Academic Read #6: Teaching to Transform

From our Mission Statement: “Gonzaga models and expects excellence in academic and professional pursuits…”

On the first day of every fall semester I walk into a room filled with wide-eyed and often wildly nervous freshmen.  I usually begin with a statement that goes something like this:

“What we read, think about, and discuss this semester will change the way you look at the world and the way you see yourself in it.”

The majority of my students are not English Majors; many of them claim they dislike reading, and many of them openly admit that they would rather gouge their own eyes out than write an essay on the meaning of the 17th-century poem they see on my syllabus.  Given this reality, I recognize that my claim is astronomically ambitious, but I feel I’d do a disservice to my students if I aimed for anything less…I also know my aspiration is more than just a claim; it is a truth.

When you walk through the halls of Gonzaga University and sit down in a classroom, whether you know it or not, you are seeking more than just an education, more than just knowledge or experience, and certainly more than just degree requirements to eventually land a job.  Your presence here suggests that you seek a deep and abiding transformation of the self.  Your presence in our classrooms and common areas, our dorms and our chapels, our athletic fields and concert halls, is a testament to the fact that you desire to know yourself better. You have taken the first step in beginning a process of transformation from your current self into the “you” you’d most like to be.

It is not a lie when I say this process might very well begin with an “Introduction to Literature” class.  I know that your transformation will occur over time, but I also know that the first inkling of change can come with a hard poem or a challenging novel that forces you to struggle with a seemingly impenetrable, impossible, or even uncomfortable text.  I know that through this struggle you will come to know a great deal about yourself.

And here is the beauty of beginning this process at Gonzaga: you will not be alone.  My fellow professors and I will gladly walk with you on your journey, and we will care about more than just how your personal journey ends; we will care about how you feel along the way.  We will care about you, and we are deeply invested in providing the platform on which you will discover, alter, reimagine, and in turn rediscover yourself.

This personal care and commitment to building a community of learners, a community your professors are also a member of, is a hallmark of Gonzaga’s Jesuit and humanistic educational model that stresses the importance of cura personalis, or “care for the individual person.”  This tradition calls Gonzaga’s faculty to teach with the vision of our students as individuals who hold a vital stake in their own transformation always before us.

As such, I am constantly inspired to offer a learning environment that reaches well beyond the walls of our classroom and into the lived experiences of my students.  I strive to assign texts that open up avenues to new ideas that explode into meaning because they authentically speak to not just our minds but also our souls and our humanity.

I am not interested in forcing students to read and write for a requirement.  I am interested in inviting students to thoughtfully consider the deep reciprocity between the stories we tell and the experience of being human.  I often have the pleasure of seeing my classrooms pulse with life as the result of a meaningful emotional shifting a poem or a beautifully ironic moment in a play where we don’t know if we should cry or laugh.  These moments leap off the pages and straight into our hearts, and as a result, we become ignited with not just the spirit of the text, but with a greater understanding of our shared humanity.  It is a remarkable thing to see a young woman or man engage in this process of discovery and connect with a voice from another time or even find a voice that speaks to this moment, right now.  In these instances I leave my classroom both enlivened and improved for having had the opportunity to listen to you.

The transformations that come from the work we will do here may not happen immediately within the walls of my classroom; in fact, I suspect it rarely does.  The real, abiding, intractable changes in the way we think, feel, and live largely come in small, sneaking, and mostly silent sensations months or even years later, but the seeds are planted now, here in a learning community intent upon activating your desire for growth.  I know this to be true, and teaching with this truth in mind makes me believe whole-heartedly that my lofty ambition to ignite a spirit of transformation in my students is not beyond reach.  I can see transformation hovering above our heads during a heated classroom debater when a student comes into my office to discuss an assignment they’re struggling with.  Transformation is palpable in these moments.

The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats reportedly once declared, “education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”  It is an assertion that doesn’t really sound like Yeats, and has actually proven difficult to attribute to Yeats, but regardless of whether or not a famous poet uttered these words, they are undeniably true.  Fires are hard to extinguish; they indelibly alter the landscape through which they blaze, and they are the building blocks of rebirth, renewal, and transformation in the natural world.  At Gonzaga the faculty is called to do much more than dispense droplets of knowledge onto our students while holding back a greater reservoir for ourselves. We, the faculty, will offer you fuel; we’ll supply you with matches, but only you can ignite the fire within.

 

Professor Katey Roden is a lecturer in the Gonzaga English Department, often teaching courses such as ENGL 102: Intro to Literature. Look for her name when you get your student schedules in August; you’d be lucky to have her as a professor!

 IGNITE Question: “Cura Personalis” is not simply a term we use capriciously. Reflect on how you will live this through during your Gonzaga experience. How will you begin your academic journey and implement this notion of “care for the whole person”?

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