James Olsen, Department of Philosophy/CNDLS
A post-doctoral fellow at CNDLS and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy, James Olsen spends a lot of time thinking about teaching, learning and student well-being.
James Olsen first became involved with the Engelhard Project in the fall of 2007, as a Teaching Assistant for Professor Alisa Carse’s Introduction to Ethics course. “Alisa does a great job of trying to give students the tools to rigorously discuss the rich moral fabric of their lives. Students are often uncomfortable and unequipped to do that,” Olsen explains. He continues: “when you provide a safe atmosphere for students to address [these issues], they’re very interested in talking about things.”
Olsen saw first-hand how Engelhard components (guest speakers, pointed discussion, and reflection papers on wellness topics) add value to a class, enabling deeper conversations about the big issues students face, such as sexual assault, drinking and anxiety.
Olsen doesn’t think students have much opportunity to seriously and significantly confront these issues in their lives. The classroom setting “doesn’t really allow for wise cracking about these sensitive topics, or if a wisecrack is made you can zero in on that...you can help students to recognize the way that stigmas get created, the way they get perpetuated and then to really challenge them.” It is constructive for Engelhard courses to give students a space in which to tackle these issues.
“Being an Engelhard fellow was transformative for me as a teacher and I certainly have brought a lot of the things I learned with me to my other classes.”
Typically, most if not all of a professors’ interactions with students are about academics, but the Engelhard project gives professors a chance to dig deeper. Instead of simply checking that students understood the readings, Engelhard allows professors to change the conversation. Illustrating this point, Olsen explains: “Aristotle is talking about friends and what it means for flourishing. So let’s talk about your life, what are the scenarios where your friends are not helping you to flourish, or vice versa. These conversations allow students to connect the content of the course with their outside life.” By making these connections, Engelhard helps students remain engaged and motivated in class.
Olsen has incorporated Engelhard components, including reflection papers, into his own teaching, first at Georgetown’s Qatar campus, from August 2011 to July 2013, and now back here on the main campus. For Olsen, reflection papers are an effective tool to get students to make connections between the readings and their own lives, but only if the assignment is thoughtfully integrated into the curriculum. He points out that students are much more likely to reflect seriously if given guidance. Olsen does this by first having his students engage with one another on the topic in class. Doing so helps students to brainstorm connections and get past superficial interpretations. This also helps to motivate students, as they recognize similarities and differences between their own experiences and those of their peers. Additionally, he explicitly discusses what makes a good reflection paper and provides them with an example from a past class. Olsen finds that this then enables students to construct more rigorous reflection papers than they would if they were “just checking a box for 5% of their grade.”
Additionally, Olsen often allows students to debate issues of real concern at the beginning of class. He explains: “They bring up everything from political issues to social issues, personal issues, issues at the university and what it is to be a good student...it gets them sort of warmed up, in terms of thinking argumentatively, and about reasons and justification. Likewise, it allows me to constructively model for them: here’s how we make and challenge arguments, and here’s how we can do it in a respectful environment.”
Olsen credits the Engelhard project with orienting him toward student needs and making him aware of the resources on campus. He points out that before Engelhard “I had no idea people like Jen Schweer [Georgetown’s Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Services Coordinator] existed.”
Because of his experience with the Engelhard project, Olsen feels better able to recognize and address issues with students. While he refers students to campus wellness resources, such as counselors, Olsen feels that his “Engelhard skills” predominantly come into play when helping students to confront stigmas. “It seems like you feel ashamed about that, why? Do you think you should feel ashamed?” By asking these questions, Olsen helps his students think through what their needs are, how to meet them effectively, and how to overcome some of the negative stigmas that are out there.
In the spring 2014 semester, Olsen is co-facilitating a cohort of faculty members who have been awarded grants from CNDLS to incorporate technology into their classrooms in order to educate the whole person, as part of the Initiative on Technology-Enhanced Learning (ITEL). This fits in nicely with the Jesuit principle of cura personalis, or “care for the whole person” which is central to Georgetown’s educational mission, and to the Engelhard Project. Cura personalis, as Olsen describes it, is “something I’ve really latched onto here at Georgetown. I think that Georgetown actually tries to substantively implement this...it’s not just a fancy sounding slogan.” Olsen is excited to be involved in working on “how technology can be one of those things that helps to enhance greater well-being overall.”
“Professors are on the front lines,” as Olsen puts it, and participating in the Engelhard project is a good way of equipping professors to be able to support students as whole persons. As evidenced by James Olsen, participating in the Engelhard project has a lasting impact on professors and the way they think about both their courses and their students.