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Crossroads:
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Two Harvard Alums Reflect on Coming to EMU

Terry Beitzel was following the suggestion of his advisor at Harvard University when he came to take courses at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in the fall of 2001.

After years of graduate studies in the history of science at Harvard, Beitzel’s first impression of graduate classes at EMU was not favorable. “I was a complete fish out of water. I kept asking myself, ‘Do we just sit around and talk about this stuff?’ It was very different from what I had experienced.”

Beitzel was accustomed to students consuming piles of dense reading in preparation for seminar-style discussions and lectures by professors who imparted some of their deep reservoir of knowledge. EMU’s conflict transformation program, by contrast, employed what it called an “elicitive” style of learning and teaching, in which learning is approached as a collective process of exploration and sharing, facilitated by a professor> who occasionally shares his or her knowledge and experience from the field.

In his second semester at EMU, Beitzel was assisting a veteran EMU professor, Vernon Jantzi, in teaching an undergraduate sociology class when Jantzi fell seriously ill and needed most of the semester to recuperate. Beitzel was asked to fill in. “I just lectured during my first classroom sessions,” Beitzel recalls. Students who had been alert when Jantzi led the class suddenly looked uninspired. So Beitzel tried to adopt the lively teaching style that he had experienced in the conflict transformation program and that Janzti had modeled.

Beitzel incorporated a variety of teaching techniques in the 90- minute class session. He presented audiovisuals, set up small-group problem-solving, ran movie clips relevant to the subject, and made a point not to talk himself for more than 20 minutes at a time. The students re-engaged and Beitzel emerged from the experience realizing that EMU’s interactive approach to teaching and learning may have something to offer other universities.

Beitzel says an advantage of the EMU classroom experience is that it better reflects what most people actually do in their jobs after college, how decisions are made in the real world.

Today Beitzel is almost finished completing a doctoral degree in conflict analysis and resolution at George Mason University (GMU). He teaches the occasional undergraduate class at GMU where he notes that the range of student abilities is comparable to what he has seen at EMU, but that EMU’s students tend to be more respectful and purposeful.

GMU is a largely commuter school that serves many children of immigrant families. The students there tend to focus on what Beitzel calls “hire” education - or an education that will give them the skill-sets they need for employment. EMU emphasizes “higher” education in its liberal arts curriculum - or creating thoughtful individuals who aspire to help solve the world’s problems.

At the graduate level, CJP puts more emphasis on the ethical reasons for studying a subject, Beitzel observes, in comparison to Harvard and GMU.

“Overall, the students coming into these various programs are similar,” Beitzel says. “But EMU’s students are different - more personally transformed - when they leave. The sense of community is stronger and there is more passion about peacebuilding when they leave EMU. There is more hopefulness at EMU.”

Kerry Saner earned a graduate certificate in conflict transformation at EMU last year after completing a master of theological studies at Harvard’s Divinity School.

“Toward the end of my time at Harvard I took courses on the relationship of religion to peace and conflict,” Saner says. “A lot of the questions that were explored in those Harvard courses were ones I found answers to here.

“If I had not come here, I think I would have felt my education was incomplete. We rarely explored our own experiences or personal religious issues at Harvard. The courses remained fairly abstract.”

Harvard’s Divinity School operates within a pluralistic, secular environment, notes Saner. The school is “open to multiple perspectives,” encouraging students to broaden their understanding of the world. In this quest, students benefit from their professors’ outstanding scholarship, he says.

Saner likes the way Harvard challenged his assumptions, leading Saner and his fellow students to think self-critically. “But it’s not enough to be self-critical - you need something to fill the vacuum after you’ve asked all the questions and understood the complexities of a situation.”

In the absence of a clear alternative vision of the world, Saner feels that Harvard often ends up supporting, by default, the existing Western, male-dominated, competitive culture. “The culture fostered at Harvard did not fundamentally challenge the prevailing vision of the world.” EMU’s use of Jesus’ teachings as the touchstone allows both professors and students to aspire to a world of restored relationships and a just peace, Saner says.

In contrast to Harvard where faculty weren’t as involved in community life, Saner has come to appreciate the way faculty and students interact at EMU, both inside the classroom and at the frequent informal occasions such as potlucks, brown-bag luncheons, and capstone presentations by students.

When Saner was leaving Harvard after three years of full-time study, he wasn’t sure which of his professors knew him well enough to remember him and to write a letter of reference. “It was a competitive environment - maybe if I had asserted myself more or worked my way into a project with a professor, I might have stood out more from other students. But I didn’t want to do that” - that is, push himself forward, simply to make a name for himself.

Saner appreciated the wealth of resources at Harvard, especially those in Harvard’s array of libraries. “There are high academic standards at Harvard. Academic excellence is the main criterion, and everything else is secondary, including the purpose of the pursuit of such excellence.”