Some Reflections on the Collegiate Seminar Program Upon the Occasion of the DeSales Perez Award Reception

Gerald J. Brunetti, Professor of Education & Liberal Arts

November 6, 2013

       I would like you to know how truly honored I am to have been selected for this award – it means a great deal to me, as does the presence here today of all of you, taking time out of your busy work week to attend this celebration.

      I wish to introduce my wife Barbara and my eldest daughter Cherie and her husband Danny, who are joining us today.

      I am not going to give a long formal speech, but I would like to say a few words about the Collegiate Seminar Program and my association with it for more than 30 years—since that day in spring of 1982 when I crossed the circuit road, from my office in the graduate Department of Education,  to teach my first Collegiate Seminar class. Since that time I have taught, I believe, about 35 different Seminar classes. Obviously, like many of you, I really enjoy teaching Seminar.

      Let me say a few words about Brother DeSales Perez, who directed—or, actually, co-directed—the Collegiate Seminar Program when I started. Brother DeSales was a wonderful man, deeply devoted to Seminar. He had an office—one of those internal offices in Dante Hall—that was chock full of books, manuscripts, illustrations, pictures, and papers, stacks and stack of them—an office so full, indeed, that there was hardly any room on the table, though it was a large one. Later when Brother DeSales left the directorship and moved to a smaller office—I don’t know how this was accomplished, but it was—one of my colleagues who shared the office had to constantly defend the surface of her desk from Brother DeSales’ encroaching piles. (She and DeSales were good friends, by the way, and really liked and respected each other.)

            One quality Brother DeSales had that helped him shape the Seminar Program—making small but meaningful changes without changing the fundamental structure—was his ability to get others to tackle these new initiatives. Suddenly you would find yourself fully engaged in a project that was a brainchild of Brother DeSales and that you had no intention of being involved with when he asked if he could share an idea with you. And thus it was that I found myself, one spring day, running a seminar for a lively and loud group of high school students at Saint Mary’s High School in Albany—part of Brother DeSales Seminar outreach to high schools. Another personal example of Brother DeSales’ ability to engage others in carrying out his projects occurred at one of the all-day fall workshops that the Seminar Program conducted for faculty. I knew we were going to be working with student papers but not much more. When I arrived for the session, Brother DeSales announced that there were multiple copies of four student papers and that we were going to read and score them and discuss the results. Then he turned to me and said, “Jerry, you know how to do a scoring session. You take over.” I was a bit shocked, to say the least; but it all worked out okay, as most of Brother DeSales’ projects did.

      I just rediscovered that my youngest daughter, Maria, who graduated from Saint Mary’s, had Brother DeSales as her first seminar instructor. She remarked that “he had the amazing ability to not say much yet sparked those big discussions in class.” She also observed that he was a thoughtful man with a great sense of humor.     

Russian River Retreats

      One of my fondest memories of Seminar concerns the retreats we had at St. Joseph’s Camp, a beautiful place on the Russian River. We would drive up on a Friday afternoon, have a gourmet supper prepared by Brother DeSales and his helpers, and do a session—usually a Seminar discussion of a reading—after dinner. The next day, we would have a hearty breakfast, two more sessions, and an appetizing lunch (again, planned and executed by Brother DeSales), with one or more sessions in the afternoon. The thing about these retreats that was so special—besides the wonderful meals, good cheer, and friendly conversation—was the coming together of faculty from all over campus to engage in Seminar conversations and discuss Seminar-related topics and issues. You know, if you went to these sessions over a number of years, you might notice that the same topics came up again and again—and yet again.

•     Why are we reading this text (or this translation) instead of that?

•     Why are we not including background information in Seminar? Is that fair to the students?

•     How much writing should we be assigning and what kinds? And how do we grade it?

•     How do we get quiet students to participate? Is it fair to grade them down when they

      are genuinely shy and find it very hard to participate?

•     How do we ensure that students are doing the assigned reading? Is it a violation of the

      spirit of Seminar to be giving regular quizzes and reading checks?

•     What do we do about an assigned reading that we can’t stand?

      I don’t think we ever came up with clear, unequivocal answers to these questions. But that’s not the point. The point is that we, the faculty of Saint Mary’s College, representing almost all the departments and programs on campus—yes, even graduate ones!—and reinforced by part-time faculty, many of them longtime instructors in the Seminar Program, for whom we are very grateful—all of us came together to share our commitment to the liberal arts and specifically to our great books program: we gathered, we ate and drank, we laughed, we discussed, we shared, we learned; and we departed understanding better how to work with our wonderful students and how fortunate we were to be a part of this exciting venture: the Collegiate Seminar Program. I do hope we build in more St. Joseph’s Camp-type experiences in the future. (I would note that the ‘formation’ group of faculty met last spring for a two-day retreat at Westminster House in Danville, and that this gathering had much of the look and feel of the Russian River retreats, including the process of wrestling with some controversial issues.)

      And what about the future of Seminar? I know that some of you are ambivalent, perhaps even a bit antagonistic, about the new, core-curriculum Seminar format. Well, I have been trained—or is it “formed” or perhaps “formatted”?—and I am now teaching Seminar 2: Western Heritage. While it has been a good deal more labor-intensive than my previous Seminars, it has on the whole been a very positive experience for me. For one thing, I have an excellent group of students who have been well prepared in Seminar approaches. I have asked more of them than of earlier students, particularly in reflecting on the quality of their participation and their writing; and they have responded, which is very gratifying. The one thing I would most like to share with you, however, is that Seminar is still very much Seminar. Its core is still students and a faculty facilitator engaged together in the exciting process of unraveling the mysteries of an important text. If you are an “old Seminar instructor”—I speak here not of age but of years of experience—who has hesitated teaching in the “new Seminar program,” I urge your to jump in—the water is fine.

      I would like to thank the Collegiate Seminar Governing Board for selecting me for this award. I would also like to acknowledge the enlightened and always-supportive directors I have worked with over the years: Brother DeSales Perez, of course, and Chester Aaron; Theo Carlile; Charlie Hamaker; Brother Kenneth Caldwell; Jose Feito; and Ellen Rigsby. Most of all, however, I would like to acknowledge you, my faculty colleagues. Besides the opportunity to teach so many interesting students over the years and to see them engage meaningfully with each other on ideas from the texts, I have most enjoyed working with you in this program that we care so much about.

      Thank you again for honoring me for work I have loved doing. And thank you for coming today.