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Jamie Kim / Gavel Media

Interview with Professor Elizabeth Shlala on Enduring Questions

As a historian who is Associate Professor of the Practice and Assistant Dean of the University Core Curriculum at Boston College, Elizabeth Shlala has had a lot of experience running Enduring Questions and Complex Problems courses. These opportunities are only available to freshmen to help assimilate them into learning at the university level. Professor Shlala also teaches her own Enduring Questions course, Geographies of Imperialism, alongside Theology professor Natana Delong-Bas. With her experience working for the University Core Curriculum, Professor Shlala shares her insight on the Enduring Questions program and freshman opportunities as a whole.

How has your background influenced your career in education at Boston College?

I went to Georgetown as an undergraduate and then I went back and did a Masters and a PhD in the history of the Middle East and North Africa. So, I attribute a lot of my background and educational interests to my Catholic, Jesuit education. When I had the opportunity a few years ago to come to BC as an Associate Professor of the Practice and the Assistant Dean of the University Core Curriculum, I just jumped at the chance. It’s a great fit and I think I’ve been preparing for it my whole life in a way. I also am lucky enough to have my own double Eagle, so my son went to BC High and now he’s a junior Philosophy major at BC.

What was the process of starting your own Enduring Questions course pair, Geographies of Imperialism?

Core Renewal began years before I got here and two of the new kinds of courses they offer are Enduring Questions courses and Complex Questions courses, the goal of which was to have two faculty members from entirely different disciplines either with 19 students looking at one enduring question within two disciplinary perspectives or with 76 students tackling a complex problem like climate change. When I got here, I didn’t know Professor Delong-Bas originally, but we actually both went to Georgetown and received our PhDs from Georgetown and had the same advisor. Professor Delong-Bas is a theologian and I’m a historian, so we again jumped at the chance to create an Enduring Question pair together—and that’s where Geographies of Imperialism was born. We are currently teaching our third freshman cohort, and this year, we actually tried to connect our past students with the current class through an ice cream social so there was some sort of affiliation among the classes.

How do these course pairs enhance a student’s educational experience in ways regular courses lack?

I think students have found it really enriching to see how the disciplines can be in conversation with each other; to not just use one lens but two or sometimes multiple lenses on a question or problem. The students like the dynamic between the faculty members as well. The students are sharing the class together, so we find that since the students meet three times a week for two hours together, they get pretty close as a cohort. Actually, some of the magic happens in that ten minutes between classes when one professor leaves and the other professor comes in and you have that time together to just chat and relax. So I think that’s really valuable and I think students are sometimes pushed out of their comfort zones in that course. I often see students come in focused on only biology and then suddenly gain an interest in history or theology and then pick up a minor or sometimes a major. Of course, that is not the goal of the course but it’s great for students to realize that they were interested in something that they hadn’t thought about before. I’ll add that this year is the first year of the Justice and Common Good Living and Learning Community, and that is linked to the Core Curriculum very intentionally. We had four Enduring Question pair courses that students in the Justice and the Common Good LLC could be a part of. So, they’re taking courses that have themes in justice and the common good but living together in Gonzaga. We’re hoping that the debates, questions, and arguments they have from the curriculum can move into the living space while they keep up those classroom relationships as well.

Why is it important for students to engage in different disciplines regardless of their career path?

We have one of the larger core requirement footprints and a lot of that is steeped in the history of Jesuit education and its relationship with the liberal arts and the idea that we want you to be a well rounded person and to have broad interests and broad knowledge before you get really specific into whatever your major is going to be. I think that students experience those courses at the university level in a very different way than they did in high school and so, hopefully even if you decide it is something you are not going to major in, you get the chance to reevaluate that. It also gives you the opportunity to do something in art or natural science or theology that you never thought you were going to do or take a really meaningful cultural diversity course.

Speaking of the Cultural Diversity requirement, how do you believe courses that fulfill this requirement affect students and make them more well rounded?

It’s part of the Jesuit Catholic idea of cura personalis, care of the whole person. Whatever material we’re teaching, not only is it the course content, but it relates  to who you are and what campus is like and what you’re going to do at BC. It is my hope that the two pathways, Engaging Difference and Justice and the Common Good, although we have only one requirement, are meaningful enough that students can take one of these courses and want to take another one. There are many different Cultural Diversity courses now across the schools that fulfill major, minor, and elective credits as well.

What advice would you give to incoming freshmen trying to decide their schedule?

First, I would say that the Enduring Question and Complex Problems courses are great experiences. We actually work with faculty 18 to 24 months before the courses even come out, so there’s an application process and committee that decides which courses get to go forward. Then, in the spring of every year, the Associate Dean and I, working with the Center for Teaching Excellence, run a course design workshop that the faculty attend. So, they actually create their syllabus at least 6 months in advance, which rarely happens. That being said, the Enduring Questions and Complex Problems courses are only some of the amazing, distinctive courses you can take as a freshman at Boston College. Perspectives is a wonderful opportunity that freshmen can take to fulfill their Theology and Philosophy core. We have Courage to Know, which a lot of students enjoy taking to explore identity and formation. We have first year topic seminars, with Courage to Know seminars having an advising component to them. PULSE is also another transformative opportunity to fulfill Theology and Philosophy core with service learning which is really important. They celebrated 50 years in 2020. I think it is an important question to ask for incoming freshmen since most of these opportunities excluding PULSE are unavailable after freshman year, so you really want to get them soon. 

Finally, what is your personal favorite topic to discuss in your class?

I really enjoyed our trip to the Burns Library to look at maps. The Burns library is just a gem on campus; there is so much primary source material for students and the librarians are just wonderful to work with. I think it is so enriching for first-year students to have that experience and know that it is there for them for the rest of their academic careers. It’s a great study space and research space and there are just so many resources for students that I think it is really important for professors who teach first-year students to help connect students to all of the many resources that we have for them during their time at BC.