Jenna Seim and her classmates in Elmhurst’s Intercultural Seminar were looking forward to hearing author and professor Michael Schiavi talk to their class last year about the history of gay rights in the United States.
As it turned out, Schiavi, who was visiting Elmhurst to deliver the annual William R. Johnson Guestship Lecture, was just as eager to hear from Seim and her fellow students.
“He wanted to know our views about the fight for gay rights and how much we knew about gay history prior to his lecture,” said Seim, a sophomore from Arnold, California, who is majoring in criminal justice and psychology. “He was very personable, and I really enjoyed speaking with him.”
That’s the way it goes in the Intercultural Seminar, a quarter-credit class that aims to promote exchanges between students and the authors, scholars and newsmakers who come to campus to deliver each of the College’s four annual Intercultural Lectures. Students prepare for the lectures with assigned readings, then engage with the guest speaker in the classroom after the lecture. One of the goals of the class is to give the students confidence to trade ideas with guest speakers, said Associate Professor Russell Ford, who teaches the class and serves as the faculty coordinator of the lecture series.
“The course gives students the chance to interact directly with prominent figures,” Ford said. “I’ve taught this class three times now, and the students really excel at posing questions and challenging ideas they may never have thought to challenge before.”
Guest lectures at Elmhurst attract thousands of visitors to campus each year to hear some of the world’s most prominent thinkers and achievers talk about important issues. The Intercultural Lecture Series consists of four annual lectures focusing on themes of race, gender and ethnicity:
- The César Chávez Guestship Lecture, presented each fall to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month, is part of the College’s Hispanic Heritage Celebration.
- The Martin Luther King Jr. Guestship is held in the spring to coincide with Black History Month as part of Elmhurst’s Celebration of Black Heritage.
- The Genevieve Staudt Guestship coincides with Women’s History Month in the spring and is part of the College’s Women’s History Celebration.
- The William R. Johnson Guestship Lecture is held each fall to coincide with National Coming Out Day and is part of the College’s commitment to serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. The Johnson Guestship is named for a member of Elmhurst’s class of 1968 who became the first openly gay person ordained to a mainstream Christian ministry.
“The lectures have become an important part of the life of the College and the life of the surrounding community,” Ford said, adding that audiences of over 300 routinely fill the Founders Lounge of the Frick Center to hear the Intercultural Lectures. “They help us recognize that we live in a world with different ways of being and that those different ways of being contribute to the enrichment of each of our lives.”
The students in Ford’s seminar get the unique opportunity for extended intellectual give-and-take with the lecturers—and with each other. Ford said students in the seminar are encouraged to think critically about diverse views. The result is class discussions that are often animated and intense, but always respectful. That kind of intellectual engagement is key to the learning process, Ford said.
“Learning is an active process, it’s not about receiving information,” he said. “You have to learn to voice your own ideas and learn to interact with other people and their ideas.”
That’s just what Seim likes about the class. She has enrolled in it three times, and says she likes the classroom debates.
“The discussion is fascinating, both because of the topics and because of the opinions students have,” she said. “They will surprise you and make you think.
“And the speakers are thoughtful people who want to hear students’ opinions just as much as we want to hear theirs.”