Friendship Roundtables with Jennifer Jackson and Company
For Dr. Jennifer Jackson, Chair of the Theology and Religious Studies department, there is one thing that wakes her up each morning. “The friendships I have with colleagues and students at Rosemont.”
And Jackson aims to spread that appreciation for friendship and more specifically friendship studies through her classes and friendship roundtables. The first, “Can Friendship Change the World?” took place on Thursday, March 2, and the second, “Friendship and Faith” happened on Friday, March 17, both in Main Building.
The roundtables were made possible through funding from the Connelly Foundation’s Young Faculty Grant. The grant aims to sustain and enliven the scholarly and pedagogic profile of Rosemont’s seasoned faculty. It also hopes to heighten the young faculty professional profile at Rosemont while enriching their quality of teaching.
Friendship has always been an integral part of Jackson’s life. “I have 10 younger brothers and sisters and we were all about a year apart, so growing up they were my closest friends,” she recalled.
“It was sharing things, giving up things, looking out for each other… the normal sibling circumstances,” she added.
Jackson has been studying friendship studies for over 10 years. Friendship studies are an interdisciplinary focus that is gaining momentum around the world. It focuses on the bonds or relations that people have with themselves, with others, and with the divine. Professors and scholars have yet to agree on one definition to define the focus as it has unique parts to each’s area of study.
According to Jackson, “They will all acknowledge that it is a working type of relation that involves communication, requires openness and can be deeply transformative.”
Around 2007, Jackson was completing her second master’s degree in theology. She was taking a course on the 13th century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In that class, she was reading the first part of his famous work, The Summa Theologica. Jackson described how his whole work is a series of questions and answers and there was one question,
“Can the prayers of the saints help humans on their life journey?” – Thomas Aquinas
And she was so interested by that question so she continued studying Thomas Aquinas. Then as she continued reading his Summa, she realized each one of the three major parts of his Summa have these major questions about friendship:
“Can friendship bring us happiness?”
“Can you be friends with God?”
“If you get to Heaven, do your friends go with you or are they not important anymore?”
“Is it just you and God?”
He asked all these questions about friendship and that intrigued her because she thought it was a wonderful way of thinking about everything from spirituality to ethics. Now with over 10 presentations and publications on the concept, Jackson believes conversation can do wonderful things. This is one of the primary reasons for hosting these roundtables and reworking her classes so that they are inquiry-based.
“Students love this because their questions count and the thoughts they bring to the table matter.”
“If they don’t bring it to the table, we’re not going to get as far because that [question] is going to bring us to unforeseen places – it has changed the whole dynamic of the classroom,” Jackson continued.
Both roundtables included presentations, community conversation, and reflections from the participants. The first roundtable was the longer of the two, but both events were well-attended and well-received. “The students and their input built into the format were really helpful in both cases,” Jackson said.
Student presenters at the first roundtable studied individual, disciplinary-based foci on whether or not friendship can change the world. English Literature major, Matthew Christiano ’17, specifically correlated his presentation into literature.
“I think what’s great about the friendship studies courses, as well as this event, is that the topic always gets people talking,” Christiano said. “And while all may not agree, the arguments are always framed in a respectable manner,” he said.
Christiano’s presentation explored C.S. Lewis’s idea of “gift-love.” This is explained in layman’s terms as the idea that we should bestow love upon our friends, even if we are not around to see that love.
“I’ve told Dr. Jackson that the reason why I enjoyed her Friendship Studies I course so much is because the material learned is so applicable to our lives,” he added. “I want to make sure that I am involved in healthy friendships, and if I am not, I know now I have the tools to repair them.”
It should be noted that friendship studies is just beginning at Rosemont. In fact, Jackson finds many meeting points between the topic and Rosemont’s mission. “Starting with Cornelia Connelly, it was through her friendships, in which she was carried to discover her gifts,” she said. “And because of her discovering those gifts, she founded this order, which ultimately founded this college.”
Jackson hopes in the future a Friendship Studies II class will emerge. That will look at modern and contemporary scholars and the practitioning model of friendship. Other initiatives she would like to implement include a journal, student conference, and faculty development sessions.
Jackson claims that time wasn’t on her side in relation to preparation for the second roundtable, yet that isn’t stopping her from building the momentum.
“Once you enter the conversation of friendship… you don’t want to leave it.” – Dr. Jennifer Jackson