On the Fullness of Students

[Editor’s note: This Spring quarter, our Craft of Teaching bloggers will be engaging with, expanding upon, and diverging from the work of John Corrigan, the Divinity School’s 2017 Alum of the Year — particularly pertaining to issues around emotion, embodiment, and the teaching of religion.]

By Anne Mocko

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In John Corrigan’s book Emptiness, the author identifies a sensibility in American Christianity, which he traces back into deeper Christian pasts, according to which the believer must be emptied out of their old self in preparation for being filled with God and holiness. In his second chapter, “Body,” he links this desire to empty the self to a variety of practices—fasting, bleeding, refraining from sex or speaking, crying.

“John Piper’s A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer proposed that the feeling of emptiness was desire for God, and that fasting cultivated both. The empty stomach as cultivated emptiness and a partner to prayer is one manifestation of the emptied body” (50).

“Protestant writers emphasized that old blood had to be drained before the saving new blood of Jesus could be admitted to the body” (58).

“LaHaye and his followers accordingly made the sexual act in marriage a means by which to be filled with Christ. In order to “fill that spiritual void within their lives,” men and women opened themselves to each other and to God all at once. The union of a man and a woman was also a union with Christ. The celebration of marital sex was explained as both the pursuit of pleasure and the spiritual union with one’s partner and God simultaneously” (76).

None of these practices or sensibilities are explicitly related to pedagogy—but I think they are not unrelated, either. I think that the religious sensibility Corrigan names might actually inform one of the traditional assumptions about what it means to teach: that in order for students to learn, they need to be emptied out of their prior selves and/or outside lives, so that their professor might pour wisdom into their appropriately prepared vessels. I think this “filling empty vessels” idea might still lurk in the background (even if just as the straw-man) in debates over several traditional teaching techniques, such as the value (or not) of lectures, and possibly also in the pervasive faculty complaints about students using technology in their classrooms. (After all, a student-mind full of social media cannot be filled with sociology.)

Many educators have critiqued old models of what it means to teach as hierarchical or colonialist, or just plain ineffective. Accordingly, they have often tried to move toward flipped classrooms or feminist pedagogy—an impulse that I think could potentially be framed as a desire to recognize and honor the existing fullness of students when they come to our classrooms. In these models, students need to engage and extend themselves, not passively receive information, for they have not been (and should not be) first emptied of their lives and experiences and perspectives.

Another way to consider the fullness or emptiness of the students, and the roles that faculty might adopt relative to them, might be to consider the extent to which faculty are or are not willing to engage students on issues beyond the intellectual pursuits of the course. It is not uncommon for students to seek out faculty in order to talk through things they are facing far beyond the limits of the classroom, and I think the degree to which a faculty member is receptive or unreceptive to these approaches might be related to that professor’s implicit understanding of whether their students should properly come to them full or empty. An empty student should seek out a professor only to solicit more contents for their vessel, whereas a full student might want to come pour themselves out.

It often surprises me the depth and seriousness of issues that students sometimes want to discuss with me. In just this academic year alone, I have been honored with the confidences of students who have lost a parent to suicide, who have left an abusive relationship, who were struggling with self-harm, who were hospitalized for a potential brain tumor, who were trying to reconcile with parents after disclosing non-normative sexuality or gender.

This is one of the parts of my job that I have long felt the least prepared for. No one in grad school ever told me that I might end up having to create safe spaces for emotional pain; there was no qualifying exam on listening, consoling, or figuring out when and whether to hug. Pretty much every time I find myself in one of these complicated conversations with a student, I go next door to my colleague’s office to complain that anyone who wanted to teach undergrads should be first required to take a course in pastoral care.

I think that this part of teaching—this part that can stretch so far beyond the classroom or the assigned readings—links back to fullness and emptiness in an important way. For the professor who approaches their job with a model of emptiness, expecting their students to be vessels for their knowledge, a hard conversation will be taken as an invitation to lecture. As soon as the student pauses, an ‘emptiness model’ professor will start talking, trying to fill the silence and the pain with whatever wisdom the professor can muster on the fly. I have done this myself: I have tried to provide solutions or perspectives, because it is tempting and comfortable to revert back to one’s expertise, and to fill the room with what one knows and thinks. And occasionally that really is what the student wants.

But a ‘fullness model’ would suggest something else: that the student isn’t coming to receive more words from the professor; they are instead coming to pour out some of themselves in the professor’s presence, to be simply seen and heard. In that case, the response must be to stop talking and just listen, to witness their struggle, and ask what they need.

This can turn out to be a core task for a professor, especially in liberal arts colleges—and I think especially for women faculty, who in all contexts (including the academy) are more often than men called upon to do emotional labor. For academics who lack the interest or facility, emotional interactions with students can feel inappropriate or distracting from real academic labor, but for those who deeply value mutual learning in the context of relationships, these moments of student vulnerability can feel enormously rewarding.

This is not to say that it is necessary or even appropriate for faculty to take on side-jobs as therapists; students in deep distress should properly be directed to whatever support services one’s institution offers, and students who come to their faculty with wholly inappropriate expectations need to be gently corrected and redirected. But this is not the same as expecting that the task of the student is to bring to me a purified self to be filled and molded.

Perhaps I personally subscribe to a ‘fullness theology’ of teaching, one that rejects a lecturer-on-high who will only come down into a properly emptied vessel. I would rather position myself as a more mature fellow-traveler, who sometimes guides, sometimes walks beside, sometimes listens more than talks, and sometimes suffers with those who follow.

 

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