SJU professor Dr. Sutton says of himself…. “when I began teaching at St. John’s University, I wasn’t yet a Vincentian. ” He then tells the story of his encounter with Dora. “When I first met her, she did not look like like an inspiring UN technocrat and I treated her initially as another average student with average goals. Boy, was I wrong. The deal with Dora is that I wasn’t yet Vincentian in how I viewed my students.”
After telling of his early impressions and premature judgement he continues…
“St. John’s has transformed her from a struggling single mother into earning an internship at the UN. She has even turned down a job offer there so that she could pursue her law degree and achieve an even better position at the UN. Boy, was I wrong. The deal with Dora is that I wasn’t yet Vincentian in how I viewed my students.”
Full testimony follows…
On April 20, 2012, I gave this short presentation as a panelist on how the Vincentian mission of St. John’s University has transformed me. Here were my comments:
Greetings and salutations. Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. Normally as a professor, I’m usually lecturing for an hour and forty minutes. I’m told that I only have 5 minutes to present. You’re so lucky! I’m here to make only one point.
you better become vincentian
You see my story is of a country boy becoming a big city prof. I grew up in South Dakota (I have to remind my students that it is not in Canada, yet there are more cows than people). Even in my small town I kept asking the big question, is there a God and is there any meaning to my life? Seeking to answer the question, I pursued a doctorate in theology and now teaching others how to think theologically through these big questions. My training was rather abstract and speculative, like thinking through the implication of the traditional trinitarian taxonomy and the importance of the doctrine of the filioque. So when I began teaching at St. John’s University, I wasn’t yet a Vincentian.
I had Dora all wrong. When I first began here, Dora took my class, The Mystery of God. Because of the way she appeared and acted in the course, I had typed her immediately as an average student with average ambitions. For example, her first paper in my course was handed in on loose leaf paper and was handwritten. You see, I typed her because she did not type her paper. She did alright in my class. She was interested in the topic and readings. She asked some questions, but she didn’t impress me as the anything but average. I thought I wouldn’t see her again. And then she took my next semester’s course. She was transformed. She came to the class professional in manner and thought. She performed very well in the class and my attitude changed. I was impressed now. Then she took my next semester’s course. She was transformed even more and exceeded well beyond any expectations I had for an A student. I learned from her later that she earned all As at St. John’s except for that initial class with me where she had earned a B. I have also learned that in that initial class that her husband had died in a crime and that she was left alone to care for her two children. I can imagine several people quiting college in that situation, but not Dora. You see, since taking my classes, St. John’s has transformed her from a struggling single mother into earning an internship at the UN. She has even turned down a job offer there so that she could pursue her law degree and achieve an even better position at the UN.
When I first met her, she did not look like like an inspiring UN technocrat and I treated her initially as another average student with average goals. Boy, was I wrong. The deal with Dora is that I wasn’t yet Vincentian in how I viewed my students.
two vincentian principles
Programs are for persons, not persons for programs.
When we begin a new position, we are often presented with the programs that are our responsibility. The unfortunate consequence is that we become servants to the program rather than servants to people in our programs. When we look at Vincent de Paul’s life, he of course creates many programs to serve the poor, but as he brings other people into the mission of the program, it is for the service of the person not the program. The other aspect of this principle is that if there is not a program for a person being served, then work to create and craft the program needed to serve our people. In my own pursuits with others here at St. John’s, we’ve realized that some of our students are deeply interested in learning about Catholicism across disciplines because Catholicism touches all disciplines. So several of us has committed to developing a new robust program in Catholic Studies. You better become Vincentian.
Do not wait for the script.
When I think about the new way of work, I think that the old ways of work of being a good bureaucrat or a good note taker is no longer enough. It’s no longer possible to wait for the script. It won’t be created for you. It will only be created by you. There is no more script for the new way of work. The new way of work means this—create art or get out of the way. Now we all know that in its essence art is a new thing made to change someone for the better. The human person desires art and art is a thing made to change the person for the better. It takes extra effort and means becoming a gift giver with little possibility for repayment and probably not applause. This is how I view my teaching. Sure, I’m leading them on a path to a degree through my service to the core curriculum. Sure, I’m helping them learn to think critically and theologically, but in my teaching there is so much that I do not have to do. I could become just another professor / bureaucrat, but I desire in my teaching to create something new that will change someone for the better.
And here’s the last thing. If its art we must be creating, then we must bring our emotional involvement into the work. To create art, we can’t hedge our bets, but only lean in. When Vincent saw the poor as they really are, he created a new thing that changed them for the better. He did not wait for the script. He created art. He didn’t work to get by, but he worked to go beyond the possibilities. Don’t wait for the script. There won’t be one. Within your realm of responsibility in line with the trajectories of the mission of the university, create art.
pablo picasso’s le soupe
The last thing I’d like us all to consider is a work of art. At the MET, a new exhibit presents the Steins Collection. Gertrude Stein was a great patron of several important artists, including Pablo Picasso. One work caught me—it was (Picasso’s Le Soupe)[http://uploads6.wikipaintings.org/images/pablo-picasso/the-soup-1903.jpg].
Here the older woman, with her eyes closed offers the gift of soup to the open-eyed girl who jumps up eager to receive the gift. Notice the older woman and how she cradles the bowl of soup. She’s offering it, but also protecting it. Caring for it, while also giving it. This work of art is how I view my teaching as a gift, a valuable gift that I wish to protect and give. My students maybe are not outwardly enthused like this girl, but since they are human and therefore desire to know the truth, do the good, and enjoy the beautiful, they are interiorly running toward the gift. They are hungry like this girl for the gift of le soupe. This work of art captures Vincentian teaching as a gift given with protection and compassion, with trust and purpose.
I encourage you to take time to mediate on this work of art to help you better become a Vincentian.