Dr. Gallagher Elkins Talks Tutorial, Kileen Chair

May 1, 2018

       Honors Tutorials are classes many of us will participate in during our time here. Chances are, the tutorial theme will coincide with the theme of the Killeen Chair. Dr. Gallagher Elkins, Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, is teaching a tutorial this semester with Stephen Rupsch, Associate Dean for Visual and Performing Arts and Associate Professor of Theatre Studies. Dr. Gallagher Elkins took time to reflect on this semester and share some thoughts. 


What is this course about and what does it cover?


      The course is called Transformative Experience. It’s based on the Killeen Chair theme. The Killeen Chair in theology and philosophy is a year-long theme where we invite lecturers to contribute different perspectives on something related to theology and philosophy. So this year the theme is Transformative Experience. Other years, we've done Economic Justice, Science and Religion, and all sorts of different things. Next year’s theme is  Community and Technology. 


I think this started last year: The Honors Program and the Killeen Chair committee decided, “Why don't we work together and try to have something for the honors students that contributes to their learning in really particular way centered around theology and philosophy? Let's do this by having a Killeen Chair tutorial.” Last semester, I taught the tutorial with Eric Hagedorn of philosophy. The first [speaker] was a philosopher from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and she is among the philosophers who have pioneered this way of thinking about experiences that fundamentally transform who we are. She kind of set the stage thinking philosophically about that. And then the guy that came in October, Father Dan Horan, talked about Thomas Merton and the experiences of racial injustice and white privilege as transformative experiences. That semester was really focused on theology and philosophy. This semester has branched out in interesting ways: the first speaker was a theater guy, Bryan Doerries, [who] was the first speaker in February. He stages Greek tragedies with returning war veterans. And so we got to meet with him as part of the class. We also all went to both the lecture that was one night and a staged reading of Oedipus Rex the next night. It was incredible to hear what it was like, but then see what it was like, or a part of it at least. And then the next week, we could decompress and talk about what that experience was like. 


Because we're at the midterms,  we're right at the point where we’re transitioning into the next speaker, who is a Biblical scholar, his name is David Carr. He's talking about Genesis 1 through 3,  which is normally understood as the original sin or the fall. There's a different way to read that that is like adolescence emerging into adulthood. That's the transformative experience, even though we don't necessarily think of Adam and Eve eating the fruit as transformative, it is. The focus of the class is transformative experience,  particularly around these visiting lectures. 


How does the Killeen Chair determine the theme? Is the Honors Program involved?


No, the Killeen Chair is kind of its own thing just like the Honors Program is its own thing. This one way is the only way we work together. The Killeen Chair has its own endowment. The instruction for the endowment is just something about theology and philosophy. As it has evolved, over 35 years or something like that, there have sometimes been conferences, there have been visiting lecturers who stay for two weeks, there have been all sorts of different iterations of of this, but the way we've been doing it more recently is having four lecturers for, basically, two days at a time. We set the theme, the committee that works on this - which is some theologians, some philosophers, the director for the center of norbertine studies, two students, and a few others - we meet as a committee regularly to talk about what our upcoming themes will be and who we will invite. But we're always really interested to hear what people were engaged in. We try to have them be timely topics. I think Science and Religion is one that our campus is especially like “How do you think of these things together?” We try to have something that has a broad appeal and and not be narrowly focused on just theology and philosophy. We like all that stuff, but we try to make sure it's engaging to other people too. 


How did you become involved with this tutorial?


Last year, two other faculty taught it and I heard it went well. I think I volunteered to do it. Like I said, Eric Hagedorn and I did it last semester. Stephen J. Rupsch, from theater, and I are teaching it this semester. So, so far, this is our second year of doing it, but so far the model has been co-teaching. I think that has been really effective. Nobody at St. Norbert gets to co-teach regularly. We just don’t have the bodies or person power to be able to do that. But it’s such a joy to teach with someone else and to be able to fill in gaps in someone else’s knowledge and to have them fill in gaps in my knowledge. If you have been in the tutorials, you know they’re not lecture based, it’s a lot of discussion, so getting to hear a lot from the students. We’ve had two very different groups between the fall and the spring, but both great in their own ways. 


What do you want students to gain or leave with from this class? 


My own assumption about any educational experience is that it has the potential to be transformative. I actually think that is the beauty of St. Norbert’s story is that - I mean, I don’t know that we get to talk about St. Norbert’s story a whole lot, I think Father Ciferni, if he had his way, would have us talk about it more - but that’s the beautiful thing about St. Norbert’s story, and Augustine if we’re thinking about other people connected to our Norbertine heritage. They’re models of being open to transformation and I think any good experience, whether in a classroom or the co-curricular experiences at college, can be and maybe should be transformative. They should changes us and not just add knowledge like “I knew this thing, and now I added 10 things to it, call it a day.” But they should change me, change how I view the world, it change how I view myself or my relationships with other people. I mean, I hope they learn something about, like for this semester, Greek theater and Biblical studies, that would be great! But I hope that thinking about this theme of what transforms us - I mean with Bryan Doerries, we ended up kind of focusing on ways that violence and trauma are transformative for people in war, for example. But then also the process of coming home and trying to reintegrate into society and becoming part of a community that you were disconnected from - those are all transformative moments. And I think those can help us think about, like, today I think is the anniversary of when we entered Iraq, so we’ve now been at war for 15 years, and for most of us, that’s largely invisible. So thinking about the role of someone who, as an average citizen, I am participating in this transformative experience. I have a cousin that has been to Afghanistan seven times. His experience of this war is completely different than mine. So are there ways these themes help me think about what it means to be transformed by either a positive or a negative experience. 


What has been your favorite part of being apart of this tutorial?

In both semesters, I have had a couple of students that I knew because I had them in [Theological Foundations] and then a bunch of students I didn’t know. I think it was maybe half and half in both rooms, roughly. And they’re small, six people, so getting to know a couple of new people. I think the students on our campus are such fascinating people - the best part of my job is getting to know students - so getting to know a couple different students I haven’t known before, and depending on who they have for Catholic Imagination, I might not have again. That, I would say, has been the greatest gift. 


Hearing thoughts from so many different disciplines: a lot of the Honors students are science-y, I am not very science-y, so getting to hear some perspectives informed by medicine or biology or chemistry is super fascinating. And then in both sections, I think, there have been people sort of across the college - econ and psychology. And just having those different perspectives, to me that’s one of the best things about a liberal arts college is that you have people studying so many different kinds of things at the same time. So, being really focused on what Bryan Doerries does with these returning war veterans, that’s a really hyper-specific topic, but then people bring all these varied perspectives. That is really fun. 


Co-teaching: it has been so much fun. I knew I really liked Eric Hagedorn and Stephen Rupsch - they’re good people - but having the experience of co-teaching and being able to riff off another person who has a totally different area of specialization and totally different assumptions about what they do in a classroom and the important thing that we cover. That has been so much fun. 


Interested in taking an Honors Tutorial? Keep your eye out for the class listings for the fall semester!

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