Meet the Bloggers Day 5: Andrew DeCort

Last but not least in its series of blogger introductions, the Craft of Teaching Program is excited to bring you Andrew Decort, lecturer in ethics and theology at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology and director of The Institute for Christianity and the Common Good (www.iccgood.org). Read on for his reflections!

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Andrew DeCort: My research focused on the history of theological, philosophical, andDecort_3 political ethics and, more particularly, the ethics of making new beginnings after devastating moral ruptures in the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other 20th century moral philosophers. I graduated from the Divinity School in December 2015.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

AD: I will never forget Jean Elshtain’s two-semester course “Religion and the Political Order.” I had recently moved back to Chicago after a year of working in Ethiopia during a time when that country was rocked with a disputed national election, passionate protests, and hundreds of people killed in the streets and thousands more imprisoned. I could still hear the machine gun fire and the whisper of terrified strangers. Professor Elshtain lectured with an encyclopedic knowledge and immersed us in the complex, rich, and living tradition of Christian and post-Christian reflection on human nature, the political order, and moral responsibility in the face of crisis, which helped me think through my past experience and sense of responsibility for the future. Professor Elshtain’s course further convinced me that I wanted to devote my life to studying theological and political ethics with a focus on practical responses to situations of devastation, especially when speaking and acting for others is dangerous and may prove costly.

That said, I found that much of the most formative learning I experienced at UChicago happened not only in the classroom but in office conversations with my professors. I’m grateful to William Schweiker, Donald Levine, Jean-Luc Marion, Leon Kass, and other professors for countless one-on-one conversations.

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?

AD: I wish I had done more of my reading through the lens of a teacher, asking myself, “Would I want to teach this text? If so, in which context or course would specific selections be most relevant and powerful for my students?” If I had approached my coursework, exam prep, and dissertation research with that mindset, it would have been easier to intentionally build up a rich archive of teaching materials. I would encourage current graduate students to keep a running list or brief annotated bibliography of the texts they’re reading that they would also like to teach and for which class/context.

Frankly, I was surprised – but not surprised – by how students respond to passion in teaching. Students want to know that you care deeply about what you’re teaching, without slipping into dogmatism or bias. When students sense that you are existentially invested in what you teach, I have found that they respond very positively and experience a shift in learning from information gathering to personal transformation and heightened responsibility that lives on beyond the classroom. This – what Heschel called “a ceaseless shattering of indifference” – is one of the joys and burdens of teaching ethics.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

AD: I would like to teach a course on origins and ethics. The course would combine readings from ancient Near Eastern stories like the Enuma Elish and Genesis, stretch to founding political documents like the Ethiopian Kebra Negast (“Glory of Kings”) and American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, include works like Lincoln’s speeches, Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, and Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall, and look at “deep historians” and evolutionary theorists like Daniel Lord Smail, Robert Bellah, Yuval Noah Harari, Frans de Waal, and others. At each point, the task would be to wrestle with how a particular vision of beginnings leads to various, often conflicting visions of reality and what kind of life is worth living. What kind of ethical order does the beginning as accident or as violence or as impersonal dictate or as gift imply? The course’s working hypothesis would be that our founding imagination about our beginnings profoundly shapes how we interpret the sources and reality of value, the present, and how we think we should live into the future. How shall we respond to the reality that so many of our founding narratives, whether explicitly or implicitly, are rooted in violence, whether a god killing another god (Babylon) or the Queen of Sheba stealing the ark from Solomon (Ethiopia) or settlers dominating indigenous peoples (America) or natural selection (Darwinian biology)?

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today, and how?

AD: Without question, Daniel Master, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Archaeology at Wheaton College. Daniel lectured passionately in the classroom, asked difficult questions, and invited rigorous discussion. He also welcomed me to spend hours dialoguing with him in his office and generously agreed to edit Matthew Robinson’s and my first (unpublished) book after a summer of writing in Ireland. When I talked with Daniel, the Bible, ancient material culture, sociological theory, and the big philosophical questions of human existence all came together. Daniel’s example has inspired me to offer rigorous courses combined with an availability over email and in my office to continue, deepen, and expand discussion and mentorship. My students have responded very positively to this teaching style, and much of it is rooted in the example of Daniel Master, along with Bruce Benson, Sarah Borden, Richard Schultz, and a few others.

CoT: If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

AD: This is a tough question. I might say Hannah Arendt. While I’ve heard that she was a daunting professor, I intensely respect her emphasis on stopping and only then thinking. I expect that Arendt brought a lot of energy, creativity, and critical analysis to her classroom, because of this emphasis on thinking as a uniquely human gift and task, which flows in and out of action. There is so much thoughtlessness today, and I would like to see Arendt in action. It would also be invigorating to teach with someone who does not share my religious convictions but does share an overarching commitment to ethical responsibility in the face of radical (and banal) evil.

I’m also inclined to say Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier is such an extraordinary listener and he sees intrinsic value in each person. With that approach to people, I expect that Vanier’s classroom would be brimming with brilliant and beautiful discoveries, including the insight that the students are also teachers and thus that the classroom is a place of mutual learning. I begin my classes with the invitation, “Welcome: your coming is good,” and this attunement is inspired in many ways by Jean Vanier’s approach to people, the world, and God.

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

AD: I might imagine religious studies as an orange: an orange has many parts and internal complexity; it can be sour and/or sweet; you never quite know in advance which flavor will present itself; but it is generally good for you. I say this because I believe that religion taps into some of the most important elements of our humanity: our sense of self-transcendence, our capacity to ask questions, our yearning to live for something more than ourselves and to share our lives with others, our need for ultimate values, our intuition that life is valuable and worthy of love and sacrifice, our capacity to believe that all things originate in a radical act of generosity and will be given a new beginning when everything seems lost. In that sense, everyone is “religious” or wrestles with ultimate concerns, as Tillich said. But, on the other hand, religion taps into some of the darkest drives of our humanity: our lust to dominate reality and others, our manipulation of false transcendence to affirm and elevate ourselves over others, our justification of sacrificing others in the name of a “god,” our addiction to spiritualized pharmaceuticals that numb us and allow us to escape from reality through our own self-made fictions, our delight in cheap self-congratulation and triumphalism in the face of others’ suffering. This ambiguity or complexity of religion is why I believe we must teach the most inspiring founders and practitioners of our religious tradition (e.g., the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Rabbula of Edessa, St. Francis, Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa) with the most radical critics of our religious tradition (e.g., Spinoza, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud), not to mention other religious traditions. But whether sour or sweet, critical or constructive, this complex work in religious studies contributes to the health of our humanity.

That’s it! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for our authors’ considered reflections on effective pedagogy! 

Meet the Bloggers Day 4: Sonam Kachru

For the fourth in our “Meet the Bloggers” series, the Craft of Teaching Program is excited to introduce to you Sonam Kachru, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Sonam Kachru: Philosophy of Religions, 2015.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

SK: As of today I think I’d say Bernard McGinn’s last course at the University. I sat very quietly in the back, I wasn’t taking it for credit, and I thus tried very hard to be invisible.sonam_kachru_religious_studies_01hr_da The learning, the humaneness, and the sense of a life of care and scholarship being gathered so lovingly and lightly every day was more moving than I can intimate. But I think it would be more honest of me to say that it was the range of possible classroom experiences which stuck with me most from my time at Chicago. And while we’re being honest, it was one classroom in particular and its association with legendary classes held in the past which stuck with me. The classroom is still on the third floor of Foster Hall. You can taste the air, with the press on air of books and mold and lifetimes of learning. Another experience, not quite a class, but one wherein I came to learn a lot, involves the table of staff selections at the Seminary Coop. It was an education, I tell you what.

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?

SK: How difficult and important it is to get to know your students. I don’t quite mean biographically. I mean something else, something like “their style.” I still don’t quite know how to put this: I suppose one way is to speak of the way an ethos can come to cling to the students at a particular university like dew. That there is such a thing as a style associated with a place I thought a fiction, but I’m increasingly feeling the need of being attuned to this, and of how hard it can be to get a feel for the cognitive and affective styles of students at a place.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

SK: So many courses. This is today’s list. Buddha, Darwin, Freud—I suppose the title says it all, including why it probably will never be taught; another is The History of the God Who Would Not Age: Desire, a comparative course on Ancient Greece and South Asia, with the highlight being a reading of Bhartrhari showing us over many hundreds of verses what it is like for a poet and philosopher to grow old in the face of brashly resilient desire; and another course I’d be remiss not to mention, even as I’m speaking of dreams, is Constructing The World, a year-long course. We’d read selections from David Chalmers’ book of that name for both undergraduate and graduate versions of the course; thus equipped, the undergraduate version of the course would survey works of comparative meta-metaphysical awareness, thus Vasubandhu, Umasvati and Udayana from South Asia; the epic of nature, de rerum natura by Lucretius, from the so-called West; Leibniz’s Monadology, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, bringing up the chronological rear, but not without ending it with a comparative reading of Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Magadh by Shrikant Verma; and then we’d arrange for therapy. The graduate version would skip the survey and spend a year trying to piece together the human, its body and worlds, with the help of Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Metaphysics. We’d read that work entire. No therapy provided. I’m not qualified for this, but I’d love at some point to be able to reconstruct the intellectual climate of a place at a given time, say a course on Peshawar, 3rd – 5th centuries C.E.–we’d try and make that world come alive, visually, aurally, affectively, cognitively. Just look at what Mary Beard could manage with SPQR; if I could teach one class achieving even a 1/10 of that on South Asia I’d allow myself to think it an achievement.

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today, and how?

SK: I have been uncommonly fortunate in my teachers. But if I had to, I’d like to name two: O. Bradley Bassler, a philosopher, poet and mathematician, and Tom Cerbu, a humanist and historian of the humanities, practically the Renaissance. Teaching together or alone, they exemplified care and responsiveness to others and to thoughts. They could exemplify all this in the things they said, the way they listened, and how they read. They spoke in complete paragraphs. They showed me why it matters. They nudged my ramblings into increasingly interesting questions, which I took down, and learnt from, long after I had forgotten their answers. They laughed a lot. And they were deadly serious. They taught me not to take oneself so seriously, but never to fool around with what we were gathered to discuss. For them what we do is a living way of life, you know? They hoped for the future, but they taught me to think of the dead. They’re the reason I’m in this mess we call the academy.

CoT: If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

SK: Among the most recently dead, Geoffrey Hill. I’d love to hear him read Kalidasa. Among the less recently dead, Richard Feynman. I’d love to see what he’d see in the things I only think I’ve begun to see a little clearly. Beyond that, there are just too many, you know. I’d rather not co-teach with the mighty dead. I’d just love to get the chance to sit in the back of class: Aristotle, Vasubandhu, Ibn Rushd, the list is just endless. Confucius apparently loved to jam with his students. I think I should’ve liked to experience that as well.

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

SK: I am terrible with such questions. Honestly, “Imagine religious studies”–isn’t that enough of a challenge?

Tune in Wednesday for our final blog introduction!  

Meet the Bloggers Day 3: Emanuelle (Mandy) Burton

Third in our “Meet the Bloggers” series, the University of Chicago Craft of Teaching Program is excited to introduce Emanuelle Burton, who, in addition to nearly a decade spent teaching in the humanities core at the University of Chicago, has taught religious studies courses at Elmhurst college, humanities core classes at Centre College, and spent a semester teaching ethics to computer science students at the University of Kentucky. She currently teaches ethics courses in the College of Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Mandy Burton: I graduated from the Religion and Literature program in 2014. My work examined the dialectic of self and world in fantasy literature for children, with an eye to the interrelationship between cosmic architecture and ethical norms.head shot

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

MB: A class that really stayed with me was Margaret Mitchell’s Introduction to New Testament course. I had never read the New Testament before graduate school, so my expectations were likely different than those of most of the other students. But it was clear to me that we were all of us, alike, electrified on that first day by the way that Professor Mitchell reframed the emergence and success of Christianity as a contingent and even bizarre outcome, considering that its messiah figure had, by all available metrics, failed pretty badly. There were many points during graduate school, and that course in particular, when I had my complacencies knocked out from under me; but that first day of ItNT was really a virtuosic pedagogical moment, revealing questions where I had perceived none and simultaneously presenting those questions in a way that felt raw and vital even to someone who had never spent time with those texts or that world. It was a pedagogical touchstone for me for my first several years of teaching, and the essence of what Professor Mitchell accomplished that day is what I try to do on the first day of every class I teach.

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?

MB: I was very happy with my pedagogical education in graduate school, which came almost entirely from the writing program (this was significantly before CoT existed.) The teaching of writing — not everywhere, but many places and certainly at Chicago’s WP — is the teaching of critical thinking and persuasion, which are obviously crucial to the teaching of religious studies (as well as many other things.) But it’s worth noting that I am deeply invested in undergraduate (as opposed to graduate) education, and further that I am pretty thoroughly sold on J Z Smith’s argument that the primary responsibility of a teacher of undergraduates is about thinking, and that one’s particular subject matter is in service of this goal.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

MB: I have, for many years, been back-burner cooking a very critically ambitious course called Athens and Jerusalem, which would explore the intellectual history of how those paired constructions of culture have been used to organize discussions of politics, ethics and identity. I’m not sure if I will ever have the chance to teach it (or be satisfied with my plans for it, should the opportunity arise.) More realistically, I would love to teach a course on dystopian literature. Those are pretty thick on the ground these days, but I suspect mine would be the only one to begin with Langdon Gilkey’s WWII prison camp memoir.

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today, and how?

MB: I learned a lot from many of my undergrad professors: I already knew I was interested in teaching, so I tended to pay attention to their pedagogy in addition to trying to learn the material. I probably learned the most from Maud McInerney, my undergraduate advisor. I remember realizing at one point — fairly late into my senior year, when I had taken several classes with her already — that we spent the majority of our class time simply explicating the text. I had never noticed this before, because our discussions never felt dry or pedantic (which is what I had always associated with the “review session” model.) That was also the moment, I think, when it really crystallized for me that reading is hard, and that working through a text to grasp what it is doing is, in fact, vital for anyone who teaches texts, but that a lot of Maud’s success was that class time was never presented that way. So I spent the rest of the year trying to get a feel for how she instigated and directed conversation so that we drank in the important details and bumped up against our own eisegeses.

CoT: If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

MB: If I were to have the teaching career I had imagined for myself when I began a graduate program in religious studies, I would choose Stephen Toulmin. I would love to be responsible for the literary-cultural end of a course in intellectual history, and to co-teach with such a wise, generous and clear-eyed thinker. Given that I seem to be planting my feet in computer science ethics, my hands-down choice would be Zeynep Tufekci, who works at the intersection of technology and politics. She is incredibly insightful, and I really admire the efforts she has made to balance academic rigor with accessibility (which is especially important, given the absolute immediacy of what she works on.).

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

MB: I’m going to cheat slightly and imagine the object of religious studies as the fruit, and the study of religion as attempts to eat it. Given these rule-breaking alterations I have unilaterally adopted for myself, I think it makes sense to talk about religion as a grapefruit. There are so many ways to approach the grapefruit in a way that makes it accessible. You can peel it, first skin and then pith, in an approach that seems to construe the grapefruit on its own terms, and find lobes that appear to organize themselves into neat and monolithic wholes. You can cut it in wedges along paths of your own choosing, and see instead the minuscule separate segment-lets that are all packed in willy-nilly next to one another, each one slightly different; or you can cut it in half, and reveal a pattern that is beautiful, and which on the strength of its beauty can be read as reflecting some great design. But also, some of the shaping constraints of how people eat grapefruit is also analogous to religion. For one thing, people have strong opinions: some swear by it, either for the pleasure it brings or for its health benefits, whereas many others won’t touch it, and for some it is a symbol of austerity. Furthermore, some of its most passionate fans only ever eat it with sugar on top. And finally, if you dig into it too quickly, or from the wrong angle, it’s likely to squirt you in the eye.

Stay Tuned! More bloggers to come! 

Meet the Bloggers Day 2: Kristen Tobey

KTobeyContinuing our “Meet the Bloggers” series for the 2017-2018 academic school year, the Craft of Teaching Program is proud to introduce Kristen Tobey, Assistant Professor of Religion and the Social Sciences in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at John Carroll University.  She has also been an Arts and Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Kristen Tobey: I received my PhD in 2010, in Anthropology and Sociology of Religion with a focus on religion in the United States.  I also received my MA from the Div. School, in 2002.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

KT: I find myself thinking often about Bruce Lincoln’s Classic Theories of Religion.  I don’t do much lecturing in my courses, but when I do—and even when I don’t—I aspire to Lincoln’s effortless blend of encyclopedic knowledge and graceful enthusiasm.  Perhaps especially, I remember that Lincoln (like many of my Div. School professors) always treated the students in the class as worthwhile conversation partners.  Because of that, I left the class with more confidence in myself as a thinker than I began with; now, that’s a gift I work hard to give to my own students.

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?

KT: I’ve been surprised to learn how much being a successful college teacher is bound up with being a good entertainer, in the best sense of the word.  In that same vein, I wish I had learned earlier that, unlike the other graduate students who surround us when we are graduate students, many of my students would not come to my courses brimming with enthusiasm for the subject.  This seems obvious now, but it took me several semesters to figure out that my first task, always, is to sell students on why studying religion is important and enjoyable—something that most of us probably take for granted and might struggle to articulate, especially in ways that are meaningful to our students.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

KT: I’ve been lucky to get to teach most of my “dream courses,” including one I did for the first time last year called Making Religious Selves.  We started from the idea—new to most of the students—that religious identity is context-specific, and dove into the mechanics of religious socialization, asking what it means to “be religious” from one context to another.  I can imagine developing a corollary course someday on Un-making Religious Selves, to deal with topics like conversion and apostasy and leavetaking, but I’ll think of a better title first.

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today, and how?

KT: I remember so many of my undergraduate teachers with fondness and, now that I’m in the business myself, real awe for their level of commitment and the extent to which they gave of themselves.  But the teacher who perhaps inspires my teaching most directly is one who refused to give me an A in the class, because I, out of painful shyness, had failed to contribute to discussions, even once.  Now, it’s important to me to impress on my students the real benefits to be gained from getting braver as a classroom participant, but it’s also important to me to do that in a constructive and non-punitive way, and to be affirming when I see that they’re trying.

CoT: If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

KT: Honestly? Unless the fit between instructors is just right, I find co-teaching to be so challenging that, as long as I’m making wishes, I might wish to never have to co-teach.  (If the person with whom I do co-teach is reading this, he is of course the lone exception.)

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

I can imagine religious studies as a pomegranate. All those bursting seeds are somehow held together by a brittle but tough rind, not unlike the way the dozens (hundreds?) of different approaches to studying religion are improbably corralled under one disciplinary heading.  A pomegranate is a study in the relationship of part to whole; it is simultaneously a frustrating mess and an unmatched delight.  In the same way, its many-in-one nature has always been what most frustrates me and most compels me about our discipline.

Stay tuned for more introduction in the coming days! 

Meet the Bloggers Day 1: Allison Gray

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.

ALG headshotToday 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!

Emotion and Teaching Religion

by Stephanie Frank, Columbia College Chicagosteph%2520without%2520grandma

To bring John Corrigan’s work relating emotion to religion into the conversation we have been having, this year, on this blog, I want to reflect a bit on the relation between emotion and teaching religion. I was struck by Robyn Whittaker’s description of her discomfort, in the classroom, with her students’ recourse to statements of feelings; indeed, it echoed some of my sentiments in the post that I wrote about teaching the day after the 2016 presidential election. I, too, have the impulse to ask students to reframe comments beginning “I feel…” as claims with supporting evidence, and part of me is pulled toward articulating the project of liberal arts education in terms of just this sort of transformation.

I think this impulse derives more from a certain philosophical tradition’s structuring opposition between logos and pathos (an opposition that values one and devalues the other) rather than the nature of the educational enterprise. Indeed, if I consider the proposition more carefully, I do not want to educate my students “out of” feelings–or anything remotely close to that. The question, then, is: what roles do “emotions” play in what we do in our classrooms now, and what roles might we envision for them, in thinking about how we could become more effective teachers in the future?

It is, I think, an underacknowledged truth that a significant part of what we call liberal arts education—and perhaps most of that portion of liberal arts education we call “moral formation”—really amounts to cultivating certain sorts of emotional responses to the world in which we live. It is a commonplace that the role of liberal arts education is not imparting values to students so much as giving students the tools to discern their own values, and I take it that part of what it is to have values is to react emotionally to the world in which we live in certain ways. If I said that I valued autonomy but I were indifferent to instances of coercion I encountered, for instance, you would be reasonable to question whether I had the values I claimed to have.

But I also think it is disingenuous to pretend that we intend purely to help students clarify their own values. I would wager that the majority of us would be disappointed if we learned that (say) a student who had taken our course on race and religion in U.S. history had not become more sensitive (in the sense of emotionally attuned) to issues of structural inequality over the course of the semester. So I think (whether or not we are in the habit of admitting it) part of the project of liberal arts education is moral formation in the sense of cultivating particular emotional responses. Indeed, one of the perils of undergraduate education is that it is often easier for students to acquire the emotional responses associated with certain values than to acquire the skills of defending those values.

All of this is to say that—despite my and Robyn’s visceral responses to the language of “I feel…”– we are always already trafficking in emotion when we teach, whether or not we admit it. But what I have said so far pertains to liberal arts education as entailing the cultivation of certain emotional responses in students—rather as Corrigan suggests (as others have before him) that religious discipline cultivates certain emotional responses in practitioners. A distinct but equally worthy question would more directly address the dilemma that Robyn and I (and I assume others) face in the pedagogical situation of “I feel…”: How can we as teachers channel students’ emotions to cultivate the intellectual dispositions that we seek to impart to them?

Obviously this is a question bigger than a blog post: to approach it properly would require a careful definition of emotion and a coherent account of human motivation, etc. Nevertheless, I think we are already at least peripherally aware of the role certain emotions have in education. The intellectual virtue of curiosity is closely related, for instance, to the emotion of wonder; and I think most of us will have shared with our students the experience of being spurred by annoyance or anger with someone else’s conclusion to carefully analyze the argument that led them there. In some cases, the emotions involved in learning are those that cathect our students’ relationships with us: we have all had interactions with students who were motivated to do intellectual heavy lifting by admiration or, alternatively, demotivated by resentment.

Indeed, I suspect a substantial part of what makes an effective teacher—a part to which we don’t pay enough explicit attention—is not just imparting the ‘right’ emotional responses to students, but also working with students’ emotions to affectively charge the hard work of learning. When I return to the classroom in September, I will be more conscious of the possibilities (and potential liabilities) of this enterprise.

Beyond Expertise: Modeling Learning in an Undergraduate Classroom

By Stephanie Franksteph%2520without%2520grandma

When I got my first teaching assignment in 2009–“Human Being and Citizen” in the College Core at University of Chicago–my reaction was horror. Knowing that the curriculum began with the Iliad, I agonized, “But I don’t have ancient Greek!” Now, as the only full-time faculty member in religious studies at my institution, this reaction seems almost charmingly innocent to me.  Over the last four years, I have developed a whole curriculum in religious studies that draws on languages I do not know, traditions I am not trained in, and themes I did not study in graduate school.

The psychological hurdle of teaching as a non-expert is not to be underestimated. But the fact of the matter is that—specialization being what it is—the vast majority of academics, no matter what their jobs, do most of their teaching in things they would not claim to be ‘experts’ about. And expertise is a not a bright-line matter. I would claim to be an ‘expert’ only on the intellectual history of the Durkheimian school. But ranging in concentric circles from that node of true expertise are other competencies: I know a lot about the history of the social sciences and about secularization theory; I know a fair amount about European intellectual history and the French revolution and critical theory. All of these are topics that I teach regularly to good effect, despite the fact that I have not written books on them. Remembering that expertise is a gradient helps instill the confidence to teach outside of one’s core competencies.

Still, some of us—particularly in smaller undergraduate-focused or service-oriented departments–do less teaching in circles close to our intellectual center than others. I am certainly one of these people. What I have found useful in designing courses (or sections of courses) that are far afield from my competencies:

  • Perhaps most obviously, you can consult with others: people who are experts (or nearer to experts) than are you, or even others who are non-experts but who may have taught a similar class in the past. I have found my cohort from the University of Chicago to be an infinitely rich resource; I have also reached out to strangers on social media to ask for recommendations and cultivated relationships with them from that beginning.
  • Design your syllabus to emphasize themes, questions, and skills rather than facts. This is of course the core of liberal-arts education, but it is both practical and comforting to underscore this (and announce as much to the students) when you feel out of your depth in a certain area.
  • Explore non-traditional pairings juxtaposing less-comfortable material with more-comfortable material. I have taught the Vairochanabhisambodhi Tantra together with a short excerpt from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises; I have also taught it with a few passages from Max Weber on asceticism. This sort of programming can be very exciting and rewarding for students who are just learning to think about affinities and contrasts between different traditions.

If you can clear the the confidence hurdle through some combination of clear-eyed reflection and prudent course design, I think teaching outside of your expertise often opens up a pedagogy with a different rhythm—it provides an unusual number of opportunities for learning alongside your students, which can be very exciting for everyone. What I have found useful in this sort of teaching:

  • Be upfront with your students when the topic at hand is something you do not claim expertise in. Students often appreciate knowing that professors, too, have limitations. (This is often coded in terms of ‘relatability’ or ‘accessibility’ on student evaluations.)
  • Resist allowing your anxiety about lack of expertise to push you into scripting your class sessions too thoroughly, and certainly resist the temptation to lapse into lecture. Areas in the curriculum where you have less expertise are great opportunities for in-class activities. (Asking colleagues for ideas regarding specific content can be very useful.)
  • Try explicitly thematizing the fact that you are learning together: ask the students to bring to class a puzzlement regarding the material of the day. Have them list their puzzlements on the whiteboard, and include one of your own. See how many the students can solve adequately, working together, volunteer whatever answers you have, and then consult an expert on the rest.
  • Get comfortable with the response, “That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. But I will find out and get back to you.” Then do that. Modelling independent learning is great for students. I keep a small notebook in my handbag where I jot such questions down; I begin each class session with a quick review of the last session, and circle back to answer any questions that I left hanging during that review, acknowledging the student who posed the question by name.
  • At least once during the semester, invite a colleague who is an expert to attend class, whether in person or by Skype. Assign your guest’s work to the students and ask her to discuss it with them, or arrange for a more informal question-and-answer session (using class time to compile a list of worthwhile questions in advance).