This post is a deviation from my normal posts to this blog. Instead of discussing research and ideas on various things media and pop culture, I am instead going to use this post to reflect on my week long excursion to a colloquium known as Collegium. My position is with a Catholic university, and this year I was invited by my institution to attend Collegium. For two decades now, Collegium has been bringing together individuals like myself from various Catholic institutions of higher education from around the country in order to discuss what is the Catholic approach to such education. Collegium is intended to be for junior faculty of all walks of life, especially of different religious backgrounds, so as to help them understand the philosophical and theological foundations upon which their schools are based. As I am a young faculty member who was not raised Catholic, I accepted the invitation to better understand this approach to education and particularly what it could mean for the development of online learning communities.
This post will serve as a place of daily reflection for my ongoing experience as a woman out of her elements trying to listen and understand this new world and new position in which she finds herself.
Day 1: Saturday, June 21st
Technically, flying in yesterday and attending the opening dinner should constitute for day one. But seeing as all I did was take a 2 hour flight, a 90 minute van ride, eat, drink, and attempt to sleep, there was nothing of any real interest going on. Except for a gorgeous sunset! So I start off my reflecting with our first full day of discussion and contemplation.
We began in small groups, which is perhaps a very smart way of starting; rather than feel overwhelmed and easily ignored in a lecture setting, here I got to introduce myself and begin to sense how I am positioned in relation to the others attending. And the wariness I had about being an atheist or secular humanist or whatever you want to call me was greatly diminished from this discussion. No doubt I was more set at ease by hearing about the backstories and travels of my fellow group members. Our moderator asked us three profound questions that I do not think I have ever been asked before, and in the attempt to answer them, I could hear about the journeys of the others and consider how similar they are to my own. Also important, I was able to declare myself as having “faith” in science, the scientific method, and the ability for people to work together to development not “truth” but knowledge — and in declaring myself so, I was not ridiculed or challenged. I was listened to by a group of people with open minds.
And that made me feel very comfortable to move on, to recall and discuss how my real intellectual interest is in the desire to demonstrate the interconnectedness of everything — to illuminate our similarities rather than our differences — to promote understanding and acceptance and respect and dialogue. In the pursuit of promotion and tenure and respect in the discipline — all the hustle and bustle and stress that comes with striving to be a success — I think it can be easy to lose sight of our intellectual interests and the path built of those interests that have gotten us to where we currently are. That is something I have been missing as of lately, when I consider all of the research projects I want to do because I feel I have to in order to be successful. Remembering my core interest, my core identity, who I am as an intellectual and thus what drives my scholarship, can greatly help me weed out the projects that will not keep this core identity together.
I also sat there, listening to the others discuss themselves, their lives, their intellectual pursuits, and I start doodling a tag cloud to reflect my core identity as well as my overlaps with all of them. I am going to need to think more on these concepts, ideas, jargon, to see how they connect to one another. Perhaps in there is the map to my core identity.
After our small group discussion, everyone of the Collegium — around 80 of us — attended a lecture by the head of the organization on why does our work matter. This is by no means a small question, and hopefully it is a question all intellectuals, academics, scholars, professors, teachers have contemplated. The lecturer made the argument for a need to not only focus on a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” with its focus on criticism and deconstruction, but also on a “hermeneutic of wonder” wherein we would recognize and teach others to approach reality and everything in it with the awe it so rightly deserve. In our small groups after lunch to discuss this lecture and our assigned readings, I stressed the argument that we cannot see these are two separate aims of intellectualism. Instead, they should be two sides of the same coin, both necessary for any successful journey. While we need creativity and curiosity in order to compel our agency and movement, we also should not move forward blindly; we need to think critically and strategically in order to proper adapt our agency to the situation. But we can all agree that a focus purely on criticism creates a negative situation that can squelch creativity and curiosity — and without those two important drives, human civilization would have fallen into darkness eons ago.
As I mentioned, we have assigned readings every day intended to help us consider that Catholic approach to higher education. Today’s readings were on some historical information about Catholic higher education in the United States, as well as the struggle such institutions have in developing a sense of identity that separates them from their secular counterparts. There was a historical lesson about how Catholicism has changed in the United States since the 1960s and the reformation of the Church after Vatican II. There was an argument about the need for religion to not have an antagonist relationship with science that I appreciated reading. There was a consideration of how the identity crisis of these institutions needs to better consider that they may be asking for a return to a time that saw women, minorities, and the poor disempowered. All of this was interesting, thought-provoking, and only infrequently did I get somewhat combative with the message.
The reading that resonated the most with me, and also aligned with the lecture presented in the morning, focused on this idea of developing and maintaining an intellectual life. Not just a life as a scholar or professor or researcher or teacher — but a life where one is able to contemplate matters within and without one’s discipline or profession. You see, we used to have more time for such contemplation, and for such public discourse about what was being contemplated. However, according to the author, demands on our lives have reduced our leisure time, meaning we cannot have the free space and time to think about ideas larger than our daily concerns. At the same time, the intellectuals of the academy are engaging in less and less public discourse; reduced are the public intellectuals who would try to stimulate such contemplation in our public discourse. Such outreach is reduced, so says the author, due to increasing demands on our time, increasing specialization in our disciplines, and increasing requirements to succeed in promotion and tenure.
All of this was written 25 years ago. But, if you are an academic, then perhaps you feel the same way about your institutional experience. If you are a member of the public, perhaps you likewise lament the level of public discourse currently in our country. I am pretty certain we all lament our loss of leisure time. Even the evolution/revolution of the Internet, the Web, Web 2.0, and social media does not seem to be enough to help alleviate any of these problems. If anything, online commenting only shows how the anonymity of this new communication space further degrades our public discourse, even as some academics use the advantages of Web 2.0 to reach out with their knowledge and wisdom.
So where am I at after all of this? I perhaps have a better sense of who I am, which I didn’t even really know I needed until this morning. And I continue to have a deep seated need for the academy to develop more public intellectuals. I do not know if this means restructuring the promotion and tenure system to better appreciate the outreach attempts. I do not know if this means better structuring or utilization of online communication spaces to become places of public discourse and dialogue that fully requires more contemplation. I do not know if this means further reducing the focus on criticism, to move even from “constructive criticism” to “compassionate criticism” in how we engage with our students, our peers, and our selves.
No, I take that back — I think it does mean all three of those things.
I think we are at a pivotal point in which we can change how the academy — not just Catholic higher education but all of higher education — operates, for both students and professors. I think we are being called upon to be agents of such change.
Which I guess means we need to consider both a “hermeneutic of suspicion” as well as a “hermeneutic of wonder” about what is higher education today, and what it could be tomorrow.
Day 2 is here.
Day 3 is here.
Day 4 is here.
Day 5 is here.
Final Day is here.