Circles of Meaning
An annual summer workshop through the Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity helps faculty and staff members explore or deepen St. Kate's Catholic roots.
By Pauline Oo
Some come seeking clarity. others come to find inspiration. Each summer, 15 faculty and staff attend the Myser workshop at St. Catherine University to increase their understanding of, respect for and appreciation of the institution's Catholic tradition.
Most leave the five-day workshop with a specific project that will advance the sense of St. Kate's Catholic identity — in the classroom, in offices, and to alumnae and others beyond campus. In the five years since the workshop debuted, those projects have ranged from the relatively simple (including a Catholic Social Teaching calendar mailed to donors in 2008) to an ambitious integration of principles of Catholic identity with professional codes of ethics in several fields.
"We are a faith-based institution, and we seek to infuse our beliefs in all we do," says Professor of Economics Amata Miller, IHM, director of the Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity and the first recipient of the Archbishop Harry Flynn Distinguished Chair in Catholic Identity. "We're not trying to proselytize. We simply want to contribute the insights and values of our tradition to our students' education."
That Catholic tradition — along with a commitment to women's education and the liberal arts — is one of the three key mission elements of the University. "Our mission statement emphasizes Catholic intellectual inquiry and Catholic Social Teaching as linked pieces of our Catholic identity," Sister Amata explains.
Both are examined in-depth at the Myser workshop — one of many University programs funded by a generous endowment created by Patricia O'Connor Myser '56 and her husband, John.
Participation in the Myser workshop is voluntary. Faculty and staff members turn in an application describing their proposed project for infusing principles of Catholic identity into their work. Participants are encouraged to sign up along with departmental colleagues to encourage post-workshop collaboration.
On the first day of the workshop, participants watch and discuss a DVD on Catholic identity by the late Georgetown University theologian Monika Hellwig and share insights on Catholic habits of intellectual inquiry and sacramentality with Associate Professor of Theology William McDonough. On the second day, Sister Amata's presentation on Catholic Social Teaching sources and principles is followed by a panel of past participants sharing how they have integrated Catholic identity into their work. Faculty and staff develop their specific projects over the next two days and share their results on the final day for feedback.
"The discussions differ from year to year depending on the makeup of the group," says Sister Amata, who keeps the workshop to 15 participants so that meaningful discussion and networking can take place. "One of my goals is to harness the creativity of the individuals so they can see for themselves what is appropriate to implement in their areas of expertise."
RESPECT AND APPRECIATION
The idea to infuse Catholic identity throughout the curriculum came from St. Catherine President Andrea Lee, IHM. And, indeed, it seems to be working. Last summer alone, faculty members from nursing, exercise and sport science, biology, public health, women's studies, library and information science, and mathematics were among the Myser workshop participants.
"This approach stands in contrast to models that rely on 'add-on' departments or courses that are, in my view, less likely to knit themselves deeply into the fabric of the College and thus 'take hold,'" Sister Andrea stated in a 2004 letter to Pat and John Myser.
So, instead of a Catholic studies department or a vice president or director of mission, St. Kate's asks everyone to be responsible for appreciating and understanding this vital part of the University mission. The president is institutional mission leader, a steering committee made up of individuals from the campus community plan Myser Initiative activities and events, and Sister Amata, a faculty member, co-ordinates the program.
At the heart of the initiative is the summer workshop. Its purpose is to give participants a focused week to discuss, grapple with and, ultimately, develop a project that helps to infuse more fully the spirit of Catholic identity at St. Catherine University. Readings, lectures and lively interaction among the participants are critical parts of the experience.
According to the 2009-11 Myser Initiative report, 75 St. Kate's faculty and staff members have attended the annual summer workshop. Whole departments are beginning to participate, and the University's strategic plan envisions that at least half of ranked faculty will participate in a workshop related to one of the three mission elements of St. Catherine University — women, Catholic, liberal arts — by 2020.
St. Kate's infusion model for reaffirming its Catholic identity is "admirably inclusive and disarmingly conversational," wrote the Rev. Joseph McShane, SJ, president of Fordham University, in response to Sister Amata's lecture at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities' 2011 annual meeting. Her presentation was subsequently published in the ACCU's Journal of Catholic Higher Identity as the lead article, "Infusing Catholic Identity throughout the Campus Community."
"Its genius lies, I believe, in the discovery that conversation and participation lead to a sense of general ownership," Rev. McShane added, "and that this sense of ownership leads, in turn, to a greater sense of responsibility for the maintenance of Catholic identity."
COLLABORATIVE AND INDIVIDUAL WORK
"The Myser workshop is a chance to share ideas or be inspired," says Wachen Anderson, associate dean for students and multicultural education. "It motivated me to put to work an idea I've shelved for years." Anderson developed the first St. Catherine Social Justice Leadership Retreat in partnership with former Campus Ministry social justice coordinator Ned Moore.
The retreat, which was held last spring at the Carondelet Center in St. Paul, incorporated storytelling and used Catholic Social Teaching principles to guide discussions on social justice and activism. Professors were active participants.
"Faculty are carriers of the mission," Sister Amata told workshop participants last July as they gathered on the first day. "This tradition is something we can contribute to our students to help them become transformational leaders, with a grounding in social responsibility."
One professor spoke about how a new research facility that uses humans as subjects could become less "isolating," more respectful, more holistic. Another pondered whether graduate students choose St. Kate's precisely because it is a Catholic institution — and if so, how that identity can be made more obvious.
A staff member talked eloquently of the need to bring the University's Catholic identity alive for students who are not Catholic or perhaps even Christian. "I want to integrate the Sisters of St. Joseph's influence as their presence on campus becomes less visible," she explained.
Thoughtful comments, deep questions without ready answers. "We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We lay foundations that will need further development." Those words from the final day's prayer summarize the spirit of the week.
"Workshop evaluations are uniformly positive," says Sister Amata. "They reveal that the workshop is a revelation for most people."
Said one professor: "I know now why I teach at St. Kate's, why it feels right."
Pauline Oo is staff writer and editor in the Office of Marketing and Communications.