Standing in fear and awe

What does it mean to be ready?

My department is re-imagining our graduate program to ensure our students are ready for what’s next. But what does that mean, to be ready? What really is next for our English graduate students?

This semester I’ll be teaching a class that asks those questions to provide our graduate students time and space to answer them. This professional formation + career discernment class is a first for both me and my department, and I’ll be using this blog to chronicle the course this semester. With the semester starting next week, I don’t know what to expect with this new class. I’m standing in both fear and awe.

Where it started

For the past few years, I’ve been discerning how to integrate what I’ve learned as a spiritual director into my teaching. My rhetoric and writing classes have become more about process and reflection, but it wasn’t enough. So, last year, I proposed a writing-intensive undergraduate class dedicated to professional formation. It was approved with full support from my department and college — and only three students signed up, so it was cancelled.

Thankfully, over the summer, my department chair and our director of graduate studies saw this class as an opportunity for our graduate students. They asked me to re-imagine our “ENGL 6820: Studies in Modern Critical Theory and Practice” to be a public-facing humanities + professional formation class.

So I did. And let me tell you, this has been a challenging pedagogical opportunity.

Starting with assumptions

I wasn’t sure how to connect public-facing humanities to professional formation and discernment. I felt strongly that this course needed discernment – it’s one of the key features of Ignatian pedagogy and spirituality, and it’s what sets a Jesuit university like Marquette apart from other universities. One thing discernment in the Ignatian perspective asks is, “What’s at the root?” This question can lead to the desires or values that drive decision making, so I started to look at other humanities and Jesuit universities have public-facing humanities classes and programs.

These programs shared values, such as exploration, community engagement, and collaboration. But I noticed common assumptions built into programming: They assume that students want to be in graduate school, most specifically a humanities program. Sure, that’s a safe bet given that the audience for these classes are humanities graduate students – but what if students have never been given the opportunity to explore what else is out there?

What if they are in graduate school because the thought of leaving school is terrifying?

What if students felt called to be in a humanities program but don’t know why?

What if the programs students are currently in don’t align with their career goals?

What gifts do students bring to graduate school, academia, and public work? How are they uniquely positioned to enter these spaces or create new ones that don’t exist yet?

What if a course gave students time and space to consider those questions and ask them to imagine “what’s next”?

The course I’m teaching this fall does that. It invites our graduate students into those assumptions and to answer them for themselves.

In many ways, this course is a pedagogical experiment. I’ve never offered a class that asks students to consider how their personal lives enrich their professional lives and vice versa, to talk about God/the Divine/a Higher Power in their academic life, and to learn what their embodied knowledge can teach them about professional formation. There’s so much that could happen, or not happen, and I’m not sure what to expect.

Part of me is terrified. But in moments like this, the words of one of my spiritual director practicum teachers guide me forward: “There’s a fine line between fear and awe.” That’s right where I’m starting this semester, standing between fear and awe.

The course description

This class gives you what many academic contexts don’t: time and space. This semester, you will have time to be, ponder, wonder, dream, question, and create. With that in mind, this class likely won’t be like one you’ve taken before. In addition to time and space, it gives you tools and resources to ask and answer questions like, “What do I offer the world? How can that knowledge be transformed into public-facing work and/or academic work? How can I talk about English in a way that’s recognizable to communities outside of the humanities and that captures the depth, range, and expansiveness of English as a field?”

This course will teach you the methods of discernment to learn how you can move into, out of, between, and with public-facing and academic-facing spaces.  We will discuss ways to make English public. To do that, you first must learn for yourself what that means and how, why, and if you are the person to do it. Why did you choose English? What gifts do you bring to your projects? What has English prepared you to do? Who has English prepared you to be? What models exist for humanities specialists to do public-facing work? How do their stories speak to you or spark resistance in you? If models don’t exist, how can you create one?

Please note, this class is listed in the bulletin as “Studies in Modern Critical Theory and Practice.” However, what counts as “theory and practice” is being revised and re-imagined in response to the evolving nature of our graduate program and needs of our students.

What do you want to know?

Instead of ending with questions to ponder, I’m curious to know what questions you have. These questions will guide future blog posts in this series. Email me (elizabeth dot angeli at marquette dot edu) or comment below.

  • What do you want to learn about?
  • What interests you about this class?
  • Has your department offered a class like this?
  • What advice would you offer me or the students in this course?

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