- Parent-Education in a Montessori Lab School: Picture Books, Lectio Divina and the Daily Examen
- Sex, Solitude, and Single Life
- Still Weaving of a Written Self: Reflections on the Whole Student
- English Senior Seminar: The Early Modern Idea of Work (ENGL 499)
Literature & the Moral Imagination: Focus on Marginalized Voices and Borderlands
Mapping Xavier's Campus
- From Manresa to Oxford: Identifying the Ignatian Vision in Twentieth-Century British Literature - Literature & the Moral Imagination English Senior Seminar
- Studies in Fiction
- Discernment, Orienteering, and the Education of Desire: Practical Guidance for Making Decisions
- Reading with Heart and Mind, the Problem: Integrating Students? Affective Responses to Literature into Literature Courses
Trudelle Thomas, PhD.
Mentor to: Leslie Roth (Montessori)
Abstract: The essay that follows describes two related topics valuable to young parents: reading aloud to children as a form of Lectio Divina (or Divine Reading) and the Daily Examen, two spiritual practices that I find to be especially adaptable to parents of young (pre-school) children and their young (pre-primary) children. Included are twenty guidelines for reading and discussing picture books. The essay will be especially helpful in planning parent-education programs. It is also valuable for parents, educators, and those training future educators, including religious educators.
Many on Xavier University's campus are familiar with name Dorothy Day because of the Dorothy Day Center for Peace and Justice, located in the Gallagher Student Center. Many know that Day was co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement that led to the counter-cultural Catholic Worker newspaper and the Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality that have reached out to the indigent in cities across the U.S. since the 1930s. But people are less likely to know that Day was also a single mother and later a grandmother. I recently read about her experience as a grandmother, visiting her daughter Tamar and her children, then living in a rural location without electricity. Day made a comment something like this: "This is a whole new level of poverty; caring for sick children, without electricity, without help." Day stayed for months to help Tamar care for the children. (The incident is comment is recounted in The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie, 2003.)
On our campus we often associate poverty with the homeless, the urban poor, and those in developing countries who are materially poor. But there are other kinds of poverty that are just as oppressive as material poverty. When Day visited Tamar, she was struck not just by the material poverty (Tamar and her husband were trying to establish an intentional community with limited resources) but by isolation and the heavy responsibilities of tending to several children, some of them sick.
During the past year I (a professor of English) have enjoyed being a mentor/collaborator with Lesley Roth (principal of Xavier's University lab school). Our particular shared interest has been children's literacy, but our collaboration is leading to several other endeavors that will extend beyond the one-year Ignatian Mentoring Program. We are reaching out to parents of children in the Montessori pre-primary program because we perceive a need for spiritual enrichment and encouragement. We offered a parent-education workshop at the end of the current school year, and plans are now being made for several such workshops (perhaps five or six) during the coming school year. These will be publicized as "parent-education" and will address topics relevant to both childrearing and to spiritual self-care. Ignatian spirituality will be woven into these workshops. (See the appendix, "Pragmatics for the Parent Education Workshops" at the end of this essay for more details.) The essay that follows describes two related topics valuable to young parents: reading aloud to children as a form of Lectio Divina (or Divine Reading) and the Daily Examen, two spiritual practices that I find to be especially adaptable to this life-stage.
The Saturday morning workshop I led was entitled "Tending Your Soul as a Parent of Young Ones." About eight parents (all mothers) attended. I made a presentation and facilitated conversation that led to an impressive degree of candid sharing about the challenges and joys of young parenthood. At the beginning I invited people to go around the circle and briefly introduce themselves, and the first few mothers mentioned the ages of their children and their outside jobs (if they had one). I interrupted and said, "No, tell me about something that is part of your life that you enjoy apart from your work or children--maybe a hobby or interest." This interruption shifted the focus from the mothers' roles to themselves, and contributed to a noticeable energy shift, as if participants were dropping their masks for an hour or so. It avoided the common division between "stay-at-home mothers" versus "working mothers." This form of introduction contributed, I think, to the openness of the group and the candor that followed.
After leading the workshop, I was struck by the contrast between the lives of these young mothers (in their twenties and thirties) and the "traditional" undergraduate students that I normally teach. Like most Jesuit universities, we seek to attract and retain students by offering an array of services. These include not just stimulating course offerings but also dormitories with cleaning service provided, an award-winning cafeteria, verdant campus grounds, and a range of clubs and social opportunities. All this is meant to make the college years as enriching as possible.
Fast-forward five or ten years, and the some of the very same students are likely to find themselves the parents of one or more young children. As I pointed out to the mothers at the workshop, There's probably no time in your life that will involve so much responsibility and so little support. Caring for young children is an enormously demanding responsibility, often as consuming as boot camp or a medical residency, but this life-stage is less recognized as valuable and lasts longer (six years at least, more for those with several children). Parenting young children involves not just round-the-clock physical and emotional care, it also involves laying the foundation for dispositions, attitudes and values that will likely influence their children for many years to come. Maria Montessori understood the importance of early childhood and would probably agree with the adage "the first years last forever." Parents who cultivate a spiritual life are better able to reconcile the disconnect between the heavy responsibilities of childrearing and the lack of practical support for it. Young parents can greatly benefit from the wisdom of Ignatian spirituality.
I offer parents the following definitions of spirituality: "opening ourselves to the intimate and direct influence of the divine in our lives . . . seeking the effect of waking up or expanding our understanding of who we are and what our place is in the universe (if only for a moment)? (from Tobin Hart's The Secret Spiritual World of Children, p. 8). Others speak of the spiritual as involving the individual's experience and relationship with a fundamental, nonmaterial aspect of the universe in a way that she finds meaning. Both definitions involve direct experience of fundamental, non-material realities. Spirituality can be deepened through what is commonly referred to as "spiritual practices." A spiritual practice (or discipline) is: "an intentionally-directed action by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the ability to do what we cannot do by direct effort" (from the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible). A spiritual practice helps a person connect with a Higher Power or God or a larger community than she encounters in her day-to-day life, and thus helps her strengthen a spiritual life.
Moreover, spirituality is different from religion, which involves a set of beliefs, moral codes, sacred texts, rites and rituals, and holidays, often guided by a religious professional (such as a rabbi, guru, or pastor). It is possible to be religious without being spiritual, or to be spiritual without being religious. I believe that, ideally, spirituality is best fostered by participation in a religious tradition combined with personal "practice", but I do not assume that parents in a non-sectarian school setting share this belief.
Caring parents are generally concerned with their children's education and see the value of exposing children to books and stories. Reading aloud to children during the preschool years correlates with later success in school and life, so many parents try to build shared reading into their daily routine, often at bedtime. Reading aloud with children can be linked to the ancient practice of Lectio Divina (Divine Reading), at least occasionally, so that such reading can become a type of spiritual practice for both children and parents. If parents learn a few basic skills in how to select picture books and facilitate meditation and conversation about books, story-time can become a way to nurture their own spiritual lives as well as a time to both teach and learn from their children.
Lectio Divina (or Divine Reading) developed early in the Christian tradition and has taken a variety of forms over the centuries, especially in monasteries; there has been a surge of new interest in Divine Reading over the last twenty years or so among lay people. Historically, Divine Reading was a spiritual practice that involved four steps: read, meditate, pray, contemplate. These steps often overlap and merge into one another. A person might read a short passage of scripture (or a devotional text or a poem) aloud with an open heart, meditate on that passage (using the imagination and feelings, not just the intellect), pray for insight, and then carry the passage forward into the day. She might also memorize the passage (or phrases from the passage) and recall it during her daily routine. The goal is not to study the passage in the academic sense (which might involve researching the historical background and the author, or analyzing the passage). Rather the goal is to absorb its meaning, letting it speak to the heart and soul. To use a homely analogy, Divine Reading is like steeping oneself (like a teabag) or soaking oneself in a particular text.
For young parents and their children, I suggest viewing Divine Reading in terms of reading/listening, imagining, conversing (sharing insights or reactions), and going forth (finding ways to bring the insights to bear on their day-to-day lives). Parents first must choose appropriate picture books to share with children, a step which may be easier than it sounds. 'spiritual picture books' are ones that address spiritual themes or questions. Loyola Press offers a series called "Pray Me a Story" that includes nine different well-known, high quality picture books along with "Parent Guides" that link each story to spiritual reflection and prayer. The Parent Guides are rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition but the picture books themselves are not necessarily Catholic or Christian; they can be linked to other spiritual world views as well. In addition, writers Douglas Wood (Old Turtle and Granddad's Prayers for the Earth and others) and Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso (God's Paintbrush, God In Between, and others) are two more authors known for 'spiritual but not religious' picture books. (Lesley and I are working on a bibliography of picture books that can be used in a non-sectarian school setting or in homes of any faith or no faith. See Lesley Roth's essay elsewhere in this collection for a partial listing or excellent picture books.)
Once a parent has chosen a book, she (or he) must develop the ability to read the book aloud and facilitate conversation in such a way that children can absorb it contemplatively--the Divine Reading process of reading/listening, imagining, conversing and going forth. Lest this process sound too complicated, let me share an example of the process.
The well-loved author Max Lucado has written a picture book entitled You Are Special (available in board-book or full picture book size) which tells of a fellow named Punchinello who is part of a town populated by "Wemmicks", wooden puppets who spend all their time putting stickers on one another: gold stars (for the beautiful or strong) or grey dots (for the less "successful"). Punchinello gets mostly grey dots and is understandably downcast until he meets Lucia, a free spirit who happily lacks both stars and dots. People try to affix them to her but they simply will not stick. When Punchinello asks her secret, Lucia explains that everyday she visits Eli the Woodcarver, who lives on a hill nearby; these visits, she says, make her impervious to others' labels. "Why don't you visit Eli and see for yourself?" Lucia suggests. Punchinello reluctantly climbs the hill to visit Eli. Eli greets the lad warmly, saying he has been hoping for such a visit. Punchinello learns that Eli is the actual "Maker" who has carved all the Wemmicks and that he loves them all. He actually loves Punchinello and values him regardless of his looks or accomplishments. Punchinello basks in Eli's welcome and when he leaves the woodshop, one of his grey dots spontaneously pops off. Readers are left with the impression that there will be more visits to Eli and that perhaps Punchinello will begin to care less about giving or receiving sticky dots and stars.
Adult readers may readily see the allegory Lucado has created: God has created humans, loves them unconditionally, and will strengthen them when they find ways to regularly "visit" or commune with God. But his allegory goes further in offering a critique of a society which places such a huge emphasis on labeling individuals in terms of success and failure. Labels focus on the person or what I think of as the false self. Lucado goes still further and suggests a remedy for all this labeling: regular visits to the Maker. He does not spell out what form these "visits" will take, which leaves the concept open to interpretation in different families. The story encourages readers to disregard others' labels and instead turn to God for a sense of worth and value. A person's true worth stems from a much deeper source, and humans can make contact with that deeper source.-
The Wemmicks embody a false self that Wakefield regards as the "the old American success ethic . . . which still makes it a shame to admit failure, be it personal or professional . . . . [or to be anything other than] a smiling achiever moving ceaselessly onward and upward from the crib to the great condo in the sky" (Wakefield, The Story of Your Life). While achievement is a worthy goal, it becomes a trap when it becomes a persona that eclipses all other aspects of a human being. You Are Special offers a way to talk about these concepts in a way a child can understand.
Following this story, a parent and child might have a fruitful conversation something like this:
Parent: Did you like that story?
Bobby: Those Wemmicks were really mean to Punchinello.
Parent: Do you ever see kids treat each other that way?
Bobby: Susie called me a fatso on the playground.
Parent: Kind of like getting a gray dot, isn't it? How did that make you feel?
Bobby: Really bad. I wanted to hit her but I knew I would get in trouble.
Parent: Sometimes I get really mad in traffic and I take a deep breath. Or I give myself a
time out by counting to ten.
Bobby: I don't like time outs.
Parent: Punchinello took a kind of time out by visiting Eli. A time-out isn't always a
punishement. Could you do something like that?
Bobby: Maybe I could ask God to help me, like my Sunday School teacher says. Or
maybe I could sing a song so I wouldn't have to listen to him.
Parent: Let's try not to be Wemmicks in our house. Because I really love you whether
you have no gold stars or hundreds of them. Are you ready for another story or do you want to play?
An actual conversation would probably be briefer than this, but this illustrates the general process of reading/listening, imagining, sharing (conversing), and going forth.
Often parents start out reading to children as a way to educate and nurture their children, but in time, they find that the books and children end up educating and nurturing them. At the Saturday workshop, one mother remarked, "I loved You Are Special! It's so moving! I'm buying a copy for several of my friends who are moms." Another mother remarked, "The thing I find most difficult about raising children is the feeling that I'm constantly being judged on my children's behavior, on whether I breastfeed or not, how I discipline, whether I buy organic food or whatever. The worst judges are other mothers." The spiritual picture books I have used are often a great pleasure to read even apart from child-listeners: they have beautiful illustrations and they raise important and interesting questions that adults often have stopped asking.
I could imagine using You Are Special as a springboard for spiritual sharing among parents. I like the way that Lucado affirms the value of daily visits to Eli as a buffer against others' judgments, but doesn't specify the form such visits can take. "Visits to Eli" might take the form of daily prayer or even daily religious services, but they could also involve other spiritual practices, such as meditation, mindfulness, creative expression, or "practicing the presence of God" while breastfeeding or running the vacuum cleaner. A fruitful question (posed in a parent group) is: Do you find ways to "visit your Maker?" Would you like to do so more? What do you do?
Guidelines for the Divine Reading of Picture Books
I offer the following suggestions for reading aloud to children in such a way as to invite spiritual reflection and conversation. Most of these suggestions are adapted from Jim Trelease's important book, The Read-Aloud Handbook.
1. Preview the book by skimming it ahead of time. This allows you to spot material you may wish to shorten or to elaborate on. It also allows you to formulate questions for conversation afterward.
2. Remember that listening and conversing are acquired arts. They do not develop overnight. Be patient as you cultivate these abilities in your children. Be patient with yourself as well as you grow in your ability to read aloud and converse with your children.
3. Probably the best thing you can do to help your develop an interest in reading is to LIMIT ACCESS TO ELECTRONIC ENTERTAINMENT. If they have a chance to unplug enough to get bored, they are more likely to develop the attention span needed to enjoy stories and later reading on their own.
4 Children benefit the most from a story if there is a brief pre-story conversation to introduce it and set the scene and another post-story conversation that re-visits the events and connects them with children's experience. It is appropriate to have children participate in this conversation. The adult initiates questions then listens and responds, taking his cues from the child's comments.
5. Make sure the child can see the pictures easily. If you are reading to a group, with children in a semi-circle around you, seat yourself slightly above them so that even the ones in the back can see.
6. Before you begin, allow your listeners a few minutes to settle down. Mood is important. A stern "Pay attention" doesn't promote receptive listening. Invite them to relax and listen. Sometimes I simply sit down and say to my grandchildren, "I have a spot available on my lap. Is anyone ready for a story?" Then I open the book and start looking at the pictures.
7. Let the children know that books are written by people, not machines. Always read the information on the dust jacket or back cover. Tell your listeners a little about the author. Do the same with the illustrator. This can be very brief, such as: "It says here that Wilfred Writer lives in California and has a pet duck. Do you want to see his picture?" Or you might say: "This book, The Runaway Bunny, is by Margaret Wise Brown. She's the same person that wrote Goodnight Moon, the bedtime book we read last week. Do you want to read it?" If you are interested, most authors have web-sites, and you can find additional information in the reference book, Something About the Author at the library.
8. Sometimes it helps to explain to your children in advance some of the ideas or characters in the book and try to connect them to the children's own experience. Alert the children to any new words or concepts they will encounter. "This book, Stellaluna, is about a fruit bat. Do you know what a bat is? Have you ever seen one?"
Reading and Imagining the Actual Story
9. Read slowly enough for the child to form mental pictures. Slow down enough to allow yourself to use vocal expression and to the child to have a good look at each illustration. You may want to point out details in the pictures as you read, or even elaborate on the setting to help listeners imagine it. "Look at Punchinello climbing that hill. Make believe you are climbing too. You're getting sweaty and out of breath, but there's the wood shop up ahead."
10. When you have extra time, add a "third dimension" by involving other senses. For example, you could bring a pitcher of water and have the children listen to the sound of pouring water after hearing Goodnight Moon; this will reinforce the theme of settling down to notice quiet sounds and sights. When reading You Are Special, you could let the children attach adhesive stars to you or to one another, or you could help them make paper-bag puppets after reading.
11. An individual child may do better if he can color or work with beeswax (or clay) while you read. Using hands in this way helps some children to pay attention, much like adults doodle during meetings.
12. Allow time for conversation after reading a story. A book often arouses thoughts, hopes, fears, and discoveries. Allow them to surface but don't quiz or pry interpretations from the child.
13. The best post-story conversations involve the adult asking questions to encourage children to recall parts of the story in their own words. It is important that this not come across as a test but rather as a means of savoring the story itself. For example, in discussing You Are Special, you might ask, "Why didn't Punchinello get any stars? How did he feel when other people got all the stars?" or "What was Eli's workshop like? Do you think Punchinello will be back?"
14. Sometimes the post-story conversation can link the story to events, values, or feelings in the children's own lives. For example, you might ask: "Have you ever played with puppets? Have you ever had a friend like Punchinello?" or "Do you think it's important to get gold stars?"
15. The post-story conversation can also stimulate the child's imagination for the future. Questions might be something like this: "How would you like to have a friend like Lucia?" or "Would you like to live in a town with all those Wemmicks? Do some families (or schools) seem to have more Wemmicks than others? Does it have to be that way?"
16. It is important not to speak too quickly or inundate the children with questions. I've offered more sample questions than I'd ever actually use in one setting. Just a few questions are normally enough to wrap up the story and imprint it on the children's minds. Be mindful of attention spans.
17. Look for other experiences that you can link to the characters or incidents in your favorite book. ("That coach is acting like a Wemmick, isn't he?")
18. Let me reiterate: It is important not to try to teach or test during a post-story conversation; just let yourself enjoy the story with the children, and nudge them toward reflecting more; and let them nudge you!
19. Expect to return to some books over and over again. Children this age like to have books re-read over and over. They will develop favorites and so will you. You may notice details on the tenth reading that you missed on the first.
20. Trelease taught me the importance of reading to your children even after they learn to read themselves. As my own son grew up picture books gave way to early readers then to chapter books, then to series books and longer novels. His father read to him nightly almost every night from age seven till thirteen (while I nodded off nearby). These times of shared reading forged a strong bond between the two of them and are some of our very favorite family memories.
The Daily Examen
On a related note, a time-tested way to "visit your Maker" is the daily practice of the "Examination of Consciousness," also known as the "Daily Examen." It is said that St. Ignatius of Loyola regarded the Daily Examen as the single most important spiritual practice; if his followers had time for only one prayer, St. Ignatius believed this should be the one. As I explained to the parents at my workshop, the Examen involves taking time at least once a day to look back over the previous twenty-four hours and asking "Where did I experience God's presence? Where did I find peace and a sense of rightness?" and also "Where did I experience agitation and lack of peace? Where did I feel not-right or a sense of heaviness?" Ignatius spoke of the sense of peace and joy as "consolation" and the sense of agitation and heaviness as "desolation." (My favorite guide to the Examen is Sleeping with Bread, by Dennis Linn et al., which includes suggestions on teaching young children to practice the Examen. Also, XU's Office of Mission and Identity has a valuable pocket-sized card that lists questions to ask.)
In any case, the Daily Examen helps a person become more aware of spiritual experiences throughout the day. It is a type of prayer well-suited to busy parents because it can be very brief. It can take as little as five minutes and can be done anywhere, at any time even while waiting in line or running. The Examen can be deepened by using the "ART-4" approach--my acronym for these steps: Ask for light; Review your day (thinking back on moments of peace or heaviness), give Thanks for whatever you notice, and think FORward (set your intention for the day ahead and ask for grace). It is not so important to spend a great deal of time on the Examen as it is to do it consistently, day after day. As a person practices the Examen over a period of weeks, even years, she (or he) can develop a greater sensitivity to God's presence and a better ability to make good decisions. As this sensitivity to consolation grows, she (or he) can steadily move toward peace and away from agitation.
If so inclined, you can track your Examen by writing a few lines in a journal every day, listing in two columns the sources of peace and heaviness in the previous twenty-four hours. You might also want to note any strong feelings or insights. Keeping such a journal is by no means necessary, but it can help to have such a record. I have kept such a journal for many years and have found it worthwhile to periodically re-read entries, looking for patterns and blocks that recur. It definitely allows me to recognize the movement of grace in my life.
However the Examen is adapted to a person's needs, it is well worth trying out. It can contribute to a very practical spirituality which translates into more patience with fretful children, for example, or a greater ability to slow down and share a child's wonder and joy. Perhaps you will discover, as I have, an innate spirituality in yourself and your children, waiting to be unlocked.
There is a growing body of literature on the subject of children's spirituality. Here are some of my favorite resources.
Hart, Tobin. The Secret Spiritual World of Children. Makawao, Maui, HI: Inner Ocean, 2003.
Hay and Nye The Spirit of the Child. Revised edition. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers,
Linn, Dennis, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn, S.J. Sleeping with Bread: Holding
What Gives You Life. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995.
Loyola Press. "Pray Me a Story" series.
Taylor, Betsy. What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy. New York: Warner Books,
Thomas, Trudelle. Spirituality in the Mother Zone. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005.
One chapter describes a number of activities that children and parents can share.
Trelease, Jim. The Read-Aloud Handbook. 6th ed. New Rork: Penguin, 2006.
Yust, Karen Marie. Real Kids, Real Faith: Practices for Nurturing Children's Spiritual
Appendix: Pragmatics for the Parent Education Workshops
We announced the workshop weeks ahead. The workshop was scheduled from 10:00 AM till 11:30 AM and met in a classroom. We hired a student to provide childcare in the classroom next door. We offered light refreshments (bagels and fruit). The agenda was something like this:
Ten minutes for refreshments and settling in.
Ten minutes: Brief introductions around the circle. ("Tell about something that you
enjoy apart from your children or your job.")
Twenty minutes: Presentation, which included a one page handout with two thought
Five minutes of quiet reflection on a question.
Ten minutes: Break into pairs and discuss a question for ten minutes.
Twenty minutes. Regroup for additional presentation-content. Questions and answer and
sharing insights with the group as a whole.
Fifteen minutes after ending to talk among ourselves, finish refreshments.
The total of 90 minutes seemed just right for a group of this size.
The first topic was: Tending Your Soul as a Parent of Young Ones
I mentioned earlier that we are planning to offer several Saturday parent-education workshops in the coming school year. Five likely topics include:
Divine Reading: Reading Aloud to Promote Spiritual Sensitivity
Celebrating Fairy Tales, Mother Goose and More
'spiritual But Not (Necessarily) Religious': Helping Children Soothe Themselves and
Become More Resilient
Forgiveness and Attitude: Finding the Balance (helping kids stick up for themselves,
learning to advocate for yourself and your children; when to let go of resentment and judgments)
Service Rooted in Justice and Love: Teaching Children to Be Generous and Just
Simply Living: What Children Want that Money Can't Buy (opting out of the consumer culture)
If you are interested in offering your own parent-education workshops, I would be happy to share workshop materials as I develop them.
- Trudelle Thomas, Ph.D.
Discernment is an Ignatian concept that I continue to find enormously helpful in my teaching. This concept surfaced in a surprising way Spring of 2009 in a new course I taught called "Women of the World." This is a course for upper-level English majors, some of whom are preparing to be secondary English teachers.
For this we read six books (mostly novels) from six different continents (listed below). Novels portrayed women's lives in cultures very different from America, including the UK, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Haiti, India, and Poland. Sexual ethics emerged as a central theme in these works. Students encountered new cultural attitudes and behaviors in regard to how women prepare for marriage, the age at which they marry, women without men, and gender roles and sexuality within marriage. Arranged marriages and polygamy also came up, as well as a range of attitudes toward sexual behavior before marriage for both men and women. Students were especially interested in the topic of sexual behavior outside of marriage. The freedom to be single (not married, not "in a relationship") and the freedom to defer sexual activity were two themes that elicited strong student response. (I should mention that the class was made up of 15 females and four males; the females were more vocal on these topics. Most were juniors, seniors, or graduate students between age 20 to 30.)
Still Weaving of a Written Self: Reflections on the Whole Student
Kelly Austin, M.A.
Mentor: Trudelle Thomas, Ph.D. (English)
I turned around to survey the classroom one last time, checking to make sure I'd left nothing behind. As I went to switch off the lights, I stood there, briefly, taking in the silence. Here I stood immediately after the final, and I was already missing their voices. As a writing instructor, this is nothing new: I spend the entire semester "listening" to my students' voices--in journals, in papers, in emails, in classroom discussions, in individual conferences, and even in the informal spaces before and after class. So at the end of the semester, it should come as no surprise that the sudden ceasing of all these voices leaves such a void.
This school year I had spent so much time cultivating those voices, searching out those voices, that the silence seemed that much more stark. This year verified for me the real need, the real thirst, the real hunger our students have for understanding--of the self, of the world around them. In fact, my students were so eager to use their voices as a means of exploration--not just of their academic selves, but of their whole selves--that encouraging that expression, and hence understanding, through language was relatively effortless. And that understanding of the self is what a college education, particularly a Jesuit education, is all about--or at least it should be. But this year, more than any other, I have become aware of how much we are failing our students, of how much we separate our students' intellectual selves from their whole selves, their souls. And we all suffer as a result.
English Senior Seminar: The Early Modern Idea of Work (ENGL 499)
Kara Northway, Ph.D.
Mentor: Sarah Melcher, Ph.D. (Theology)
According to Communal Reflection on the Jesuit Mission in Higher Education: A Way of Proceeding (Jesuit Conference, 2002), the first characteristic of Jesuit Higher Education is "Dedication to Human Dignity from a Catholic/Jesuit Faith perspective" (4). Pope John Paul II identified the source and expansion of human dignity as work. In On Human Work, he wrote, "Work is at the center of the social question, the key to making life more human." My English 499 Senior Seminar, subtitled "The Early Modern Idea of Work," sought to explore the ways in which many of our current attitudes toward work and workers were shaped by the drama and culture of the Renaissance, especially that of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
Goals for the Mission-Driven Teaching Component
Upon reflection and extensive discussion with my mentor, added to the coursework for the semester was a section on "holy work." This included readings from the early English Jesuit Edmund Campion, biblical passages from the Geneva Bible concerning work (such as from Genesis and also the parable of the talents), and a play by the leading playwright (and teacher) among the English Jesuits, Joseph Simons (1594-1671). As we read, the goal was for students to recognize that the Renaissance used its literature to explore and shape new attitudes toward work. Students came to understand that while the ancients had conceived of work as punishment, Renaissance artists saw work as contributing to the greater glory of God. Thus, students were invited to find God in all things by considering the spirituality of work, the ways in which humans share in the activity of their God.
The course included several readings and discussions of the labor of those who were marginalized during the Renaissance, such as women, servants, slaves, and the jobless. Through these readings, my goal was to raise awareness and stimulate reflection about the lack of social justice in the modern working conditions of others both in the United States and abroad. Father Kolvenbach echoes his Santa Clara lecture when he speaks at Spring Hill in 2004 about the need to educate the whole person of solidarity: "to provide an education for the common good of the global human community. If students in fact allow the stark reality of this world to enter into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively, they will become men and women for others." Some of this "stark reality" includes "human rights" and the unemployed, according to Joseph Daoust, S.J. in "Of Kingfishers and Dragonflies: Faith and Justice at the Core of Jesuit Education" (18). This focus on solidarity leads to action, according to the Jesuits: "Solidarity also means a commitment to change the economic, political, and social structures that enslave, dehumanize, and destroy human life and dignity" (Communal Reflection 8).Ultimately, through reading and extensive discussion about the work of others from so many perspectives, my goal was to help students gain a concept for themselves of work as vocation, or the idea that God invites individuals to a certain lifework. Because all of the students were in the second semester of their senior year, the discussions about work in this class could remind them of the importance of choosing a post-graduation job that would allow them to be men and women for others. A passage from the 2004 article "Whatever! Is Not Ignatian Indifference: Jesuits and the Ministry to Young Adults," from Studies in the Spirituality of Jesuits, by David E. Nantais, S.J., was particularly influential in helping me understand why incorporating the mission into the college classroom is so important. Father Nantais speaks of the significance of teachers' efforts at connecting their students' faith with their choice of career. . . . All Jesuit schools should invite their students to reflect on their future profession as a calling rather than as a mere means to accumulate material goods. We should also not assume that students at Jesuit schools understand what "men and women for others" means. . . . A Jesuit education is not just for self-improvement, but also rather to prepare young adults to direct their hearts and minds to improving the condition of the world. During a time when young adults are grappling for some sense of meaning in their lives, highlighting the mission aspect of their education may be exactly what they need to get excited about their future. Young adults want to know that their future lives are going to mean something and . . . they are passionate about helping their fellow human beings. They need some help discerning how they can funnel that passion for service to their profession, so that they can see the connection. (34-35).
This description of what students need from their Jesuit education can be found in Father Kolvenbach's idea in his Spring Hill lecture of the "education of the heart": "A more complete education will invite us to a more genuine success: recognizing that the love of God calls us to use these gifts to create a world in which all may find a home and be participants in the human community."
Overall, then, these goals for the mission-driven component in English 499 sought to solidify the goals we have for all of our graduates, outlined in the 2003 Xavier Jesuit Education and Ignatian Pedagogy: A Desktop Primer: to "be morally sensitive to the needs of our times," to "Be committed to a faith that does justice," and to "Have a sense of moral responsibility in career choice." Not only was the incorporation of the component rewarding for me as a teacher as I watched my students engage with new ideas and with themselves, but it also enriched my research. I plan to use the component when I teach the course again. Below are student comments on vocation the first day of class, a copy of a mission-driven assignment on vocation, and student responses to this assignment at the end of the semester.
Seniors' Comments from the First Day of Class
"I have no clue what is next for me once I graduate. I'm trying to decide what I'd like to do as far as a career goes."
"I have no idea what is next to be honest-I am in the process of applying to law schools."
"I plan to attend law school after I graduate."
"I will be here next semester to finish. After that... ?"
"I am taking a break from school for awhile to work and travel."
"The next step for me is hopefully teaching high school English."
"After graduation I am taking a year before going into grad school or picking/starting my career."
"What's next: I'm interning this semester with Thomson Learning, hoping that if I like it, that might lead to something later on. If not, I have no idea."
English 499 : Reading Response #4 (due 3/28 )
In our discussion of the writings of English Renaissance playwright Joseph Simons, S.J., we found that the subject of Jesuit "holy work," such as a school play, does not have to be holy. The artist creates his work with conscious recognition of God's inspiriting grace and prays that his work will reflect the glory of God. Thus, the promotion of Christian ideals in Jesuit drama was secondary. What, then, do you think Simons thought was most important for his students to gain from participation in his plays-in other words, how would reciting lines in Latin from a play help students fulfill their vocation?
In order to answer this question, you might reflect on your own Jesuit education. How has your Jesuit education prepared you to realize your vocation? In class we read the version of the parable of talents in Matthew that Simons would have read. Do you have a sense of your "talents" that you did not possess before college? What are they? What particular talents or gifts has Xavier helped you develop that you will use in the future? One of the goals for Xavier graduates is that "A Xavier Graduate at the time of graduation should be able to have a sense of moral responsibility in career choice and be a contributing member of society." How will you direct your heart and mind to improving the condition of the world? How will you funnel your education and passion for service into your profession? In what ways will your future profession be a calling rather than a mere means to accumulate material goods? What are you excited about in your future?
Xavier Student Reflections
"For Joseph Simons, S.J., and other Jesuit playwrights of the Renaissance, I would imagine that one of the most important things they felt for students to learn from performing and studying plays would be an understanding of a world bigger than one's own. . . . I answer this question this way because I feel that is what my own Jesuit education has been about, studying what it is to be human, and what it is to live in a place full of other humans, and trying to pay attention to humans from the past in order to create better lives for humans of the future. The 'talents' that I have gained in my study of humanity are an ability to critically read, understand, analyze, and deliberate over moral questions presented in literature or current situations, an understanding of the world at the present moment and its history that helps me to relate to other humans and want to work to solve their problems, and a sense of responsibility as an educated young person to do something greater in a world so full of troubles. Xavier has taught me about being a person 'for others' because there is no other way to be. . . . A gift that I possessed before college that Xavier has helped me develop is my talent for writing and my ability to communicate with others. It is only through others' ability to communicate with me that I am able to learn; it is only through others' ability to share their own human experiences that I am able to reflect on my experience with a larger perspective. . . . Because of the writing and communication that has been shared with me, I have been able to learn about people's lives in the Renaissance, in the 18th century, in the Great Depression, in Haiti, in South Africa, in Spain, in Uzbekistan, people in many times and places that face situations like and unlike my own. But because of one person's ability to communicate his or her experience to me, I am able to understand my own experience in a new way. . . . I want to write; that is my passion and my way of leaving a mark on human history. Through my writing I want to challenge the world as it has challenged me. . . . Writing will be more a calling for me than anything as right now I am not sure I will be able to obtain any material goods through it, but it is the means by which I feel I can make the biggest impact on the world. . . . In the spirit of Joseph Simons and the first Jesuits, my education at Xavier has prepared me to become an artist who creates in order to reflect the glory of life and human existence that I am inspired by and also to expose the truths, both bitter and beautiful, of our world." - Jess
"What has a Jesuit education not brought alive in me? . . . Thanks to the Jesuits' emphasis on art and music, my talent has been respected and shaped by professors both inside and out of the music department. But do I want to devote my life to singing? Will singing as a profession allow me to still serve the community, or will I fall victim to the 'diva syndrome' and perform only to flaunt my talent and make money? . . . I was so happy when the benefit concert that I and a fellow music major produced and sang in last semester was a hit; we raised over $500 for hurricane victims. I realized then that while singing takes a lot of personal commitment and time focusing on the self and the voice, that self-training is necessary so that the talent can be its best when shared to help others." -Margaret
"In my experience at Xavier, I have noticed an extreme emphasis on exploration and discovery of ideas for oneself, which I feel is another important aspect that will aid me in my future. In any career, this skill for delving deeper will be an asset. Learning is so highly esteemed for its own sake at Xavier, and this habit is an admirable trait in any employee. Creativity to think outside the box is encouraged. . . ." - Amanda
"While at Xavier, I have discovered that I have an excellent grasp on language. Like James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, I have discovered that serving God isn't just for priests, but for each of us. . . . I learned that I am called to serve God through language. I have discovered that if God has called me to a vocation, to be one of His 'men for others,' he definitely requires me to teach-one of the most obvious, yet greatest ways to serve others. I will teach English to the next generation of learners in the hope that they too will undergo the same searching process that I underwent-discovering what they excel at and what they don't so they too can know how to best serve God." - Paul
"My own Jesuit education has allowed me to develop my talents for writing, speech, and critical analysis of historical and literary works. It has also given me a fuller knowledge of the scope of social injustice and inequity in the past and present. Thus, it has forced me to appreciate the relatively privileged position in the world that I've been given." - Mike
"Just like Simons felt that it was extremely important for his students to repeat Latin, a talent some individuals felt was useless, Xavier University continues to expound the glories of the Jesuit 'core' curriculum. Based on the idea of a well-rounded education, Xavier's core focuses greatly on the liberal arts and, especially unusual in the modern university setting, a focus on theology and philosophy. . . . Their focus is on simply on giving students a classic, well-rounded education-no matter how antiquated and hated the subjects may be. And this, simply, is the reason I appreciate my Jesuit education. Other universities that allow students free rein over their curriculum, and only require a few classes in English or math, are, in my opinion, giving students a sub-par education. Why would I want to take Bowling 101 when I could read Plato's Republic? No, I did not enjoy the reading during my philosophy classes, but I know that I have learned much more in these classes than I would ever gain in a physical education class." - Rebecca
"I found that my involvement in Campus Ministry most helped me find my talents. I participated in Alternative Breaks my sophomore year, and found that fulfilling and eye-opening. From that experience, I discovered that I am an excellent listener, and most of the time that is what's most important. It's difficult to let someone else talk without interrupting them with the insights you think will help them. . . . I learned from a friend my sophomore year that it is possible to receive work study from the university while tutoring elementary school children in the daytime who are struggling with reading. I was hired at Burton Elementary. . . . Experiences like this one at Burton have helped me decide that I would like to become a teacher. I will soon be receiving my degree in English from Xavier, but for me, English is a way to get inside the lives of students. Yes, I enjoy literature, and sometimes I even feel passionate about it, but my opportunities for service and interaction outside of the classroom are what have ultimately allowed me to discern my best gifts." - Kelsey
Special thanks for their guidance to Dr. Sarah Melcher, Dr. Debra K. Mooney, and Gilbert D. Sweeney, S.J.
Literature & the Moral Imagination: Focus on Marginalized Voices and Borderlands
Mapping Xavier's Campus
Niamh J. O'Leary, PhD
Mentor: Rachel Chrastil, PhD (History)
From Ignatian Mentoring to Ignatian Pedagogy
I was fortunate to join the Ignatian Mentoring Program in the semester before I began teaching in English 205: Literature and the Moral Imagination. I knew that the IMP experience would be extremely helpful as I developed a course as part of Xavier's Ethics/Religion and Society Program. I wanted to create a Literature and the Moral Imagination course that would reflect the traditions of Ignatian pedagogy and the values associated with Xavier's Jesuit identity. On the E/RS Program's home page, I found the following description:
In keeping with its Catholic and Jesuit tradition, Xavier promotes critical attention to the underlying philosophical and theological implications of issues as well as encourages a worldview that is engaged with issues of peace and justice and oriented to responsible action. Xavier believes it is important for its students to learn to analyze societal issues critically in terms of human values and to develop a sense of compassionate solidarity and service.
The language here speaks clearly to the idea of teaching to the mission, and the course offered a wonderful opportunity for me to implement what I learned in the Ignatian Mentoring Program.
With my mentor, Dr. Rachel Chrastil, I prepared to teach English 205 to the best of my ability in a way that reflected the Jesuit mission. Together, we learned about the history of the Jesuit order and of Jesuit education in America, having many fruitful conversations as we read John W. O'Malley's The First Jesuits. We discussed the importance of reflection and discernment and the specific embodiments of these values in the early history of the Jesuit order. Almost immediately, these ideas began to find their way into my classroom. Eventually, these conversations inspired me to develop two separate reflective assignments for my English 205 course, which formed the central application of my IMP learning.
Reflections on Xavier's E/RS focus and campus reality
My first goal was to develop a course around provocative and diverse readings. I wanted to create a 205 that would meet the standards for both the Diversity Curriculum Requirement and the Gender and Diversity Studies Minor. Thus, I designed a course with a focus on cultural diversity and various forms of marginality. The readings were drawn from around the world (i.e., South Africa, New Zealand, Ireland, America), allowing the class the opportunity to engage with issues of diversity and marginality in multiple cultural contexts--both the foreign and the familiar. The course was challenging for both the students and myself, but quite fruitful in fostering conversation about what constitutes marginality and how ethnic, socioeconomic, racial, or sexual minorities can speak back from the edges of the dominant culture.
I wanted to incorporate the Ignatian values of discernment and reflection into my two sections of English 205. To set a reflective tone for the course, I assigned the following one-page reflective response due the second week of classes: "According to your own experience, describe the E/RS core and its importance to the Xavier identity." To my surprise, I found that some of the students were not even familiar with what "E/RS" stood for. So, as a class, we looked at the E/RS program's web page and discussed the central courses of the E/RS curriculum. After this clarification, the students completed their responses. Here is a selection of their comments:
- ? The E/RS classes "have a lot to do with how humans interact with each other".
- ? "One thing that E/RS courses do is to force students out of their normal comfort zones. They address topics that are not easy to discuss, and they provide ideas and perceptions of these topics from a very diverse and exhaustive set of vantage points."
- ? Through the E/RS focus, "students are able to actively engage in learning about peace and justice."
- ? "The importance of the E/RS series lies in making connections between significant societal issues and the underlying philosophical and theological implications that may arise from such issues."
- ? E/RS courses "challenge me to think critically about the world around me and how my actions impact society."
We discussed these responses in detail, emphasizing the central nature of the E/RS mission to the content of this particular English 205. We considered the importance of asking ethical questions of a piece of literature, the capacity of art to convey ethical crises, and the ability of art to inspire responsible and just social action. In terms of our specific course, we discussed the ability of literature to represent diversity and marginality and to inspire awareness and a desire to act for change. These questions returned again and again throughout the semester. Thus, the initial reflective response helped raise a larger awareness in the students of the course's contextual importance, putting all of our reading and discussions in this larger context.
Designing a course that would teach my students about Apartheid, Maori culture, the Potato Famine, the Great Depression, and the Mexican-American war, I realized that to properly fulfill the goals of E/RS and encourage my students to "develop a sense of compassionate solidarity and service," I would also need to apply the course's concern with diversity to the students' own lived experience. I wanted the students to directly apply our understanding of the marginal to Xavier's campus, translating our conversations about border crossings that were geographically or temporally remote to the here and now. So I developed a group project that would take our discussions about the readings and translate those themes into their understanding of Xavier's campus.
Turning toward our own local culture, I asked the students to consider Xavier's campus as a community. I gave students campus maps and asked them to divide campus into at least five territories or neighborhoods with distinguishing characteristics, and isolate any potentially difficult border crossings. Then, I put them into groups that worked together over several weeks, through both in-class meetings and out-of-class work. They refined a group map, developed definitions for each territory, explored parts of campus they were unfamiliar with, and prepared a presentation and paper to share their map with the rest of the class.
As you might imagine, the discussions that resulted were fascinating. I asked the students where the most difficult border crossings existed on campus. They responded:
- ? "Hinkle & Schott, because that's where all the faculty are."
- ? "Crossing Victory to get to O'Connor, the Armory, and Elet, for those who are not athletes or Psychology majors. Some people see this as detached from Xavier"
- ? "Crossing from the second floor/cardio area of O'Connor to the first floor weight room, if you are a woman."
- ? "The basketball courts attract locals, rather than students, and makes it difficult for Xavier students to play there."
- ? "Crossing from Xavier into Norwood."
- ? "Between commuters and residents"
- ? "Between the Village and the rest of campus across Dana Ave."
- ? One group isolated not a geographic border, but a cultural one, for minority and international students who have to cross that cultural border just to engage in the full life of Xavier.
As we heard the group presentations and discussed the different maps, we also discussed how the difficult border crossings on campus might be overcome, and how each student could contribute to erasing borders, applying their own skills of discernment to understand and improve their community.
In the reflective portion of the group paper, students shared a wide variety of responses. Some stated they learned that "there are a lot more borders than we expected" and that campus is "more diverse than we thought." Some felt that, "the further you progress here at Xavier the more concentrated you become in your major which indirectly separates you from everyone else." Others felt there were "limited borders, because students are involved in so many clubs and groups," and therefore the campus population comes together in many more ways than it stays apart. Or, "the way Xavier is structured it prevents the seclusion of groups. The campus is too small not to mingle with several different groups." In discussing these different understandings of campus, as a class we became more attentive to Xavier's community dynamic and our own individual roles within it.
My hope was that the campus mapping experience would live up to what my students' felt a good E/RS course should be, as expressed in their initial reflections. In other words, I wanted the assignment to
? Challenge them to think critically about the world around them;
? Connect class material on ethics and society with their lived experience as Xavier students;
? Introduce them to a new and diverse set of viewpoints.
Students stated that they had a lot of fun working on this project and learned a great deal about how diverse each individuals' experience of even so small a community as Xavier can be. And certainly that awareness of diversity, of marginality, and of potential difficulty so very close to home is, in and of itself, a positive outcome. I hope that the students from my 205s continue through their remaining semesters at Xavier more aware of how it functions as a community and more conscious of their own role in that community. In this small way, I hope to have instated in them a further appreciation for the Ignatian gifts of reflection and discernment.
I wish to thank Dr. Stephen Yandell for helping me develop and refine the campus mapping project assignment. And I wish to thank Dr. Rachel Chrastil for her mentorship and friendship; working with her in this program was a truly wonderful experience.
From Manresa to Oxford: Identifying the Ignatian Vision in Twentieth-Century British Literature - Literature & the Moral Imagination English Senior Seminar
Stephen Yandell, Ph.D.
Mentor: Gillian Ahlgren, Ph.D. (Theology)
The Ignatian Mentoring Program gave me the opportunity in fall 2004 to get to know an amazing colleague and new friend, Gillian Ahlgren. In addition to discussing Ignatian spirituality, Jesuit education, and effective pedagogy throughout the year, I used our time reading two useful Ignatian texts, Inner Compass and Teaching as an Act of Faith. From these discussions and readings I chose to make modifications to both of the literature courses I would be teaching in spring 2005: Literature and the Moral Imagination ("Longing and Obsession") and Senior Seminar ("The Inklings").
My Literature and Moral Imagination course was designed to introduce students to a range of literary texts, mostly novels and short fiction, that focus specifically on longing and desire as distinctly human, and sometimes conflicting, traits: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, Equus by Peter Shaffer, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. In the Senior Seminar we read works from a group of medievalists writing in Oxford in the 1930s and 40s known as the Inklings. Although this writing group provided C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield with a forum for debate between very different thinkers, their collective writings, we learned, represent a world view that uniquely combines medievalism, literature, and theology.
My changes to the courses took three main forms. First, before the semester began I made changes to the reading lists. For the Literature and the Moral Imagination class I included C. S. Lewis's theological novel Till We Have Faces, and instead of having the Seminar students read only literary criticism and fiction, I included some theological pieces, including Lewis' The Abolition of Man and The Screwtape Letters. Before my discussions with Gillian, this was something I was unsure of how to do.
Second, in order to encourage thoughtful exploration of these new texts, I decided to have the students write more regular response papers. In a setting where lower points were at stake for their ideas, students were free to explore the spirituality suggested by the texts. This allowed us to move into deeper discussions of all the texts, and also increased the likelihood of students incorporating some of the theological texts in their final project. After introducing basic tenets of the Ignatian Vision early in the semester, I also had students write a specific short essay at the end of the semester asking them to identify connections between the texts and the Ignatian ideas. Without this breadth of writing for the students, they might have been tempted to stay in the areas they were most comfortable with: literary texts and literary criticism.
Third, for the Senior Seminar final project I encouraged students to use the response papers as a way of building toward their final essays, and to bring in outside sources beyond the four main authors in the course. Final questions to consider for the final project, for example, included not simply "What shaped Tolkien's writings?", but "How might one synthesize Tolkien's catholic perspective with other English authors writing at the time-authors who think in radically different ways than any of the Inklings?"
What follows is the handout I created to help synthesize for the students the key points I had been learning about Ignatian spirituality. Taking the time to create this handout was, in many ways, the most valuable task of the entire semester for me.
"WHAT DO WE MEAN BY THE IGNATIAN VISION?"
IT'S A WAY OF KNOWING GOD
A. Ignatian Theology
- Sees life and the whole universe as a gift calling forth wonder and gratefulness.
- Gives ample scope to imagination and emotion as well as intellect.
- Seeks to find the divine in all things-in all peoples and cultures, in all areas of study and learning, in every human experience (and for the Christian especially in the person of Jesus).
- Cultivates critical awareness of personal and social evil, but points to God's love as more powerful than any evil.
- Stresses freedom, need for discernment, and responsible action.
- Empowers people to become leaders in service, "men and women for others," "whole persons of solidarity," "building a more just and humane world."
IT'S A WAY OF KNOWING THE WORLD
B. Ignatian Teaching
- Dedication to human dignity from a Jesuit faith perspective.
- Reverence for, and an ongoing reflection on, human experience.
- Creative companionship with colleagues.
- Focused care for students.
- Well-educated Justice and solidarity.
IT'S A WAY OF KNOWING OURSELVES
C. Ignatian Learning
Building the habit (a process) of discernment:
- Being attentive; conscious learning begins by choosing to pay attention to our experience. Through close attention we learn to find God in all things.
- Being reflective; reflection is the way we discover and compose the meaning of our experience. Reflection is a kind of reality testing.
- Being loving; love calls us to consider our relationship to the world and to ask "how are we going to act in this world?" and "what does the world need us to do?" Love shows itself more by deed than by words and consists in communication. We are potentially in love with the whole world.
Compiled from the following resources:
"Living the Mission of the University," Ignatian Programs, Xavier University.
"Communal Reflection on the Jesuit Mission in Higher Education," the Jesuit Conference Board.
"A Pocket Guide to Jesuit Education," Ignatian Programs, Boston College.
Here, then, are the writing assignment sheets that asked students to respond to one of our texts specifically in terms of a key Jesuit idea:
205- Literature and the Moral Imagination; Longing and Obsession
Lewis, Schaffer and the Ignatian spirit-a short writing exercise
Choose one feature of the Ignatian vision from your Ignatian handout; there are fourteen key features identified
(A. 1-6, B. 1-5, C. 1-3).
For Wednesday, March 16, you will turn in a typed, two-paragraph discussion (about one page) in which you discuss this one aspect of Ignatian beliefs in relation to the two authors we are currently studying, Peter Shaffer and C. S. Lewis. In the first paragraph you will make a claim about where Shaffer seems to agree and disagree with this belief in Equus; and in the second, how Lewis appears to agree and disagree with it in Till We Have Faces. Choosing one of these beliefs carefully will yield a more effective essay.
This short writing piece will be graded according to the same five criteria we have used for your longer essays: strong, well-shaped analysis, effective organization, clear writing style, useful textual support, and technical clarity.
499- English Senior Seminar: Oxford's Inklings
Situating the Ignatian Vision Among the Inklings' Beliefs
Select one of the fourteen aspects of the Ignatian vision described in your Ignatian handout (A. 1-6, B. 1-5, C. 1-3).
For Friday, April 1 (two weeks from today), you will turn in a typed, one to two-page essay in which you explain how this Jesuit idea is exemplified either 1) in one of the Inkling's writings (pointing to at least two of his works), or 2) in multiple works by the Inklings (at least two works by two different writers). Although the primary focus of this essay will be showing how two or more of our texts exemplify one of the Jesuit beliefs, you have the option of pushing your discussion slightly further-how does the Jesuit idea presented here seem not to fit exactly with the Inklings? For example, how does Lewis not merely emphasize imagination, emotion, and intellect, but balance them in a unique way? How does Williams's call for love suggest a radical kind of theology? Does Tolkien suggest an alternate way of understanding "God in all things"? Choosing the belief carefully will help in yielding a more productive essay.
An additional way of thinking about this assignment is to select two of the Ignatian claims and describe how they come together in a unique way in one of the Inkling's writings.
This short writing piece will be graded according to the same five criteria we have used for your longer essays: strong, well-shaped analysis, effective organization, clear writing style, useful textual support, and technical clarity.
Students met the challenge of this writing assignment in extremely articulate ways, and I present, in conclusion, some of the highlights of their responses:
"Ignatian theology states that the divine can be found all around us. The Jesuits teach that a Universal respect for God is a respect for God in all things. Although they did not specifically base their stories on this ideal, both C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams incorporated this idea into their works."
"Throughout his life, Ignatius tended to emphasize the importance of suffering and pain in order to fully realize the human potential and the identity of God and Jesus. . . Examples of his personal search through suffering can be found in his long journeys he made without shoes after his leg had been nearly destroyed . . . In Charles Williams . . . and C. S. Lewis . . . the Jesuit idea of moving closer to God through suffering is evident."
"Being an Ignatian student requires the ability to build a process of discernment, and an aspect of that discernment is being reflective. . . . C. S. Lewis allows his characters in his book Till We Have Faces to be reflective on their experiences and change themselves for the better."
"In Equus, Peter Shaffer agrees with the Ignatian fundamental that believes teachers must provide focused care for their students. Shaffer presents Martin as a person who serves others through his work. So, in a way, Martin is teaching Alan how to find meaning in his life."
Studies in Fiction
Anne McCarty, M.F.A.
Mentor: Trudelle Thomas, Ph.D. (English)
For the Ignatian Mentoring program, Trudelle Thomas and I taught a Studies in Fiction (124) class concurrently during the spring semester of 2008. Previously, in the fall, Trudelle introduced me to many Jesuit concepts. The ideas that we felt most drawn to and inspired by included: "Discernment;" decision making based on the rational and the emotional; "Cura Personalis," educating the whole student; "Mysterium tremendum," a sense of wonder and exploration. It was incredibly freeing to know that discussions I'd been having in class, ones a part of me considered tangential, were actually central to the work, and mission, of a professor at a Jesuit institution. Now, when spiritual or personal issues arise in class, I feel more empowered to engage these subjects and have a more complete vocabulary to approach these subjects.
For the spring semester, we chose several stories and a novel to teach in both our classes. Our focus was to include moral and ethical issues within the intellectual and academic discussion. Below are several examples of questions we would pose either as part of the discussion or as a writing prompt, or a combination of the two. I would ask students: "Now that we have looked at the author's views on this issue, what are your views?" Two stories that work particularly well in this context are the first two on this list. For example, Hawthorne's character Young Goodman Brown has seen what he thinks to be evidence of the prevalence of evil in the world. This story easily relates to our current experience of seeing so much suffering and cruelty, often via the media. Though we may sympathize with Brown's despair and lack of faith in humanity, is it the right choice for him to completely isolate himself? This story allows us to ask why Brown believes bad news so readily. Even though Brown initially rejects to join the devil's cult, he ends up believing everything the devil says. Because the devil makes believing in goodness equivalent to being foolish and naive, Brown believes that sin is prevalent and the devil is omnipotent. The devil has won by convincing Brown that to take action against wrongdoing is futile.
Text: "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Was Goodman Brown right to turn away from humanity? Is that our only choice in world in which evil exists? Although Goodman Brown does not join the devil's cult, does he believe hat the devil tells him? While Young Goodman Brown may despair, should he give up faith? Why was Brown so curious about sin even when he seems so pious? Once he has knowledge of evil, does he have some responsibility to fight against it? How does he handle this responsibility?
Text: "A Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Alan Poe
Why does the narrator kill the old man, even though he claims to love him? What else is he trying to kill by killing the old man? What happens when he realizes no one can rid themselves of old age, death, and morality? How does he truly feel about living in a world void of any limits, rules, or morals?
Text: "Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe
What happens to a character who tries to live entirely without morality, one who bases his sense of justice on pride and revenge? Although Montresor tries to act as if his murder of Fortunato is a victory over his enemy, what is Poe saying about the nature of violence? Is Montresor ever truly free of his victim? Do even seemingly amoral characters have some morality?
Text: "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Do people have a right to control each other, even when they feel it is in the person's best interest? When is it a moral act to determine one's own course in life? Who controls your life? Does Jane ever contribute to her own powerless position, her own "institutionalization"? How does she try and assert her own will?
Text: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Why does Addie feel that there is no purpose to life? While her life offers them no meaning, her death forces her children to face the mystery of existence alone. Without any religious, spiritual, or emotional framework, these characters are in a void. What are they missing that would help them to grieve and make sense of death? Who has taught them how live?
Text: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
How do Dewey Dell and Darl lose their identities even before they've started to form them? Why are they so afraid of human connection? What happens to characters who focus so intently on their individuality, freedom and pride? What kind of effect does their isolation have on them?
Text: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
This novel is full of historical and literary allusions, from African-American folklore to Greek myths to fairytales. When Milkman is ignorant of the past, he has no hope for or interest in the future. These characters, while trying to form their own life stories, are informed by both the factual past and its fictional stories. What stories were you told as a child, either fiction or nonfiction? What kinds of moral, spiritual, cultural meaning does storytelling convey? In a literate society, does oral storytelling still have a role to play?
This last example I hope to turn into a larger assignment in subsequent semesters. Once, after class, a student told me his version of Brer Rabbit and Tar Baby. He felt the best line had been left out of the telling of the story. "Do you remember," he said, "what Tar Baby said to the fox? 'And Tar Baby, he didn't say nothin'.'" While it's great to talk about oral versus literate societies, it would be even better to have students to share their own oral heritage and see how it may have informed their own ethics and worldviews.
Another idea I hope to use in the future would include reading Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In this story, a sacrificial child is imprisoned so that others may live a utopian life. We could consider current situations this story might parallel, for instance, modern slavery. We could incorporate readings and do some of our own research on a topic of the students' choosing.
My discussions with Trudelle about teaching literature also led to ways we could incorporate Jesuit concepts into our writing courses. Some of our ideas focused on vocation. A writing assignment in a 101 English Composition or a 115 Rhetoric course could consist of research about the vocations of others and an exploration of their hopes for their own life's work. The Ignatian process of discernment, which includes the intellect as well as emotions and desires, could provide an initial framework. Although my writing courses previously have included other types of writing besides the academic, I now view these kinds of assignments as a way to educate and care for the student as a whole person.
The best part of the mentoring program is seeing the thoughtful and enthusiastic responses from students to these kinds of discussions: like every human being, they want to explore the big questions. I have always read, in part, to find answers about life, and I need to remember that many of my students are doing the same. Before the mentoring program, it didn't always occur to me to tell students why I read. By including more into our discussions about the value of literature beyond the intellectual, I involve more of myself in my teaching. I hope I am involving more of the student.
Discernment, Orienteering, and the Education of Desire: Practical Guidance for Making Decisions
Dr. Trudelle Thomas, Ph.D.
During the past school year (2012-13), I was invited to make a presentation on discernment as part of the "Year of Faith" sponsored by Xavier University for the benefit of members of the local and campus community. I drew upon notes and examples that I have used in classes over the years to provide students with practical understanding of how to "discern spirits" when facing choices. I offer the following presentation notes and handout to others who want to introduce the concept in of discernment in a classroom context. My notes include a personal story, while the handout consists of two parts: the numbered "points" that were part of my original talk, and an allegorical 'spiritual map' drawn by my colleague Stephen Yandell to accompany the talk.
My favorite part of the handout is the allegorical map lays that lays out some of the signs through which the Holy Spirit offers guidance: clarity, kindness, love, delight, fresh perspective. If I were using this map with students, I would link it to the tradition of allegorical spiritual maps, such as the "carte de tendre" of the seventeenth century France, or Pilgrim's Progress (by John Bunyan, published 1678 and remaining influential for at least two centuries). The pitfalls shown on the map (guilt, over-busyness, greed, lust) are ones with which students can readily identify. I also considered using a video of the hymn "He Leadeth Me" , a Protestant hymn I loved as a child, because it shows that discernment is practiced among many Christian groups (and other faiths as well). I no longer think of God as "He" but I do recognize the sense of "leading." (A youtube video features the London Fox Singers singing it.)
My experience has been that the best way to make the practice of spiritual discernment come to life is to offer a personal, practical story. If you are addressing undergraduates, I suggest that you preface this talk with a personal story of a time you (or someone you have advised) faced a decision familiar to students.
Presentation Notes: Discernment Compared to Orienteering
Discernment grows out of an innate human yearning for understanding, goodness, and love. We frame it in different ways: How do I know I'm in God's will? How do I practice "right livelihood" over the course of my life? How can I make choices that will most benefit the common good, not just myself?
As a child going to Sunday School in a United Methodist Church, the path was very clear: I was in God's will as long as I went to church every Sunday, obeyed those in authority over me, and didn't break too many rules.
Over the past fifty years, I've changed and the world has changed. "Knowing God's will" is much more complex. As adults we all face many decisions that are not a matter of right vs. wrong but involve choices between two possible goods--or two not-so-goods. Sometimes we feel as if we are in a dense forest without a clear path.
A human being faces all kinds of decisions over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes a person faces an urgent decision, such as a cancer diagnosis where you must quickly decide a course of treatment. Or a decision about whether an elderly parent, who can no longer speak for himself, would want a "do not resuscitate" (DNR) order if his heart stops.
Other times we face decisions that may be less urgent but are still important: choosing a major or a spouse. Perhaps the most important decisions involve the way we live day to day: A family has decided to reduce meat consumption and must figure out how to do so without alienating relatives. Another person is concerned about a child who's having trouble in school. Or someone is striving to find work-life balance, or trying to figure out how to deal with a tricky personnel issue at work.
St. Ignatius has provided us with guidance on how to make decisions, large and small.
I find a useful metaphor in Orienteering, a competitive sport in which individuals are dropped off an unfamiliar terrain and must find their way back during a limited time-frame. To succeed as an Orienteer, one needs certain equipment: a compass, a topographic map, field notes from others who have traveled the landscape, some familiarity with the foliage and animal habits, as well as an ability to read the stars and sun. Sometimes there may be landmarks or paths. While orienteering, a person needs equipment and also practice in using the equipment.
In the same way, we sometimes must find our way through dense forest. At first we may feel completely lost, but help is available. God is with us, eager to offer guidance. But like the Orienteer with her topo map, finding our--hearing God's voice--comes more easily if we make use of time-tested tools. The following are the ones I've found most useful in my own life over the past forty years or so. [Shift attention to the handout points 1 through 5].
My own story: These "tools" became very useful for me personally four years ago when I was faced with the task of settling my mother's estate after she died three months following a stroke at age 78. She lived far away, my siblings and I were weary from her long hospitalization, and the task of emptying her home of sixty years was daunting. We consulted a realtor about how to proceed. She strongly encouraged us to hire someone to empty the house ASAP so that we could get it on the market right away. Despite her advice, my sisters and I felt a strong inner leading to do it ourselves. We knew it would be a huge task and would take us away from our own families--so we had to think about it and pray about it before we made a firm decision.
As Mom's executor, I used the tools mentioned: I talked to two different friends who had handled the estates of loved ones. I tallied how much time it would take. I discussed it with my spouse and son because it would mean being away for a series of long weekends. My three sisters and I all agreed to pray about how to proceed. There was no pressure from outside to make a certain choice, nor any sense of guilt or even duty to do it in a certain way. Within a couple weeks after Mom's death, my sisters and I decided that we did not want to delegate the work but to do it together. Perhaps we realized that "to comfort the grieving" was a work of mercy, and the hands-on work of breaking up the household would help us to comfort one another and even to connect with our family and neighbors back home.
Actually settling the entire estate involved a great deal of gritty, hands-on work over a period of a year as we emptied and repaired our childhood home, sold the house in a down market, and settled all Mom's legal and financial affairs. Even so, it was one of the most worthwhile things, most prayerful things I've ever done. I knew going in that sharing an estate can damage sibling relationships but we found just the opposite to be true. As we worked, elbow to elbow, we reconnected at a deep level. We felt strongly the guiding presence of not just Mom but also our father and brother who had died in the preceding decade. We grieved our mother's passing at our own pace, and gained a new perspective on the transience of life. It is one thing to view a painting on the theme of "memento mori" but quite another to experience it through handing on the home and possessions of a beloved relative. We made peace with painful aspects of our pasts and reflected on our parents' virtues. Now looking back on that process, I still feel a great sense of satisfaction and gratitude.
What follows is the handout I put together.
Discernment & the Education of Desire
Discernment --- "a form of critical reflection that seeks to draw both affectivity (feeling, desires, impulses, moods) and understanding, reason, judgment, and choice into a creative partnership. Thus it seeks to go beyond, on the one hand, a rationalism or crude dogmatism which devalues affect, and, on the other hand, being dominated by subjectivity, sentimentality, unreflective piety, or uncritical enthusiasm... Assumes that God approaches human beings through experience, rooted in the pattern of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the power of the Spirit. Occurs within the context of a living relationship with God." (Michael Buckley in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, cited below)
Orienteering --- Originally a form of military training, the sport of Orienteering involves being dropped off in unfamiliar territory with only a compass and topographical map ("topo map"). Knowledge of animal habits, the stars and sun, the vegetation, and other elements all help the Orienteer find her way back to base. (Think of The Hunger Games.)
"Tools for Discernment" include the following:
1. Scripture. Studying, praying with, memorizing passages from the Bible can be tremendous sources of light as well as comfort. Not viewing Scripture as a "rule book" but as a living source of guidance. The words of Christ (in red letters), Psalms, the Golden Rule, and Isaiah and other prophets have been especially meaningful to me. Lectio Divina, the Spiritual Exercises, the Divine Office all view Scripture as central.
KEY MESSAGES: What is the well-worn path? It is not always the best path. Pay attention to the "North Star" of love for God and all other beings.
2. Consult wise and loving spiritual friends. This could be a religious superior, trusted pastor, or spiritual companion/director--or a trusted friend or relative who has faced a similar decision, even a favorite saint (not just the canonized ones).
3. Embrace the wisdom of your own tradition (and sometimes other traditions). This includes teachings from the Christian heritage: Roman Catholic encyclicals, Quaker counsels, writings by holy people such as saints and social reformers; devotional practices (such as labyrinth or rosary). Thomas Merton and M.L. King, Jr. found their faith was expanded through study of other wisdom traditions.
4. Reflect on experience. Be attentive to one's own inner landscape--moods, emotions, desires, fears. The Ignatian "daily examen" helps one to become more attuned to patterns of consolation and desolation.
Gathering information and considering the pros and cons are preliminary steps. Notice what other people expect & their effect on me. What is the well-worn path? Question it. Notice messages from my body--tension, numbness, nausea, excitement, revulsion. Consider times in the past when I've faced a similar decision. Outcome? Where is the energy, joy, attraction for me? Do I feel a "leading?" Ask: In what direction will a particular path lead me--toward greater love and freedom? Imagine myself following a particular course of action.
5. Habitually practice using these "tools" over time. As with Orienteering, all these tools become more reliable and familiar when used over and over, for years and decades. Discernment becomes second nature. Sometimes even when facing a big decision, it is easy to see the right course of action and carry it out.
Some Wonderful Resources
Foster, Richard. The Celebration of Discipline. 1978 (and several new editions),
Haidt, John. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. 2006.
Silf, Margaret. Inner Compass: An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality. 1999.
The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Ed. Philip Sheldrake. 2005.
Note to Students:
The allegorical map on the next page follows the tradition of spiritual maps such as Pilgrim's Progress (by John Bunyan, published in 1678 and remaining influential for at least two centuries) or the "carte de tendre" of the 17th century France. It was designed by Professor Stephen Yandell based on my suggestions and this talk.
Reading with Heart and Mind, the Problem: Integrating Students? Affective Responses to Literature into Literature Courses
Dr. Lisa Ottum, Ph.D.
Mentor: Dr. Kathy Winterman, Ph.D. (Education)
In the 1940s and 1950s, a revolution known as "the new criticism" emerged in America's English departments. Imported from the UK, new criticism was a methodology of reading and teaching literature--especially poetry--that distinguished itself from the "old" critical practices then in place at most institutions. Championed by scholars such as William Beardsley and William Wimsatt, new criticism aimed to assuage several problems that afflicted English departments. One was the perception among scholars outside English that literary studies lacked sufficient rigor. Hoping to lend the study of poetry a more 'scientific' appearance, new critics sought to develop systematic ways of reading and writing about texts. A second problem was the changing student body. Thanks to the GI Bill, an unprecedented number of Americans were enrolling in college. Unlike previous generations of university students, this new cohort was more socioeconomically diverse--and therefore not arriving at college with the same background in literature and languages as their predecessors. New Critics hoped that by arming students with an "objective" set of procedures for reading, they might empower even the most underprepared freshman to read Blake, or Shakespeare, or Keats.
To achieve this ambitious aim, new critics established a number of core disciplinary precepts, many of which remain with us even today. Among these precepts was the notion that a reader's emotional responses to a literary work, while interesting, are not ultimately important to that work's meaning.
Beardsley and Wimsatt coined the phrase "the affective fallacy" to describe the (misguided) practice of confusing how a text makes us feel with what it means; for these critics, a reader's feelings were simply too subjective, too different, and too unpredictable to form the basis of an "objective" modern criticism.
Even though most scholars no longer employ new criticism today, the role of affect in literature classes remains largely unaddressed. Indeed, for teachers of literature a perennial dilemma is: how do we affirm students' affective responses to what they read, while at the same time introducing them to more analytical modes of reading?
I believe a solution lies within the Ignatian pedagogical paradigm, which is the basis of the project I describe below. For Ignatius, "experience" is the act of "tasting something internally"; authentic learning unites affective response with reflection. Hence Ignatian pedagogy assumes that "action"--the ultimate goal of all education--is possible only when students attend to their internal feelings: without feeling and imagination, thinking is incomplete. Transferred to the realm of literary studies, this argument has profound implications for the act of reading. To "taste" a novel, or a poem, or prose work "internally" is to 'sense' it at some level beyond, or perhaps prior to, that of simply understanding the words on the page. Scholars might debate what precisely it means to "taste" Shakespeare or Milton, though to me, the salient point is clear: good reading is not simply an information transfer from page to brain. Reading literature exercises some part of ourselves we can't easily describe, something numinous that exceeds the verbal. Reading only to understand is different from reading to understand and feel: I read nutritional labels merely to understand, but I read novels to "get" the plot as well as the myriad other layers of meaning and beauty they are meant to convey.
As an English professor, what I find most powerful about Ignatian pedagogy is its implications for reading and writing about literary texts. Ignatian pedagogy offers us a template for teaching reading that makes room for personal, affective, responses while preserving space for analysis. Students need not suppress or ignore their private experience of reading; to the contrary, they are invited to attend closely to this experience and to use it as the basis for learning. Though I have always believed in the power of literature to move people, the Ignatian Mentoring Program has equipped me with a new vocabulary for articulating and defending this conviction.
The Project: Essay Assignment for ENGL 205
Each section of English 205 has a different thematic focus, which professors select; my section centers on the theme of "im/mortality," and deals with topics including medical ethics, death and dying, and commemoration. The assignment I describe below fits into the second unit of the course: "The Ethics of Life Extension." It is comprised of a series of class discussions leading up to a paper assignment; the sequence closes with a follow-up discussion session.
As part of this second unit in this course, we read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (2005) a haunting and beautifully-written novel that explores mortality, sacrifice, and romantic love, among other themes. In brief, Never Let Me Go imagines a counterfactual history in Britain develops the ability to clone humans shortly after World War II, and begins raising cloned children in order to harvest their organs for transplants. The novel takes place in the late 1990s; the plot focuses on three young adults who grow up together at a boarding school for clones. Although the novel's premise might suggest that it is gory or sensationalistic, Never Let Me Go actually reads more like a conventional coming-of-age story than science fiction. Ishiguro isn't concerned with the science of cloning, or with the process of organ harvesting. Rather, his main interest is the characters' struggle to reconcile their personal desires with their sense of duty as "donors": Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are typical teenagers who wrestle with questions about identity, friendship, and sexuality. Cloning, therefore, plays a fairly minor role in the plot. The book centers instead on issues we all face at some point--namely, the difficulty of "letting go" of loved ones, and of coping with our own mortality.
In keeping with the precepts of Ignatian pedagogy, my first task was to reflect on the assignment's "context"--in this case, the attitudes and experiences about death that students might bring to our classroom discussions, and to their reading of Never Let Me Go. Like most young people, my students do not often think about mortality, which is only natural (and healthy) given their life stage. While some have lost grandparents or other relatives, most are lucky to have had relatively little experience with death; as one student commented, "We all know we're going to die someday, but it just isn't something that comes up in everyday conversation." In light of this context, I decided to begin by simply asking students to talk about death and dying. In class discussion, we brainstormed responses to the question: what does it mean for someone to die "at peace?" Besides offering their personal responses to this question, I invited students to brainstorm a list of cultural commonplaces about dying "peacefully." I asked, "What do you think most people mean when they use this phrase?" In both sections of the course, we generated a long list of responses such as:
? Dying "at peace" = "with your affairs in order"
? Dying "at peace" = "surrounded by your family"
? Dying "at peace" = "satisfied with your accomplishments in life"
? Dying "at peace" = "not being in excessive physical pain"
? Dying "at peace" = "not being confused"
Studying these lists, what we found is that our culture has a fairly clear mythology of what dying "should" look like (a mythology that does not, incidentally, reflect most Americans' end-of-life experience). Armed with this context, students then turned to the novel.
I urged students to keep track of their emotional responses to the text, and supplied them with an informal system for marking up their texts. They made note of what moments in the text surprised them; what moments made them laugh; what moments made them anxious; etc. Because Never Let Me Go is divided into 3 sections, I asked students to also "step back" at the each section break and chart their emotional "journey" through the novel on a piece of notebook paper. In class, students read aloud key passages that they recall having had an emotional response to; they also shared their notebook paper charts in pairs.
The next stage of this assignment sequence invited students to reflect on their emotional responses to Never Let Me Go by writing an argument-driven paper. The assignment prompt asked students to respond to the question, what does it mean to die a "good" death? Drawing both on their personal opinion as well as evidence from the novel. To help students focus their arguments, I urged them to zero-in on just one of Ishiguro's characters and to imagine this character's experience offers us some teachable "moral" about facing death "correctly," "incorrectly," or something in-between.
This assignment had several key benefits, which I'll outline briefly here. First, it allowed students to return to their personal opinions about and experiences with death; however, it forced them to go beyond simply stating their opinions. Instead, this paper asked them to "test" their ideas against the novel. Whether the character they selected affirmed or challenged their personal opinion, students had to acknowledge the position/s represented by the character; this, in turn, prompted them to quote the text itself for evidence to support their claims. A second strength of this assignment is that it caused most students to complicate their initial opinions. Among students I met with in the planning stages of their papers, virtually all found themselves challenged by the intricacy of the ethical dilemmas Ishiguro presents. One student, for example, had approached the assignment intending to argue that a "good" death "happens when you are at peace with your purpose in life." As we talked over Never Let Me Go one-on-one, she began to think that the novel at least partly challenged this notion: what if our own sense of purpose differs radically from that imposed on us by (powerful) others?
A final strength of this assignment is that it asked students to think about Ishiguro's characters as though they are real people. Some instructors would argue that it is dangerous to conflate representation and reality--and I confess, I myself am conflicted about muddling the real and the fictional, because doing so elides the role authors play in making literature "work" as literature. Yet in the situation I describe here, blurring the boundaries between real life and fiction was useful and actually aided students' reflection experience. Instead of focusing on people they know, students were free to test out ideas about a difficult topic in the safer-seeming realm of fiction. Moreover, this approach allowed them to draw on their emotional responses as readers, and to use these responses as the basis of their analytical claims. Rather than beginning with an abstract claim about mortality, most students began with a troubling moment in the text--a moment that made them feel relieved, or frightened, or outraged. Thus, students' empathetic responses to Ishiguro's characters served as a springboard to their own recursive reflecting on personal experience.
The strongest papers developed sophisticated arguments about the definition of a "good death", allowing plot devices and characterization to carry forward the writers' ideas. To offer an example, here is an excerpt from an analysis by a student named Megan:
"Being content with the person you are at the time of your death is the main part of dying a good death, but to get to this point, there is a large step to take. This step is letting go of the past, possibly through self-acceptance or being exonerated of past problems. I do not think there is anyone that is completely happy with the person they have been their entire life, but it is possible to evolve and mature into the ideal self. However, in order to do this, letting go and accepting the parts you do not like about yourself is crucial. Ruth demonstrates this too in the novel. For example, for Ruth to die content with herself, she has to let go of the mean person she was in the past and accept herself for the better person she has become in her older years. Though, in order to do this, Ruth has to apologize for what she did to Kathy and Tommy. But once she does this, she is able to forget the past, forgive herself and move on with the new, nicer version of Ruth until her death."
As this brief except shows, Megan clearly used this assignment as an opportunity to develop her own thinking. She expresses personal convictions ("I do not think there is anyone that is completely happy with the person they have been their entire life") and refers to the novel to substantiate these convictions. Instead of simply affirming a truism (we must "let go of the past") she argues for why "letting go" is so vital (it reconciles us to ourselves).
What I hope students have learned from this assignment is that reading literature is not simply a cerebral process--for literature, like other forms of art, demands our emotional and spiritual engagement, as well as intellectual effort. Too often, students approach college literature courses with the expectation that what they will do is simply analyze texts in order to discover these texts' "hidden messages." While the sources of this misconception are debatable, its effects on the literature classroom are clear: many students assume that their personal, affective responses to literature are unimportant in an academic setting. But imagine a discussion about Never Let Me Go that ignored the issue of readerly empathy--what would such a discussion look like? Emotion is vital to what makes literary discourse distinctive from other discourses. In the future, I hope that my students will read with open hearts and open minds.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. New York: Random House, 2005.
Wimsatt, W.K. and M.C. Beardsley. "The Affective Fallacy." The Sewanee Review 57.1 (1949): 31-55.