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10 Years Later: Re-Examining Montserrat - May 2018

posted May 8, 2018, 1:40 PM by RSO The Fenwick Review   [ updated May 8, 2018, 1:41 PM ]

By Seamus Brennan '20

Montserrat holds a unique place at Holy Cross.  The first-year program is extolled by school officials as a key facet of a Holy Cross education and is advertised to prospective students as a foundational academic experience for studies in the liberal arts.  Yet many current students and alumni seem to loathe the program and frequently cite it as one of the low points of their time at Holy Cross. Clearly there remains a disconnect between administrators and students regarding the purpose and practicality of the Montserrat program: what the College describes as “an enduring quest for intellectual, personal and spiritual growth” represents a frequent source of disappointment within an otherwise collectively esteemed academic experience.  As the College commemorates the program’s tenth anniversary this year, the Montserrat program remains noble in intent and appealing in principle, but it has three primary problems: inaptness of structure, ambiguity of purpose, and incongruity of curriculum.

While criticisms of the Montserrat program are varied, the most common relate to the program’s length and structure.  During the summer before their freshman year, incoming students are asked to select their top five seminar choices, in one of which they are guaranteed a spot.  However, the course descriptions available to incoming freshmen are vague and make no mention of the course’s professor, class readings, or assignments. If a student is placed in a course he or she does not enjoy or find worthwhile, that student is more or less “locked in” to an undesirable class for two full semesters, or 25 percent of their freshman year.

“I don't think reducing the academic component to a semester would be a bad idea,” said a member of the class of 2020.  “After a half of a year passes and we get back from winter recess, I do not see the need to extend the program into the second semester.  It occupies one fourth of the overall courses one can take freshman year, which seems a bit excessive. I think the proposed goal of community and discussion will have been accomplished after one semester if it will be accomplished at all.”

A member of the class of 2019 added, “I think most students right now see [Montserrat] as something that is in the way of them taking more classes that could benefit them, so being very clear about the skills that a student should gain through their Montserrat program and why it is beneficial to move forward in college and life is important.”

To be sure, the “living and learning” component of Montserrat is a desirable one: the notion of spending the entirety of one’s freshman year in an intellectual  residential community is attractive and commendable, and it is difficult to imagine that any academically serious students would be opposed to such an arrangement.  The Holy Cross website describes Montserrat as an environment in which “big ideas addressed in the classroom or at cluster events serve as springboards for conversations that continue over dinner or during a late-night study break—which in turn give rise to enduring friendships.”  As captivating as this description may be, is a structured academic environment that lasts for a full academic year really necessary to foster the sense of community and intellectual engagement the College deems so important? Most colleges that require a freshman seminar require only one semester, and many of those are not taken for academic credit and are focused solely on the communal aspect.  A “lively intellectual and social community that encourages engagement with a broad range of themes and issues” can be every bit as lively and engaging if the academic component of Montserrat were removed or even limited to one semester.

Because Montserrat is a required first-year seminar lasting two semesters, a large assortment of course offerings are available.  During the 2017-2018 academic year, thirty-seven courses or a grand total of seventy-four semester-long seminars within six broadly themed clusters were offered to incoming freshmen.  With enormity of size comes an extremely wide range of themes and syllabi, and having seventy-four distinct courses intended “to accommodate a range of interests,” as stated in the Holy Cross magazine, seems excessive and can potentially lead to extremely narrow curricula.  For instance, one may wonder how previously offered Montserrat seminars like “Images of the Latino in American Cinema” fulfill the program’s self-proclaimed mission of serving as a “dynamic introduction to the liberal arts.” As a Holy Cross professor suggested, “One might wonder, if we are going to have required freshman seminars at all, shouldn't they be of a sort that are grounded in serious, even classic books that introduce students to liberal education, rather than focusing on narrow topics that happen to be of interest to a particular instructor?”

The problematic potential for thematic thinness within the Montserrat program likely stems from various professors’ different approaches to their respective seminars and syllabi.  Holy Cross students have long complained about the inconsistency of academic rigor between various seminars. “I think Montserrat could be improved by having the curricula of the different seminars looked at more closely.  Having a common format and grading system could help the fact that many students feel like they landed themselves a ‘harder’ or ‘easier’ seminar than someone else,” said a member of the class of 2019.

The wild discrepancies in academic expectations between each Montserrat course have more than likely left a negative impression on some professors.  “Years ago a stalwart member of the faculty taught in the program and reported it was the worst mistake of her academic career here, as she was teaching a regular academic course and students kept complaining to her that she was making them do serious academic work while their classmates in other courses had very little work to do yet all earned high grades,” said a Holy Cross professor.  “The fact is, in my observation many faculty simply have little interest in teaching in the program, so the Montserrat director, even with the best of intentions, is compelled to accommodate the wishes, course-wise, of those who agree to take part.”

For a self-described foundational program at a highly ranked liberal arts school, this model of narrowly focused, specialized seminars with a captive audience of first-year students who signed up based only on a short description creates a dangerous possibility for extreme bias and subjectivity within each seminar.  “My Montserrat is shockingly biased. While I do not mind having an atheist professor, it is certainly hard to be in a class where [an] egotistical professor proclaims his atheism at every available irrelevant moment. All the readings we are given slant toward his personal beliefs and when we are given supposedly alternate viewpoints, he does not pick available respectable ones but goes out of his way to make the opposing side look bad,” said a current first-year student.

Despite the program’s potential to exist as a unique and immersive first-year experience for all students, Montserrat rests on a framework that mistakes narrow and potentially ideologically slanted professor-specific interests for a rudimentary introduction to the liberal arts and life at Holy Cross.  In doing so, whether it intends to or not, the program tolerates partiality, compromises its mission, and ultimately collapses upon itself. One must ask, for a program that is supposedly so foundational, so life-changing, and so intellectually riveting: why are many Montserrat seminars focused on relatively narrow topics as opposed to studying truly foundational texts and raising major questions that should be a foundation of liberal education?  Why are rising freshmen given close to zero information—beyond course titles and vague descriptions—about what the course will involve and what the syllabus will entail? Why are rising freshmen unable to know who is teaching a given course before they sign up so they might research the instructor's publications and interests prior to enrolling? Why must Montserrat last for two full semesters with no opportunity to switch courses or professors, especially considering that Holy Cross students only have room for thirty-two classes?

Like so much else at Holy Cross, the answers to these questions are unknown, but the potential for greatness still lingers.  Due to these shortcomings, the Montserrat program has failed to deliver the values it promotes and thereby ceases to maintain any sense of value at all.  As the Holy Cross website states, the program is named after the mountain at with St. Ignatius of Loyola decided to begin “a new life devoted to study, teaching, service, faith and purpose.”  Unfortunately, until Holy Cross can clarify its own purpose for the program and its supposed values, most students won’t be able to either.