by Kathleen Dolan
“The Great Confrontation: Humans in the New World.” “The Material Imagination in Medieval Art and Literature.” “What’s the Story?” “Self-Discovery Through Science and Literature.”
These sound like book titles on a list of the year’s most compelling reads, the kind of books that encompass several fields at once and in return for your commitment reward you with an alternative way of thinking. These are not book titles, though: They are the seminars expanding students’ perspectives at Chestnut Hill College in its Interdisciplinary Honors Program (IDHP).
According to its new director, Mia Grogan, Ph.D., the unique model of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program exemplifies the College’s mission by offering a program that aims to develop the whole person through a holistic, subject-blending liberal arts curriculum. The seminars in the program accentuate the interconnections among dissimilar fields, challenging students and faculty alike to approach knowledge from an angle that is both innovative and captivating.
Each seminar is taught by two professors, each from a different academic discipline. For example, teaching “The Great Confrontation: Humans in the New World,” which explores the history of the North American continent from prehistoric times until now, are history professor David Contosta, Ph.D., and biology professor Bob Meyer, Ph.D. To ensure the curriculum stays fresh for students in the program, seminars are rotated on a regular basis, and each one is offered for a maximum of three years.
This combination of expertise, said Grogan, who is teaching “Material Imagination” alongside Catherine Meighan, SSJ, MFA, an instructor and adjunct coordinator for the art studio, ultimately produces creative and exciting course material and gives students a chance to view the subject matter from an entirely new perspective.
“I am teaching a seminar right now with an artist — I’m the lit person and she’s the art person — learning things from each other and engaging with the students in inquiry,” said Grogan, who started her new position this fall and took over the reins from Kathleen Duffy, SSJ, Ph.D., the previous director of IDHP, who retired last spring.
IDHP’s seminars last a year and meet once a week, and students have three years to complete the program, which gives them time to study abroad or take an internship. They’re designated writing-intensive courses, and first-year students in the program are required to take a writing seminar alongside their subject-area seminar. Sophomores can apply for the program as well, but they need to take a seminar each year until graduation.
The College has a low student-to-faculty ratio of 11-to-1, and IDHP’s seminars mirror these numbers.
“It’s unparalleled access to the faculty,” she said. “It’s really kind of unique having two full-time professors in a classroom with 12 or 15 kids and modeling intellectual engagement for them.”
Another aspect of IDHP that is beneficial to students is what Grogan calls the “cohort experience.”
“Our students live together in their first year, not all of them, but a good number will live together in a wing of Fournier Hall,” she said. “This can create a sense of community, as in ‘Look, we are trying to do this difficult and interesting thing together, so let’s support each other.’”
As much as the courses are reading and writing intensive, field trips and fun activities are a part of the curriculum, too.
“We are reading ‘Beowulf ’ now,” Grogan said of the syllabus in her course. “Then we’ll go to a museum and look at some armor.”
IDHP’s seminars also inspire students to think about the possibilities of the program.
“I can’t remember how it came up, but a student told me how much she loved the show ‘CSI,’” Grogan said. “And then she said, ‘You know what would be great? What if one of the criminal justice professors could teach a course with one of the literature professors about detective novels and actual criminal justice investigations.’”
As director, Grogan is involved in the recruiting and admissions process and advises students in the program to ensure they’re taking the required courses. In addition, she speaks with faculty members and carries out, in her words, a “match-making process.”
“You have these nice conversations with other faculty members,” Grogan said of the process of finding professors to teach the seminars. “You’re really committing to learn with this other person.”
Since the College established it in 1968, IDHP has been harnessing the creativity and efforts of students and faculty to underscore the significance of discussion, intellectual independence, and integration of knowledge. These fundamental elements of education lie at the heart of the program, which, to this day, continues to take an imaginative, novel approach to learning for the benefit of students and their futures.