Reflection at the Core
Thanks to changing times and an evolving student population, St. Kate's is reexamining one of its beloved core courses, "The Reflective Woman."
BY PAULINE OO | ILLUSTRATION BY JULIE DELTON '82
A beanie, really? Yes, the head-hugging brimless cap was once part of St. Catherine's first-year orientation, confirms Mary T. Miller Carlson '75, MAOL'05. Last fall, the adjunct professor dug out her beanie and shared it with students in the section she's teaching of "The Reflective Woman."
TRW, as it's commonly known, is a discussion-based, writing-intensive course that serves as a primer to St. Kate's and its liberal arts way of learning. All baccalaureate students entering the University must take it. During the course, students explore life's largest questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be? How do my actions affect those around me? What does it mean to lead a good life? The women learn to look at the world from different perspectives — and to challenge accepted ways of thinking or behaving.
That's what a St. Kate's education is all about.
"It's been fun for me to bring some of my own recollections of St. Kate's into the classroom," Miller Carlson says. "I hope my stories help to instill a pride in place and show the students how similar some things were back then. Connecting the dots is relevant in the course and throughout their four years here."
Last fall, St. Kate's offered 47 sections of TRW, up from 35 the first time it was taught in fall 1995, rising proportionately in response to the University's growing student population. Among those new scholars are a greater number of Hmong, Somali and international students, as well as more first-generation students, more students with financial need and a growing number of students who are parents.
In the years since TRW's inception, the backgrounds, interests and needs of the student body have broadened. That's why the University's core curriculum team believes that TRW needs to be reexamined — while maintaining its academic rigor.
"We evaluate TRW all the time, and it has gone through some gradual changes," says Professor of English and Women's Studies Cecilia Konchar Farr, co-director of the core curriculum. "But now we really want to look at where we are 15 years later — and in what ways should this course change or stay the same."
In fall 2010, Konchar Farr and her co-directors — Biology Professor Martha Phillips and Sociology and Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity Professor Nancy Heitzeg — were asked to re-imagine TRW and to experiment with ways to present the course. It's a big job, but the team is excited.
The trio is taking on this crucial task during the "Year of the Liberal Arts," when St. Kate's is celebrating and showcasing its liberal arts foundation and officially launching its School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences.
A journey inward
Many colleges and universities have incorporated some form of shared experience into the first-year curriculum. The purpose varies, but most exist to create a sense of community or allow for a large student population to gain a small-campus feel.
First-year seminars at the University of Minnesota and University of Oregon, for example, are smaller, interactive classes made up of only first-year students. Carleton College has "Into the Streets" or "Into the Arb," a community-service day for all new students. Incoming students at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and Ohio State University are given a copy of a selected book to read over the summer. They then participate in discussion groups and other activities during the fall or spring semesters.
At St. Kate's, "The Reflective Woman" refers both to a course for new baccalaureate Katies and the course's required textbook, more fondly called The Reader. Julie Nagan '09 designed the cover of the current book.
The Reader, now in its seventh edition, is composed of essays and poems divided into three units: "Composing a Life," "Searching for Truths" and "Working Toward Community and Justice." Authors include Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Amy Tan and Virginia Woolf. Topics and titles run the gamut and can't help but intrigue: "Being Poor," "Mother Tongue," "White Privilege and Male Privilege," "The Aggressive Egg" and "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Unit themes have evolved over the years. The first edition had "Searching for Truths," "Experiencing the Aesthetic" and "Acting on the Good." Some articles, always selected by a faculty and staff editorial team, have weathered the revisions, including "All Women Can Be: The Spirit of the Sisters of St. Joseph" by Joan Mitchell, CSJ, and "Claiming an Education" by feminist poet Adrienne Rich.
"The Reader is responsive to what the students and the faculty and staff who teach it have found valuable," says Konchar Farr, who was core director from 1997 to 2000 and among the editors of the third edition. "We always pay attention to having different perspectives and all sorts of ways to think about who you are and how you fit in. The fundamental goal of TRW is in the title. We want our students to be reflective."
Each unit of The Reader is approached in the same four-part format: a brief "entry experience" that focuses on the questions to be addressed, assorted readings to develop insights into the questions at hand, a project to demonstrate new knowledge and written reflections on the lessons learned.
"My TRW experience was absolutely transformative," says Clair Shackelford '12, who is majoring in psychology. "It was the first chance I had to reflect upon the person I was in high school and to dream about the person I wanted to be."
According to the syllabus, "TRW is not a course in which your instructor lectures or tells you facts, principles or theories which you memorize and recite or explain in an exam." Instead, cooperative learning methods are used. Everyone is encouraged to listen and tap one another as resources — because no one person, or professor, of any discipline, could have expertise in the innermost thoughts and reflections of an individual. In most classes, chairs are pulled into a circle to facilitate dialogue — or a rectangle, depending on the space and furniture.
"A circle offers a connection that is stronger than any other classroom arrangement," says Ann Sweeney, an assistant professor of mathematics who teaches TRW. "The students can respond to each other instead of just the professor. In a circle, no one person is more important, and all voices can be heard."
During the late 1980s, the faculty had worked hard to revise the liberal arts core curriculum after St. Kate's was selected by the Association of American Colleges as one of 27 schools to participate in a nationwide core-curricula development project. Dean Marilou Eldred and faculty members from the Educational Policies Committee attended a national workshop in summer 1990, bringing back ideas and advice.
The seriousness of the task plus the determination of the faculty and staff to retain St. Kate's liberal arts tradition lengthened the process. What configuration would the new list of required courses take?
On November 23, 1992, the Core Committee submitted a final draft for the revised core requirements, which included an outline of the new bookend courses TRW and "The Global Search for Justice" (GSJ), which is mandatory for baccalaureate students in their junior or senior year. The Board of Trustees gave its stamp of approval in 1993. Pilot TRW courses were offered the following year, and St. Kate's officially introduced 35 TRW sections in fall 1995.
Full-time faculty members, administrative staff and adjuncts, particularly those who have taught at St. Kate's or who are alumnae, teach TRW. To ensure teaching standards and methods, new instructors must attend a four-day training session (two days for those returning), and everyone is assigned to a pod, or group, based on her or his class: first-year, Weekend Program, transfer or Minneapolis campus.
"TRW is a lot of work to teach, being both writing intensive and discussion-based," says Donna Hauer, director of Multicultural and International Programs and Services, and among the first administrative staff members to teach TRW. "You have to think of creative ways to engage discussions around topics of racism, white privilege and identity. It's difficult to facilitate discussions on those topics if you haven't explored your own ethnicity, privilege and identity."
Hauer regularly invites staff from the O'Neill Center for Academic Development, Campus Ministry, the counseling center and global studies to speakwith her class. Every TRW section has a library orientation.
"The core of this course, the three units with aesthetics woven throughout, is really powerful and good," she says. "I would hate to see those diminished. They are core values to our institution, and this course is one that really grounds students to the institution and the values of the Sisters of St. Joseph."
So, why this talk about change?
"TRW either needs an overhaul or an infusion of enthusiasm again from the faculty and administration," says Brian Fogarty, sociology professor and first core curriculum director. "As a university, we are more disciplinary diverse and we have colleges with different types of students and different kinds of academic requirements. I'm not sure what has to be held in common anymore. I don't know if we need to have the same readings and same projects."
Fogarty recalls the students early on being "kind of hostile" toward TRW. "They didn't want to take the course because it couldn't transfer and it wasn't helping with any major," he says. "I think they're still pretty divided."
Mary Alvarez-Jackson '06, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in elementary education, can attest to that. She knew students who dreaded the class, who disliked the strong focus on writing or found it too "touchy feely" for the classroom. She sees it differently. "Typically, in a classroom you are encouraged to leave behind interpersonal relationships and focus solely on facts," says Alvarez-Jackson. "But facts mean nothing if you cannot find a way to interpret them and build a connection to them."
The real work begins
Whether TRW remains the same or morphs into something else will be determined in the coming months.
Konchar Farr says the core curriculum team will use the original vision of the course — in addition to feedback from large segments of the St. Kate's community — to guide decisions. Since November, she has contacted everyone who has ever taught TRW in hopes of recruiting what she calls "experimenting master teachers."
These EMTs will help the core team
shape the future of TRW. "It's an exciting
time for us, and we will run a bunch of
experiments this fall," Konchar Farr says. "Who knows? We might all agree that everyone
For example, if Konchar Farr wants to infuse her literary expertise into TRW, she could have students in her section read Shakespeare and attend a play at the Guthrie Theater. Or, instructors from different disciplines could team-teach, just as education and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professors do for elementary education majors. The model has earned kudos and generated curiosity from educators nationwide.
Or, perhaps, TRW could be offered more like the GSJ courses. In GSJ, students can expand their understanding of complex ethical questions and deepen their concern for social justice by enrolling in one of seven areas:
St. Kate's integrates the liberal arts into
courses across its curriculum, as part of its
mission to prepare students to lead and
influence. Leaders, however, rarely can be
both ethical and socially responsible without
"TRW is the students' first introduction
into what it means to be part of a learning
community and team," says alumna
and adjunct Miller Carlson. "They get
to start out in orientation together, then
take this class, meet faculty and find their
way around with a whole group of other
The experience not only changes a student's perception of her world, she adds, but also of the people who inhabit it.
"Being comfortable talking to a group
of women I didn't know was something
I had never done before," says sociology
major Elizabeth Anderson '11. "In TRW, I
became confident in my own opinion and
Pauline Oo is a staff writer and editor in the Office of Marketing and Communications at St. Catherine University.