A Conversation with: Dr. Ed Risden and Fr. Jim Neilson, Professors of English and Art

It is a rare and valuable gift to interact with people who breathe a new sense of inspiration into your life. Dr. Risden and Fr. Neilson, professors of English and Art respectively, have been consistent creativity catalysts (say that three times fast) in my own life over the past four years. Furthermore, I am positive I am not alone in feeling this way. Their passion is palpable in every class, and they influence students’ lives in a truly profound way. Their style of teaching prompts introspection, deep thought, kindness, empathy, and humor, and they both boast a multifaceted skill set that is rooted in their varied backgrounds and career paths. Just to scratch the surface of that background – Dr. Risden worked in a biology lab after graduate school before pivoting to pursue the study of literature, and Fr. Neilson currently teaches to inmates at the Brown County Correctional Facility.

I was planning this conversation for quite some time, but had difficulty narrowing down the questions I wanted to ask, because I view both of these men as experts on quite a few things in the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual worlds. I wanted to pick their brains on the value of the humanities, the tendencies of millennials in college, the recipe for compassionate interactions, how to fight nihilism (or confront it), existential crises, and how to combat inspiration droughts. That was quite a bit to tackle in the hour-long window we had (which, if exceeded, would cause Dr. Risden’s hungry cat much distress). So, as we sat down in Boyle Hall – beloved by humanities majors across campus for its interesting carpeting and fluctuating temperature – we narrowed the conversation to just a few of the subjects on my wishlist.

Continue below for select video highlights, or to the end of this article for our full video conversation.

I knew that both Neilson and Risden took circuitous routes to reach their current careers, and wanted them to fill in the gaps of how their journey to this point has shaped them. Neilson explains how he “took the scenic route.” He was discouraged from involving himself in the visual arts earlier on. Aware of his split interests between art and art education, he struggled with defining his identity. When he became a fourth grade teacher in his early twenties in urban Chicago, he learned to improvise, and clarified his love for education. Ultimately, his career is tripartite: he is a Norbertine priest, an artist, and an educator.

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Risden’s route was, in his own words, “equally circuitous but less scenic. I took the route through the mud and the dead leaves and the swamp.” From an early age, he felt a sense of pressure to aspire towards traditionally defined masculine or prestigious careers such as being a police officer or lawyer. This conflicted with his deep desire to pursue his passion for literature. He contemplates, “I always had a sense from when I was small of what I wanted to do, but I had no notion that a person could do that sort of thing.” He worked in the sciences after graduate school, and found himself reciting poetry in the biology lab as he and his labmates conducted experiments. One day, his friend turned to him and exclaimed, “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be here?!” Finally, after years of knowing what he loved but being unsure of how to pursue it, Risden took the first step to realizing his desire to study and teach literature.

Both Fr. Neilson and Dr. Risden’s paths required tremendous courage, as they were discouraged and challenged along the way. I wondered how they summoned the strength to take the radical step of forging their own trails. Neilson had two uncles who were Jesuit priests and involved in higher education, who provided him with a sense of support and affirmation as he set off on a similar trajectory.  He also connected with a community of like-minded people when he was in graduate school, and was thrilled to meet so many individuals who loved the same things he did. This motivated him through the difficult periods of his life. Risden describes how he could consistently rely on his love of the subject matter to propel him through any doubts or difficulties, and he never thought of changing course after he embarked.

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Having a career in the humanities can be challenging because the field is so ill-defined. When one works on a painting, a piece of prose, or a poem, there is no concrete finishing point, and it’s easy to drive oneself insane with the prospects of improving the piece. I know that even as an English major, I struggled with determining when the right time was to let go of a paper and just turn it in…although time constraints were usually a pretty dominant factor in making that decision…

Dr. Risden describes how he has learned to deal with the editing process, which is largely by allowing the work to have a life of its own:

“I might think I’m writing a poem. And I make a few notes, and pretty soon it starts to turn into a prose passage. Then it wants to become an essay instead! You kind of have to let the thing play and become what it wants to become.”

Fr. Neilson explains how editing has become easier for him as he has developed a signature style:

“I would say I’ve had a consistent aesthetic. But I think I’ve learned some tricks and developed a style or taste that works more often than it doesn’t.”

Neilson discovered this aesthetic by experimenting with different media, and stumbling on some “happy accidents.”

Another consequence of the often subjective nature of the humanities is their ill-defined nature can be frustrating for students, especially when their work is evaluated for a grade. As humanities professors, I’d imagine that both Risden and Neilson have to navigate a fair share of exasperated students who want to know why they’ve received the grades they have, or have difficulty grappling with the subjective nature of the discipline. It creates some difficulty when you have to evaluate a piece on seemingly amorphous criteria.  However, there remains value in studying the humanities in school, because the discipline provides connections and mends divisions, fills in the holes where basic communication is not enough,  and provides a foundation of archetypal images and ideas resonating throughout time.

Neilson: “We have art, we have painting, to make up for what words cannot provide.”

Fr. Neilson describes how he teaches at the Maximum Security Prison in Green Bay in the restorative justice program on a weekly basis. What the inmates love the most is poetry, because it frees the parts of themselves that often feel incarcerated: their emotions, opinions, and intellect. There is something deeply powerful, universal, and expressive there that is characteristic of the humanities.

Risden: “Disciplines are ways of knowing and ways of producing. We have different ways of knowing and making. All of them have value, all of them have virtue. If one does them with commitment and joyfulness, they’re all wonderful.”

Dr. Risden suggests that this ability to unite disparate groups of individuals does not strictly reside in the humanities, but relies in anything that evokes joyfulness. If one works joyfully in biology, this can be just as powerful as working joyfully at a novel or artwork. Perhaps this experience is more readily accessible in the humanities, but it is a deep part of any discipline.

Both of these professors are some of the most inspiring people I have ever known, and I wondered if this was a part of their personality, or something they make a point to nurture regularly.

They both say they never have a shortage of things they want to work on and create. However, they comment that inspiration can easily be stifled by time constraints, as is common with the schedules students have.

Neilson: “It’s time…so much of studio work is time dependent. If I think I have an appointment in an hour that will inhibit the process. ”

Risden: “The environment you poor students are in all the time doesn’t foster your creativity. It puts lock after lock on your time, and strain after strain on your psyche.”

I especially like this point about how a student’s schedule can inhibit creativity. Of course, few professionals have the luxury of having days and days to allow creative prospects to brew, and in fact, I think I can sometimes be more productive and inspired when I have more structure. Yet, I think the constant stress of student life and emphasis on grades can impede creative advancement, even in the midst of an environment presenting varied and exciting stimuli. (Can I possibly reduce college to a more scientific and nerdy description?!)

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Fr. Neilson, presumably saying something inspiring (as always)

They draw their inspiration from many different sources. I loved this quote from Neilson:

“As you get older, you realize beauty is speaking to you constantly.”

He comments on how when he was younger, he thought he must live in New York City or Paris to be genuinely inspired. It wasn’t until later in life until he realized he could live in sleepy little De Pere and still be overwhelmingly inspired. Dr. Risden echoes this sentiment, exclaiming how he’s had students come up to him and talk about how they find beauty in the minutiae, such as the color of a passerby’s scarf, or how the light strikes the Fox River a certain way. For a long time, I was consumed with the idea that inspiration was confined to those glamorous spaces…London, Barcelona, Hong Kong, San Francisco…but after studying abroad I came to the realization that inspiration is not so much from one’s surroundings but one’s mentality. We choose to be inspired. I can be just as much, or even more inspired, by a walk to the Co-op in Rochester, MN as I was looking at Michelangelo’s David or jogging through Hyde Park at sunrise. We can choose to be inspired by really any influence or setting if we so desire. I think that is a pretty joyous way to live.

Alrighty, my personal ramblings aside, Neilson and Risden prove that inspiration is a state of being, a willingness to allow beauty into our lives, and an awareness of the world around us.

Now that we are sufficiently inspired (I hope), I’ll take a stab at what I do best: try to squash the mood with some existential angst! Both Neilson and Risden rose to the challenge as I fired away two of the hardest questions I’ve considered in my life to polish off the conversation (and in a timely manner so as not to upset the regal cat awaiting Dr. Risden’s return home).

The first: how do you cope with the smallness of your existence? How do you feel as if you’ve ever made any impact? How can you be truly inspired when you know how negligible you are in the grand scheme (and I’d argue little scheme) of things? Okay, that was three questions in one, but let’s overlook that.

The second: how do you approach conversations with individuals you disagree with, and how do you check your internal biases, especially in academia, where professors’ perspectives are frequently seen as elitist from the outside world?

Let’s start with the second question first. (Sorry Maria von Trapp) Fr. Neilson explains how he is always looking to create connections by using those things which go beyond the power of words. By utilizing archetypal images and powerful art, he thinks we can mend the divisions that currently exist and create more civil discourse. He brings up David Tracy’s idea of the analogous imagination, or the need to create connections through illuminating similarities. Dr. Risden comments how T.S. Eliot calls this the objective correlative. (I will include more research and information about both of these concepts in the upcoming podcast episode for the conversation).

Returning to the first question, Fr. Neilson explains how in combatting the concern about one’s small existence, he is sustained by the appreciation and growth of his students. He describes how receiving a postcard from a gallery where a student saw a piece of art he had introduced in class has the power to motivate him for an entire semester! This, once again, illustrates the importance of community in his life and work. He is fueled by the knowledge that he can contribute to a community of students, and they reciprocally fuel his work as a professor.

Dr. Risden reveals how he frequently confronts the fact that he is just one person. However, he jovially exclaims, “but then again, you are one person!” He combats this worry about making any sort of significant change in the world by not approaching his life with the intention to make an impact per se, but to work and create with joyfulness. He explains that once you reach this joyful state, you are better equipped to make an impact.

“If one seeks to have an impact, then you’re insisting someone else respond to you a certain way. Instead, if you find that space of joyfulness and live in that, then you’re much more likely to have an impact. When you do, it’ll happen because people choose to have that happen for them to, rather than one’s own efforts trying to force them into it.”

I’m not sure if we could end it on a better group of takeaways than what Fr. Neilson and Dr. Risden provided for this final question. It was honestly a transcendent experience getting them in the same room to talk about these topics for an hour. There were so many points where they drew upon specific examples of work from their respective fields to support the other person’s statement, making the conversation more multidimensional and immersive. As you can visibly tell in these clips, I was full-on, unabashedly geeking out.

If you have the time, take a look at our full video conversation to hear more than is included in the video clips and in this article. For even MORE content, check out my podcast feature for this conversation coming soon. This will explore some of the topics we began discussing with more background information and research than is included in the video clips.

Full Conversation:

I hope you found this inspirational and enlightening, and perhaps nostalgic for all of the former St. Norbert College students who had these professors in class. Thank you very much for watching and reading.

I’ll speak to you soon!

-Nora

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