Story by Connie McDougall

Photos by Jerry Gay

Autumn Quarter '98
University Seminars

Advertising and Popular Culture

Alan Paton: Saint or Sinner?

The Baptized Imagination

Campaigns and Elections

Can You Guess Who I Am? Understanding How Communities Shape Our Lives

Caring for Creation, Tending the Garden

The Computer: The Machine That Changed the World

Consuming Passions: Cross-Cultural Food and Health

Corporate Responsibility

Engineering and Technology

Fashion in History: The Naked Truth

From Page to Stage

The History and Physics of Baseball

How Far Is Infinity?

Is God Brazilian? Understanding a Different World View

Leadership in Africa

Moving Experiences

The Politics of Literature and Film

Propaganda in the Twentieth Century

Redeeming the Media

Seattle Arts Alive!

Shaping the Matter and Mind of Society

Sing to the Lord a New Song

Spotted Owl Wars

Why Do Christians Believe?

Why Does the Good Survive?

Woody Allen and the Meaning of Life

Associate Professor of English Luke Reinsma led a University Seminar this fall titled "Spotted Owl Wars," an examination of the complex relationship between humankind and the rest of God's creation. An experienced outdoorsman, Reinsma took students to see a rare old growth forest for themselves. "For me, looking up through those trees is a sacred experience," he says, "like being in a cathedral."

T his fall, freshmen enrolled in the first required class of Seattle Pacific's new Common Curriculum: the University Seminar. With intriguing class titles like "The History and Physics of Baseball," "Is God Brazilian?" and "Spotted Owl Wars," each seminar was designed as an interdisciplinary exploration of ideas from a Christian perspective.

SPU Professor of History Bill Woodward and Professor of Physics Jim Crichton co-taught the baseball course. "It allowed for some effective learning on a very engaging topic," says Woodward. While he drew connections between American history and America's favorite game, Crichton addressed such scientific puzzles as why a curve ball curves.

"What seems like a non-academic subject on one level becomes a window on life at a more serious level," Woodward notes.

Make no mistake, the University Seminar is very serious. Joyce Erickson, English professor and Seattle Pacific's director of general education, explains: "We're teaching people who are making a significant transition in their lives," she says. "Our goal is not only to excite them about a Christian liberal arts education, but to assist them in adapting from high school to college studies."

To help students navigate this passage, enrollment in a University Seminar is limited to no more than 20 students. They meet the first day of Orientation and stay together for other freshman courses in the Common Curriculum. In addition, University Seminar professors serve as their students' academic advisors during the entire freshman year.

"The small size of the class and the intimacy with the students and professor helped me to feel comfortable asking questions and learning the ropes of college courses," says freshman Shannon Smythe, whose University Seminar was titled "Why Do Christians Believe?" and taught by Professor of Philosophy Stephen Layman. She also gained insights into managing time, writing essays and giving oral presentations. "This class was a good testing ground for me to assess my current ability with what is now expected of me."

That, says Erickson, is one of the most important roles of the University Seminar: helping students develop the college-level skills they will need in writing, reading, speaking -- and critical thinking.

In the University Seminar "Spotted Owl Wars," Associate Professor of English Luke Reinsma used environmental issues to sharpen a student's ability to examine ideas. "This course required students to deal with a foundational question about our relationship to God and his creation," he says.

A veteran hiker, Reinsma brought diverse speakers into his class, including a representative of the timber industry and a member of the Earth First! environmental group. When one student admitted that he'd never seen an old-growth tree, Reinsma took interested students to experience an entire forest of old-growth trees during a weekend campout.

The trip gave freshman Nathan Brouwer a new perspective on a controversial topic. "Although I consider myself to be an environmentalist, I come from a logging area," he says. "My dad works in a pulp mill and my girlfriend's dad is a logger. These issues affect our livelihood."

Reinsma wanted Brouwer and the other students to grapple with the issues. "The seminar did what it should do, which is introduce students to the habit of thinking through ideas without a knee-jerk response, to consider many viewpoints and to respond to them intelligently."

This thorough examination of assumptions was also a big part of the seminar taught by Associate Professor of Sociology Cindy Price: "Understanding How Communities Shape Our Lives." Her class was asked to seriously consider what creates community. "I had them look at all kinds of groups, not just the ones they're used to -- communities like the Amish, communes, even the Mafia," she says. "We asked, 'What holds these people together?'"

Such seminar questions were not only challenging to students, but also to the faculty members doing the asking. Robbin O'Leary, associate professor of mathematics, spent the better part of last summer reading a huge volume of materials to prepare for her seminar, "How Far Is Infinity?" She read everything from scientific journals to C.S. Lewis.

"I found out there are some things about mathematical infinity I didn't know," she says. "And that was the best part: taking the pieces, putting them all together, and seeing the overarching structure."

The next step for the University Seminar is a careful critique. Now that freshmen have completed the course, Erickson plans in-depth evaluations to identify any needed changes. "I'm excited about what happened during our first quarter," she says. "I think the Common Curriculum as a whole is going to be the centerpiece of an SPU education."

Price agrees, noting that the University Seminar provides a rare moment in time when faculty members can capture young minds. "It's a great opportunity -- an early opportunity -- to get students excited about learning."

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