Professors incorporate faith into their classes

The best thing about being a professor at a Catholic university is the ability to let the Faith permeate every classroom and every subject.

The most effective way to do this, said Stephen J. Conroy, professor of economics at the University of San Diego, is to be a witness and rely on personal experiences.

“Your example as a practicing Catholic ... can influence how you lead class discussions,” he said. “For example, how do you approach world issues that come up in class? How do you treat students in your classroom? What references and examples do you use? What kinds of topics do you include in your course syllabi?”

Each of these items is influenced by who the professors are as people, he said.

Conroy
Steve Conroy works with students from a course in microfinance and wealth creation while in Guatemala earlier this summer. Photo courtesy of Allison Czapracki

“I was heavily influenced by community service learning opportunities as an undergraduate student [at Creighton University], so I try to incorporate as many of those into my classes as possible,” he said. “I often take my classes to Tijuana for immersion experiences. At the MBA level, I teach a class in microfinance and wealth creation, which includes a lengthy, critical discussion about the ways in which the poor are treated around the world and what are possible solutions to poverty, including market solutions such as microfinance. 

“That class also includes an intense immersion experience to Antigua, Guatemala, in which students meet with microfinance clients and the agencies that serve them,” Conroy said. “This past year we made a point of visiting Fondesol, a Catholic microfinance institution, in part to demonstrate the positive influence that the Church can have in Latin America.”

Brendan McGuire, a history professor at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, sees faith and divine revelation in ideas, in philosophy, in history, in tangible monuments and sometimes it slowly comes together like pieces of a puzzle. Take for instance his 2013 field study in Istanbul that filled in some missing information about how the Ottoman conquest affected the religious life of Constantinople.

He called it a privileged insight into God’s role in human history.

In the classroom, that’s the kind of stuff he calls the “meat on the bones” that makes history come alive and gives an excitement to his daily work. “The greatest joy is when students really embrace the study of history and make it their own,” McGuire said.

A rich and deep tradition

Like Conroy, Erika Kidd, assistant professor of Catholic Studies at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, extends the Faith into every part of her creation and redemption curriculum in various ways.

Conroy
Conroy
Kidd
Kidd

In her course The Catholic Vision, Kidd assigns Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back” in addition to Augustine’s “Confessions” and the Gospel According to John.

In the Pursuit of Happiness course, students read Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” as well as selections from the Gospel According to Matthew.

“In my classes, we often read stories of belief, disbelief and conversion,” she said. “They are stories from the Bible, fictional stories, stories about suffering, and many others. As Augustine shows, such stories can serve as mirrors, placing an individual in front of herself and calling her into question. Good stories can serve as challenges to habitual destructive ways of life. Just as importantly, good stories can expand one’s imagination for happiness and the forms that grace, redemption and discipleship can take.”

Kidd was drawn to teaching at a Catholic university because of her desire to develop both her scholarship and her faith with integrity.

“I thought that a Catholic university would allow me to focus on the flourishing of my students in an especially rich way,” she said. “The intellectual tradition of the Catholic Church is rich and deep, and encounters with it can be tremendously exciting and formative for students and teachers alike. In each class I teach, my goal is to introduce students to the great conversations within the Catholic Tradition. All of our courses are interdisciplinary, and in our classes, we try to reveal the unity of truth.”

Kidd draws on ordinary literature to demonstrate the beauty of the Faith. For instance, in “Brideshead Revisited,” she said, “My students and I talked a lot about how important beauty — unmanipulated and uncontrived — is for true conversion of the heart. Charles, the protagonist, can’t even begin to approach God until his heart has been dilated by the beauty of God’s good gifts.”

Tim Clark, professor of chemistry at the University of San Diego, teaches organic chemistry — not an easy fit for bringing up God in course assignments.

“I want to really share the joy of the Gospel and look for opportunities to be supportive to the students,” he said. “So if something like current events or an encyclical comes out, I’ll try to bring that in.”

Once, Clark pointed out links between the class work and Pope Benedict’s call for changes in the Church and challenged the students to think about it. In May, he gave his students transcripts of San Diego Chargers quarterback Phil Rivers’ commencement address at The Catholic University of America.

“I thought it was a powerful thing for them to think about,” Clark said.

Benefits for teachers

Bringing the Faith to the classroom pays off for the teachers as well as the students.

Teaching at St. Thomas University has transformed and deepened Kidd’s faith and brought personal growth in love of and understanding true wisdom.

“I teach because I love introducing students to philosophers, saints, theologians and other writers whom I believe will nourish and guide them well,” she said. “I offer my students what I take to be worthy of study, good for soul and mind alike.”

In the hours of preparing lessons, reading assigned papers, grading tests and doing everything that it takes to instruct courses, McGuire finds fulfillment not just in his profession, but in his faith.

“I think one’s own faith is an inseparable part of who you are, and there’s something about being a college professor and really investing yourself for your vocation and for your students,” he said.

“Every aspect of who you are is sort of part of that and is out for the students to see. It’s inherent in the professor-student relationship, and they can tell a lot about you. They can tell if you love your work or not, especially when we are dealing with the Church. Students can tell what your convictions are, so it’s important to be honest about the way you feel and how you approach things.”

Effect on students

Sophomore Rachel Hoover picked up on “(McGuire’s) simple intense love of what he does,” and how he encouraged students to do their best.

McGuire
McGuire
Montano
Montano

“On the last day of class, Dr. McGuire told us all that in case he never got to teach us again, he wanted us to remember one thing — that our dignity and worth comes from the fact that Jesus died to save us,” she said.

Making a difference in the lives of students is one of the rewards when a professor demonstrates a positive Christian attitude in and out of the classroom.

“The greatest joy is in almost making disciples of the students in their quest for knowledge and in their quest for the truth,” McGuire said. “The joy when you share that love for the subject matter is tremendous.”

Steffano Montano, the service-learning coordinator and lecturer at Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida, said his students aren’t always of practicing faith.

He felt particularly challenged and rewarded, therefore, when an atheist student asked how she could do good in the world and create a society of peace and justice similar to what the Gospels teach.

A Muslim student expressed great joy in learning about the Gospel message of love for the enemy and non-violence in the hopes that it might help foster peace in the Middle East.

Montano attributes those dialogues to the Catholic university traditions that “have made a decision to have their students come to question their own relationship with God.”

“I am grateful to be able to engage in these kinds of discussions with my students rather than simply stopping at the various creeds, codes and ceremonies of the Faith,” he said. “My faith as a Catholic drives me to encounter Christ in every one of my students and to cherish their contributions to the class. Every one of their experiences is a gift to me and a challenge to continue living my life as authentically as possible.”

Clark hesitated any time he thought that he might want to share his Catholic beliefs in the classes he previously taught at a state school.

He didn’t think he would get in trouble, but because he wasn’t tenured, he didn’t want to take a chance.

So when students came to him for personal advice, he was “a little less forward” to share his values and where they came from, he said.

Now that he’s at a Catholic university, he feels free to discuss his beliefs and Church teachings in a classroom or anywhere else on campus.

Relying on Christ

Clark
Tim Clark teaches organic chemistry at the University of San Diego. Courtesy photo

For Clark, daily Mass at the university chapel or the diocesan parish on campus provides an important break from the everyday schedule of lessons, lectures and papers. It’s also a witness to students.

“I value how really easy it is to get to Mass every day and how easy it is to go and be in front of the tabernacle,” Clark said. “Some students see me at daily Mass and some see me walking to chapel and ask where I’m going every day at this time. I sometimes ask them if they want to go, and most of the time they say no. But some of them have gone.”

Montano considers it a blessing to be able to participate at Masses on campus and to meditate for two minutes at the start of each class.

He calls it a ministry to help students encounter Christ in the people that they serve in the community and to help students understand who Christ is and who they themselves are called to be. Seeing the transformations is rewarding.

“I thank God every day for being called to this work and look forward to each opportunity that brings me to grow in my own relationships with God,” he said.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Faith in the Curriculum
The University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, was founded in 1969 as an outgrowth of St. Alexis College of Nursing, and today the expanded healthcare studies make up a substantial portion of the university’s programs. There are majors in nursing (up to the doctorate level), radiology, athletic training, behavioral health, and occupational, physical and respiratory therapy.

Shea
Msgr. Shea
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