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Aug. 16, 2013

Stephen L. Esquith: Parents College at RCAH

Aug. 16, 2013

Stephen L. Esquith is the dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, one of MSU’s living-learning degree programs, designed for students who want to combine a small-college experience with the resources and opportunities available at a major university. Students in the RCAH have a passion for civic engagement and engage in literature, history, ethics, visual and performing arts, and the study of languages and cultures.

From the very beginning, that is, fall 2007, the parents of our students in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities have told us over and over again:  "I wish this was here when I was an undergraduate; I know I would have majored in it." So, in fall 2011 I decided it was time to give these enthusiastic parents a chance to see for themselves just what it's like to be in the RCAH.


To tell you the truth, I felt the same way they did. I too wish that something like it had been available when I was an who had four majors, one at a time, and liked them all. It just didn't make sense to me that academic programs didn't speak to each other. In fact, more often than not they've seemed territorial to a fault. Even though I've been integrally involved in building RCAH from the ground up and I teach regularly in the college, I was looking forward to participating in the RCAH on more of an equal footing with the others around the circle.

Rooms and meal plans in Snyder-Phillips were arranged for August 1 to 3, 2012, and the first class of 12 'students' (11 parents and one friend of the college) arrived at Parents College sharply at 8 a.m. Friday morning. It was a non-stop, multi-disciplinary immersion until 10 p.m. Sunday night.

Based on the results of a questionnaire sent to all RCAH parents, I chose the topic of sacrifice for the first Parents College. The readings were demanding, but the real challenges were the discussions and the hands-on work. From Biblical stories to magical realism, they did what RCAH students love to do; they made these ideas their own, connecting their personal experiences with sacrifice, whether it was for family, friends or country.

Then, came the most unfamiliar part. Working under the guidance of our artist-in-residence Chris Worland, they cut, pasted and knitted their own visual images out of cotton fabrics and photographs into a large wall hanging representing their own ideas about sacrifice.

The final dinner and presentation to a group of RCAH students on Sunday evening was just what the parents were looking for. It was in this moment, reflecting on how they had moved from uncertainty, step by step, through their own memories, imaginations and art, that they discovered exactly what it was that excites their sons and daughters so much about the RCAH. No longer were they saying, "I wish this had been here."  Virtually to the person, they were saying, "Now I know why you were so nervous about your classes and then couldn't stop talking about them." The students were delighted to hear this, of course.

Parents College in summer 2013 was much the same. Ten participants came together for a three-day immersion program, this year on the equally daunting topic of forgiveness. The readings pushed the discussion to the limit. Once again, our parents and friends (including three who had participated in 2012), did their homework and wrestled with a subject that can easily leave us questioning some of our most basic assumptions about how we should respond to extreme violence.

participant screen printing

This time, instead of representing their thoughts and feelings visually in fabric, they learned how to use our letterpresses under the tutelage of another regular RCAH artist-in-residence, Arie Koelewyn, and then developed their own short readers theatre performance based upon the texts and their reactions to them.

This included interpretations of a play about the 2006 Amish schoolhouse murders, J. M. Coetzee's difficult novel, “Disgrace,” about post-apartheid South Africa, the autobiographical story, “The Sunflower,” by Simon Weisenthal about his experience in a Nazi concentration camp, and Louise Erdrich's, “The Roundhouse,” the story of a dark and complicated family drama on a U.S. Native American reservation. Each performing group used letterpress techniques to create invitations to their performance in the RCAH Theatre on Sunday evening.

I chose the topic of sacrifice for the first Parents College because I thought that it would be something that parents putting children through college and possibly dealing with the demands of caring for their own elderly parents could easily identify with. I certainly could. I have also taught about the sacrifices that citizens and soldiers make for their country, and I have been struck by how many of my RCAH students have some connection to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through family and friends.

This turned out to be even truer for the Parents College participants. But forgiveness resonated in a more personal way for me. I was fairly confident that whatever their own experiences, our parents would be moved by the powerful stories we read together.

theatre performance

My own interest was driven by my relationship to the events of the past year in Mali. The coup of March 2012 and subsequent violence has left Mali more divided than it has been since its democratic revolution in 1991. Many of my colleagues and friends there are deeply angered by the separatist movement and the violence that it has spawned in the northern region of the country. At a recent conference on dialogue and reconciliation there that I participated in, many of the Islamic religious leaders who opposed the separatists described their actions as unforgivable. How, I've been wondering, will there be dialogue and reconciliation without some degree of forgiveness?

Parents College gave me a chance to catch my breath and listen to how others understand the challenge of forgiveness in similar situations. More than anything else, Parents College is proving to be a space in which active listening is valued above all; something that is too often in short supply in the public arena these days.

Message from the Dean: Joining Mali at the Crossroads

Parents College 2012

Parents College 2013