great for my students -- I wanted every student to have this opportunity.”

The Montserrat program is built around five interdisciplinary clusters with overarching themes – The Divine, Global Society, The Natural World, The Self and Core Human Questions. Within each cluster are a number of seminar options. Offerings in The Divine cluster, for instance, include Sacred Music, Jesuit Spirituality and Buddhism. Students in Global Society can take classes like Southeast Asian Lives and Industry and Empire. Students in The Natural World can opt for Nature Poetry or The Chemistry of Life, as just a couple examples, while those in The Self might choose Genes and Personal Identity or American Heroism. The Core Human Questions cluster will retain the current First-Year Program’s focus on queries expanding upon Tolstoy’s prompt.

Students will each enroll in one year-long seminar as one of four courses taken each semester. They will share a dormitory with others in their cluster, and each cluster will participate in common co-curricular events. The emphasis is on quality rather than quantity, Andrews, the director of the program, says. Co-curricular options could include trips to ski resorts and excursions to cultural highlights in Boston and Holy Cross’ home city of Worcester, Mass.

It is likely, as well, says Margaret Freije, associate dean of the college, that groups of seminars within clusters might participate in additional out-of-class experiences together throughout the course of the academic year. The dormitories are being renovated with the goals of Montserrat in mind, with college leaders using planned renovations as an opportunity to add more inviting common areas for dinners, speakers and other events to be held in the dormitories.

“When we study student behavior, one thing we find is that they really respect their teachers, and so are far more reluctant to do something that would disappoint them. If the teachers are more involved in their life as a community, in the residences, the hope is that will bring a certain civility to their life here," says the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, the president of Holy Cross.

“We felt that the academic experience and relationships with the faculty are what really anchor our students. It’s what’s most meaningful to them and what they most respect.”

The expansion of the living/learning seminar model to the entire freshman class was done as part of a larger curricular reform, Father McFarland says. The main curricular goals of the Montserrat program are to better integrate the academic and social life, strengthen the instruction of core skill sets (including public speaking), and ensure that students are engaging with serious intellectual and moral questions “right off the bat.”

In terms of garnering resources to run the seminars -- which, with 16 students apiece, require more professors per student than traditional freshman classes of 25 to 30 students -- a strategic plan approved by trustees about two years ago includes an increase in the operating budget for curriculum issues. The money will go in part to fill new faculty slots based on the needs of Montserrat, Father McFarland says. The university has also applied for a grant to hire post-doctoral teaching fellows, with the idea that the fellows could free up time for professors to offer seminars. About 50 faculty will be offering the first-year seminars in the next academic year, and requests from faculty to participate in the future are already pouring in, the program director says.

“What I love about this program is that it also gives people like me an opportunity to work with texts that I can’t normally fit into my course offerings,” says Helen Whall, an associate professor of English. A specialist in Renaissance and Shakespearean literature, Whall will be offering a seminar in The Natural World cluster focusing on utopias and dystopias. Readings will include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

“This is my secret path back to my origins,” Whall says. “Once a bio major who did her senior honors thesis on science fiction … here it is, 30 years later, and I’ve found a reputable way back.”


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