Mount Mercy University just completed an ambitious series of events. The second annual Fall Faculty Series, called “Stories We Tell: Legacies of the Vietnam War” concluded with music and readings Nov. 19.
It’s interesting to look back and remember, and to think of where the series idea came from and where it might go.
In November of 2013, a blog I follow posted a link to a poignant song about the legacy of World War I. At the next faculty meeting, I asked if others might be interested in planning some events to mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, and an ad hoc committee met half a dozen times in the spring of 2014 to mull over ideas. Thus the first Fall Faculty Series, called “A Century of Glory and Shame: Mount Mercy Reflects on how World War I Made Today” took shape.
I love how it happened. It was a spontaneous, organic idea that grew into 11 events. We stumbled into something that turned out to be bigger than expected. Crowds showed up—there was a group of community history buffs who attended many of the events. When the chair of our nursing program spoke about the great flu pandemic that was an indirect result of World War I, the Chapel of Mercy was packed.
When that series was over, the question was: Would we do it again? I took a few months off before going back to the faculty to pose that question, and the answer was clear. A faculty-generated fall series was worth repeating.
And so, in the spring of this year, faculty members suggested themes: It was the 500th anniversary of Magna Carta. It was an anniversary of the writing of the rules of baseball. Someone suggested something about the legacy of the 1960s—a Woodstock sort of theme. Another idea was to focus on the death penalty.
And then, at the meeting where we were to vote on the suggestions, Dr. Joe Nguyen stood up and explained that he had forgotten to email his suggestion. 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. troop surge in Vietnam and the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. What about Vietnam?
The decision seemed to make itself. We didn’t even have a formal vote—but instead simply measured response with a human applause-o-meter (Dr. Joy Ochs). There’s something happening here: The second series, like the first, seemed to come out of nowhere.
We got a later start planning the second series and were scrambling to get everything organized. To make matters even more intense, Dr. Joe also suggested we consider bringing The Moving Wall, a replica of the National Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, to campus.
And it all came together: the Wall, visits by two authors, a panel of veterans discussing their experiences, multiple faculty lectures, and some music and readings as a final event.
The first fall series proved bigger than anyone at MMU expected. The second series?
Wow. Nothing that big has happened since ’Nam.
I’m sure it wasn’t perfect. Our university president had to step in and name a czar, of sorts, to sort out the Moving Wall visit. I felt that the final event was tossed together quickly. But the Vietnam series was, by any reasonable metric, a huge success.
So, what now?
I’ve coordinated two of these series, the second even bigger than the first. I’m a big fan. The series does so much for Mount Mercy.
Here are some of the goals or ideals it promotes:
- It gives us on the faculty a chance to show our stuff. Most of the presenters at both of the first two series were Mount Mercy professors. We do important work in our day jobs—educating a new generation of nurses and business people and police officers and English teachers and journalists and so many more. But, the public doesn’t see most of that work, and this fall series gives us an important venue to show that we do have expertise and information to share with the world. Granted, we’ve always done this kind of thing in faculty forums—but stringing together a series of forums on a single theme heightens the visibility of each event, and brings a larger, more diverse audience to hear what we say. It’s not simply or mainly a matter of giving an ego boost to faculty—although from experience I can say that it does feel good to speak at these events—but even more, we faculty members all state we believe in lifelong learning—this is a concrete way we promote that ideal with action.
- It brings Mount Mercy together in an interesting, big conversation. The audience at series events includes dozens of students, and many faculty and staff from Mount Mercy. The Vietnam series, in particular, had deep staff involvement—of necessity, given its complexity—but recognizing that our community of experts and scholars includes more than those who teach in the classroom is an important point. And having more contacts between people of different disciplines and students of diverse majors is a huge plus.
- It provides a PR bonanza to Mount Mercy. It brings many new community members to campus, and also allows us to be featured in local media. We had two TV stations interviewing veterans in our art gallery for a display of Vietnam era artifacts—the resulting stories were a wonderful way for MMU to be both seen and heard in our area.
- It connects the educational mission of the faculty with the MMU Catholic tradition. The series has drawn from the critical concerns articulated by the Sisters of Mercy. The sisters have attended many events. Our Campus Ministry division has supplied representatives to open each of the events in the two series with a brief prayer. Public discussions of issues such as Vietnam as the television war, or connections Iowa had with World War I, wouldn’t begin with prayer if they were individual, disconnected faculty forums. As part of the larger series, however, these events connect MMU to its rich Catholic intellectual tradition, and the brief interlude of prayer is a tangible reminder of that connection—it ties us visibility to the Sisters of Mercy. The prayer is a public binding ritual. I know it’s not a ritual that all choose to participate in, and Campus Ministry has been careful to keep the prayers brief so they don’t encroach on the secular, informational purposes of the forums—but prayer is one way you know right away that you’re at a Mount Mercy series event, and not “anywhere.”
Well. I was asked to try to sum up the series, and I hope this reflection does that. I don’t usually write blog posts this long. I’m sure I could come up with more to say, but for now, for all the reasons noted above, I’m pretty sure the show will go on.
We haven’t picked our 2016 theme yet. It probably won’t be a war. Whatever it is will bubble up from faculty discussion—it will reflect what is on our minds now; it will be a topic we think is worth examining publicly at some length in some depth.
I think it’s a positive attribute of the first two series that, despite all that we said, there was so much more to say. This is showbiz, to some extent, and in showbiz, I think one of the keys is to always stop while the audience still wants more.
And yes, coordinating these series has driven me a little crazy. However, the series idea is totally worth it.
Stay tuned. I’m certain there are more exciting MMU Fall Faculty Series to come.