Covenantal promises

Dr. Brenda Wirkus advises the class of 2016


The following is an excerpt from the convocation address to the Class of 2016 by Dr. Brenda Wirkus, professor in the Department of Philosophy and winner of the 2012 Distinguished Faculty Award. After beginning with giving practical advice to the Class of 2016, Dr. Wirkus focused her subsequent remarks on her understanding of the nature of the classroom experience.

I would like to propose a model and a vision of the academic experience that fits the Jesuit and Catholic nature of John Carroll University, as well as fosters the kinds of long-term relationships we hope to have with our alumni.

I shall begin with a question: Why is the academic experience upon which you are embarking worth the investment of four years of your life and thousands of dollars? Surely there are shorter and cheaper ways to provide you with vocational training and help you find a job.

What happens in the classroom is not simply about conveying information and skills necessary for vocational success. It is a place in which we learn to challenge the status quo, to cultivate the imagination, to open new possibilities for understanding and transforming the world. And it is also a place that models for us ways of forging our future relationships with self, with others, with the community, and with the world.

Some people use the concept of contract to characterize the academic experience. According to this characterization, the teacher in the classroom provides a checklist of requirements. The student meets some number of the items on that list. Then the teacher gives a grade corresponding to how many items have been checked off.

This contractual model has certain advantages. It is clear and simple. But it is a model that can reduce the teacher- student relationship to an instrumental one. As teacher, I set up a list of items for you to do. You do some or all of them.

I reward you. Everything is mapped out neatly. There’s no room for flexibility, nor for individual development. Ideally, at the end of the day, everyone has done everything the same way. Individual differences are overcome rather than celebrated. Conformity is rewarded. Our roles are prescribed and there’s no varying from them. It’s a model of quid pro quo: I do this, you do that. The contractual model reduces us to an instrumental relationship that impoverishes us.

I would argue life is richer and far more complicated than a contractual relationship wherein every dimension can
be articulated. I would also argue the professional life for which we are preparing you is not like that. A professional needs to be creative and innovative, able to respond appropriately to the varying demands of varying situations, to be flexible. No one is going to provide a professional with a checklist.

A covenant is, like a contract, an agreement or commitment. But, unlike a contract, the details of the covenantal agreement are not always so clearly spelled out. Just think about the archetypal example of a covenant, that between Yahweh and the Chosen People. The terms of that covenant were often confusing. The Chosen People often misunderstood what was going on. But, at its base, that covenant and every covenant is a commitment to a common project, the terms of which are always needing to be worked through together. A covenant establishes ongoing, permanent, and intimate relationships based on far more than the simple performance of a set of discrete actions. A covenant connects one to others and to entire traditions. And every covenant entails a set of promises that each member makes to every other. That was true of the Hebrew covenant and even truer of the “new” covenant articulated by Jesus at the Last Supper.

And so, here are the covenantal promises that we, as faculty,
make to you, our students:
• We promise our classroom will be a space wherein we embark on a common project that engages every member of the class.
We promise the classroom is a safe space, a haven, a place where we encourage the exploration of new and sometimes apparently outrageous ideas.

• We promise you are free – within obvious constraints of civility and morality – to try out or try on those new ideas. We can consider the classroom a sort of dressing or fitting room, as in department stores. In the classroom, we try on new ideas to see whether they fit, whether they make us look like a kind of person we want to be.

• We also promise to challenge the beliefs you already hold when you first walk into the classroom. We are not trying to change your beliefs. But we do want you to make them your own, not your parents’, not your society’s, not your religion’s, but yours. To do so, we have to challenge them and argue against them and offer alternatives to them. You, in turn, will need to grapple with those arguments and consider those alternatives.

• And in that process, we promise to assist you in developing methods of careful and critical reasoning that will allow you to evaluate your ideas and those of others.

• In short, we promise to provide a space wherein you can learn not only the skills required to make
a living but, more importantly and in the Jesuit tradition of education, to learn how to make a life. A life that is meaningful, good, and productive. A life that transcends whatever series of jobs you might hold throughout your remaining years. A life that is worthy of the investment placed in you by those who have entrusted you to us.

• And so all of us faculty, regardless of what we teach, aspire to introduce you to and connect you with our shared human past. Only in so doing can we aid you in constructing your future.

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