"Universities as anchor institutions are not just in their community, they are of their community."
-Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark
by Amy K. Hamlin
What does learning in community look like? Where does it happen? Why do we show up? Why do we stay? What does this sort of learning ask of us? What can — and what must — we bring? What might it yield?
These are questions I ask myself routinely in this work to help foster the liberal arts at St. Catherine University. They are queries at once aspirational and actual, for no doubt most of us reading this reflection learn in this way every day: in the classroom, in the office, on the playground, in our spaces of worship, in the coffee shop, and around the dinner table. And so, in fact, it is the aspirational spirit of these questions that I chase, for that spirit assumes an expanded definition of community, one that is shaped by a plurality of cultures and intersectional identities. It’s a definition of community that can be fraught and painful and full of grace. It demands our vulnerability, and it is where we must locate ourselves in the hard work of learning and living together. Nancy Cantor would argue, and I would concur, that the University is uniquely poised to anchor this work. St. Catherine University is uniquely prepared to anchor this work.
And so it is with much humility and gratitude that I write this post. Since my June Report, the Evaleen Neufeld Initiative in the Liberal Arts has supported three significant opportunities to learn in community that actualize the questions I offer above. I hasten to add that the work to realize each event was collaborative and therefore relational. Put another way, the sort of learning in community that each event achieved was conditioned by numerous smaller, but no less potent, instances of communal learning. I know that I have learned a great deal from my collaborators.
In September, the Neufeld Initiative, in close partnership with the Minnesota Humanities Center, hosted An Evening with Viet Thanh Nguyen and Kao Kalia Yang. Nguyen is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Sympathizer and Yang is author of the award-winning book The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir. As charismatic interlocutors and public intellectuals, Yang and Nguyen captivated a community audience in Jeanne d’Arc auditorium.
The touchstone for their conversation was Nguyen’s book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, in which he asks us to consider the act of remembering as a deeply ethical enterprise that, when nourished and tended to, bends towards justice. He makes no apologies that this is hard, difficult work that will require all Americans, but especially white Americans, to confront their/our own species of ignorance and complicity in dominant narratives about the Vietnam War.
Ultimately, Nguyen locates hope in the potential of the imagination and authentic dialogue. This hope was reflected in the quality of questions from the audience, including this one: “You talk about the power of ghosts in The Refugees. Do you have personal ghosts in your life that haunt you? How do you treat them?” This stimulated vigorous discussion in the Q&A and during the reception that followed.
I would like to thank Anh-Hoa Nguyen for her extraordinary leadership in curating, planning for, and envisioning this event. Anh-Hoa brought to this work her many gifts as a is a poet, educator, artist, and activist, gifts she similarly brings to her work at St. Kate’s as Department Coordinator in the Humanities. I encourage you to read Anh-Hoa’s powerful reflection on Nguyen’s and Yang’s conversation as well as Michelle Mullowney’s review.
In October, the Neufeld Initiative was pleased to partner with the St. Kate’s Gamma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) to host Paige West as a Visiting Scholar. West, who is the Claire Tow Professor of Anthropology at Barnard College/Columbia University, was on campus for two days to discuss her work with students and the greater community. On October 12, she delivered a public lecture titled “Dispossession, Racism, and the Environment,” in which she shared what she described as “four ethnographic moments” from her longstanding fieldwork in Papua New Guinea. Through close consideration of, among other examples, the visual rhetoric of tourism, NGOs, and contemporary photography, West interrogated the complex connections between environmental conservation and international development in Papua New Guinea, connections that too often result in the dispossession and exploitation of indigenous peoples with deleterious social effects.
Through her deft integration of the personal and political, and the sort of social justice that her scholarship models, West delivered a talk that was both thought provoking and consciousness-raising. Her presentation drew a crowd of St. Kate’s students from various courses in the natural sciences; students responded with curiosity, intelligence, and enthusiasm. I am especially grateful to Susan Hawthorne, Associate Professor of Philosophy and President of our Gamma Chapter of PBK, who opened the questions first to students in the audience and who choreographed West’s visit with an eye to actualizing engaged learning in community.
Lastly, and most recently, the Neufeld Initiative partnered with the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health to bring Amy Herman to St. Kate’s to share insights from her seminar on “The Art of Perception.” A lawyer and an art historian, Herman has since 2001 worked with participants from across the professional spectrum (health care, education, law enforcement, etc.) to enhance their observational and communication skills through close encounters with original works of art. No prior knowledge of art or art history is required for the seminar, but artworks provide the seminar’s visual evidence. They are ideal object lessons for this seminar because they communicate meaning that is rarely — if ever — self-evident.
Herman shared her work on campus for two days with audiences that included students, staff and faculty, and the general public. One of the goals of her work with staff and faculty was to stimulate interdisciplinary and interprofessional dialogue and collaboration. Herman traversed common ground in her exhortation to us all to “lay the foundation” with what we see in order to call out our filters and implicit biases. Key take-aways from Herman’s presentations are best phrased as questions. What do you see? What are you not seeing? What do I know? What don’t I know? These are deceptively simple interrogations that have the potential to summon what Herman refers to as perceptual empathy.
Mark Blegen, Professor of Nutrition & Exercise Science and Dean of Health Sciences, brought his expertise and enthusiasm to the vision for and planning of Herman’s visit. In his introduction of Herman at the public lecture on November 2, Mark had this to say: “Another enduring thought that has stuck with me upon reading Amy’s book [Visual Intelligence] is how much art and the study of it has to offer my work in healthcare and education. Sitting and studying art, improving my observation, has illuminated, for me, the depths of my daily work. It has challenged me to question critically, to listen thoughtfully, and to be open to new ways of seeing. A true connection between the liberal arts and disciplinary expertise.”
For a summary of Herman’s public lecture, check out Andy Steiner’s review.
Amy K. Hamlin, PhD, is the Alberta Huber, CSJ, Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts and Director of the Neufeld Initiative at St. Catherine University. She is an associate professor of art history.