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An Academic Life

It began in a different era. It was the early 1960s. Higher education enrollment was growing quickly as the need for post-secondary education became more apparent in an increasingly white collar economy and baby boomers were starting to make their impact on many institution.

Saint John’s at the time was a typical, small, liberal arts college with a significant number of residential students, but its central Minnesota location also meant that many of the Catholic boys were “dayhops,” non-residential students who lived at home in St. Cloud or Avon or Melrose.

One thing Saint John’s did not emphasize was a personalized mentoring education. The economics of that just did not work. While monks were relatively inexpensive compared to lay faculty, the small town and rural Catholic families who sent their boys to be first-generation Johnnies had lots of mouths to feed. Many a young man told Fr. Don LeMay, who was the admissions and financial aid office rolled into one, “I’d love to come to Saint John’s, but my family can’t afford it.” To which he invariably replied, “Come to Saint John’s. We’ll figure it out.” Young monks were part of the solution.

The monastery, in those early Vatican II days still had over 300 monks. Yet even as undergraduate enrollments grew, many monks were not interested or prepared to teach, or were otherwise engaged. So young monks were asked (strongly encouraged?) to step in. Their individual disciplinary interests were not an overriding concern. A monk might love math but be expected to teach physics. Sometimes the stretch was even further–a humanist might be called to become a social scientist. The little matter of degrees was also somewhat flexible–a bachelor’s degree was required, naturally, but maybe that was enough for the moment. There were Catholic boys that needed teaching and their parents cared more about the Catholic part than for some academic niceties. The constraints (tyranny?) of credentials, assessment and accreditation were still mostly in the future.

Fr. Rene McGraw was 27 in the fall of 1962. He had a Saint John’s bachelor’s degree, earned with honors, and a strong interest in both English and philosophy. He had been ordained that summer, and this probably tipped the scale in the Abbot’s mind toward philosophy. Plus the common curriculum at a Catholic university in the early 1960s would have been heavily weighted toward philosophy and theology–a lost golden era for humanist lovers of the liberal arts.

Those first philosophy classes were a challenge. There was no graduate training to rely on, only undergraduate class notes and his own close reading. Furthermore, there was little opportunity to engage Socratically with students. Classroom enrollments were in the high double digits, sometimes topping 100. The largest Fr. Rene recalls was 120. Pedagogy was largely limited to lecturing, and there was little opportunity to ask for written assignments. The grading would have been insurmountable. Tests were short answers and even grading those was no easy task.

But the intellectual engagement was powerful and the interactions with students, as challenging as they were in a class of 80 or 90, were a deep joy. The Abbot decided an investment in graduate school might be worthwhile. So Rene went off to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for a master’s degree, working part-time as a parish priest during these years. Then shortly thereafter, off to the University of Paris for a brief three year Ph.D. in a second language–something most academics “stuck” in Paris surely would have stretched to five or six years.

And then back to the Saint John’s classroom and his students.

There have been sabbaticals, one to Cambridge, Massachusetts, and another to Oxford. There have been other Abbey responsibilities that occasionally required course releases. There was also the lifelong personal commitment to social justice and peace that led, with the help of others, to the development of the Peace Studies Department and major. Rene then taught in both programs, bringing a philosophical rigor to his peace studies course exploring aesthetics and technology.

And throughout, there has been the other side of the commitment to teaching Johnnies: nearly 40 years as a faculty resident to callow freshmen that he helped to nurture, eventually, into men, many of whom were lucky and blessed enough to become lifelong friends.

Between teaching and mentoring young men, Fr. Rene has surely touched as many lives as any individual in Saint John’s long history.

The one constant for Rene is that “teaching philosophy…has never become routine for me. A phrase of Heidegger, an insight from Aristotle, an apothegm from Nietzsche, an ethical demand from Camus or Levinas startles me as much now as it did when I first started teaching in 1962. Teaching philosophy has never ceased to excite me.”

This academic life comes to a bittersweet end for Rene this week, at age 83, after 52 years in the classroom. “I could not think of a better way to spend a life than in the classroom with a text of Heidegger or Levinas in my hand.”

Every faculty member, of course, has his or her own personal and meaningful version of an academic life, but Saint John’s will be a lesser place for no longer having Rene in its classrooms, and thousands of Johnnies and Bennies are the better for having had that gift.

Fr. Rene McGraw is celebrated by students, friends and colleagues as he makes his way back to the Philosophy Department after his last class on Friday 3, 2019, after 52 years in Saint John’s classrooms.

What Will You Be? Who Will You Be?

We are in the midst of the college recruiting season, when schools are working hard to convince high school seniors to come to their institutions, students are weighing multiple offers and parents are just hoping it will all end happily and soon. 

Typically–and understandably–at the top of a student’s list of concerns when they are looking at colleges is the question of how this investment will help them in their professional life: “What will I become after going to college?”

College is an important and possibly even necessary stepping stone to professional success.  As such, students should look carefully at a college’s specific fields of study, as well as their general education program.  Institutions offer specific programs designed to be attractive to students and to meet the expected needs of the job market in the years ahead.  Colleges also emphasize the broad-based skills that will serve students not only in their first position but over a lifelong career that is likely to include multiple different jobs.  Schools emphasize critical thinking, good written and oral communication skills, the ability to work well with others, information literacy, and exposure to diverse cultures and ideas–all skills and experiences that employers report being important to professional success.

Students should also explore the learning opportunities outside the classroom.  The multitude of extra-curricular offerings on most college campuses are not only an enjoyable diversion from academic responsibilities but contribute significantly to professional success for college graduates.  Teamwork, time management and leadership skills are all necessary for student-athletes, student government leaders, service volunteers or writers on the school newspaper.  These experiences are directly transferable to the job market, both at the entry level and as a young person moves up in an organization.

It is obvious why a thoughtful student should be asking, “What will this college prepare me to be?” but in my role as president of Saint John’s, based on conversation with dozens of alumni, I have come to appreciate the importance of a second question wise prospective college students should ask as they consider their choices: “Who will I become by attending this institution?”

The years between the late teens and early twenties are very important for the personal development and growth of young people. When a student chooses a college, they are not only selecting an academic program, but they are joining a community.  That community will help mold and shape the young person for four years and develop relationships what will often last a lifetime.  What are the values of that community?  Are they consistent with the developing world view and morals of that young person?  How are individuals treated in the community?  Are the faculty, staff and especially graduates from this institution respected, admirable and worthy of emulation?  These are essential questions because they help answer the question of who the young person will become at an educational institution.

Understanding who an educational institution develops is certainly harder to determine than what graduates they produce.  Character is subtler and more nuanced than a job title.  But high school students (and their parents) should spend some time exploring both the “What?” and “Who?” questions as they contemplate their higher education path.

Choosing wisely will bring not only economic and professional success but personal growth and meaning for a lifetime.

Naturally, my thoughts here are influenced by the experiences of Saint John’s alumni.

Alumni certainly appreciate, and their successes attest to, how well the Saint John’s experience prepared them for professional leadership in business, the academy, the arts, politics, health care, public service, and many other areas, but just as often they have noted that Saint John’s made them who they are. 

I have often heard our alumni say, sometimes with surprise, they did not fully realize how important their SJU experience was in forming their character until they were some years beyond graduation. 

It often struck them when making a decision about their personal or professional lives or when facing an ethical dilemma: “I am relying on the things I learned at Saint John’s, those years ago.”  Sometimes it was their Catholic Benedictine experience.  Other times it was a friend’s counsel.  Often is was their relationship with a monk that had continued long past graduation.

For every Johnnie, you are part of Saint John’s and Saint John’s is part of you.

As on alumni succinctly put it, “I am because Saint John’s is.”

*A version of this column appeared in the St. Cloud Times (https://www.sctimes.com/story/opinion/2019/02/23/what-you-be-who-you-be/2930707002/)

By |February 27th, 2019|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Neurodiversity Goes to College

The conversation started as reception conversations typically do:  names, personal CSB and SJU stories, then family connections and history.

This mom related that her son is a current Johnnie.  He is having a great experience, for which the family is very grateful.  They were not sure this would be the case, despite a deep knowledge of Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s—a couple uncles and an aunt are graduates and his family had lived in this area for the current Johnnie’s whole life.

I must have looked perplexed at this scenario, though I did not say anything.  His mom then said, “We were worried about the transition to college because my son is on the autism spectrum.  We were especially concerned about the social challenges.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often affects communication and social skills and can make some everyday interactions more complicated and even fraught, as has been noted recently in the higher education press.

Like most high functioning autistic students, her son had the talent and desire to pursue a college degree.  There was never a question of if  he would go, but the question was where?  Her son had his college choice narrowed down to Saint John’s and another Minnesota private school.  He had set up a matrix of pros and cons for the two schools with the usual entries: cost, location, academic offerings, outcomes, facilities, etc.  What he did not include, maybe unsurprisingly for a young man on the autism spectrum, were social environment and community, though to be fair, these are hard to quantify or judge for virtually all prospective students.  Every school offers some sense of community and the social environment can be difficult to assess from the outside.  In the end, using his own analysis, her son chose Saint John’s and enrolled.

He was assigned a roommate whom he did not know.  For someone who is not adept at reading social cues and can find new social situations confusing and even painful, dorm life, which is not simple in the best of times – requiring living with dozens of strangers – is among the most daunting aspects of college life.

This Johnnie reported that he and his roommate got along fine.  While they did not have a lot in common and did not continue as roommates after freshman year, they shared their dorm room amicably, and the young man said he learned that not all students took his approach to college.  He found that his roommate was not as focused on academic responsibilities as the ASD Johnnie was.  Social activities seemed more important—something the ASD Johnnie continues to find curious.  “Why would someone spend so much money on college and not focus on academics?”  But overall, the roommate experience was positive from the student’s and his family’s point of view.

In the classroom, the ASD Johnnie was well-prepared and, as is true when students get into their majors, mostly got to pick courses that played to his academic strengths.  What was especially helpful was that a faculty member recognized this young man’s strengths in math and science and, after completing the professor’s course, the young man was asked to assist in grading homework and tutoring other students.

From my conversation with the mother, it was unclear whether the professor knew that the Johnnie was on the autism spectrum, though it seems likely an experienced faculty member would know.  In any case, a professor seeking a tutor for students in his or her classes would certainly consider the social skills of the tutor.  It was clear to professor and student alike that the social interactions involved in tutoring were going to stretch this Johnnie, regardless of whether the faculty member knew of the formal ASD diagnosis.

However, both the professor and the Johnnie were up for the challenge.  The tutoring has gone well for both parties as well as the tutees over several semesters, and it also helped the young man discern that teaching was probably not the right career path for him.  While successfully helping his peers, he reported that he did not always understand why those he was helping didn’t find the material as easy as he did.

The mother also reported that her son had found students “with similar interests” on campus and that her son had a roommate and a group of friends.  Social interactions are still not easy, but her son is both making social progress and is happily on track to complete his degree with his classmates.  These outcomes were not foregone conclusion as this young man began college, and, for these successes, his parents and grandparents are deeply appreciative of the community that welcomed and embraced this ASD Johnnie.

Artists rendering brainListening to this mom’s story was an obvious reminder of the increasing diversity on our campuses.  As one interacts with Johnnies and Bennies today, there is the obvious racial, ethnic and religious diversity, as well as slightly less obvious geographic and economic diversity. And then there is the diversity that is more subtle and often hidden: mental health diversity, learning challenges diversity and, in the case of the Johnnie described here, neurodiversity.

Each student brings his or her own story to our community and each has a unique mix of strengths, gifts and challenges that are part of their undergraduate journey.  Our institutions have dedicated greater human resources in the form of faculty time and staff positions to help our increasingly diverse students, but this story speaks to a larger truth about how our community welcomes each individual and then makes them a part of the community.  The freshman roommate who likely found his new roommate quirky but accepted him as he was; the faculty member who took a chance on hiring an autistic teaching assistant; and the dozens of others who interacted with the ASD Johnnie in respectful and loving ways, all participated, knowingly or not, in making our community welcoming to this young man.

We may not do it perfectly for every individual, but our lived Benedictine ethos, in the form of many small kindnesses that are second nature to so many, allow diversity to grow and flourish at Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s.

By |January 11th, 2019|Categories: Higher Education, Kudos|0 Comments