The heart of the matter
Five CMU Faculty discuss how their courses equip students to face uncertain futures with courage and self-efficacy
War-zone reporter and novelist turned climate researcher J. M. Ledgard recently told the New Yorker that, faced with a mess like the one humanity has made, "the only possible thing to do, is to go in an imaginative direction. Imagination at scale is our only recourse."1
I recently sat down with five CMU faculty, and the same conviction stood out. It began with Neil Weisensel, Instructor of Music Theory and Composition.
BD: How do the courses you teach equip students to engage the conditions they encounter in the world, church, and society?
NW: I think in most music courses, perhaps especially in composition, the real work is about uncovering truth and beauty. It's about mining those things out amidst work, strife, chaos even. I always tell my students, "Your job is to learn the rules so that you can break them. We put you in a box in these courses, but we put you there so you can break out of it."
Weisensel's words hit me. They were bold and pliable, outlining a powerful connection. He conceived the work of imagination and co-creation through music as an act, even a lifestyle, of sacred resistance. I asked four more professors the same question. Throughout, the same undercurrent persisted.
Sue Sorensen, Associate Professor of English: It's about creativity. Creativity is not something nice to do at the end of a forty-hour work week, it is essential: to relationships, to faith, how we understand ourselves, how we survive. I think of my first-year Poetry course; many students come in thinking of poetry as this secret language. They think they know what poetry is and I go, "No, not at all!," and then we just spend our time really breaking open and dismantling that box. The students simply aren't prepared for what happens.
Paul Dyck, Associate Professor of English, Associate Dean of Faculty: I would add that creativity is also essential to work, and critical thinking. People sometimes think we have practical tools and then we have 'recreations' (like poetry), but those two things are actually inextricable.
Counter-clockwise, from top-left: Neil Weisensel, Sue Sorensen, Paul Dyck, Anna Nekola,
and Sheila Klassen-Wiebe
Anna Nekola, Assistant Professor of Music: One of the things I tell my first-year Art of Music students is "I don't know what you need to know, because you need to come up with things I've never thought of before." In that course, I try to open them up to music not as a text or an object but as something humans do. It's about getting it off the page and into the hands and mouths of musicians; by extension, it becomes about allowing more music to come to the table.
Sheila Klassen-Wiebe, Associate Professor of New Testament: In my courses, imagination is about our rootedness in the past. In Biblical Literature and Themes, for example, students often come in thinking of the Bible as an instruction manual or self-help book, but it's not. I try to get them to think bigger, beyond the confines of their limited experience and ask themselves, "how does this material apply to larger collectives and communities over time?" Because the fact is that no matter what questions and crises these students are grappling with at a given time, those questions have been asked before. They have a past and a history that merits exploration.
PD: Sheila reminds me of my course on Homer's epics. Those stories deal with big stuff—take the Trojan War. It's a good reminder that we're not the first people to have an acute sense of, well, the apocalyptic.
BD: How do the courses you teach help students flourish?
AN: First, flourishing is about care for others. It depends upon our asking how all of us—human and non-human—can flourish. In my Art of Music course, everybody writes eventually about how they have new ears for the music in their lives. They become more inclusive, attentive, observant listeners. The biggerpicture result of that is this: understanding and appreciating diversity in music leads to greater understanding, appreciation, and inclusion of diversity among human beings.
SS: We get students outside of themselves. The world says "it's all about me, I'm most important," but the church (and a university of the church) needs to ask "how can I offer myself to look out for and serve the needs of others?" Our task is to overcome the obsession with self that is literally destroying the world. And every single discipline at CMU can contribute to that radical vision of community that's needed to, somehow, help God save the world.
PD: I would go back to your very first question about engagement and say that we're already practicing that in the classroom. Sometimes it's more obvious than others, but it's already going on. By the time they graduate, students have made real engagement a habit. They are already people of action.
BD: What questions lie at the heart of the course(s) you teach and why are those questions important?
SS: "What kind of people do we want to be?" Or even, "what were we put here for?" Literature explores these questions at every turn.
SK-W: "How do our stories fit into the larger story of what God is doing in the world, has done, and will do? How do we live into that future with hope, trust, and love?" And depending on how we answer those first questions, "who do our choices make us? Who are we, as (a) people?" AN: "How do we know what we know?" As we gain perspective on the processes of history-making that have gone into all the subjects we study, we can begin to ask: "Whose stories are we telling?" It's about the ability to see others' humanity more readily. In Art of Music we're asking "Is there more than one way to be human? How can music acknowledge and minister to all those different versions of the human experience?"
PD: In my George Herbert course we're investigating the body-language of Herbert's poetry. He is known for his shaped poems, their dynamic relationship between form and content. So my big questions this year have been "How does theology feel? How does doctrine feel when we get it into our bodies, live it out in the world among other people? What can attending to this teach us?"
They don't use the words I'm thinking, words like "incarnation," "discipleship," and "witness," but the ideas and commitments are there. Together, these touchstones at the heart of the matter form a strong, sacred resistance. They make me confident that, whatever tomorrow brings, this community will have the tools and the creative imagination needed to face it head-on.
Beth Downey (CMU '16) is a writer with CMU's Communications and Marketing department.
This piece taken from the Fall 2019 issue of The Blazer Magazine.
1 Ben Taub, "Jonathan Ledgard Believes Imagination Could Save the World," The New Yorker online, 19 September 2019.