Bellarmine Forum: Time Has Its Own Value

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The Bellarmine Forum, formerly a staple on the fall calendar in recent years, has been relaunched in 2016 with a new format. Rather than being a week of activities, guest lectures, and panel sessions, the 2016 forum is organized around the theme of “The Values of Time” and is woven into the fall curriculum through several courses, exhibits and participatory activities at specific sites on campus. A major element is the LMU 2016 Common Book, “A Tale for the Time Being,” a novel by Ruth Ozeki, who will speak on campus on Nov. 2, 2016. Paul Harris, professor of English, and Brad Stone, professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of African American Studies, are the directors of the 2016 Bellarmine Forum. They were interviewed by David L. Ulin, a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles.”

What is the Bellarmine Forum, and why is it returning to LMU?

Brad Stone: When I arrived at LMU in 2003, the Bellarmine Forum was a very intense weeklong set of programs, mostly speakers, every hour on the hour. It was hard to get students to attend because the schedule conflicted with their academic schedules.

Paul Harris: When it was suspended, there was a discussion about how it could be redone. I’ve spent years in faculty senate and student governance work and as a department chair that led me to want to find a way to have faculty working, researching and teaching a common theme. So the idea was to have people teach at a common time, on a similar theme, across departments. That gelled as the new Bellarmine Forum.

So the impetus wasn’t to bring back the forum per se, so much as to encourage interdisciplinary overlap?

Harris: What Brad is referring to, the weeklong festival, was centered on guest speakers. In the new version, we’re building from within. What you have now is a core of five classes taught at a common time. There’s the Buddhism class in theology, our co-taught philosophy/lit class, a first-year seminar on art and power taught by a history professor, a film, games and epics course from a film studies professor, and a religion and literature class from a rhetoric professor. So it has interdisciplinary scope. An outcome we want is to set up collaborative practices and structures that persist beyond the forum.

What do you imagine those looking like?

Stone: One of the key takeaways is a cross-year intellectual cohort. Our participating students are seniors to incoming freshman. Another is what we’re calling slow time practice. In other words: What would it mean to go back to a time when college really was academic free space? This reclaims an approach of interaction between students and faculty. We have gotten so busy, as has every modern university, that we have to return to a kind of leisure. Leisure is the structure of civilization.

To what extent does the slow practice have to do with the Jesuit roots of LMU?

Harris: In a loose sense, the [university] mission encourages and supports it, so you might find more people integrating it into their practice here. We’re formalizing that as part of the Slow LMU Initiative, through which people are encouraged to sign up for a discussion group and share their sense of slow and meditative pedagogy. What are some things you do? What are the presuppositions? What are the outcomes? This is a shared conversation about teaching that will surely lead to some collaborative research, and the so-called scholarship of teaching and learning.

Stone: This is also true for students. They’d love to be more creative, more exploratory, but they don’t see it being modeled. Education is supposed to be an opportunity to create new knowledge, create new experience, to take risks. I think it would be neat to have a course where you could grade something down for having been safe. So one of the ideas, in the class we’re teaching, is that students are going to go big.

How so?

Stone: In our course, the main assignment is the individual research project. We might wind up with a standard research paper, or we might get a novella. But it better be a good novella.  Students have to do the same kind of research, the same kind of intense activity, to put it together — craftsmanship, if you will. It’s not just a matter of seeing what happens, but ‘let me develop myself through this work.’

How did the concept of slow time — your “Slow Time Manifesto” — develop?

Harris: The slow university is an implementation of a belief in contemplative practice as a basis from which creating and collaborating follow. It’s a process of rediscovering vocation, of reconnecting to what we do. It’s also a rediscovery of the campus. We’re installing slow time zones around campus: a labyrinth to walk, a Garden of Petric Poetics, a lithic language lab for writing petroverse, which means single words on stones like magnetic poetry. Also, I’m collaborating with Richard Turner, who is the artist in residence of the forum, to do installations. One will be an exhibition in the William H. Hannon Library called “Being and Slow Time.” We’re recasting Heidegger’s Being and Time. Part of the installation will be spine poems. Students go to the library and align the titles of books [in a readable sequence]; a stack is a poem.

How was Ruth Ozeki’s novel “A Tale for the Time Being,” which is the Common Book for the forum, selected? Is it required for all five courses

Harris: Everybody has autonomy about the classes they’re teaching, but that’s one of the few [required] parts. I’ve taught the book, and in the English department I started a student-faculty reading group in which we discussed the book. The book raises sexual assault issues, it speaks to ecology issues, earthquakes and environmental disaster, consumerism, history, and the probing of a spiritual, theological relationship to time. It addresses the individual, existential life, suicide, a map to the traumas of history, a map to ecology, a map to geological time, a map to time being. The book provides a context to think about time in several different ways.

Stone: Also, it was a wonderful way of revitalizing a common book tradition without making it overly forced. One thing we’re going to do is the ‘Ozeki warm-up.’ We’ll gather and talk about the book before Ruth Ozeki visits. What kinds of questions should we ask her? I would love our culture to become one in which we read, prepare, discuss, and are already having a conversation [with the common book author’s work] when the author comes here.

What defines success for the Bellarmine Forum?

Stone: For me, there are a few prongs to success. One would be producing this kind of slow ethos in a university that feels like it must get faster. We’re losing time, and what I mean by losing time is that we’re demanding more of time than time has. So one thing would be to regain the value of time. Another success for students would be some truly neat research that opens them to a new way of thinking and creating. A third point of success is being able to see students across the years, along with faculty across the colleges, engage in an intellectual community, which is what the Bellarmine Forum is supposed to be about.

Harris: I think success is going to be the experimental ethos: seeing people try things, getting engaged. Small steps, small practices. And then, I think the ambitious success would be if that ethos has a life among all of us — faculty, students, colleagues and administration. This would include collaborations that continued beyond the forum. That would be the ultimate success.