Dr. John Immerwahr, fondly referred to as “Immer” by his students, has been a Villanova professor for over forty years. He began in the Villanova Philosophy Department in 1973, served as Chair of the Department from 1992 to 1996, and moved on to become the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs from 1996 to 2007. Needless to say, Immerwahr was a quickly rising star, and still teaches to this day in the Philosophy Department and Honors Program. Immerwahr can be considered as one of the founders of the Interdisc Program here at Villanova.
Before arriving at Villanova, Immerwahr was an undergraduate philosophy student at Princeton. Once finished, he entered the University of Michigan as a graduate student in philosophy. Surprisingly, he did not complete the program, as he was there during the Vietnam War and the draft was newly instated. With the thought that he would soon be asked to fight overseas, Immerwahr left the graduate program after two years and took the comprehensive exams to earn his Master’s Degree early. As he waited, he took a job on a regional Michigan campus where he completed his dissertation. And this is where he realized his love of teaching. Because he left his graduate program earlier than expected, Immerwahr did not have a lot of professional formation, but instead found his own voice as a classroom leader. He became very interested in the concept of self, and focused his curiosities on the subject. His experience as a young professor exposed him to the possibility and value of a multi-disciplinary approach to education.
It is this multi-disciplinary approach that served as the inspiration for the Interdisc program. While still at Michigan, Immerwahr created an interdisciplinary curriculum that integrated literature, history, and philosophy. Not long after, as a young professor applying for a position at Villanova, Immerwahr recognized the opportunity he would have to develop the Interdisc program at another educational institution. When he first arrived at Villanova, the Interdisc program was young and struggling. It had a similar structure to graduate school – classes met once a week, professors taught in lecture format, and the material was one dimensional and unengaging. The Director of the program at the time asked Immerwahr and another colleague to recreate the program, adding additional components and incorporating a more multi-dimensional approach. Immerwahr had a great deal of fun working to develop the program with his coworkers, and it has continued to develop for forty years.
What was the purpose of the program’s makeover? Immerwahr recognized that at Villanova, students experienced a great deal of pressure to fit in for survival. New students would mold themselves to attract friends and maintain a desirable social life, ostracizing the outliers. The goal of the newly instated Interdisc program was to provide a place for those exceptionally gifted students – a place where they could express themselves, pursue a diverse area of learning, and live in community with one another. The Augustine and Culture Seminar class – a required class for all Villanova freshmen – was patterned on the Interdisc set-up, condensing a three semester program into two classes in an effort to expand the benefits of an Interdisc education to the whole Villanova population.
Even years later, the Interdisc program is still in a constant state of evolution. When asked where he sees the program heading in the next few years, Immerwahr had some ideas of his own. He acknowledges that the student body is constantly changing, and in order to retain and engage them, the curriculum must change as well. As the years pass, it is increasingly difficult to persuade students to commit to a three semester program. In this day and age, young people are entering college with more advanced placement credit, and are searching for more freedom and flexibility in their course schedule. Therefore, there is a pressure to change certain aspects of programs based on student interest. With this in mind, Immerwahr is looking toward a future in which the Interdisc classes are less historical and more topical. For example, rather than Interdisc I, II, and III focusing on eras in history, he suggests that they focus on self, society, and God.
Immerwahr also brings up a shifting learning style – over his many years of experience, he has witnessed novice writers writing for experts, and expert writers writing for novices. In other words, students are often asked to thoroughly research topics and write in a style that can be understood and appreciated by professionals. However, as experts, professionals are often faced with the task of breaking a topic down into easy-to-understand language. In an effort to flip the system, Immerwahr began to have his student complete projects in which they were asked to take on the role of “expert”. He assigned his ACS class to research, write, and edit “An Introduction to St Augustine’s Confessions: A Guide for New Villanova Faculty, ” which was later distributed at the new-faculty orientation. The following year his class composed “The 125th Anniversary of the Villanova Chapel,” a booklet about the church’s history that was handed out to parishioners. This innovative approach to learning really highlights not only Immerwahr’s creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, but it also illustrates the unique educational benefit of the ACS and Interdisc courses.
Dr. Immerwahr has witnessed and participated in Interdisc's growth during its 40 years. Interdisc is officially over the hill!
With Interdisc's long history and the undeniable bond that its students develop, is it any wonder that many of them remain life-long friends, and some of them go on to get married? We've highlighted two "Interdisc Couples" here.
By Newsletter Co-Edior, Nina Rizk, LAS '14. Nina is receiving a degree in Comprehensive Science and Psychology, with a Concentration in Ethics of Healthcare and a Minor in Honors.