52 Words Have Power | Carolyn O’Grady

Continuing evidence of sympathy with the aims and purposes of Gustavus Adolphus College
as stated in the Mission Statement of the College.

Before writing this section I decided I needed to look up the meaning of “sympathy” in order to be as accurate as possible in commenting on my relationship with the mission. I discovered that “sympathy” can mean “ability to enter into, understand, or share somebody else’s feelings,” but it can also mean “the inclination to think or feel the same as somebody else” and “agreement or harmony with something or somebody else.” I must say, then, that I both am and am not in sympathy with the mission of Gustavus. First I will describe the ways I enthusiastically support our mission; I will then discuss my reservations.

I am in complete harmony with the college’s aspiration to provide a high quality education that emphasizes the values of service and justice. I have spent several years working with service learning pedagogy, and most of my teaching and scholarship revolves around social justice issues.

Likewise, I am an advocate for helping students draw connections between their moral values, their intellectual work, and their plans for the future. In The Spirit of Service, Brian and I write about how these connections can be enhanced. Ideally a liberal arts education should nourish students’ capacity to think interdisciplinarily and to relish opportunities to learn throughout their life. I try to provide a role model to students as a life long learner. A few years ago I decided to gain some expertise in hip hop culture and music. I started reading Vibe and The Source (two popular culture magazines for the hip hop cognoscenti), listened to a lot of rap, and read widely in the academic literature on hip hop (yes, there is quite a bit of it). My students do laugh at me when they hear me listening to Nas or Shyne or Mos Def; they think it’s peculiar that a 50+ gray hair could possibly like this stuff. But when I can make a connection with urban high school kids over rap music, my pre-service teachers realize it might be useful to know something about the culture and norms of urban youth.

I do try to strive for excellence in all my work and expect students to do the same, while having compassion for them and myself when we inevitably fall short of our ideal. I recognize that sometimes the best I can do is to be “good enough,” and I remind myself of this at about the point every semester when I have to face that all I’d hoped to accomplish in each class may not be accomplished. Still, I start each semester having ambitious goals and a challenging set of readings and activities for students.

When it comes to developing an international perspective, I am far more able now to articulate my commitment than I was when I came up for tenure. I myself have traveled extensively, and have always been an advocate for our International Education office. I was finally able to teach a Gustavus travel course in 2004, and this was a very rewarding experience despite the fact that we had some unusual circumstances arise on this trip to Northern Ireland. One of our students lost his passport the first weekend, another had an emergency appendectomy, and we had a disabled student who needed more assistance than we had been led to believe. The education we all received during this January was well worth the trouble, but it confirmed my belief that the best travel courses involve faculty collaboration. I have had conversations with Pat Quade about the advantages of our linked course model, which provides interdisciplinary perspectives as well as teaching flexibility.

My commitment to interdisciplinary education should be clear in this description of the January travel course, my past involvement with Women’s Studies as co-director, my scholarly collaboration with individuals outside my discipline, and my teaching in First Term Seminar and Curriculum II. Further, I helped the Curriculum Committee develop language (supported by the faculty at its April 2006 meeting) that ensures the well-being of interdepartmental programs as we move to a six course load and as departments make program changes or hire faculty.

It appears that I am in sympathy with the College’s mission. I do, however, have issues with some of the language in the institutional values, which I would like to explain here. I am dismayed by two particularly Christian phrases, that leadership through service is a “biblical notion,” and that our world is “divinely ordered.” I expressed my concerns about this language when the mission statement was being revised, yet there it is. As a writer, as a teacher, as a lover of language, I firmly believe that words have power. I am convinced that this language misrepresents the nature of the Gustavus community (though I do believe it mollifies the religious conservatives who are also part of our community).

Let me explain more fully. I wholeheartedly embrace the Lutheran heritage of Gustavus and recognize the ways our values of service, leadership, and justice emerge from this foundation. I attend chapel more or less regularly (depending on the semester), and I have spoken in chapel several times. I strongly support the expectation that students will develop a mature understanding of the Christian faith, and I recognize that three-quarters of our students self report as either Lutheran or Catholic. My own research is much involved with religious/spiritual understandings, and I have maintained a spiritual practice for more than 20 years. But I am not a Christian, and to the extent that any of the language in our most public guiding documents presupposes specific theistic belief systems, I am not in sympathy. How can a college which relishes its intellectual and academic rigor – and professes this as its first institutional goal – allow this specific language in its core values to sound so doctrinaire?

In short, I believe that I am in sympathy with the most essential aspects of the mission and, indeed, that my work here (teaching, leadership and scholarship) contributes to our mission. But I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that I have to constantly reassess and renegotiate what the mission means to me. In doing this, I keep in mind the gratitude I feel at being able to work in a place that allows me opportunities to grow as a teacher, enables me to hone my leadership skills, and gives me wonderful colleagues with whom to engage in dialogue and debate.