Reflecting on the Vincentian Innovation Summit at St. John’s University: An Interview with Steering Committee Members


180417 Vincentian Innovation Summit (255)Why did you think it was important to feed the Vincentian mission of the University into a summit that’s about innovation, what was the added value of that?

Prof. Juszczak: The Vincentian mission does not explicitly discuss research and innovation as a component of the mission. The principal mission of the University, I suspect both in its 140 years of existence, and in its day-to-day work, has focused on teaching and service. And, at our first meeting, what we came to realize, was that there is a communicative gap between service and service learning, and innovation, which is a false gap. Basically, the people who think about service often don’t think about service in the context of research and innovation although they are intimately related in terms of real outcomes in the world.

Prof. Monteiro: Just to add to what Prof. Juszczak said, maybe I’ll be saying the same thing but in a different way: The Vincentian mission usually tends to be seen as doing some charitable work, some service to the other. Well, we do this, we feel good about it, and then move on to do some other altruistic activities. But in this summit we are trying to say: The Vincentian mission is the heart of research that drives innovation. And this means providing benefits for people in general, and particularly to support human dignity.

What was your personal highlight of the event? Was there something new that you learned?

Prof. Monteiro: The personal highlight for me, was that we were able to successfully generate a conversation within the community about the Vincentian mission as a research driver.

Prof. Juszczak: I agree with that. I think that for me, one of the highlights of the whole summit was when students were able to ask questions of the higher-ups in the context of research and innovation. One of the things I actually learned, that I found to be very helpful, is that having one meeting or having one paper or having one proposal about something is completely insufficient in the context of a University. And the reason is not something that is unique to universities, it is simply the fact that a University – if you think of it as a ship, it is an incredibly large ship – and to steer it even a bit requires a tremendous amount of energy. And what that means is that what may appear to be at first a futile endeavor, or may appear to be insignificant is incredibly significant, because it is 100,000 of those small pushes that make real change occur. And that for me was a real highlight, to see that in action actually.

Prof. Monteiro: I would like to add that one of the things that were a meaningful highlight for me was when the students began to ask the fundamental question about innovative education for the future. In what way are we preparing the students for the future? That conversation was very important, because we may talk about all kinds of innovative ideas, but at the end of the day the student must have a new way of thinking, a new set of skills. A new way of thinking will help them to keep developing the necessary skills as time passes by. They’ll have to develop an ongoing basis of new skills, because of the speed of change of their work environment. But, at the heart of it is a new way of thinking. So my question is: does our education provide or help our students to engage in a new way of thinking?

After the open discussion that you led, about the future of innovation at St. John’s, now that you got the student input as well, what kinds of innovation would you like to see for the future in terms of teaching methods, curricula?

Prof. Monteiro: A couple of things will be happening: students will cross disciplines to collaborate and develop new gadgets/technologies to respond to the needs of the moment, or help people at the margins of society, in terms of accessing societal benefits, like health care, But, there is another thing that we have to start paying attention to, and I think we are attempting to do this, which is revisiting and having a conversation about our pedagogy, how we are teaching. In our own limited realm of the graduate program in International Communication we have an intense conversation about how we are going to engage the students? What new and relevant pedagogies can we bring? We are trying to get our colleagues and other faculty on the same wavelength of thinking, there is an open conversation at this point. We have certain directions where we would like to go; for example, we would like to make our pedagogy, not exclusively, mostly case studies driven around the big questions, big problems, that are not easy to find answers to. And that’s where I think the ability or capacity to engage into new thinking lies.

Prof. Juszczak: I would like to see one thing, which sounds very not significant, but I think it really is. I learned this lesson in a very strange way. St. John’s, I feel, would benefit tremendously from structured internal process innovations. Let me be very exact what I mean by this. I’ll give an example, which is probably the best example: we think of Edison as being this great inventor. He invented the light bulb, he invented the movie camera, the phonograph, and the list goes on and on and on. What we don’t really appreciate is that by focusing on the big person, we forget that Edison only made one super significant contribution, which is that he treated invention as a process. He was the first inventor to run a full-scale industrial process lab for the invention process itself. His genius was not that he himself invented the light bulb. He figured out how to invent things like the light bulb. He was a radical at that time period, in process. And what St. John’s could really benefit from, I feel, is some significant internal process innovations that much more closely align the output and service of the University to the market at large and to the world at large, instead of focusing on internal standard functions, because they happen to be. It’s important to have an outward looking perspective on this.

Winslow Sargeant’s talk about students’ employability through entrepreneurship and innovation was very inspiring, for students specifically, and he emphasized the importance of creativity in interplay with innovation. Do you have any tips for students, let’s say they’re thinking about ideas and they actually want to realize one of them, what kind of creativity techniques could they use?

Prof. Monteiro: I have been thinking about that, and one of the things that I try to impress upon the students is the ability to reflect, be comfortable in asking simple yet fundamental or radical questions. I mean, what are the social forces, political forces, and economic forces of the time that made this happen? That kind of thinking will open up their mind to say: ok, now, how do we position ourselves for the future? That is why traveling to countries/places which present a cultural shock is very important.

Prof. Juszczak: I have a lot to say about this. I studied creativity formally as part of my doctorate. I studied creativity in the context of innovation and innovational processes. The biggest advice I can give to students, which they’re not going to like, but is the real answer, and I would quote someone you would not expect me to quote, which is Karl Marx. There was a joke about how one spends their free time. Karl Marx basically said: the thing that you really want to do is lie to everybody so they’ll leave you alone and you can go and learn, learn, learn, and read, read, read. No matter what. if you’re not doing it, or if you are doing it, you’re not doing enough of it. You’re not learning enough, you’re not reading enough. I think this is what I have told students, which is that your cell phone is the biggest barrier you can imagine when it comes to your idea about what you’re learning. The cell phone is this device that appears to know everything. But because it knows everything, you end up doing nothing. And in reality, if you want to be innovative you have to have tremendous information, broadly across the world, and then very narrowly too. It’s an intersection of a very broad based knowledge, and a very specific technical ability, that produces innovators and thinkers.

Dean Passerini addressed the increasing relevance of social entrepreneurship for young generations in her closing remarks, that young generations care more and more about the social value behind ideas. Since social entrepreneurship is in line with our mission, in what ways is the University supporting students to realize ideas for social entrepreneurship? Are there already processes in place or if not, what support mechanisms to encourage social entrepreneurship would you like to see in the future?

Prof. Monteiro: I personally would like to see, and I don’t know how to make it happen, that we are driven by empathy. Empathy is a catalyst of creativity, as a social value. Because once you are grounded in empathy, then you’re whole thinking becomes necessarily socially beneficial.

I agree. Within the context of St. John’s, do you have any ideas how to bring that idea closer to students? How can we actually encourage and motivate the students here to go more into the direction of social entrepreneurship and develop such ideas and go forward with them?

Prof. Monteiro: I have a simple answer, but not everybody may like that answer. The simple answer is: faculty, professors. Professors’ relationship with their students is the key factor. If the professor is empathetic, then the student becomes empathetic, it is contagious. It passes on. My elementary school teacher told me many decades ago: a teacher holds a hand, touches a heart and opens a mind. I think being a professor/teacher requires to be empathetic. There is an old adage: students learn what they care about, from people they care about and who, they know, care about them…

Prof. Juszczak: That was very well said.

Last question: What’s next? How do you plan to take this half-day Vincentian Innovation Summit to the next level in the Fall semester?

Prof. Monteiro: We are planning to get all of the three Vincentian institutions in the country – Niagara University, DePaul University, St. John’s University – to come together and see how we can collaborate for the next summit that will hope to hold it on Queens campus. The committee is already meeting to work on our next summit.

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