No Such Thing As a Trivial Conversation

Like hundreds of Faculty and Graduate Fellows before them, participants in the 2009 colloquy at St. John’s wanted to linger in Collegeville, Minnesota, savoring new friendships and the opportunity to spend relatively unmeasured time discussing ideas that matter… or just being. They were in good company, part of a long tradition: Peter, James and John loved their time on the mountaintop with Jesus, away from quotidian demands, and suggested that they build a tent and just stay there. 

As people were starting to make noises about keeping the Collegium spirit going, I posted a blank sheet in our common gathering space and invited participants to jot down resources, tricks and insights they had stumbled upon during the week. I was spurred to this by the bemused comment of someone I chatted up during a coffee break who observed “the thing about Collegium, I am discovering, is that there is no such thing as a trivial conversation!” To which I say amen, and again amen. Of course each major address was bursting with enough ideas to unpack for hours. Luckily, those are archived on DVDs. This article is an attempt to capture some of the lovely, hefty or amusing moments that people came across in late hours at the pub, or walking along the lake or being welcomed at any table in the cafeteria—things they thought at the time they would never forget, and should even share back at their places. Then stuff happened when we did get back home. Lots of stuff. 

Here then, before we forget, are some Nifty Ideas From Collegium 2009. Most are free or of negligible cost, making them appealing to the black-belt tightwads among us. I present them here organized, but relatively unedited otherwise from their original postings: 

  • Those of us in smaller schools are in the enviable position of actually being able to know nearly all of our colleagues on campus by name, not just by sight. We should consider taking advantage of those incredible human resources and expertises on our campuses that could help us solve common challenges faced by faculty. For instance, Business faculty could be tapped for advice on putting together comprehensible budgets required in most grant proposals. They also have much to contribute to conversations about working out thorny organizational issues in departments. Or if you have a pedagogical stumper, consider seeking out a faculty member in your Education department. Many times those whose business it is to crack the mysteries of teaching and learning sit like the lonely Maytag repairman in their offices while their colleagues in other departments struggle with how to engage students, wade through assessment quagmires or create meaningful learning experiences. Engage the experts on your own campus. 
  • Dedicate a shelf in the entrance of the campus library where new (or old and intriguing) faith-based materials from many disciplines are showcased: books, journals, movies, CDs. This would serve as a simple, straightforward and FREE witness to the faith dimension of Collegium institutions. 
  • Form reading groups on your campus comprised of Collegium alums. Invite others too, and relish the experience, whether 5 or 25 show up. Strategies for developing faith and intellectual life reading and discussion groups were showcased in the Fall 2008 and Spring 2009 Collegium newsletters. In general, the common threads on campuses that have such groups underway are to start with an article of general interest (so people from all disciplines can find something on which to gnaw) and post that as an electronic reserve at least a couple of weeks in advance of the scheduled meeting. Commonweal, The National Review, The Atlantic and chapters from our own As Leaven book are good places to start. Get your Provost or Mission officer to kick in a bit of money for wine and cheese. While there is no single time that works for everyone on our over-extended campuses, Thursday and Friday late afternoons tend to be good draws.
  • When the new Fellow from your campus is selected this spring, have Collegium alums connect with that person to send them off—perhaps even organize a casual sending forth celebration, so they understand they are embarking on a special endeavor. 
  • Individuals and clusters of interested faculty members on a campus might ponder the concept of a “signature pedagogy” within Catholic higher education. What characteristics of classrooms, labs and advising are natural parts of the makeup of Catholic universities? As shared understandings emerge, consider connecting with those on your campus responsible for new faculty orientations—challenge them to move beyond the logistical questions of schedules and benefits ordinarily covered in those meetings to inculcating a vision of teaching that capitalizes on our smaller size and ability to develop and sustain robust relationships with those we can genuinely know by name. 
  • Resources specifically cited by participants that they wanted to make sure everyone got to enjoy even if they weren’t part of the original conversation that yielded these gems are: the poem by Edith Stein that Meg Fox Kelly used to organize the retreat on Balancing Family and Work Life: here ‘tis:
    “What did not lie in my plans, 
    lay in God’s plans… 
    When night comes, 
    and retrospect shows that everything was patchwork 
    and much which one had planned is left undone, 
    when so many things rouse shame and regret, 
    then take all as it is, 
    lay it in God’s hands, 
    and offer it up to God. 
    In this way we will be able to rest in God, 
    actually to rest, 
    and to begin the new day like a new life.”
  • Website with inspirational thoughts and good news on social action: www.charityfocus.org
  • A wonderful (and short! was underlined on this note) book: Vincent MacNamara’s (2004) New Life For Old: On Desire and Becoming Human. 
  • And finally, one participant wanted us to remember this insight acquired during the week: “The important distinction isn’t be­tween believers and nonbelievers, but between seekers and those who claim to know for sure.”

It’s likely that for every comment posted on the board, there was a handful of others that didn’t make it up there. May those set down here serve as happy memories and catalysts back on our campuses to keep us on the journey of “becoming beholders.”