The National Catholic Review
Doris Donnelly
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In our electronic, computerized, digital world, it was refreshing for me recently to discover once again the power of the printed word, specifically the words printed in a magazine like the one you are holding in your hands or are reading on America’s Web site.

I teach at John Carroll, the Jesuit university in Cleveland, where we are cabled, wired and wireless from the Dolan Center for Science & Technology at one end of our 60-acre campus to Don Shula Stadium at the other. It seems as though three out of four students are on their cellphones at any given time, even while they’re scrolling on their laptops or consulting their PDA’s. We have a Web-based course management system that enables us to integrate e-mail, multimedia presentations and other online resources into hundreds of courses.

But last fall, as I prepared my theology course, Contemporary Catholic Theology, and was wondering how to keep a course with contemporary in its title timely enough for students raised on CNN and AOL instant messaging, I decided on a traditional approach. I was gratified at how the learning dividends spread beyond the classroom like a beneficent virus.

What I did was to make America an integral part of the course syllabus. The magazine did not let me down.

Every week, always on time, a bulk shipment of America arrived at my office for distribution to all the students in the class. America provides semester-length subscriptions for about the cost of a single paperback textbook; in other words, it is affordable. In each issue I flagged an article or two and posed a question, to which the students were to write a one- or two-page response.

For Paul Farmer’s article (9/15/03) on Haiti, I asked, What’s the root cause of Paul Farmer’s pessimism over the situation in Haiti, and how do you think it could be relieved? For Phyllis Hanlon’s article (9/22/03), which featured the very popular initiative called Theology on Tap, I asked, If you were in charge of setting up a program for Theology on Tap, what four issues would you and your friends like discussed, and why?

I encouraged the students to share their personal reflections and their critical reactions. The next time we met in class, we took time to debrief. Participation was always livelya teacher’s dream! One thing led to another. For example, following up on the review of Mystic River by Richard Blake, S.J. (11/17/03), we had a class trip to see the movie and then discussed it over lasagna at my house.

The essays were graded and comprised 10 percent of the final grade.

Toward the end of the course, I asked my students what they thought of the America assignment. With final papers and exams looming, I assured everyone that participation in the evaluation would be completely voluntary, involving no course credit. I know our students at Carroll are intelligent and engaged in their education, but I also know they are busy. Before committing themselves to any effort, especially near the end of a semester, they are likely to ask, Will this affect my grade? It would not.

So I was pleasantly surprised when every one of them wrote an evaluation, and I was elated at their enthusiastic endorsements. A few students admitted they were skeptical about the assignment at first, fearing busy-work, but then found themselves reading more than the assigned article. Most were surprised at and interested in the involvement of the church in so many issues. Students were impressed with the attention the magazine gave to the voices of people like us. Some expressed dismay at how out-of-date their information had been on the Catholic Church prior to reading the magazine; others said they were grateful for the weekly fix that America provided. One wrote that she was hooked on the magazine. A big surprise for me was how many said they found the articles on the Holocaust, environmental pollution and the sexual scandal in the church so pertinent. When I asked them how these issues touched on the lives of college students, they insisted simply that it’s important to know these things.

The culture at our Jesuit university promotes a commitment to be men and women for others. In that vein, a number of students felt challenged by articles by George Anderson, S.J., and other authors, which let us know what we can do to become more of what God calls us to be: caring people. Another student wrote: Reading America has allowed me to become more fully aware of the church’s mission to give to others and my responsibility to do the same. The same student continued, rather to my astonishment, No amount of [prior] Catholic education taught me as much. Several students wrote that they became re-linked to their Catholic faith commitment through America. Reading America weekly has most definitely drawn me back into the community of the church, one student wrote. On the subject of community, another wrote that America gave her a way to connect with the church not only as a lawgiving body but as a family.

Given my work with The Cardinal Suenens Center, I was especially heartened by the students’ appreciation of the influence of the Second Vatican Council that they recognized in much of what they read.

Two students found the writing assignments freeing. Echoing a sentiment expressed by several, one student wrote that it serves as an escape from traditional homework. While it’s on the syllabus, it almost feels like a freedom. Since we own each issue, we can leaf through them at any time and refer back to them.

Several thought the magazine would be an appropriate assignment in courses other than those in theology. In fact some of them, on their own initiative, appropriated material from America articles to use in their political science, history, business and other classes. For example, when one young woman had to give an informative speech in her communications class, she used Paul Farmer’s article on Haitian refugees as background. But she didn’t stop there; the exercise launched her on a semester’s worth of research about refugees. For her next communications assignment, to present an argument in class, she turned to Bishop Gerald Kicanas’s article (11/03/03) about the difficulty Mexican migrants experience in the United States and argued for more compassionate treatment, especially for Mexican children, at U.S. border crossings and in border towns. When a fellow student asked her how she got so wrapped up in refugee issues, she responded by simply passing along her copies of America to him.

One of the more profound appreciations was expressed by a young man who is a Baptist. When his friends wondered why he was even taking the course on Catholicism, he said he simply wanted to learn about a tradition with which he was totally unfamiliar. But he found he learned something about his own faith as well. The America assignment was a totally positive experience, he wrote, because not only did I learn about the Catholic Church; I was also able to identify the differences and similarities with my own Baptist tradition. Like members of the Baptist Church, Catholics recognize that active participation at worship and in service is essential for all Christians. I also saw how the Catholic Church was involved in the world, in doing justice especially for those without advocacy. Baptists do that too.

As anyone knows who works with today’s sophisticated college students, to elicit expressions like excited, astonished, even wow! is fairly unusual. When we are talking about a course assignment, it is extraordinary. But that is the response America generated. Alongside our multimedia learning platforms, it may seem like a static thing. But, obviously, in the hands of men and women who embrace learning in any form, it can take on a life of its own. Editors note: for information about bulk subscriptions for classroom use, email Americas subscription department.

Survey Results
Class size: 25

The America assignment was worthwhile 100%
Read article and wrote essay each week 100%
Read more than the assigned article 45%
Used information from America in other classes
(history, political science, communications)
22%
Get my news about the church only from America
(other sources: campus ministry, television)
87%
Would recommend America for other courses 92%

 

Doris Donnelly is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio, where she directs The Cardinal Suenens Center for Theology and Church Life.