Emily Greene Balch, Class of 1889, was one of the College’s most distinguished graduates. An accomplished scholar in the social sciences, she fought vigorously to advance the rights of women and reduce poverty. She was also an ardent pacifist, and in the aftermath of World War I helped establish the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1946, Balch was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (her medal is part of the College’s special collections). Thus, when the faculty revamped the first-year college seminar program in 2009, it seemed fitting to rename this cornerstone of the first-year academic experience in honor of Balch.
Every fall, about 25 faculty members teach an Emily Balch seminar (referred to as “ESems” in campus vernacular) to 12-15 first-year students. The overall goal of the Balch seminars is to introduce students to the modes of critical thinking, close reading, writing and discussion that are so vital to the liberal arts tradition. Each faculty instructor organizes his/her seminar around a theme or question that transcends any particular discipline or major, using a variety of media (texts, films, websites, performance pieces, journalism) to explore seminar topics and stimulate intellectual engagement. Biweekly one-on-one conferences between each student and her professor are an integral part of the ESem experience and ensure that by the end of her first semester, every student has benefited from substantive interactions with a Bryn Mawr faculty member. The ESem sections offered every year are truly fascinating — for a sampling of what new students will be taking this fall, click here.
Last year, Bryn Mawr inaugurated a new tradition for the first-year class, the Emily Balch Seminar Speaker Series. A joint collaboration of the provost’s office, dean’s office and college writing program, the speaker series is intended to bring together the first-year class to hear from a notable writer about the influences, creative underpinnings, and methodology of his or her work. Karen Russell, author of the New York Times bestseller and 2012 Pulitzer prize fiction finalist, Swamplandia!, was invited to be our first Balch speaker. Russell, who was also teaching in Bryn Mawr’s creative writing program last fall, engaged in a funny and touching on-stage conversation with creative writing program director, Dan Torday, while pages from her published work were projected on a giant screen behind them. After Q& A with the students in the audience, everyone proceeded from Goodhart Hall to Thomas Great Hall for an unforgettable dessert reception.
This fall, we are thrilled to be building on this new first-year tradition by welcoming Alison Bechdel as our 2012 Emily Balch Seminar Speaker. Several ESem faculty will be incorporating her graphic novels, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, into their seminars and the entire Class of 2016 and the faculty will be invited to hear Bechdel speak on September 27 in Goodhart. Given her enormous popularity, Bechdel will also be meeting with interested sophomores, juniors and seniors at a Q&A session and book signing in English House earlier in the day. We are all looking forward to her visit and will be sure to cover her time on campus in a fall edition of our parents’ and family newsletter!