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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.

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

Thanksgiving at Saint John’s

students celebrate ThanksgivingThanksgiving has become a contested holiday. Some historians argue that the Thanksgiving narrative encourages “stereotypical and racist portrayals of Native peoples” that are “ahistorical.”  Critics urge that Thanksgiving be decolonized and de-romanticized, especially in elementary schools.

students celebrate Thanksgiving Certainly the academy should welcome challenges to the prevailing wisdom in all disciplines.  Academic freedom, the bedrock of the university, encourages, and even requires, that students and faculty challenge themselves to examine different perspectives and test their ideas and beliefs against alternative views, regardless of how uncomfortable such an exercise can be.

And yet…there is also a time to step back, to lighten up.

Monks help at Thanksgiving dinner

To take turkeys and cranberries and Indians out of Thanksgiving and to make the Pilgrims racist colonizers is to take the pleasure out of the holiday for children, and, most importantly, it is to miss the most important message of the holiday: Give Thanks.  Historians can reengage in the debate about the historical details and interpretation the Monday after.

At Saint John’s last week we took time to remember that central message.  In a tradition dating back 37 years, Saint John’s Dining Service and Events staff undertook the formidable task of feeding 1635 Johnnies, Bennies and SOT graduate students (up over 100 from a year ago), approximately half the total student population at CSB/SJU, in three sittings, which of course necessitated turning around the dining areas twice.

The menu included:

248 turkeys or 3224  pounds–boned, rolled and tied turkey used in an effort to prevent waste and to help prevent novice student carvers from cutting themselves (!)
50 gallons of turkey gravy
625 pounds of potatoes
262 pounds of corn
210 pumpkin pies

Students celebrate ThanksgivingMost importantly and generously, the Dining Service had over 100 faculty, staff and monastic volunteers who helped serve the students.  These individuals took an evening away from their families and communities to tell our student how much they appreciate and care about them.

The event started as a Saint John’s event, but its popularity led to inviting Saint Ben’s students to join the festivities.  In an interesting nod to gender difference, at least among 18-22 year-olds, Johnnies are given a three hour head start when tickets are made available to ensure that all young men that want to attend are able, even if they are not quite as organized and forward looking as their Bennie friends! 😊  The Men’s Chorus stopped by to serenade the diners.  Naturally groups of friends attend together, as do sports teams and other students who have common interests.  I chatted with several international students who, despite not having grown up with this holiday, said they, “Loved this dinner” and have attended every year.  I even observed some couples that looked like they were on a date.

Students celebrate Thanksgiving

The atmosphere of joy, community and thanksgiving was palpable.

Thanksgiving blessings to the members of the CSB and SJU community.  Thank you all for making this community the special place it is.

By |November 21st, 2018|Categories: History, Kudos|0 Comments