For generations of Saint Anselm students, the cornerstone of the curriculum was Portraits of Human Greatness, a two-year program that examined humanity, morality and spirituality through archetypes like the “Warrior” and individuals such as Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 2014, however, after years of work to reimagine the program, a new humanities program was unveiled. In Conversatio, Saint Anselm students consider questions of value, moral choice, and the real significance of human life through a multidisciplinary series of seminars, readings and lectures, and an expansive program of films, concerts, exhibitions and stage presentations.

Pivoting to a new humanities model was not easy and has required extensive faculty training and continuous learning. The program’s success can be credited to a $500,000 gift from the Sheehan family in support of the college’s humanities efforts. Through the Frederick and Claire Sheehan Endowed Faculty Fund, professors are provided the resources to develop innovative seminars and other learning experiences to help develop critical thinking skills that are the underpinnings of a Saint Anselm education, regardless of a student’s major.

Michael Sheehan ’82, H.D. ’11
Photo by Jeff Dachowski

Dr. Gary Bouchard, a professor in the English department and executive director of the Grappone Institute for the Humanities, says the Sheehan Fund provides the lifeblood to the college’s signature program.

“Just as the National Endowment for the Humanities helped sustain the Portraits of Human Greatness program by providing opportunities for selected faculty to read and study relevant classical texts together for a full year, the Sheehan Fellows program helps keep Conversatio vibrant by funding a similar opportunity for selected faculty in the program to spend a year reading and studying texts that can then inform or even become part of the curriculum,” he says.

Rooted in the Benedictine vow that encourages faithfulness to a way of life within community, Conversatio is the foundational shared learning experience for every Saint Anselm student.

As part of the Fund, a cohort of Sheehan fellows are provided support to develop and discuss new ideas for Conversatio. This year’s Sheehan fellows—David Banach, philosophy department; Dale Kuehne, politics; Sean Parr, fine arts; Aubrey Scheopner Torres, education; and Kevin Staley, philosophy—have been meeting biweekly to read and discuss works together.

The fellows continuously shape Conversatio, keeping the program vibrant each year. An annual retreat also is held for humanities faculty so those teaching in the program can debrief and review new approaches to continually improve the lessons.

“As the curriculum in Conversatio becomes less entrenched, faculty need to develop new curricular materials related to the modifications that are made each year,” says Dr. Derk Andrew Wierda, a professor of chemistry and director of the Conversatio program. “The Sheehan Fund helps to enhance the experience of all of our students and the faculty who teach in Conversatio, the common shared learning experience of the college.”

At a time when many universities are moving away from a focus on the humanities, Saint Anselm’s Conversatio program distinguishes the college in how students are engaged in a variety of topics that might be outside of their comfort zone and in how they are asked to challenge themselves to have a better understanding of people, politics and culture.

Michael Sheehan ’82, H.D. ’11, managing partner of Allied Sports and former chair of the Board of Trustees at Saint Anselm, says the skills learned through the college’s humanities program will make a difference in life for graduates.

“By encouraging critical thinking and reasoning, Conversatio helps students define and refine their creativity and to develop lifelong intellectual curiosity. Innovation isn’t solely about STEM; it’s about ideas and concepts and original thinking. Conversatio gives Saint Anselm students, regardless of their major, an important advantage.”

Over the years, the humanities program has expanded at Saint Anselm and now includes a minor with classes such as “Gender in Music and Literature,” “The Qu’ran, Culture, Conflicts: An Introduction to Islam,” “Shakespeare and Political Power” and more.