Ars Litterata began in fall 2004, when Hope Nisly, acquisitions and cataloging librarian at Hiebert Library, came up with the idea to have professors read from their favorite literature. She talked to Eleanor Nickel, then in her first year on the English faculty, who was excited immediately.
"I had memories from when I was in college of 'Fireside Chats,'" Nickel said. Professors would meet with students, read from their favorite books and talk. "You could ask [the professors] any question," Nickel said.
Richard Rawls, director of Hiebert Library, gave the program the Latin name Ars Litterata. "'Readings in the Library' sounded too pedestrian," he explained.
Rawls hoped the readings would elevate the level of conversation around the university. Nisly felt similarly, hoping to increase discussion of controversial topics. "It's important in a democracy, important on a Christian campus, to learn to discuss [these issues] not just with civility but with love," she said.
The Ars Litterata gatherings have been varied, both in topics and in the number of attendees, which has ranged from 10 to 50 people. The two gatherings a month are a reading and a discussion on an issue or idea. There are also annual events, such as the student poetry reading and Banned Books Week.
Nisly especially enjoys Banned Books Week. "It's interesting to see what kinds of books are banned," she said, laughing. "Everything from 'Where's Waldo' to 'Catch 22.'" She feels the week teaches students why libraries work against banning books. "As a library we are about access to information," she said.
Everyone interviewed had a few favorite memories of their experiences at Ars Litterata. One of the most mentioned was a discourse on the television show "The Simpsons" led by archivist and history faculty Kevin Enns-Rempel. Others were enlightened by political discussions led by Richard Unruh, political science professor.
One Ars Litterata changed two lives. For Nickel, the discussion on Dorothy Day, a Catholic activist and peacemaker who worked with the poor, came at a special time. It was shortly before she was married, and she and her fiance were deciding whether to move from the poorer neighborhoods they lived in to a wealthier neighborhood, which their combined salaries made affordable. The discussion on Day led Nickel and her husband to stay in one of the poorer neighborhoods.
This same idea of social justice is what Cynthia Ovando-Knutson, Spanish faculty, hoped to promote when she started "Brewed Awakenings" this spring, a series of four films with themes of peace and justice sponsored by the Spanish program and the office of spiritual formation. Ovando-Knuston worked with Dina Gonzales-Pina, director of multicultural and outreach ministries.
Coming from Point Loma Nazarene University, Ovando-Knutson was used to a school with a social justice club. She was surprised to learn that FPU actually had such a club: Shalom Covenant. Once so prominent it was mentioned in the FPU catalog as a club that had changed the school, the group had become practically nonexistent.
While many faculty are concerned about social justice, Ovando-Knutson sensed they did not believe students shared that interest. Ovando-Knutson disagreed. "I think [FPU students] have a passion for this!" she insisted. Awareness, however, is a different problem. Growing up a missionary kid in Colombia and Mexico, Ovando-Knutson remembers studying by candlelight because of unpredictable electricity. This gave her an awareness many students are not blessed with.
Ovando-Knutson believes she has increased that awareness. Student reaction to the films has been serious. "Maquilapolis City of Factories" showed a poor region of the world where live wires lay on the ground as people try to create their own electrical system. In one scene a child steps on one of the wires. Students were openly disturbed, Ovando-Knutson said.
Ovando-Knutson asked Audrey Hindes, biblical studies professor, to open "Brewed Awakenings" on January 23, 2007, with a talk about the implications of a simple import like coffee. Hindes hoped to convince her audience that there is a "biblical precedent for social and economic justice."
Many Christians separate their relationship with Jesus from their everyday actions. Hindes knows; she was one of them. "For much of my life I've been able to separate my spiritual life from everything else," she wrote in her presentation notes. "I told myself things like 'as long as my heart is in the right place whatever else I do doesn't really matter.'"
Now, Hindes believes her actions do matter and she wants others to examine their daily choices, as well. The best part of the film series, Hindes said, is the conversation afterward. It teaches students to be creative in responding to issues and concerns. The idea behind the series, she said, is "now I've learned, what do I do?"
Ovando-Knutson offers one answer: she is preparing to rejuvenate the social justice club next year. Nisly, Nickels and Rawls offer another: discussion about controversial issues and books to open students minds to new ideas. FPU educators continue to deepen students' intellects and raise their awareness, inside and outside the classroom.