On the first Tuesday of each month during the academic year, Houghton faculty are invited to the President’s house for pie from the Angelica Sweet Shop and the opportunity to hear reflections from one of their colleagues on that person’s journey. “Journey” can mean one’s personal story or one’s story as a teacher, or as a scholar in a particular discipline, or as a builder of the Christian liberal arts educational tradition at Houghton. We call this event, not surprisingly, “First Tuesday.” Over the past three years, we have heard English faculty read their poetry, art faculty share their artwork, senior faculty share their recollections of Houghton’s development over the past several decades, science faculty share autobiographically about their lifelong curiosity about the natural world and a host of other variations on the theme of “journey.” Each evening is different, and each evening leaves us with a deeper understanding of a particular colleague, a deeper sense of gratitude for the richness and diversity of our faculty as a whole, and a deeper appreciation for the incredible learning and mentoring opportunities available to Houghton students as they interact with our faculty.
Voices of Encouragement
The first Tuesday of March was no exception (except, of course, that, in this case, “First Tuesday” happened on the second Tuesday of the month). Dr. Karen (Reese ’93) Torraca, Chair of our Chemistry department, was the featured speaker. Dr. Torraca came to Houghton as a faculty member in the summer of 2007 from a Senior Process Chemist position at the Lilly Corporation in Indianapolis. It was not her first time here. She had graduated from Houghton in 1993, incidentally as the class valedictorian, with an accomplished record in both Chemistry and Field Hockey.
While it was clear that we were hearing from a faculty member in the sciences (reflected in the allusions to the laboratory and to her particular classes such as Organic Chemistry), Dr. Torraca’s comments reflected the depth and multifaceted nature of Houghton’s faculty as a whole. She organized her journey around the theme of encouragement—those who had encouraged her at various stages of her story; whether the motivation had come from positive, negative or mixed-message feedback; how she had learned about herself through this process; and how she applies these lessons to her work with her own students today.
Voices of Clarity and Simplicity
In the course of her reflections, we also learned about her own wrestling with issues of calling (the pros and cons of serving at Lilly as a researcher versus returning to Houghton as a faculty member) and her reckoning with the gifts and limitations of the scientific method as a guide to life. At a time in our culture when the sciences are often presented as the most important disciplines for human flourishing, she presented a more complex picture. While there was no doubt about her commitment to her discipline, and to the many ways that the discipline of chemistry can contribute to human wellbeing (e.g. in leading to new medical treatments), she also shared her own sense of the limits of science to answer some of the fundamental human questions of meaning and purpose. In this quest for answers to the enduring human questions, she discovered the insights of writers such as G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis and, perhaps more surprisingly, the gift of children’s literature. She shared how, in her own journey, the best children’s books, by their very clarity and simplicity, have brought sustaining answers that eluded her in the study of science. Best of all, she ended the evening by reading to us one of her favorite books, Mo Willems’ Today I Will Fly—a book that has also become a favorite for many of her struggling Organic Chemistry students. It was clear why her students have come to count on Professor Torraca, not only for her excellent instruction in Organic Chemistry, but for her grace-filled and joyous mentoring in all of life’s challenges.
I share this today with you, not only to illustrate for you the surprising multi-dimensionality and depth of Houghton’s faculty, but also to encourage you to look beneath the surface of the colleagues with whom you journey today. There may just be the equivalent of a serious and accomplished Organic Chemistry professor who is sustained by the wit and wisdom of a Mo Willems.
Grace and Peace to you in this Lenten Season.
Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976