Welcome back, after our summer hiatus, to the Craft of Teaching Blog!
We are delighted to have another outstanding cohort of Divinity School-trained educators and scholars, ready to engage with one another on the pedagogical challenges and opportunities that animate them. We are again looking forward to learning a great deal from our alumni contributors, while hosting this conversation across the many sites of educating about religion in the United States and beyond.
Each year we begin with a “Meet the Bloggers” series. Over the course of the year, these Bloggers in Digital Residence will share their reflections and experiences teaching religion in a variety of disciplines and institutional contexts, in productive counterpoint with the Craft of Teaching programming taking place at the Divinity School.
Today we are delighted to welcome Allison Gray, Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Mary’s University (San Antonio).
Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?
Allison Gray: I received my MA from the Divinity School in 2007, then moved over to the Department of New Testament and Early Christian Literature in the UofC Humanities Division, but all of my committee members were Div School faculty. My research focused on three biographical narratives by the fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa, looking especially at how he deployed Greco-Roman biographical conventions to create didactic portraits extolling Christian virtue and illustrating the value of a new, Christian paideia. I graduated in June 2016.
CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?
AG: The class that sticks with me most is Margaret Mitchell’s New Testament Intro course, because I got to experience three versions of it! I took the course early during my MA coursework, and then I was a TA for the class twice. First of all, Dr. Mitchell leads dynamic class sessions and invites students to think of themselves as scholars in the field of New Testament studies, and that invitation was empowering for me as a student. Then seeing the course from the other side, as a TA involved in grading student work and leading supplementary discussions, gave me a greater appreciation for the kind of time and effort that goes into thoughtful course design. I was also struck by all the opportunities for flexibility that became possible once the course framework was in place. It was exciting to think about the many ways teaching can be responsive rather than carefully scripted.
CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?
AG: I learned many helpful things about teaching as a doctoral student, but one principle I wish I had internalized before my first adjunct teaching experience is that it helps everyone when you are transparent with students about course goals and lesson goals. Students are less likely to expend real effort on a class activity or homework assignment when they don’t understand the point or how it will affect their learning. I had a really humbling class meeting about a month into my first course where I sat down with the students and talked through the rationale behind a weekly assignment that kept going horribly wrong; things improved the very next week, and I’ve made an effort to clarify assignment goals ever since.
CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.
AG: For a while I’ve dreamt about teaching a course in classical and early Christian epistolography – I’d call it “Reading the Mail” to give students the sense that they’re spying on ancient lives – but I’ve yet to formally propose it. The main focus of the course would be an examination of the work letters did in emerging and developing Christian communities of the first five centuries CE. We’d use Greco-Roman, Christian, and Jewish sources to look at the role of letters in forging relationships, reinforcing social bonds, creating and questioning religious identity, mediating disputes, and providing instruction. I think this kind of course could get at deeper questions about how we define and encounter religious authority and help students think critically about the complicated role of seemingly prosaic texts in faith communities.
CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today, and how?
AG: Although I had a number of inspiring professors at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA, my absolute favorite was David Lupher in the Classics Department. This man was a remarkably patient teacher and embodied the sort of scholarly generosity I aspire to have. He invited his undergrads to meet visiting classicists, took our interests seriously and adjusted syllabi accordingly, and always listened attentively. Most importantly, he brought a joyful lightheartedness to his work. Whether we were translating horrific bloody passages of the Eumenides, talking about the misadventures of Apuleius’ unfortunate Lucius, or – on one memorable occasion – covering an entire classroom whiteboard with a diagrammed sentence from Augustine’s City of God (yes, he even agreed to translate Augustine with me in an independent study), he struck a balance between working hard and taking time to laugh and appreciate the ridiculous fun that is bumbling through ancient texts. Thinking back on his open, candid classroom presence definitely inspires me to share what I love with my students, to show them the joy I experience without feeling self-conscious. A few years ago, I went back to Tacoma, and even though Prof. Lupher was out of town, he left instructions that I should go to his office to take his copy of the Sources Chretiennes edition of Gregory’s Life of Moses to use for my dissertation work. It is one of my most prized possessions.
CoT: If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?
AG: I would love to teach a course on early Christianity with the Greek satirist Lucian. His incisive critiques of various religious practitioners have always struck me as driven by a deep affection for the human condition, so I think we could find common ground from which to argue about what the authors of texts like the Apocryphal Acts were up to. He is obviously a careful reader and observer, and anyone who can write a work like his A True Story could offer wonderful insights into what motivates people to write dramatic religious narrative. I can just imagine the levity his brilliant irreverence would bring to the classroom.
CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?
AG: I’m going to go ahead and be the jerk who says “tomato.” Religious studies: it’s hardly ever what you think it’s going to be, but its very ability to surprise you is wonderful and nourishing. And the New Testament scholar in me wanted to name a fruit that could reasonably fulfill the promise attached to the little scroll of Revelation 10:9, “Take it and eat, and it will be bitter in your belly, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” Tomatoes give people acid reflux, right?
Stay tuned for more introductions in the coming days!