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From the Colloquium

From the Colloquium” reports on the colloquium on vocation, Christianity, and higher learning that takes place in the two fellowship programs in the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts:  the two-year, residential Postdoctoral Fellowship at Valparaiso University, and the three-year fellowship for current graduate students, the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program.

In this final edition for academic year 2013/2014, I’ll report on a few works covered by the Postdoctoral Fellows since our last column in February, 2014.

Two works we’ve been reading for a few years now in the Postdoctoral Fellows’ colloquium are Daniel F. Chambliss, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Repot on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” (Sociological Theory 7 [Spring, 1989], 70-86) and portions of Atul Gewande’s Complications.  Both focus on different aspects of “practice” in relation to learning.   Both Gawande and Chambliss downplay or dismiss the concept of “talent” as they insist that “skill can be taught.”  Both stress the importance of practice, repetition, and the degree to which how one practices impacts success.  Certainly, cutting through water or flesh is not exactly the same thing as understanding an argument or text, but the Fellows have considered how this concepts might impact learning and teaching “practices” as well as what we expect from or how we evaluate student ability and success.

A new text in the Postdoctoral Fellows’ colloquium this year is David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005 (we also read several of Wallace’s course syllabi, see here and here).  There is much to enjoy and consider in the address, and I urge you to read it if you haven’t already.  Though wide ranging, it focuses on a central analogy that education in the liberal arts—in its moral and even religious dimensions—should enable students to identify and understand their unexamined assumptions much in the way a fish would need to identify and understand water.  If this analogy sounds obvious and even trite, Wallace teases out its implications in novel ways to suggest that one of the things of which we are unaware is our predisposition to worship things.  If this is true, educations enables us to choose our objects of worship—to choose what ultimately gives our lives meaning.

Along with reading parts of the ever popular What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bains, the Postdoctoral Fellows colloquium read and viewed a Valparaiso University production of Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia.  Discussed also by one of the Lilly Graduate Fellows cohorts, Arcadia—generally considered one of the finest plays from the last half of the twentieth century—offers a humorous and spot on examination of what education and the academic vocation is or should be about.  At the center is the tension between intellection and passion as it relates to what it means to know something as a scholar or teacher, a theme the colloquium has touched on at a number of points this year, especially as it relates to art.  From this central point, the play branches out to the nature of time or temporality, poetic or logical truth, and the nature of truth or knowing itself.  If you’ve not been able to enjoy this work, please treat yourself as you put together your summer reading (or viewing) list.

Posted by Joe Creech

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