I nervously neatened the stacks of newsletters on the edge of the table, then drummed my fingers on the elegant script spelling the word Collegium atop each one. I was hosting an information session about the colloquy for interested faculty and graduate students, and despite all my efforts at advertising, the room was still empty just five minutes before the scheduled meeting time. What if the only people who turned up were elder faculty members expecting someone more august than Georgetown’s most recent graduate student alumna? What if no one showed up at all?
I needn’t have worried. Soon the room was filled by a small but passionate group of students, faculty, and administrators who were fired up by the spirit of free exchange, intellectual curiosity, and personal reflection to be found at the annual colloquy. As the question-and-answer part of the session dwindled to a close, and application forms were distributed, conversation shifted to what we might do in the meantime, right here at Georgetown, to foster the kind of intellectual stimulation and reflection of Collegium during the school year.
A decision was made to form what would become the Faith and Intellectual Life Reading Group (FILRG) at Georgetown, a reading group composed of professors, administrators, and graduate students that meets the first Friday of each month to discuss pertinent topics over brunch or lunch in historic Gervase Hall. The consensus for forming the group emerged organically, but I was particularly inspired in planning details by tips from the Faith and Intellectual Life Discussion Group (FILDG) formed at Portland and highlighted in the Fall 2008 Collegium Newsletter.
We decided to meet on Fridays, a day positioned right at the transition from work to weekend, a point which also marks, for many, a shift from academic to spiritual engagement. Our reading group, which aims to have a foot in both waters, fits snugly into this liminal space. The group’s website lists the time and date of our next meeting, hosts PDF files of the monthly readings, and also features a page devoted to Collegium as well as links to outside resources. We started small, but have been expanding our invitation list by encouraging members to “bring a friend” each month, spreading the word to those who might be interested in joining the conversation.
And what conversations we’ve had! The group began by reading the classic article “Spiritualities of – Not at – the University,” by John Bennett and Elizabeth Dreyer, and took seriously its observation that academics love to study everything except ourselves. We discussed the problems of academic over-specialization, the competitive pressures of research funding and grants, and the dissociation of faculty from graduate and undergraduate populations. Our group was enriched by a variety of perspectives, including not just professors and graduate students but administrative staff as well, whose efforts to foster community amongst both tenured and non-tenured faculty are often thwarted. We examined Bennett and Dreyer’s discussion of the virtue of “hospitality,” and contemplated various ways which this virtue might be instantiated at Georgetown, whether in creating an inviting learning environment for our students, or in generating a more comfortable and less isolating academic community amongst faculty and staff.
Our next meeting focused on Sidney Callahan’s essay “Getting Our Heads Together: An Agenda for Catholic Intellectuals.” The article was particularly pertinent as our meeting coincided with a surge in public debate sparked by the nomination of Kathleen Sebelius – a pro-choice Catholic – to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. Callahan’s essay, originally published in 1989, identifies impediments to intellectual dialogue within the Catholic community in the United States, and suggests that the creative strategies required to overcome these obstacles require intellectuals to come to terms with social realities that have changed very little in the intervening twenty years. Our group particularly admired Callahan’s “two-prong” strategy for fostering debate in a shared but non-exclusionary context. On this model, small groups (like FILRG and FILDG!) constitute a “bottom-up” strategy for re-invigorating Catholic intellectual conversation, while “top-down” efforts utilize new technology (like blogs) to foster dialogue amongst an increasingly diverse group of Catholic perspectives on public life.
Our next meeting will feature a reading from a book of Ignatian spirituality, which many members are purchasing, and from which further readings will eventually be drawn. We are excited to carry our meetings through to the fall semester, and to plant the seeds of ideas born in our discussions – for new campus initiatives, changes to institutional procedures, and more – elsewhere at Georgetown. Just as Collegium spurred the creation of our small community, we anticipate that the Faith and Intellectual Life Reading Group at Georgetown will itself be fertile ground: a source of change not just in the lives of its members, but in the life of the university which is our academic and spiritual home.