First-Year Students Take A Lead From Literature

By: Mark Tarnacki

book of job
Every year, all incoming students are required to read a common text over the summer as part of the Liberal Studies Curriculum, in preparation for some of the first intellectual discussions of the new semester.

Fair bet: Most 18-year-olds know what it means to have one of those days… or maybe one of those really awful weeks, or months. Anyone heading off to college has been around long enough to see good, innocent people suffer, to get outraged, to question God, and to wonder what it all means.

In launching a lifelong process of sorting it out, students starting college at Saint Michael's this year at least can count on humane guides of mind-and-soul for the next four years - faculty and staff who waste no time tackling life's "Big Questions" with energizing freshness rooted in classic literature and spiritual traditions: This year's Common Text for Saint Michael's College first-year students is a beautiful and accessible translation of The Book of Job - yes, that book of Job, from the Hebrew/Christian Bible, though in this translation, Job emerges as something provokingly distinct from the goody-goody "patient" Job of vague or unschooled popular legend and aphorism.

"God damn the day I was born!" yells the suffering and exasperated innocent Job in one passage of the translation, a raw and gutty verse that was a favorite of Biology Professor Mac Lippert - one of three faculty invited to write essays that might pump vim into first-year seminar discussions about the book. In another essay, Religious Studies/Peace and Justice Professor Laurie Gagne quotes the Tao te Ching of Eastern Traditions - "The stiff and unbending is the disciple of death; the gentle and yielding is the disciple of life" - to get at deeper meanings. She recalls a personal conversation she once had with Elie Wiesel, the concentration camp survivor, when she asked him, "Are You always angry at God?" and he answered, "Yes, except when my anger gives way to exaltation." Gagne concludes, "Surrender combines the willingness to let go with the hope for new life. In the new life that is granted him, Job's innocence, we can see, will be beside the point."

Job as a first-year text is right in the wheelhouse of the college's Academic Dean Jeffrey Trumbower, a Religious Studies professor and specialist in early Hebrew and Christian texts. His essay to first-years lends context: "One of the great advantages of a liberal arts education is that you will gradually come to understand how much you don't know. Keen awareness of the specific gaps in your knowledge and the contingency of the knowledge you do possess, along with a mastery of the tools needed to ask better questions, are the hallmarks of the liberally educated person." The dean then reveals his favorite passage of Job, when God from the whirlwind describes to Job the ostrich. Trumbower speculates: "I tend to think it is because the ostrich is such an absurd animal from a human point of view… God seems to be saying, 'If I want to create something as absurd as the ostrich, I can, and who are you to question me?' It's a lesson to Job that the universe isn't as rational and tidy as he and his friends assumed."

Nick Clary, an eminent Shakespeare scholar and veteran English professor who'll be teaching a first-year seminar section for Honors Students, boiled it down in his pre-term letter to students about the book, its challenges and rewards, noting "the Book of Job is really pretty simple: it's about the suffering of an innocent man." And, "you may not come to the Bible believing that it must be understood as Truth with a capital 'T.' if you do, that’s fine – but it's also fine if you don't. What matters to me is your willingness to engage with the text and the issues, whatever your religious (or non-religious) position may be. I hope we'll be able to have frank, open-minded discussions, with full respect for various points of view."

Will MarquessEnglish instructor Will Marquess has overseen first-year text selection since 2006 when a committee's program-inaugurating choice was Yann Martel's Life of Pi. Each year since, Marquess has asked two faculty who teach first-year seminars to join him as a book-selection committee, putting out a late-fall call to the college community urging suggestions for the next year. Bill Grover from political science and Liz Inness-Brown from English joined him picking this year's book.

"Our principles are very general. We're looking for something challenging and provocative, always keeping in mind that students will be reading it on their own," he says. "This year we didn't go out looking for anything in particular, but were conscious that for three years in a row we've used books focused on hot topical issues – climate change, food choices/politics, the internet - so to some extent we were thinking, 'can we find something that's not like that?'"

"We were looking for something that doesn't present easy answers," Marquess says, admitting the committee was "a little wary" when Job came up. "We thought some students would think, 'here's this terribly old text from Bible,' but I hope when they read it, they'll see it's not hard to read but it's very complex and doesn't present easy answers." Each of about 25 seminar instructors has assigned an essay topic before students arrive "to engage students into thinking hard about issues," Marquess says, "so it needs to be something they can wrestle with on their own. I hope it's something that doesn't just give itself away. We don't want it to be just a book report or historical account."

Since the common text idea launched at St. Mike's, choices have been: Life of Pi, (two years); then The Kite Runner (both coming-of-age tales about encountering evil or faith in extreme circumstances, the latter in modern Afghanistan); The Sunflower, nonfiction by Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal about extreme forgiveness; Babette's Feast by Isak Dinesen, about a young woman who uses the art of cooking to bring grace to a remote town and cold family – a sacramental experience through food, showing how an outsider might touch a community through art and faith; Kafka's Metamorphosis - "you could say it's about the strangeness of being alive; we thought all students would be going through a metamorphosis coming to college and find themselves strange at least once and a while" says Marquess - and then the issue-centered titles, Field Notes from a Catastrophe about climate change, Jonathan Foer's Eating Animals about the industrial system of food production., and last year, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brain.

"With Job, finally, I think we do want to perplex students with these questions of faith, whatever their own religious or nonreligious position may be," Marquess says. "It's stronger if they challenge it, if they question it, and don’t just take things for granted, and it’s hard to take things for granted in the Book of Job."

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