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First-Year Students Ask Deep Questions

Illustration by Jing Jing Tsong

In their first days at Johns Hopkins, students start to develop connections and the ideas that can lead to world-changing discussions. To foster that, the First-Year Orientation Committee swapped the single book “common read” for a Common Question that sparks intellectual discussions and builds stronger ties between students and faculty. This year’s question, “What is the common good?,” is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, political uprisings, Black Lives Matter, and each student’s journey.

“New students have spent much of their lives being rewarded for the right answer,” says Anne-Elizabeth Brodsky, a senior lecturer in the Expository Writing Program and faculty director of the Common Question. “This helps them structure a process of inquiry when there is no right answer.” 

The question is being examined across the Krieger School, the Whiting School of Engineering, and Peabody. Several hundred students joined the first virtual seminar with Rigoberto Hernandez, the Gompf Family Professor in the Department of Chemistry, and Linda DeLibero from the Film and Media Studies Program, that kicked off with Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor Vesla Weaver’s police brutality research and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” song.  

“This question is involved in the kind of issues our students are wrestling with,” says Hernandez. “I want them to have an experience that will be transformative, even if they’re not here in person.” 

The dialogue continues all year. More than 120 professors and instructors will host Common Question Conversations with small groups of students. The diverse sessions range from government funding for the National Science Foundation to the atomic origins of climate science to the zombie movie Shaun of the Dead. In spring, the Alumni Association will host small conversations between several Hopkins graduates and current students. All to one goal: helping first-year students see their education as a lived, intellectual experience.