Between the Lines, Young Writers Reveal Hope

Posted in the Magis Center’s blog on Sept. 8. See all the resources of the Magis Center.

As most of you are aware, Magis is fully engaged in communicating Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. One of our guest writers, Bill Schmitt (who also happens to be a longtime friend of Father Spitzer), teaches English at the college level and has chronicled some observations from his classroom experience. We at Magis found Bill’s reflections on the topic of “virtuous communication” illuminating and worth sharing.

Students in my freshman English class at a small Catholic college in Indiana turned the tables on me. During the past three semesters, I taught them important skills for writing essays and polishing their grammar. But, as I will show you, they taught me on a grander scale. They revealed their hunger for meaningful self-expression in the turbulent marketplace of data. They also helped me glimpse the breadth of the learning suited to young, idealistic communicators—the personal formation, a Catholic formation, that will help them manage tsunamis of information.

Many parents and teenagers focus on a college’s ability to impart knowledge for career success. However, they should not downplay the wisdom which leads minds, hearts, and souls toward ultimate happiness and culture-healing.               

I thank my faith-filled department chair for encouraging me, right from the start, to foster both of those goals as an adjunct professor—educating writers for proficiency and cultivating a Catholic imagination within the campus community. I kept updating the syllabus for my “Writing and Rhetoric” course. One might say it became “a little bit business and a little bit heart-and-soul.”     

“Virtuous communication” became a favorite theme in that syllabus. I added time-tested resources to read or view. I conducted style exercises pressing students to “get to the point.” Then, I followed up: What is your point? How and why have you formulated it this way? Are you considering your reader? What will add value to this information and to the conversation opportunities for that reader and others?                   

The students’ responses to these questions and to all our course activities (including “virtual learning” outside the classroom when Covid required) got me thinking: Curricula incorporating virtuous communication, linking indispensable skill-building with values that help to address the dangers of social polarization and our manipulative digital culture, can be among the most distinctive, intellectually potent offerings on today’s faithful Catholic campuses.               

We can envision relevant “information age” classes as gateways, revealing to students (and their families) our many connected assets. They will discover a holistic “core curriculum” that students—at least those cultivating the three theological virtues—are likely to appreciate. It recognizes both their need to build careers and our Church’s need to elevate God’s disciples who will enter the global “mission field.”               

Allow me to pitch this idea, intended as an encouragement to supporters of Catholic education across all the disciplines, amplifying voices from my classes. I have clipped quotes from essays they submitted for grading. The texts are gently edited, and some of them may reflect a bit of pandering to the professor, but I vouch for their validity. Their essays indicated that assigned readings and reflections—plus key themes embodied by authors, online videos, guest speakers, and my recollections from a multimedia journalism career—helped make their semester’s potential launch pads for servant-leadership through words and mind frames.               

At least that’s my interpretation of what they wrote after we had discussed such subjects as respect for language, footnotes, and compositions as vessels of truth; enthusiasm for storytelling and sharing ideas as authentic “witnesses”; confidence enabling creativity and curiosity; and the notion that robust communication is a team sport, not a narcissistic indulgence in verbal and visual junk food.   

Because a rhetoric course today must assess the media and messages of the internet, we explored the good and bad in online immersion—the juxtapositions of compelling expressiveness and disappointing passivity within artificial realities and confirmation bias.               

I saw students genuinely intrigued by diving into the poetic imagery of Maya Angelou, the compelling homiletics of Bishop Robert Barron, the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the handy tips for public speakers from our local “Toastmasters International” chapter president, and the reader-centric humanism undergirding the checklist of rules in the classic Elements of Style. 

By far the best tour guide for the course’s Christian trajectory was Pope Francis. Our spring 2021 reading list included the papal messages for the Church’s “World Communications Days” (WCD) of 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. I will not claim Francis is a flawless communicator, but he did expand upon many factors influencing post-modern interactions. He pointed to remedies in Church documents, in the genius of Scriptures and saints, celebrations of the divine as portals to the really real, and prayerful calls to emulate Jesus as the great storyteller.               

What did my students say about their semester-long journeys?               

First, one must acknowledge that some said they had not been prepared for the zeal of virtuous communication during their high school years. One repentant essayist said she had habitually handed in papers without re-reading them “because I was always in a rush to turn them in on time.”

Another admitted a utilitarian approach to research, and hence to learning: “I would begin writing my essay without any outline, and then as soon as I reached my first argument in my first body paragraph, I began my research.” Now, after this college course, he said, “I am able to give the reader a much better chance at fully grasping and understanding the argument I am making.”               

Our method of fine-tuning student essays incorporated peer review, where everyone’s work was “edited” by at least one classmate. A student essayist was grateful for “the conversations that revolved around how to better structure my essay so that it would make the most sense to the reader.” This was openness to diverse perspectives.       

Additional replies reflected expansions of students’ perspectives:               

A lesson about solidarity: Our pen-wielding pilgrims were attracted to the inherent goodness in communicating well, without indifference or malice. In his 2019 WCD message, Pope Francis connected communication, community, and communion—a unity found when persons seek the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Desires for common ground can help us rise above polarization. Students described it this way:

  • “Pope Francis says, ‘God is not Solitude, but Communion; He is Love, and therefore communication because love always communicates. . . . In order to communicate with us and to communicate Himself to us, God adapts himself to our language, establishing a real dialogue with humanity through history.’ I was not reflecting God in my communications because I was not communicating intentionally with others and the world around me.”
  • “[Drawing upon Pope Francis and Ephesians 4:25,] I hold the responsibility to my community to remain truthful and ensure that all parts feel heard, excluding no one and including diverse opinions. After understanding my place on the social network, I then encourage others to understand their part in the community and help promote virtuous communication.”               
  • “Pope Francis says it best when he says true communication is about forming relationships between people. . . . Communicators must treat information as if it were a prized possession.”      

A lesson about seeking truth in a relationship. Students realize they usually receive only part of the facts in a news story; their hunger for truth must drive an outward gaze and proactive curiosity. Rather than settling for relativism or the first Google search result, they like the idea of using the internet to conduct more panoramic inquiries and stepping out to hear the voices of the marginalized. My essayists reacted this way:           

  • “Through dialogue, by proper use of language, the online community grows together. I stopped relying on social media and sought first-hand experience by the ‘Come and See’ approach [citing the Pope’s title for his 2021 message]. It encouraged me to rely less on what I might already know and forced me to see for myself. Communication is done through encounters.”           
  • “[John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, argues] how a marketplace of varied, distinct perspectives will present points of consideration toward this ultimate objective [of virtuous communication]. Without this universal mindset, though, a widespread ‘copy and paste’ mentality will offer only passive credence rather than active refinement to existing thoughts and ideas.”           
  • “After reading Pope Francis’ address, I have tried to attend more events that I find interesting, whether it be in person or virtually. I feel more comfortable watching the events live . . . so I may talk with my peers about what occurred and not tarnish or misconstrue what actually happened.”           

A lesson celebrating God in heartfelt stories. Students can discover storytelling as integral to good communication—an idea Pope Francis confirms (in his WCD 2020 message) by noting God’s storytelling prowess in Scripture and Jesus’ ability to touch people’s lives through parables. Francis warns that many stories are destructive; they may be mere narratives (or algorithms?) that are pre-determined and prejudicial. Stories shared passionately with others over time—and shared with the Lord in a relationship of discernment—are models for embracing history and solidifying culture. I received these comments:

  • “We can use story to get factual information into the hands of people to drive more communicative conversations that are not censored.”           
  • “My communications regimen mostly consisted of Morning Drive on the Golf Channel, Squawk Box on CNBC, and The Wall Street Journal app on my iPad. . . . [They] produced the information that intrigued me the most, drove my passions the most. . . . The regimen [for communicators] needs to consist of topics that spark passion. . . .”   
  • “As Saint Augustine said, ‘We have books in our hands, but the facts are before our eyes.’”
  • “I have become more aware than ever of who I follow [in media] and what I see, for every day I make sure that my intake is positively impacting my growth as a human.”

A lesson about helping us navigate through life. In a world where myriad media are a pervasive and mixed blessing, excellence in communication brings focus and accessibility to our interactions. This excellence begins with basics like competent grammar and outlines. But the students learn it goes much farther than competent grammar and outlines; it must be the product of wise, diligent persons who use all the tools for countering our “post-truth” tendencies. Students want to use their talents as instruments of peace found in trust and reality. The resources of Catholic wisdom—and a liberal arts education properly understood—provide anchors and navigation for immense creativity within guard rails of consistency and coherence. Reflections included:       

  • “I did not allow time or space in my day to have real communication with other people. But now I can see that communication is more than emails or news stations. I have enjoyed hearing about classmates’ favorite podcasts and listening to new ways people are using music to tell stories, like Lin Manuel Miranda. . . . My main takeaway is that communication is more fluid and broader than I originally thought, and it influences every aspect of my life because I am always interacting with other people. With something so important and foundational, I want to add my lens of the Catholic faith so I can be a virtuous communicator.”               
  • “Through our grammar practice, I had fun trying to make the sentences more concise because it reminded me of making slogans. . . . I am getting more determined to pursue advertising. In Pope Francis’ 2021 Communications Day message, he spoke of the importance of pursuing actions and not just spectating. I always thought I should be a spectator, but now I want to do more. I am even interested in starting a podcast with one of my friends.”               
  • “I did not like to write or express my opinion for the world to see. However, after taking this course, I have realized the importance that communication has on the world, and I, as a writer and student, have an opportunity to put a positive impact on the community through my communication.”
  • “The solution isn’t limiting conversation when the topics get hard or uncomfortable; rather, it’s keeping these difficult conversations going to inspire real change and real action.”
  • “I am reminded that my opinion and thoughts that are represented in what I write and share with this world hold great power for change, and I cannot let that opportunity go to waste.”               

These lessons suggest that the enticement of plentiful, recognizable “skills for tomorrow’s communications workplace” can help to reveal Church-rooted education uncovering where worldly and heavenly insights intersect. Beyond a livelihood, students envision a life well-lived. Of course, college disciplines other than writing and rhetoric are ordered to these same discoveries.As Pope Francis and other “mentors” taught us in our course, the best “directions” for a journey toward worldly and eternal rewards connect all that is good: Scripture, Catholic Social Teaching, and catechetics about God-given dignity; a spirituality of communion; morality, ethics, and logic; admiration for good governance and “civics” embracing local, national, and global community; humility and curiosity in the sciences; respect for history and tradition; and appreciation of true beauty in arts, music, and all talents gifted by the Creator.               

My students helped me deduce how Catholic college students can benefit from their experience learning and utilizing these intersections of ideas as writers and rhetoricians. That awareness seems more urgent than ever in a world craving everyday evangelization; such training can be a big boost for four years well spent. Since love is the greatest virtue, Pope Francis is wise to remind us that “love always communicates.” One student reminded me this way: “I have found resources I trust, information I’m passionate about, and ideas that I hope to learn more about in the future. I never want to become stagnant or flatfooted with my communications. I’d be neglecting to focus on one of the most important and amazing parts of being a human being—the ability to connect and grow with others.”

Bill Schmitt

Bill Schmitt is a journalist, educator, and marketing-communications specialist who recently completed his third semester as an adjunct professor of English at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, IN. He served on the communications staff of the University of Notre Dame from 2003 to 2017, managing many projects and joining in a wide range of multimedia, interdisciplinary collaborations. Since then, his freelance work has included feature-writing, editing, podcasting, and blogging, with much of his work centered on the Catholic faith. Bill holds a BA from Fordham University and an MPA from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Find his blog at OnWord.net and more career information on Linked-In at billschmitt-onword.

About Bill Schmitt

OnWord.net is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at facebook.com/wgschmitt, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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