Reflections on Collegium

By Aaron Van Dyke

This summer I had an opportunity to attend Collegium; it’s a gathering of faculty from Catholic Universities across the US and we spent a week talking about “faith and the intellectual life.” This topic may pique the curiosity of some in this room and have others ready to run for the doors because you’re probably thinking, “they sent him to summer conversion camp!” I want to assure you that’s not the case. The purpose of Mission and Identity is not conversion, it’s conversation. Everyone one of us in this room has something to contribute to this conversation. So what should we talk about? How about this, “What does it mean to be a faculty member at a Catholic University?”

Let’s begin with the word university, because a Catholic university is first and foremost a university. The official documents from the Jesuit order, the Catholic church and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities unanimously and unequivocally state that as a university our mission is “peer reviewed research and research-grounded teaching, all within a climate of academic freedom.” This means Fairfield University pursues truth and knowledge across all academic disciplines. We – the faculty – serve our professional societies just like any secular institution.

Now how does the adjective Catholic modify the noun university? Well the dialogue between these words has been going on for 2000 years and its produced a rich conversation called the Catholic intellectual tradition. There are four hallmarks of this tradition that have shaped my work as a faculty member here at Fairfield: imagination, interdisciplinary dialogue, wonder, and diversity.

Hallmark 1 – Imagination

I’m an Organic Chemist – it can be an abstract subject – and when students want to know about my research I ask them to imagine an ecologist who’s studying a population of fish in a lake. The ecologist has to capture the fish, tag them in a way that doesn’t affect their normal behavior and release them back into the lake. My research is analogous but instead of tagging fish in a lake, we design small chemical probes that seek out proteins in cells, capture them, tag them without altering their native function and then release them back into the cell. Because if you can put a fluorescent tag on a protein, you can visualize it! And now you have a powerful diagnostic tool.

There are many kinds of imagination in a Catholic university. If you’ve ever explained something using an analogy, that’s analogical imagination. Have you ever worked to improve the conditions of those around you? Have you hoped that things could be better then they are now? That’s prophetic imagination. Have you fallen in love with what you study? Or been moved to silence by a stunning landscape? That’s sacramental imagination. Imagination reminds us that the pursuit of truth and knowledge at a Catholic university involves both the mind and the heart. Notice that heart (or feeling) alone is insufficient. If all you have is a gut feeling, it might be indigestion. The Jesuits echo the mutual compatibility of mind and heart when they speak about cura personalis or “care for the whole person.” This is why we have a Mission Day – we don’t want you locked in your office just writing papers. We want you to care for and cultivate your whole self.

Hallmark 2 – Interdisciplinary Dialogue

Adam Smith advocated for a division and specialization of labor to increase productivity. All of us in this room have followed a trajectory of academic specialization, from an undergraduate degree to an advanced degree in a particular niche. Specialization offers tremendous benefits – it brings expertise and focus to complex problems. However, there is a pitfall. In the process of drilling down so deep into our respective disciplines, we can find ourselves in self-made silos. Cut off from the rest of the academy, our imagination can suffocate. So the second hallmark of a Catholic university is interdisciplinary dialogue. And I mean truly interdisciplinary dialogue. When I, as a chemist, go and talk to fellow scientists in the Biology department, that’s kind of cheating.

If you want a great example of interdisciplinary dialogue, just look to your colleagues today. At this Mission Day, one year ago, my newly hired colleague in the Chemistry  department, Prof. Jill Smith-Carpenter, met Prof. Laura Di Summa-Knoop from the Department of Philosophy. Over a glass of wine they discovered a love of food and this semester they’re  team teaching a course on the Philosophy and Biochemistry of Food (CH 72). This interdisciplinary exchange develops what the Jesuit historian John O’Malley calls a “Spirit of Finesse” or an ability to see connections between seemingly incompatible things, which is the essence of inventiveness. This is why you shouldn’t eat lunch in your office alone! Come to the faculty dining room, get to know colleagues outside your department and outside your school.

Hallmark 3 – Wonder

If you’ve ever heard a child exclaim – “Do it again! Do it again!” – their capacity for wonder becomes pretty obvious. What’s equally obvious is that during our trajectory through the academy we’ve slowly traded wonder for criticism and skepticism. Just think back to your thesis defense – let the criticism and intellectual combat commence! A Catholic university values both wonder and critical thought. Again notice it’s a “both/and” not an “either/or.”

The roots of wonder go deep in the Catholic intellectual tradition, germinating from the core of our very being. At a Catholic university we believe the core of every individual – from the faculty and staff, to the students and administrators – is good, is dignified and is worth loving.

I live here on campus in the Ignatian Residential College, it’s a living and learning community for sophomores. Over the course of the year students discover that Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits, had a very unique way of engaging the world. He took this idea of wonder a step further and said that everything – from the research I do in my lab, to the seemingly endless number of problem sets I grade – has the potential to increase my capacity to love.

Where will you cultivate wonder at Fairfield? Will it be a breakthrough in your research? Working with a class in the campus garden? Helping a student in office hours? Where will you grow in your capacity to love?

Hallmark 4 – Diversity

Gaudium et spes (translated Joy and Hope) was the culminating document of Vatican II and a paradigm shift for the Catholic church. Its opening statement is that our hopes, our joys  and our suffering are what connect us as human beings. This is a truly radical statement for the church because it’s saying our common ground is not a set of beliefs but rather it’s our humanity.

In other words, we’re all in this together.

This brings me full circle to the comment I started with, that the purpose of Mission here at Fairfield is not conversion. We are not trying to form a common belief system. A Catholic university – by definition – must reflect the diversity of the world that we live in. The faces at Fairfield should be of different cultures, sexual orientations, faith traditions and persons of no faith tradition. Because our pursuit of truth is enlivened when we engage with those who are different from us. If somehow everyone at Fairfield became Catholic, we’d cease to be a Catholic university.

You’ve probably heard Nancy say, “we hired for Mission; we hired you.” And she means it. We value the diverse perspective you bring to Fairfield. (Consider for a moment that a gay Lutheran is talking on Mission Day about the Catholic intellectual tradition!) Now the corollary to diversity is that Mission is the work of everyone at Fairfield…precisely because of our shared humanity, because we’re all in this together. The biggest misnomer about Mission is that it’s the work of a select few who have been ceremonially handed a sacred text and told “don’t mess this up, it’s been going for 2000 years.” Rather, Mission is more like a bicycle. First you have to decide to get on that bicycle and second you have to animate it, move it forward and navigate it through a specific place and time. So the question I’d leave you with is this, “What kind of faculty member do you want to be at this Jesuit Catholic University?”