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My Favorite Carleton Prof and 1st Year Seminar

Kai discusses the first-year fall "Argument & Inquiry" seminar and features his favorite Carleton prof.

Kai discusses the first-year fall "Argument & Inquiry" seminar and features his favorite Carleton prof.

During my first fall term, like all first years, I was introduced to college-level writing through the required Argument and Inquiry (A&I) seminar. All A&I’s are small seminar-style “writing rich courses” made up of a small group of first year students, but that is where similarities end. There are about 40 A&I courses to choose from, spanning a huge range of departments at Carleton. An A&I seminar might be anything from an Educational Studies class titled Will This Be on the Test? Standardized Testing and American Education to a Physics class called Powering Our Future: Sustainable Energy Systems Principles and Examples to an Art History class named Laughing Matters: The History of Political Caricature.

It was this first fall, in this A&I course, that I immediately felt my “wow, I’m in college” moment. My course, Writing about America and Globalization with Professor Elizabeth McKinsey (or Beth, as she let us address her), hit the ground running. By our first Friday, we had written the first essay. It was the first of six in our 10-week long trimester. But rather than being overwhelmed, I was engaged. I enjoyed writing each essay, thanks to the compelling prompts. We had drafts peer-reviewed, received guidance from a class-specific Writing Assistant from the Writing Center, and Professor McKinsey always gave thoughtful feedback. By the time we’d reached the end of our 10 weeks, I was pleasantly surprised with a realization: I actually liked writing and I became much more comfortable and confident in it.

Headshot of professor Elizabeth McKinsey
Professor McKinsey

Beth McKinsey represents the best of Carleton profs: she is incredibly thoughtful and respectful, caring and challenging, intellectually stimulating but not intimidating. She is a wizard of classroom discussion, and even to a shy first-year, easily approachable. Though it has been a year since I took her class, she welcomed me into her office to chat about how things were going and gave me an exclusive interview for the Admissions Blog!

Prof. McKinsey’s background and how she “fell into” teaching

“When I was high school age, I would have told you ‘no I’ll never be a teacher. Teaching is a gift, and I haven’t got it.’”

Ask any other Carl who’s had the privilege of taking her classes, and they’d heartily disagree. 

But so began Professor McKinsey’s path to becoming a beloved member of the Carleton community, her humility evident from the start. A lover of American history and literature, she cultivated this passion into a double major at Radcliffe College (the all-female counterpart to Harvard before it later merged together). It took her to graduate school at Harvard, where she received a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization.

“In the middle of graduate school, I thought: oh my goodness, this is heading me toward teaching! So you could say I fell into it…and the most succinct way to put it is I loved the stuff and I just kept doing it”

By then, Professor McKinsey had begun as a teaching fellow at Harvard. After receiving her Ph.D., she taught at Bryn Mawr College for a few years, before spending the next 12 years as a professor and lecturer at Harvard. She became Carleton’s Dean of the College in 1989 (even serving as acting President for some of 1999), remaining in that role before her return to teaching full-time from 2003 to today. She is currently the Maxine H. and Winston R. Wallin Professor of American Studies and English.

What Prof. McKinsey loves about Carleton

“Carleton faculty are so privileged to teach such eager, curious, fresh, open students. I mean, you guys are great. And you know, I taught for many years at Harvard. And Harvard students are wonderful, and you know, I actually taught students many people have heard of (ex. some of the Kennedy kids)… but there are some that have a chip on their shoulder and kind of think they’re pretty terrific, and aren’t as fresh, and open, curious, and humble [as Carleton students]. Students here have taken pride in not competing with others, but with themselves, and I really love that about Carleton. The size too, the fact that I know faculty in all of the departments, and though there is potential for more collaboration, interchange, and interaction between faculty, there is a lot…and to some degree, it is exactly what we are asking students to do, which is putting together knowledge from all different areas and make connections not just across English courses or Math courses, but across all courses. And that’s the liberal arts.”

On why she teaches a first-year A&I course

“When I came back to teaching from the Dean’s office, I felt a duty to teach writing, and realized I care enormously about writing, about language.”

One dinnertime in high school, when her father announced that he had turned down a job offer in India, McKinsey and her siblings insisted that he rethink his decision. The prospect of seeing a completely different part of the world was alluring and young Beth’s argument was convincing, so her father took the job. That year and a half in India planted the seeds of Professor McKinsey’s international interests and later, Writing about America and Globalization.

Professor McKinsey’s humility shines through again when she discusses her passion for writing, as she insists that “I don’t regard myself as a superb writer, I’m not a prolific writer, or an easy writer” but that “I really cared about it.” Therefore, her first iterations of the A&I were focused on giving students many opportunities to work on their writing, which attracted many international/ELL students. The international flavor of the class led her to take the course in a more global direction. From the increasingly globalized nature of the world and her international experiences (in addition to personal travel, she’s taught in numerous off-campus studies programs) emerged Writing about America and Globalization

In COVID times, the class proved to be especially timely and captivating. And though it was listed as an English course, Professor McKinsey is both an English and American Studies Professor. This gives her the ability to bring one field into the other in all of her courses. In her English course this past fall, Democracy: Politics, Race, & Sex in 19th Century American Novels, it meant weaving in historically significant texts (ex. Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”) with the fiction. For her American Studies class last Spring, The 1930s: Social and Cultural Impact of the Great Depression, it meant “reading into” a variety of text, film, and music-based content with the eye of an English class. Whatever department Professor McKinsey’s courses are listed in, they all embody the liberal arts spirit and are a pleasure to be in.

Conclusion: A&I’s are great! And so are Carleton Profs!

I’m incredibly thankful that I took Professor McKinsey’s course, especially as one of the first in my college career. I’m grateful for the A&I requirement too, which allowed me to develop confidence in my writing. All in all, it proved to be the perfect introduction to college.

Kai is a sophomore from Charlottesville, VA, who probably spends too much time enjoying meals (and desserts) with friends in the dining halls. He is a prospective double major in Political Science and Psychology, potential Public Policy Minor as well. He loves volunteering for Project Friendship, playing piano at the Weitz, hanging out at Sayles, taking walks around the Lakes or in the Arb, and pitching/playing infield for the baseball team. Meet the other bloggers!