June/July 2017 New Faculty Interview

Dr. Kate DeConinck, Theology and Religious Studies

Picture of Kate DeConinck

Adjunct Abstract:

This month’s adjunct feature is highlighting the classroom pedagogy of Kate DeConinck, Th. D. who has housed her own scholarship in the context of examining human suffering to uncover stories about meaning making and methods of coping. She brings this compassion into her classrooms in our Department of Theology and Religious Studies, which she describes as a place where “a spirit of creativity and a shared concern for social justice” drive meaningful scholarship and engagement.

As professors of higher education we are at the crossroads of emerging thoughts and researchable memory. Our students are juggling the consumption of existing facts and theories, the digestion of their own realizations and discoveries, and the onslaught of constantly changing and sometimes high-octane global positions in the public discourse. Helping them to keep it in a manageable context and find their way gracefully are the professors who infuse their student interactions with objectivity, empathy and curiosity. Kate DeConinck is one of these professors.

Highlighting Adjunct Faculty

By Ryan Scrimger, MFA, Adjunct Liaison for the Center for Educational Excellence, Departments of Theatre and Music

Our nation and, as days pass, our world are experiencing a series of aftershocks regarding our sense of nationalism, safety, security, and core convictions. Changes in our political systems and global relationships are revealing what appear to be harder lines of differences between ideologies. Groups that used to be considered “fringe” or “far- left or right” have their fingers in current policy-making and have polarized repulsion to compromise, which has driven centrists into isolation. What does that do to storytelling in the classroom? How does that affect our rituals? It steers many academics scholars toward teaching compassion and inquisitiveness.

One way Kate DeConinck develops compassion among her students is through team-based learning techniques; putting them into groups of different personality types, using the Myers-Briggs system through our Career Development Center. The students get to know each other by entering into conversations surrounding personal examples as well as ethnographic case studies about complex situation in the real world. Over the course of the semester, the students in Dr. DeConinck’s class practice imagining the world from different perspectives by directly experiencing and connecting in unexpected encounters with others with radically different points of view.

DeConinck stresses both openness and clarity in her classrooms: she sets clear ground rules for dialogue, provides rubrics and detailed descriptions of course assignments, and gives students the support that they need to grow as thinkers, speakers, and writers over the course of the semester. One of Kate’s students, describing why she’d be registering for another DeConinck class this fall, told me, “I thought she was particular in the beginning. Turns out, I like how particular she is. You know exactly what she wants and how to do it.”

Kate makes a point of walking fearlessly into difficult conversations. Following the 2016 Presidential election, she wrote to her class a candid email notifying them that they would be putting their class learning outcomes to the test by having a conversation open to all perspectives. She took it head-on and credits her students for bringing 100% attendance to that class meeting.

She exposes her classes to religions beyond textbooks by taking them on field visits. They observe Shabbat at a synagogue, attend a Hindu festival, talk with the Imam at the Islamic Center of San Diego, gather at the Buddhist Meditation Center and attend mass at USD’s Founder’s Chapel. Modeling openness and versatility, Dr. DeConinck brings the students into diverse environments and helps them unpack how dynamic and complex “lived religion” can be.  As one might expect, occasionally the students pick up new interests or practices that work for them. The depth of reflection that her students have resulting from the discussions in her class is encouraging. Young men and women express that these conversations help them process not only the course material, but how to be considerate of their peers with “different viewpoints and backgrounds”.

When teaching introductory-level undergraduate courses, Kate DeConinck frequently welcomes freshman and sophomore students who come into their first-ever theology course with pre-existing assumptions about religion or qualms about being “preached to.” In courses like Exploring Religious Meaning (THRS 110), she focuses on core religious phenomena like rituals, pilgrimage, and sacred space that students can relate to their own lives whether they personally identify as religious or not. Her classes establish a sense of trust and set out to analyze different modes of meaning making by asking what is at stake for practitioners in a given context. This allows the early college experience students to consider how they can shape their world, their identity, and their community.

Moving to full-time teaching this coming fall by teaching sections of Christianity and its Practice (THRS 119) and the upper-division Catholicism in the U.S. (THRS 356), Dr. Kate DeConinck has found her own community at University of San Diego. She has taught at San Diego City College, Palomar College, and The Bishop’s School while freeway-flying to USD – teaching various iterations of World Religions at each school. Her enthusiasm to approach each audience uniquely makes it easy to see why her students are so responsive to her. She says, “When you work with so many different communities you learn to adapt to each class’s particular dynamics. The differences from one group to the next often inform what I do each week in the classroom, even if I am just teaching different sections of the same course.”

Kate monitors her students’ growth through their writing, noting that when they refer back to moments in class discussions, she can tell they’ve had an effect on each other. We agree that the students make USD a more exciting place to teach as they navigate the trauma of being in college, balancing school with work or volunteer commitments, and uncovering their value systems. Kate DeConinck skillfully sets up a safe space in her classrooms to discuss minefields of topics that are incredibly personal without judgment. The students listen to each other and give her hope for the future knowing that they can change their own perspectives through caring and then set out to change the world for the better with more empathy, respect and curiosity.

If you would like to know more about Kate DeConinck’s work and research, she can be followed on https://sandiego.academia.edu/KateDeConinck where you’ll find her ethnographic research in storytelling in response to traumatic events, specifically 9/11, and how religion and rituals help healing and recovery.