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Marching to a different beat: St. Kate’s faculty take creative approaches to The Reflective Woman

Allison Adrian's TRW class try their hands at taiko drumming at Mu Daiko.
Allison Adrian's TRW class try their hands at taiko drumming at Mu Daiko.
Sharon Rolenc

Tucked inside a warehouse in a remote section of northeast Minneapolis sits the Mu Daiko studio. In unison, a dozen St. Catherine University students bow and say “otsukaresama deshita,” Japanese for “thank you for your hard work,” an expression of respect given at the end of class.

They had just completed a hands-on workshop in Allison Adrian’s course, 33 Revolutions per Minute: a History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day.

The course takes a theme-based focus to “The Reflective Woman (TRW)," a required course in St. Kate’s core curriculum since 1995. Taken by all first-year students — both day school and transfer — TRW introduces students to the liberal arts by emphasizing critical thinking, cultural analysis and communication.

“I chose to do a special focus because ‘The Reflective Woman’ is about identity, truth and social justice, and the subject of protest music seemed like a natural fit,” says Adrian, an assistant professor in St. Kate's music department.

“Art and music can be a gender and race equalizer. So what’s conventional for a woman on stage? It’s important to question these things, and understanding that there are limitations, but there shouldn’t be,” she adds.

The earliest references to taiko drumming date back to the 4th century. While taiko has largely been a masculine art form in Japan — the drumming emerged in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s — women had a hand in the movement, particularly in the San Francisco Bay area.

“They took up drumming as a way to express their identity as Japanese-Americans,” explains Iris Shiraishi, artistic director of Mu Daiko. “Social justice, cultural awareness, ethnic identity — this was all behind the music and women were involved from the start.”

Expressing faculty identity

Adrian is not alone in offering a themed focus for TRW. During her tenure as interim core curriculum director three years ago, English Professor Cecilia Konchar Farr made it her goal to re-engage liberal arts faculty by giving them more control over shaping curriculum for the TRW course.

“We had been asking faculty to approach the class in a way that didn’t take advantage of their best gifts. For me, it was like teaching a course that wasn’t mine. But this shift allows faculty to invent their own course within the context of TRW. When we do that, the energy, the expertise and the passion comes through,” says Konchar Farr. 

In answering the call for course ideas, faculty came up with a variety of creatively themed TRW courses. Shanan Custer ’92, a local theater professional and core curriculum instructor, created a TRW course focused on the Twin Cities art community. Assistant Professor of Philosophy Jeff Johnson tackled food ethics and animal rights in one of his sessions. Konchar Farr and her students addressed structured controversy by examining the novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.

“There was even a Buffy the Vampire Slayer-themed course,” says Konchar Farr. “Jenny McDougal ’08 had her class examine how women are portrayed in science fiction and super-hero culture.”

The opportunity for theme-based TRW has not only energized faculty, it’s opened up more choices for students — particularly transfer students who are looking for higher-level, more major-specific courses, or are simply hungering for an outlet to explore creative interests.

Majoring in art history and education, Danielle Moler ’17 says her passion for music drew her to Adrian’s class. “I really enjoyed the taiko section.” Moler says. “It’s such a beautiful and graceful form of music. It was exciting to have the opportunity to try it out. That tangible experience — holding the sticks in my hand, learning the form, hitting the drum — wow, it was great.”

Learn more about St. Kate's TRW course in Reflection at the Core.

More on Iris Shiraishi

Iris Shiraishi is artistic director of Mu Daiko and a fiscal year 2013 recipient of an Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Her residency with St. Kate’s is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature; and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Dec. 20, 2013 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Faculty, Liberal Arts, Students