Sharing Institutional History

Sharing Institutional History

A&S courses offer insights on BC, Catholic education

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Annette Keane '02 and Brian Moore '00 came to Boston College at opposite ends of a spectrum.

For Moore, whose parents and older sister are alumni, the Heights seemed a familiar place, one he recalled from Saturday afternoon visits as a boy for football games or other events. For Keane, who had no such associations upon which to draw, Boston College was terra incognita .

But Keane and Moore have both enriched their knowledge of the University through two recent courses which focus on the history of Boston College: one a seminar for seniors, "Boston's College, Your Life," offered through the Capstone Program; the other taught last fall by Assoc. Prof. James O'Toole (History) as one of the "Study and Writing of History" sections required for history majors.

College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean J. Joseph Burns leads a recent session of the "Boston's College, Your Life" seminar in Gasson Hall.
Although different in orientation and purpose, both courses require students to utilize the archival resources in Burns Library and, where possible, interview current or retired BC administrators and faculty. The experience helps develop undergraduates' research and writing skills, say faculty and students, while giving them a deeper appreciation of the University and their place in its legacy.

Students learn - often to their surprise - about Boston College's humble beginnings in the South End as a school serving poor Irish immigrant families. They also cover topics such as BC's move to Chestnut Hill in 1912, the World War II era, controversies in the 1960s and '70s, and BC's growth in the late 20th century.

"I used to view BC as the son of alumni, then as a student," said Moore, who is enrolled in the Capstone seminar. "But now I feel as if I'm viewing BC as an insider. Just in the past few weeks, I've come to know a lot more about the University, and it's opened up a whole new dimension for me."

"You come here to campus, and it's only natural to be curious about how BC came to be, who are all those buildings named after," said Keane, one of O'Toole's former students. "Then you find out that BC was first a school serving Irish immigrant families, and for many years was a commuter college, and you wonder how it came to be a national university."

Undergraduate courses entirely devoted to institutional history tend to be rare, say BC administrators and faculty, but studying their own university offers BC students particularly useful insights.

"Most students take it for granted that BC was always a national Catholic institution," said College of Arts and Sciences Associate Dean J. Joseph Burns, who created and teaches the Capstone seminar. "The reality is far different, of course. Our goal is, as students look at how Boston College became what it is today, they think more about their own relationship to the Jesuit and Catholic tradition from which BC sprang."

"On its own terms, the story of Boston College is a fascinating one," added University Historian Thomas O'Connor, who has visited both classes as a guest lecturer. "When you trace the origin and development of Boston College, you're also looking at the evolution of the city of Boston and its people. There are any number of topics and issues to explore."

In the Capstone seminar, which debuted last year, students are asked to relate their college experiences to the traditions and historical development of the University. They write short, reflective essays on how BC has influenced their views of themselves, and a longer research paper on a University department, program, office or club that has had an impact on them. Projects in the first seminar included papers on the University Chorale, the A&S Honors Program and Irish studies at Boston College.

The seminar also includes a visit to the original Boston College campus in the South End and a tour of Gasson Tower.

O'Toole's class, like others in the section, introduces students to the methodology of historical research and writing. "For most students, this is their first real chance to be their own historian, and do their own digging," said O'Toole, who hopes to offer the course again in the near future. "Fortunately, we have a superb archive at Burns to help them."

"This is a valuable experience for them, because they have to decide for themselves which materials are useful, instead of relying on second or third-hand sources," said Burns Archivist Ronald Patkus. "They can see the history for themselves, like reading the actual letter of purchase for the Chestnut Hill campus site from [University President Thomas Gasson, SJ]."

Students are often struck by the smaller historical tidbits, such as the donation by Rev. Joseph Coolidge Shaw, SJ, of his personal book collection to help start the first Boston College library, or that early Boston College students graduated only when Dean (and later President) Robert Fulton, SJ decided they were ready.

Moore, who plans to concentrate on the administration of J. Donald Monan, SJ, feels the seminar will help him reflect on his time at BC, which will end in a few months' time.

"I think it'll help me close the book," he said, "and help me to see how I was part of something very special."


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