A rich and scholarly life
By Tony Staley
The liberal arts, understood within a Catholic and Norbertine context, nourish a full academic experience for Marcie Paul and her students.
Marcie Paul has a simple goal for her students: that they learn to adapt to a changing world outside the classroom just as she has learned to adapt to one in it.
She wants to instill that broader understanding of education and life in her students and she expects graduates to leave with skills in communication, writing, reading and critical thinking, as well as an understanding of how to apply those skills in more disciplines than their chosen major.
|Marcie Paul gives a talk in the popular “Last Lecture” series. >>MORE
Paul says: “Whatever they are going to do they are going to need that kind of agility, they are going to need that kind of ability. What I want them to do is to look at a situation or a text – and by a text I mean anything from a movie to an advertisement to a book – and analyze it, be able to come at it and think about it critically. Who is its audience? What is it trying to do? What is it saying?”
Paul, a professor of Spanish and director of the Honors Program, considers teaching in a liberal arts environment her vocation. It’s an understanding she has gained over the last couple of decades, she says.
She first learned the value of a liberal arts education as a student at Beloit College. After earning her master’s and doctorate in Spanish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Paul says she knew she belonged at a small liberal arts college where she could know her students and build relationships with them and with faculty outside of her discipline, “which you don’t really get at a big place.”
“At Madison, I knew a lot of people, I knew a lot of different faculty but they were all in Spanish or Comp Lit,” Paul says. “So the idea of being out and about and meeting people that were not in your own area and having really interesting conversations with them, and having their experiences and expertise inform my own, was very important to me.”
Paul says she has seen a marked change in students since starting at St. Norbert in 1984.
“Today’s students are very sophisticated in choosing classes and in evaluating what they’re getting out of classes and how those classes are going to serve them,” she says. “Twenty years ago it was like, college is fun, college is good, I like my classes. Now it’s much more. I hear students say, we didn’t read this book well enough in class or, I wish we would have had more writing. They’re very conscious of what they need in order to achieve their goals.”
Students expect enthusiasm, clarity – where they’re going and how – and to meet with faculty whenever they want or need to, Paul says.
Because St. Norbert focuses on teaching and spending time with students, faculty learn the names and back stories of students, who come to their offices during the day and see them at evening lectures and club meetings, and communicate by e-mail or via Facebook.
It sometimes leads to lifelong friendships, says Paul, citing one former student. “I’m still her mentor but it’s moved beyond that for me. For me she’s one of my mentors, too.”
The college also has responded by shifting classes from lectures, memorization and exams into internships, service-learning, collaborative research by faculty and students, and study-abroad experiences. In fact, 33 percent of students now study abroad, and Paul says St. Norbert would like to see that percentage increase still further.
“I think there is more and more a sense of porousness so the classroom is not the centerpiece, that learning goes on in the res hall, in associations, in meetings between faculty and students, with the Alive Team, with the campus ministry group,” says Paul. “There’s a sense of us working together as a team across campus to teach students holistically and not just by subject.”
Paul says that, in the honors common course, rather than ask the students questions, “we present them with issues, we present them with scenarios, we present them with information and then we say, ‘What are the questions here? What do you need to know? What does this make you want to know?’ And when they articulate that, the next question is ‘How do you find that out?’”
Such an approach marches well with the focus on the spiritual at St. Norbert; with the inclusion of ethics in all disciplines; and with the missional emphasis on tolerance for other cultures, ways of thinking and political views.
“That’s a hard sell,” she says. “I think we all come from families and situations and cultures and subcultures that have strong opinions, and good opinions and we cherish them, but in our world today we have to be able to listen to each other and respect each other and that’s an important, a very important part of a St. Norbert education.”
The focus on students and teaching alongside personal scholarship at a college like St. Norbert extends to its hiring practices, Paul says.First, she says, candidates must be very good at what they do, know their field well and come from an excellent program.
Candidates spend two or two-and-a-half days on campus, where they are asked how they feel about St. Norbert’s mission as a Catholic, Norbertine liberal arts college and what they could bring to the mission. They are asked how they understand education, how they teach and what they expect to do in the classroom, and they are observed teaching a class.
To determine how well they fit in, they meet with and are evaluated by students, faculty, the president, and the vice president for mission and student affairs, Paul says.
Once they join the faculty they’re expected to be scholars who remain current in their field and to move outside their graduate field, Paul says. Her own research interest in graduate school was in 20th-century Latin American literature. She has since focused on contemporary Hispanic cinema and metaphysical detective fiction.
“We have to spread out. We have to become more able to teach various things and we love it. That’s part of the wonderful thing about teaching at a small college,” Paul says.
The college also allows faculty to explore other parts of their professional – and personal – life in ways that would never happen at a big school, Paul says. For her that’s meant becoming director of the Honors Program.
And the welcoming presence and support of parish life at Old St. Joe’s is at the heart of the college community, Paul says. “And whether or not you’re a member, you’re welcome there.”
There were times when, Paul says, she wasn’t going to church a lot. Still, the Rev. Jim Baraniak, O.Praem, ’89, then pastor at Old St. Joe’s, would tell her, “You always have a home here, don’t you forget.”
Paul, who wasn’t raised Catholic, says Old St. Joe’s is now her home and where she turns for spiritual advice. “I often say St. Norbert never let me stray too far from God, you know, because it’s here, he’s here, she’s here. No matter where you are at spiritually, there’s always a coming home at St. Norbert.”