Sunday, September 13, 2015

Maintaining Purpose and Passion: A Marathon, Not a Sprint

By Dr. Mike Williams

I was out to dinner with some colleagues over the weekend and one of them stated, “Wow, this has been a good beginning of the semester for USD.”  As I was thinking about what to write about in this blog post, a similar sentiment had crossed my mind.  It has been a good week – and here’s why.

At universities, there is a peculiar sense of time.  Each fall semester is the beginning of a “new year” and there is usually a sense of optimism and excitement with both the faculty and students.  There are new classes, new students, new opportunities, and a sense that we can learn from our mistakes in the previous year (or semester) and make the current one even better.  I doubt there are many institutions in the world where there is this continuous sense of renewal like one feels at the beginning of the semester.  And if the fall semester doesn't work out the way you wanted, no worries – the spring semester is around the corner and then “summer break” – and the optimism and excitement can begin anew.

So, it is within this context that I want to discuss the “new year” at USD.  First, let’s start with the   The first few weeks about the semester are ones that are filled with making new friends, learning about classes, and thinking about joining student organizations (the Alcala Bazaar was on Tuesday).  Through my conversations with students, both inside and outside of the classroom, there is palpable sense of purpose and passion.  It is early enough in the semester where taking five classes does not feel daunting, where deciding to join three new groups feels doable, and where there is a sense that it is possible to connect the course knowledge from present and previous courses to societal issues outside of the classroom.  In general, there is a sense of openness in the air – a desire to seize new opportunities and to make new connections.

I have felt this same excitement with faculty as well.  While many of do not admit it on a daily basis, we miss the energy that the students bring to campus and we miss seeing each other on Marion Way, in the hallways, or in meetings.  Just like with the students, there is a sense that everything is possible – new types of courses, new research projects, and new opportunities to fulfill our sense of purpose and passion.  For example, at the Hub, we have found that the issue of water resonates strongly with many faculty and there are many more courses who have embraced the Changemaker Challenge and who are encouraging their students to connect their studies with water-related issues.

While this excitement, from both students and faculty, happens each year at this time, there is something that feels a bit different about the beginning of the semester this time around.  For me, it has to do with the fact that there seems to be much more discussion about how we – as a campus community – provide the institutional structures to capture and maintain this energy we have around connecting our classes and our research to what we consider to be our overarching purpose or passion.

The heart of the University of San Diego is its Catholic identity and its commitment to the liberal arts and sciences.  While this can manifest itself differently in higher education, we seem to be at a point where there is a growing consensus on what it means for USD in the 21st century.  Sure, we may disagree over the details but there is a clear sense that our mission involves how we can utilize our knowledge to make a positive difference in the world.  This requires opportunities for students and faculty to not only learn about specific disciplines, but to make connections between the disciplines and leverage this knowledge to collaborate with our community on important social issues. 

What has been exciting the last two weeks is the extent to which USD seems be making strategic decisions to embed these goals into our institutions even more than they have been in the past.  For example, since the start of the semester, there has been the announcement about the creation of a new Humanities Center in the College of Arts and Sciences, discussions about how to infuse the liberal arts across the curriculum in all of the different schools, conversations about how to foster more interdisciplinary opportunities for students and faculty, ideas on how we can document and archive innovative ideas that are the product of research and projects in our courses, and opportunities for students to engage in numerous retreats and workshops so that they can acquire the leadership and civic skills to make a difference at USD and beyond.  And these are just some of the ideas that I have heard about the first two weeks.

At his Convocation Address to faculty on Friday, President Harris discussed his initial ideas about   The conversation we have as a university over the next year about these issues is an exciting and crucial time.  The truth is that the energy that many of us feel at the beginning of the semester diminishes over the following fifteen weeks as we get “bogged down” in our classes, our schedules, and our many other responsibilities.  If we truly value the importance of providing students and faculty with the opportunities to connect their knowledge to their purposes and passions, then we have to be committed to an institutional approach that will help facilitate this.   What this means is that we need to be intentional in our design of curriculum, programs, and co-curricular opportunities so that we are fostering the time, space, and incentives for all of us to continue what matters to us even in the midst of a fifteen-week semester.  This is not easy but there are lessons we can learn from what we have already accomplished as a campus community.
USD’s mission and the role of liberal arts and sciences, faith, interdisciplinary approaches, community engagement, and changemaking in our endeavors.

On Saturday night, USD was honored to host Sir Salman Rushdie for a discussion about his new book, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.  This event, co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences, the Humanities Center, and Warwick’s Books, is an example of USD fulfilling its mission to provide exciting opportunities to enhance our knowledge and to stimulate intellectual discussion.  But the event was much more than this.  Throughout his presentation, Rushdie spoke passionately about how fiction connects to the “real world” and how literature provides lessons and clues about the sort of person we become, and are, in the world.  His life is one that speaks to importance of connecting knowledge and insight to purpose and passion.  At one point, he stressed that writing a novel required the ethos of a marathon runner more than a sprinter.   This lesson applies just as equally to our campus community as we consider how we define and fulfill our mission.  For those of us that believe USD can do even more to enhance the opportunities for students and faculty to make a positive difference in the world, we must keep in mind that every small change in this direction will require the demeanor of a marathon runner.

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