In the fall of 2012 I sat at a table with seven colleagues staring at a formidable and existential task. We were charged with designing a new first year Humanities program for Saint Anselm. And though we shared among us a century-and-a half of teaching and administrative experience at Saint Anselm, and the collective wisdom of five academic disciplines, we found ourselves wrapped for weeks in angst-ridden conversations.
L to R: Mark Cronin, Dean of the College; Christine Gustafson, Associate Dean for Faculty and Associate Professor; Professor Ann Holbrook, English; Professor Derk Wierda, Biology; Associate Professor Eric Berry, Biology; Bro. Isaac Murphy, O.S.B., Vice president of Academic Affairs; Professor Gary Bouchard, Chair, English; Professor Kevin Staley, Philosophy
So we sat, wallowing in collective discouragement, tossing pointed barbs of wit to rescue one another from despair. We also read: ponderous philosophical texts, vital scientific treatises, classic poems, books of the bible, a couple of novels, and some provocative essays. And we worried. What technique could possibly help today’s freshmen make connections between our disparate disciplines? How could we really get students to apply the teachings of the liberal and the Catholic Benedictine tradition to better understand their own lives and the lives of their community? And of course, we argued. How could this reading help achieve the learning outcomes that had been articulated by the faculty? What incoming freshmen could possibly be inspired by this text to engage the big questions of human existence? And whose idea was it to read this crazy book anyway?
Then, in the first frigid weeks of the new year the snow fell and the dam broke. No visible clouds parted that January. None of us recalls a divine light streaming into the room, but all of a sudden months of frustration began to give way to clarity. Scattered intellectual puzzle pieces were lifted from the floor and snapped into what was becoming a recognizably cohesive vision of a program centered on the individual, the community and the divine.
Professor Kevin Staley of the Philosophy Department, after a decade of directing the Portraits of Human Greatness program, led our group from blank slate to implementation. “We wanted our students to know at the start of their Saint Anselm education,” he recalls, “Why they were here. What’s a liberal art? Who are Benedictines? What’s that monastery doing over there? The distinction between temporal tasks and pleasures and eternal goods is one that many of them have never heard before. We also wanted to create a course,” he says, “that would prepare students to engage in a flexible new core by considering how human communities function, as well as the profound impacts of science and art in shaping individual lives and communities.”
The course needed a name. We had tried and discarded dozens when Brother Isaac suggested Conversatio. “Converwhat,” we asked? It turns out conversatio is one of the three vows Benedictines take. Mentioned several times in Saint Benedict’s Rule for Monks, it means “monastic way of life.” We were not trying to persuade students to become monks, but there it was: way of life. Everyone needs one of those. What more ideal time to contemplate this than one’s freshman year, and what better place than at Saint Anselm where individuals have been gathering in community for over a century to seek the divine. That conversatio in its scriptural use denotes citizenship and that its close Latin cousin conversio is the source of our English word “conversation” made conversatio a perfect word to describe a yearlong seminar where students are initiated into our academic community by engaging in the age-old conversation of the liberal arts.
Our hope restored, we spent untold hours of labor creating a pilot version of the Conversatio program that the eight of us would teach to a cohort of 140 randomly selected incoming freshmen in the fall of 2013. Those freshmen will be graduating this May. Before they do, we thought that you should hear from them, as well as some juniors and sophomores whose Saint Anselm experience began with Conversatio, and who, as it turns out, express the same appreciation for that experience as generations of Saint Anselm alums do for the now retired Portraits Humanities Program.
Jasmine Blais, a senior English-Spanish major from Laconia, New Hampshire, praises Conversatio’s “relevance to students.” The program, she says “treasures the classics and introduces the contemporary. It’s based on texts that seek to answer questions as fundamental as human existence and problems as complex as informed consent and medical ethics.” For Jasmine the college’s motto of Faith Seeking Understanding became actual: “I was an eighteen-year-old with opinions and beliefs that—I now understand—had no logical foundation. Conversatio challenged these beliefs and forced me to reaffirm or debunk them based on what I truly thought, learned, and believed.”
Ken Mailloux was an entirely different kind of scared freshman that fall. A decade of work in Saint Anselm’s I.T. Department preceded his inauguration into Conversatio. “I was just returning to school to finish my Bachelor’s degree at the age of 36,” he recalls. “Conversatio helped me understand the transition to a new way of life. I’ll be the first to admit that this type of liberal arts program is not normally my cup of tea. I love technical classes related to my field. I honestly thought I was going to hate Conversatio and I was dreading the year coming up. In retrospect, it was actually one of my favorite courses. I was able to read several books, two of which I still recommend to people today. I looked forward to class discussions and it really pulled me into a different side of Saint Anselm that I had never experienced as an employee.”
Ken credits the critical thinking he developed in the course for helping him “approach logic based problems in a new way” and “approach issues from multiple sides. With all the chaos in the world today, I like to understand why a particular group feels the way they do or why they are so passionate about a subject, even though I may not be. After completing the course, I know I am certainly a better writer and thinker. It set me up to be successful for the rest of my return to college. I ended up graduating Summa Cum Laude and I owe a lot of that to the confidence I built in this program.”
Mina Alrais, a senior Chemistry major, also brought an unusual perspective to Conversatio. She had arrived in Manchester as a small child when her family relocated from Iraq and found herself as the only Muslim student in a seminar where the focus was on Benedictine and Catholic values. “I wasn’t sure about how the program was supposed to run at the beginning,” she recalls, “because it was a new course and no one had taken it before.” By the end she says, Conversatio “helped me look around with an open mind and with acceptance to the upcoming challenges in my daily life and the future. It helped me think deeply about what’s happening in my life and the world around me.” Mina says she appreciated gaining “more understanding of the community around her.” She herself had a chance to increase the understanding of her classmates by beginning her final presentation that year with photos of her hometown of Bagdad, before and after the 2003 military invasion that would mean for her and her family “a new way of life.”
Learning to Live a Good Life
In 2014 Conversatio debuted for all Saint Anselm students. Emily Schomp, Luke Douglass, and Michael Akinlosotu are now juniors who entered the College that year.
Emily, a Nursing major from Stow, Massachusetts, recalls the skepticism with which she approached Conversatio. “I expected the class both to be much less work, and much less interesting, than it was. I wasn’t prepared to tackle questions which do not have one definitive right answer. I’m a nursing major, a science and math girl. I took AP Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, Calculus, and Statistics, but was baffled when ask how to live a ‘good life.’”
What made the difference for Emily is that her bafflement was shared by her peers. “I did not expect to connect so much with my other classmates. The class brought together a hodgepodge of students with very different personalities and interests, allowing us to help each other navigate our new adult lives.”
For Emily that new adult life means living, studying and working much more deliberately than she had anticipated.
“Conversatio’s ongoing discussion on how to define and to lead a good life has called me to conduct my life in a more contemplative and purposeful way. Balancing and strengthening our connections to our inner self, our community, and the divine by valuing actions and truth over impermanent things has led me to form strong friendships, to approach my studies with a willingness to learn and not just make the grade, to reach within and reach outwards for guidance, and to become engaged in community service and creative expression.”
Luke, a Chemistry major from Wilbraham, Massachusetts describes how “reading a comprehensive variety of books from different eras of human history” helped him and his classmates “learn about, in essence, the human person” and come away with what he believes is “a greater understanding of human nature.” The course, he says, not only strengthened his critical thinking and deepened his faith, it “reaffirmed my desire to study Chemistry, as I found myself considering ethics I had learned about in Conversatio and applying them to my chemistry courses.”
Michael, a sophomore Computer Science and Business major from Upper Marlboro, Maryland credits Conversatio with helping him “to become an open-minded good Samaritan at Saint Anselm College.” He recalls as one of the highlights of the course being able to share his “perspective of the good life” with his classmates “by playing music and expressing my poetic side.”
Maddie Scavotto and Alex Lanzi just completed Conversatio last year and are settled into their sophomore year. Maddie, a Psychology and Spanish double major from Falmouth, Massachusetts recalls that “from the very first day of seminar, Conversatio made me realize that I cannot take my college experience for granted.” The course, she says, “pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me the importance of appreciating all aspects of a liberal arts education. To be honest,” she says, “I expected Conversatio to be a course where we talked about huge ideas and lofty, abstract concepts. I didn’t think it would help me or pertain to my college experience at all. However, when we did reach those deep conversations, I found that we drew most of our discussion points from real, tangible examples. I was surprised at how easily so many of the concepts blended with my life outside of the classroom.”
Of course, while Maddie and her freshmen classmates were ensconced safely in Conversatio seminars this past year, a boisterous presidential primary season resounded through the rest of the campus. “In such a politically charged time,” she reflects, “Conversatio has helped me analyze events and opinions from different perspectives. Rather than succumb to a popular opinion or simply believe what my parents believe, I have developed and learned to trust my own beliefs about political, societal, and religious issues.”
Alex, a Nursing major from Seekonk, Massachusetts, approached Conversatio the same way generations of Saint Anselm students approached Portraits in Human Greatness, as “just another requirement I had to get through” but “after a few weeks I realized that it was different than anything I had experienced before.”
Ultimately, he says, Conversatio “helped me gain a better understanding of my purpose as a Saint Anselm student. Without the course I never would have thought about what purpose a liberal arts education has. I found myself pondering why different things around me where happening and how they were going to impact the future. The course made me a deeper thinker instead of a blind observer.
“The program also encouraged me to take part in activities,” Alex says, “such as going to the Currier Art Museum or a concert featuring a group performing music from Shakespeare’s plays. I never would have thought to experience these things, but I’m glad I did.”
Professor Ann Holbrook of the English Department, who cherished her nearly two decades teaching in the Portraits Humanities Program, worried what might be lost even as she worked with her colleagues to help develop Conversatio.
“Like many former Humanities instructors, I could be nostalgic for the chronological coherence of the previous two-year program, worrying that students are not getting an education in different eras, that great historical ‘timeline’ that I still imagine exists.”
While not all of her fears have been allayed, Ann says that after three years she has been “forcefully struck” by how well Conversatio achieved its learning outcomes. “Students are writing better, and certainly speaking better, by the end of the year. They have a new, much deeper appreciation for the Benedictine tradition and Saint Anselm College’s participation in it. Certainly they understand that capitalism and media often encourage shallow pursuits and that they could choose Augustine or Boethius or Hildegard or Pieper rather than Facebook, at least sometimes.”
She has been especially impressed, she says, with the final oral presentations that all Conversatio students are required to do. “Their presentations on the Conversatio of the Good Life, and the variety of texts students choose to support their own definition of Conversatio really illustrates the program’s impact. Repeatedly I shook my head at the wisdom of nineteen-year-olds— really!”
Intentional within the design of Conversatio was the opportunity for instructors from all disciplines to teach in the program. Professor Eric Berry of the Biology Department was not only part of the group that developed the program, but its first director. “I value the program,” he says, “because it allows me to practice what I preach in terms of liberal education. As a botanist teaching Conversatio, I’m challenged to engage ideas and read literature and philosophical texts that are way outside of the comfort zone of my academic specialty. This experience of learning new material alongside my students enables me to connect with my students in a way that I can’t when I teach material that I learned long ago. My advice to students on the value of a liberal education,” he says, “would ring hollow if I didn’t show them that I value and live out those same principles in my own life.”
After agreeing to teach in the Conversatio program, Professor Sara Smits of the Sociology Department admits to being “perplexed” and “frightened” when first looking at the syllabus. “None of the common texts were in my field, most I had not read since college or ever. So, the first day of seminar, I explained to the students that this truly was going to be a ‘common experience’ for all of us.” Ultimately, Professor Smits’ experience resembled that of the hundreds of faculty who taught in the Portraits program over the decades. “During the year, I watched students pronouncing their hate and disdain for the course only to come back the following year declaring it was their ‘favorite class.’ Life has a funny way of bringing the relevance of the most obscure to light.”
Relevance is what Natick, Massachusetts native, Alicia Chouinard, a senior Criminal Justice major with minors in Spanish and Psychology, continues to experience long after her Conversatio experience, which she says shaped her years at Saint Anselm “in ways I did not expect. The habits I developed through the Conversatio program have been utilized in other classes throughout all of my years.” Maddie Scavotto concurs: “During a period of discovery for many students Conversatio gives them the tools to make the most out of their college experience.”
Amy Vachon, a senior English major from Lowell, Massachusetts, counts as a particular highlight of the course “getting to have a tour of the monastery and really learn about the monks living on this campus after reading the Rule of Saint Benedict. There is a definite benefit,” she says, “to understanding who we are as a college right from the beginning.”
Emily Schomp found in Conversatio an experience that affirmed and deepened her decision to be a nurse. “Conversatio empowered me to view my major as a vocational calling to serve a purpose, to heal and to help others while growing in understanding, wisdom, and tolerance. Nursing strengthens my connection to the divine and fosters empathy for the human condition.”
The Conversation Continues
So, yes, the conversation has come a long way since those existential Friday afternoons in 2012. As I teach Conversatio for the fourth year now, I and my fellow faculty are well aware that we have not achieved perfection, that like any worthwhile enterprise, ongoing assessment and revision need to be a vital part of sustaining the effectiveness, not just of this program, but the entire curriculum. Certain texts will get tired. What works today may not in years to come.
The program’s new Director, Professor Derk Wierda of the Chemistry Department, who helped develop Conversatio and taught in its debut, welcomes the opportunity to “engage students in questions that are central to their Saint Anselm educations.” He looks forward to joining with faculty “to continue to strengthen the program and keep it vibrant and relevant, grounded in the liberal arts and focused on the intellectual life transformation that occurs at the college.”
Nobody needs to fear that the word Portraits is going to vanish from the front of this magazine and be replaced by the peculiar Latin word that is at the core of this new conversation. But there is a new and vital conversation taking place on the Saint Anselm campus and we thought you should know about it. For if the students above are any indication, the young alums you encounter, like Luke Douglass, will let you know that “as a class meant to guide students for the remaining three years at Saint Anselm and beyond, Conversatio does a brilliant job.”
By Dr. Gary Bouchard