"Deep Listening" and the Liberal Arts by Amy Hamlin

Dr. Amy Hamlin is the Alberta Huber, CSJ, Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts, Director of the Evaleen Neufeld Initiative in the Liberal Arts, and an Associate Professor of Art History at St. Catherine University.

Susan Fiene Brown, Orizonte, 1978. Lithograph. Collection of St. Catherine University [Image Source: Fine Arts Collection, used with permission]

Susan Fiene Brown, Orizonte, 1978. Lithograph. Collection of St. Catherine University [Image Source: Fine Arts Collection, used with permission]

In February, I embarked on a yearlong listening tour of programs, offices, and departments at St. Catherine University. The goal of this tour is to establish a foundation from which to build a sustainable and innovative Evaleen Neufeld Initiative in the Liberal Arts. This is no small task. I am humbled to be in at the ground level of this mission-driven enterprise and honored to be working with and alongside my fellow mission chairs, Kate Barrett (Mission Chair in Catholic Identity) and Allison Adrian (Mission Chair in Women’s Education) in this effort. As the first faculty member to occupy the role of the Alberta Huber, CSJ, Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts, I believe that the shape, scope, and structure of the Initiative must emerge from the collective voice of individuals in community at our institution. Full disclosure: I have my own ideas about the liberal arts and what will nourish them at St. Kate’s, but this work is not about me. It is about us. Pronouns matter. Listening matters.

You may be wondering what a stop on this listening tour looks like. Charlie Zieke, our intrepid Administrative Assistant in the Center for Mission, and I arrange to meet for about an hour with a given group in a space determined by the office director or department chair. The following questions are furnished both in advance and during the meeting to give staff and faculty an opportunity to respond to specific prompts.

  • Recognizing that our tripartite mission already lives in the work you do at St. Kate’s, how do you relate to and/or understand the liberal arts in your day-to-day occupations? Please feel free to tell a story, use an example, or provide your own definition of the distinctiveness of the liberal arts at St. Kate's.

  • What would you like to see in the months and years ahead that would amplify, enrich, and/or clarify the liberal arts at St. Kate's? What’s on your wish list?

The gatherings typically begin with some combination of formal and informal introductions, an explanation of the meeting’s purpose, and an articulation of strategy. I have Kate, whose mission work is informed by the Sisters of St. Joseph, to thank for the latter. When I first contemplated a listening tour, she recommended I use Table Talk, a strategy espoused by the CSJs. Unfolding in three parts, participants are asked to reflect in silence on a given prompt, then invited to each respond uninterrupted to the prompt, followed by an opportunity to discuss in the group. This process ensures that everyone has an opportunity to speak. Charlie, whose many talents include expert stenographer, transcribes the dialogue as a deposit and archive of the discussion. Participants, who a week later receive access to the notes in a Google doc, are invited to amend and add to their reflection and also encouraged to continue the conversation among themselves.

I’ve learned a lot in these past three months. Among the ten groups that Charlie and I have thus far visited, there is generally speaking an intuitive appreciation of what it means to be a liberal arts university. This is testament in part to the strength of our seven Liberal Arts Learning Goals. Cemented in 2005 under the leadership of Biology professor Martha Phillips, the following goals have become both benchmarks and guideposts for how our institution practices and delivers our unique tripartite mission.

  • Leadership and Collaboration
  • Ethics and Social Justice
  • Diversity and Global Perspectives
  • Critical and Creative Inquiry
  • Discipline-Based Competence
  • Effective Communication in a Variety of Modes
  • Purposeful Life-Long Learning

Rooted in the Catholic intellectual tradition and women-centered pedagogy, the spirit of these goals surfaced in the testimony I have encountered. For example*, Assistant Professor of Biology Curtis Hammond reflected on the principle of affordance and the spaces where the liberal arts might yet thrive, by providing students with opportunities for expression of their critical thinking and creative inquiry. Citing the Quad as one such space, he asserted: “I want to see random acts of liberal arts.” Mary Hearst, Associate Professor of Public Health, appealed to the potential for further collaboration between the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health and School of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences by identifying “common ground” that could go a long way to bridge real and imagined divides between liberal arts and professional programs. For Craig Roger, Associate Professor of Business Administration, teaching The Reflective Woman has inspired him to integrate into his business courses questions around ethical practices and gender equality. The Director of Career Development, Tina Wagner, articulated her frustrations with the widespread myth in society at large, which understands the liberal arts as useless; she recognizes this myth is at odds with the sorts of skills twenty-first century employers are asking for. She asked: “How do we instill that excitement about the liberal arts and see it as possibility and not as limited?” And for Elaine James, Assistant Professor of Theology, contemplating the liberal arts at St. Kate’s sends her mind to the “ancient streams of wisdom traditions” as deep sources of universal questions that she and her students explore in the classroom.

Like I said. Listening matters. Deep listening. It’s a concept I borrow from the late avant-garde composer and educator Pauline Oliveros. I have Allison, and her expertise as a feminist ethnomusicologist, to thank for introducing me to Oliveros’ work, which seeds reflection and awareness in profound sonic meditation. In 1988, Oliveros famously lowered herself into an abandoned cistern, fourteen feet in the earth, in order to make a sound recording. The achievement of this exercise emerged in her notion of “deep listening.” It requires a level of vulnerability, presence, and concentration that activates all of the senses, thereby revealing subtler meanings available in the environment and the conversations within. I am by no means skilled in this practice, but it has encouraged a more active awareness of my own audism and ignorance while stoking my humility and curiosity; I have so much yet to learn. Understood as a skill, deep listening is certainly of a piece with the liberal arts, or artes liberales, which roughly translates to “skills for living fully and freely.” Ultimately, I hope that the very notion of deep listening informs the silences and conversations that mark the spaces of this listening tour, of the remarkable people and places that constitute St. Catherine University.

*all quotations and testimony used with permission