Worth Every Step: Montserrat

Named for the serrated mountains of Spain, Montserrat welcomes the College's first-year students into a community of engaged learning.


By Laura Porter

It’s shortly after 12:30 on a Tuesday afternoon in early spring, and the students drop into the chairs in one of Smith Hall’s smaller rooms.

Backpacks slide to the floor as conversations erupt. From the hubbub, they might well be meeting for dinner in Kimball, rather than waiting for a class to start.
The camaraderie only intensifies as first Sarah Luria and then David Karmon enter the room; the two professors are in their second semester of co-teaching this yearlong seminar on Landscape and Memory. It takes little time for the students to jump into a lively discussion.

As they examine poet Mary Fell’s observations of the blend of past and present that marks the Worcester landscape, they return again and again to the defining questions of this course: “Is it important to know what happened where we are standing?  Does it change the way we think about where we are?”

Karmon, an architectural historian in the visual arts department, and Luria, who works in 19th-century American literature and American studies, have relied on a range of material to study “how different populations have shaped the land,” says Karmon. “There is a lasting legacy even if it’s hard to read.”

In the fall, students read texts on urban development, focusing on capital cities, including Rome and Washington, D.C. This spring, professors and students together have used what Karmon calls “a telescoping lens” to look broadly at New England, Worcester and, finally, the Holy Cross campus over time. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities offered a poetic and allegorical perspective through which to examine the layered landscape.

The course’s capstone project is a student-created Web site, where class members can post their own research, in effect becoming part of a larger community of scholars interested in adding to the history of Worcester.

The intellectual and personal connections made in this particular classroom typify the Holy Cross experience, yet there is also something unusual at work here.

This is a seminar in Montserrat, the brand-new first-year program at Holy Cross. Beginning in the fall of 2008, first-year students arrived on campus to embark upon a “living, learning and doing experience,” says associate professor of classics Nancy Andrews, who directs the program.

Shortly after the members of the class of 2012 were enrolled in their two-semester Montserrat seminars, they were assigned to their Montserrat residences. The seminars are organized into five thematic clusters—Self, Divine, Natural World, Global Society and Core Human Questions. Each cluster is intentionally assigned to a particular residence hall enabling students to continue engaging with other students from their group as they cross the threshold from the classroom into their living space. Each of the clusters provides a flexible platform not only for an eclectic array of thematically related seminars, but also for on- and off-campus trips, performances, lectures and hands-on projects. Co-curricular events enhancing the themes of specific clusters, or even specific seminars, took place in the residence halls, and on and off campus.  For example, the Core Human Questions cluster hosted a discussion and Q-and-A session in Wheeler Hall with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones ’72 about his book, The Known World, while the Self cluster held a Deaf/Blind workshop in Mulledy with visitors from the Perkins School for the Blind.