University of 
Notre Dame

The Story of 
Notre Dame
Twenty Septembers / by Elizabeth Christman


During most of my years at DePauw, I led a double life. That is, I spent the nine months of the academic year on that lovely little campus, in Asbury Hall's high-ceilinged classrooms, absorbed in the undergraduates to whom I was teaching writing and literature; and I spent two months in summer at the University of Notre Dame, teaching graduate students in the Department of Communication Arts.

It came about like this. In my first year at DePauw I went up to South Bend, Indiana, to visit Ed and Mary Fischer. Ed Fischer was the Notre Dame professor who had nourished my first impulse toward becoming a college teacher and had encouraged me to begin the long process by going to graduate school. He was, of course, very pleased about my DePauw job. How gratifying it must have been to have steered a friend toward a new career and to see her enjoying it so much. Ed and Mary rather liked to show me off to their friends as an example of "it's never too late."

Visiting the Fischers, I met other Notre Dame professors, notably Thomas Stritch and Ronald Weber, both close friends and colleagues of Ed Fischer. Tom and Ed ran the summer program in Communication Arts at Notre Dame, and in 1971 they asked me to teach a writing course in the summer session. But I had committed myself to finishing my Ph.D., and I needed to use the summer to accumulate graduate credits. Ed had the answer to this protest: I could teach a writing course for them, and at the same time take a graduate course in the English Department which could be transferred to New York University. Like most graduate schools, NYU would accept a limited number of credits from other universities. So it was settled, and in June I came to Notre Dame to teach for the first time.

This was an entirely different teaching experience. My students were mature men and women, mostly teachers themselves, who were using their summer vacations to earn the master's degree in Communication Arts. In my first years at Notre Dame my students were nearly all religious. My first class of fourteen consisted of eight nuns, a priest, a brother, and four lay women. In 1971 the ripples of Vatican II had by no means reached their furthest limits -- if they have even now done so. Some of the nuns in my first class still wore a modified habit and veil, but others wore subdued blouses, skirts, or dresses, like the women in stores and offices. Sister Annette Seymour, however, had an extensive and charming wardrobe of summer dresses (she explained that she had five blood sisters who supplied her with their cast-offs), and a cascade of curls that a movie star might have envied.

The summer at Notre Dame was an enlivening interlude for these high school teachers, especially the nuns. They were released from the punishing demands of their overcrowded classrooms, as well as from the restrictions of community life and the stern eye of the superior. They met new people and encountered fresh ideas, saw movies, ate pizzas, drank beer (if they wanted to and if their meager budgets allowed it), and relished the spacious lawns and serene lakes of the Notre Dame campus. Their dissipation was of the most modest kind, and to me their living seemed uncomfortable: they lived in dorm rooms which were small and had no air-conditioning. Rooms in the two air-conditioned dorms were more expensive, and few of the nuns had allowances to cover them. Even the cafeteria was too expensive for some of them, and they made do with hot-plates, crackers and cheese, and instant coffee in their rooms, with an occasional "real meal" in the cafeteria.

But their mien was zestful. They were on an educational holiday, and the little inconveniences such as stifling dorm rooms, mosquitoes, and thin purses were no more than ants at a picnic.

As students their motivation was total, intent as they were on wresting every possible ounce of benefit from their summer courses. The students in my writing class were either writing themselves in their jobs or teaching high school students to write, or both. Some of them doubled as public relations communicators for their schools or their religious orders, writing brochures and news releases. They were eager to learn how to write more effectively. Those who taught wanted to pick up new techniques of teaching writing, and get hold of new drills, exercises, and projects. They were avid for handouts that they could take right back and use in their classrooms. These students rarely missed a class or were late with an assignment. It was no trouble to gain and hold their attention, whereas with undergraduates at DePauw I would often see eyes glazing over, and would have to struggle for fresh ways to engage them. Teaching graduate students could become seductive for a teacher -- you didn't even have to be interesting.

Another thing that was different about these Notre Dame summer classes was the absence of competitive spirit. Among undergraduates at DePauw there was rivalry, jealousy, and sometimes cheating. Students came to me in tears or anger about a grade. They were fiercely anxious to outperform one another, and some of them would argue with me about one percentage point on a single paper: an 88 instead of an 89. One student question has become a caricature: Will this be on the final? Another question that exasperated me was: How much will this count? Students wanted to know how much a weekly quiz would count, how much a two-page paper would count, how much a five-minute class presentation would count in the final semester grade. Once I answered thoughtfully, "This quiz counts approximately 0.12457 per cent of the final grade." Instantly several pencils were poised and several alert voices asked, "Would you repeat that please?"

There was little of this intensity among the graduate students I taught at Notre Dame. I suppose it was because these were mature people to whom a grade had become trivial. They were already launched on their careers, religious vocations mostly, and they were seeking not a score for their performance but a way of doing their work more effectively. They cared very little about the grade, nor did they seem to be jealous of those among them who showed talent. On the contrary, they seemed to be pleased with one another's successes.

In the first summer that I taught Verbal Communications, I urged the students to write an article which could be published in some local newspaper or magazine. I believed, and still do, that having real readers in mind helps a writer to focus her article. The students chose for their major article topics that would interest the South Bend populace or some other community that they might be aiming at. When the articles were finished I took several of them to Tom Philipson, the editor of the South Bend Tribune's Sunday magazine. He gave the writers a compliment that I was happy to take back to them. "I'm glad to see that these people can write a simple declarative sentence." And he bought three of the articles for his magazine. This was a joyful announcement for the three authors, who had not believed they could really be published and paid. It was also a joyful announcement, apparently, for the rest of the class, who seemed to regard the success of three as an achievement of all.

This generous spirit was characteristic of Notre Dame summer students. The spacious campus was sparsely populated in the summer, about 2000 students compared to the 10,000 of the academic year. Only a few of the dormitories were occupied, and only certain sections of the dining halls were open as cafeterias. The beautiful lawns shimmered as the sun slanted across them, and the hundreds of moving sprinklers murmured their chip-chirp. The scene was a harmonious background for the loving tone of the summer community. Here were women and men, nuns, priests, and brothers, who were living for service and were happy doing it. They had little of what I considered necessary comfort. They had no cars, no television sets, no stereos, and their few clothes were hand-me-downs or basement bargains. They had tiny allowances to cover meals, books, toothpaste, shampoo, stamps, and other day-to-day items. They appreciated everything about the summer session, their classes, the library, the film series, the plays, the verdant campus with its two lakes, their professors, and one another. They seemed to feel as though they were all brothers and sisters to one another, as well as to everyone else they encountered. Nobody waited to be introduced: they'd sit down with anyone or any group. I lived in a dorm myself (an air-conditioned one) during those summers and ate my meals in the cafeteria. I rarely ate alone. I have never encountered so much unselfconscious friendliness.

Some of the people I met made their way into my journals.

Sister Marie Heinz wept in my office yesterday. She was talking about the paper she was planning to write, according to what she understood were my instructions. She felt it was going to be phony, as it was so far from her real interests. Her passionate interest is in her work with the poor in Brazil. In spite of the dreadful dirt and discomfort and horrors, she dearly loves her work, and she was really crying because she's homesick for it. She's got to get this degree because she's working in communications down there, but all these assignments and disciplines seem terribly alien to her real life. Not that she's resisting them. In fact she's careful to do everything I assign. But it's hard for her to put her heart into it.

She's a lovely woman, probably in her early forties, very soft-spoken, very sensitive. I think all the students in the class have already been impressed by her spiritual intensity.

Sister Marie actually regarded her summer at Notre Dame as a luxury -- a luxury she didn't want, though she recognized the usefulness of it to her work.

In the seventies many religious went through crises about their vocations. I saw burgeoning love affairs, which were disguised as friendships, between nuns and priests. In the open atmosphere of the campus, some of them were trying to have two things at once: their celibate vocations and a romantic friendship, with its special confidences, light endearments, the kiss of peace at Mass meaning something extra, the sense of being particularly important to one other person. Such relationships were too unrealistic to endure. Some couples renounced them or outgrew them. Others left their orders and married.

One nun told me her painful, yet commonplace, story when she came to my office to talk about the paper she was writing for my class. She had fallen in love with a divorced man. She wasn't sure whether she would marry him, but she was going to leave her order for a year in order to think it out. She had entered the convent at thirteen and had been in the order for seventeen years. She had never had an adolescence, and now she was having it.

Others had different reasons for renouncing their vocations, reasons having nothing to do with marrying. Sister Juliana left her convent because she felt that the convent was too protective, and that God had work for her in a larger field. I wrote of her in my journal.

I worry about what's going to happen to this delicate, birdlike little woman now that she has left her community. She seems so utterly innocent (at 38) about the world. About money, for instance. She told me with satisfaction that she had about $500 to tide her over until she gets a job. She has no idea how fast this will disappear. She doesn't want to teach, but all her working background is in teaching. She has such a diffident manner that I'm afraid no one will believe she can do anything. Yet she has been principal of a school.

I tried to help her with some job ideas but her innocence appals me. She said she'd like to get into public relations, but when I questioned her I saw that she has not the slightest idea what this is.

The knowledge that I gained about nuns and their lives, in my summer teaching, gave me some valuable ideas for fiction. But that is a later part of this story.

In the first summer, besides teaching, I had to take a graduate course at Notre Dame, something that New York University would accept toward my Ph.D. in English and American literature. The course was Modern Drama, and the professor, Donald Costello, was the most demanding one I had ever encountered. During the six-week session we had to read thirty-eight plays, twice each, and also listen to them on tape or records. At New York University I would have gotten six credits for this course. Modern Drama yielded only three.

I liked Don Costello's tremendous enthusiasm for his subject, which made him forget that his students had other courses and other demands on their time besides Modern Drama. I liked even his opinionatedness. It struck me that an opinionated teacher is a stimulating teacher, in spite of the prevalent wisdom which decrees that a teacher should be careful to present all sides of a question. In short, I learned from him, not only about modern drama but about teaching.

In my literature courses at DePauw I had always tried to be balanced in my interpretations and evaluations of novels, and not to show any personal bias. A good teacher, I believed, should introduce her students to the various critical opinions on a work of literature and then leave it to them to judge. The teacher should avoid telling her students what to think. In the early seventies the first capital sin was to tell young people what to think, and I had absorbed this principle. Don Costello at Notre Dame told us what to think; in fact he told us not to read critics, "Don't pay any attention to them!" he exclaimed, urging us to read the plays and experience their effects for ourselves. But he told us his opinions with gusto. Even when I disagreed, I liked this. I concluded that an opinionated professor could provoke his students to think and protest, whereas a noncommittal professor might actually inhibit independent thought by making opinions seem unimportant.

Miss Jean Brodie in Muriel Spark's novel is a wonderful example of the opinionated teacher. She asks her girls who is the greatest Renaissance painter, and they name Michaelangelo. "That is incorrect," she replies sternly. "I prefer Giotto." This is both hilarious and instructive. Miss Brodie indoctrinates her pupils with her own peculiar biases, but she does teach them to care about learning. Idiosyncrasy is better than blandness in a teacher.

I went back to DePauw that Fall to another course in Intro to Fiction, and this time I was less impassive about my own enthusiasms. I found that students want to know how the teacher feels about a work -- at any rate undergraduates do. When I thought of my own undergraduate days at Webster College, where I was taught almost exclusively by nuns, I remembered especially Sister Aloysia Marie, who first gave me a hint of the power of literature by the thickening of her voice when she read a passage that moved her. I hoped to show my students the treasure to be found in books by letting them see how I was affected.

© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.

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