Pilgrimage: An Ancient Model for Transformative Theological Education

By Andrew DeCort, Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology

Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia

For three consecutive years (2014-2016), I had the privilege of designing and co-leading the Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia (AAE) program at Wheaton College. The first part of AAE revolved around a 16-week academic seminar that immersed our students in primary and secondary Ethiopian sources. These interdisciplinary readings focused on (1) Ethiopia’s governing narratives shaping self-understanding (“authority”), (2) constitutive practices and institutions that organize body and society (“action”), and (3) systems of evaluation for critiquing and reimagining authority and action toward a new future (“ethics”). AAE became a framework for interpreting and engaging human identity and society with the goal of cultivating responsible Christian leadership across cultures.

Dr. DeCort leading the AAE seminar at Wheaton College (2014).

The AAE seminar was designed to prepare our students to travel to Ethiopia itself for eighteen days during the summer. Our goals for this extended “site visit” – what I called a Pilgrimage of Theological Humanism – were fourfold: (1) to be deeply present, (2) to listen closely, (3) to observe carefully, and (4) to undergo transformative learning. We didn’t travel to Ethiopia with the usual foreign agenda: to tour, teach, and “change” people, or even to do academic “fieldwork” per se. We went to Ethiopia to be with Ethiopians and to learn from Ethiopians in their own spaces, with their own problems and possibilities, having done as much homework as 16 weeks would allow.

Thus, we embarked with a deep sense of expectation, seeking to reimagine our visions of authority, action, and ethics through intensive, often intense encounters with Ethiopians, their vocations, and their implicit and explicit “AAEs.” During our pilgrimage we engaged nearly thirty visits/seminars with diverse local leaders, including Abuna Mathias, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewehado Church; Dr. Betta Mengistu, a founding father of the Pentecostal movement; Professor Abdulatif Khedir, a Muslim intellectual who teaches law and human rights at Addis Ababa University; Blen Sahilu, a feminist activist promoting women’s wellbeing against gender-based violence; and representatives at the African Union.

With Aba Sereke Birhan at the Head Quarters of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (2016).

The AAE program was recognized for excellence by the University of Chicago Center for Teaching, won praise from the President of Wheaton College, and many of our alumni commented that this program was the most formative academic experience of their college career (see here and here). In the remainder of this reflection, I will briefly describe two of our many site visits and then meditate even more briefly on three factors that made this pilgrimage so rich for our students and so respectful for our hosts.

Itash’s House

Our first “site visit” was perhaps counter-intuitive but crucial for our pilgrimage. I took our students to visit an Ethiopian Orthodox family living in a tiny mud house in one of Addis’s slums. I have built a close relationship with this loving family for over ten years and brought my students with their permission. This family, like so many others, has persevered through intense hardship: rural-urban migration, HIV, a bad injection at a government hospital that left their daughter nearly paralyzed, the hard work of making ends meet in a city with massive unemployment, and the daily life of seven people living in a single room with one bed.

Before our visit, I began by reading a narrative essay to my students describing this family’s history, their incredible strength and religious devotion, and why I wanted us to visit their home at the beginning of our pilgrimage. We then traveled to their neighborhood, walked deep into the slum, and crowded into Itash’s home. Many of my students commented that this “site visit” was the most impactful during our time in Ethiopia.

Talking with Itash, left, in her home after lunch and coffee (2016).

With Itash we discovered radical hospitality. Itash warmly welcomed us as family and invited us to feel at home sitting on her family’s bed. She cooked us a lavish meal of delicious injera-be-wet (traditional bread and stew) in her small kitchen. She then served us home-roasted coffee as she told us about her life, how she practices gratitude each morning as she prays and drinks coffee, and how God is faithful as she bakes injera and supports her family amidst the suffering that life brings.

This preface to our pilgrimage was not poverty porn or a call for pity. It was the attuning paradigm for everything that followed: Itash is a powerful author, agent, and ethicist – an exemplar of radical hospitality, sacrificial generosity, and humane leadership. We came to be present, listen, observe, and learn with her as our professor, in the midst of her neighborhood, which is daily life for so many millions of Ethiopians and others.

Without sanitizing the injustice of poverty, that slum and Itash’s home became a sacred space of human encounter, religious reverence, and practical learning about a deeply good life amidst lack, sickness, and tragedy. I wanted my students to learn from the very beginning of this “site visit” – this pilgrimage – that we came to learn from everyone, everywhere, in every circumstance of life, starting with this strong woman and her resilient family. (Later on the trip, we fasted a meal, and the savings were privately given to Itash to express our gratitude and make sure her hospitality did not take away from her family’s needs.)

Year after year, I have been astonished by Itash’s generous welcome and the enduring impression she made on my students. Long after we returned home, students commented that they still think of Itash each morning as they drink coffee and reflect on the meaning of gratitude and the demands of responsibility in a world with so much goodness and grief.

Lalibela’s Rockhewn Churches

Later in our pilgrimage, we took a plane from Addis to Lalibela, a rural town in the northern mountains of Ethiopia with eleven rockhewn churches dating from the 13th century and before. Lalibela is described as Ethiopia’s Jerusalem and “the eighth wonder of the world,” a former capitol and continuing pilgrimage site where millions of Ethiopians have traveled to celebrate the birth of Jesus for nearly a thousand years and still to this day.

As our guide Gashaw took us deep into these ancient stone sanctuaries, he explained the rich theological significance that surrounded us. Again and again, he invited us to remove our shoes before entering to embody our reverence for these sacred spaces. He noted that the churches point to the east, orienting pilgrims in space toward the resurrection and return of Christ. Half of the churches symbolize the earthly Jerusalem and the others the heavenly Jerusalem, with the stream between them named Jordan and the mountain behind them named Herman: this is a sacred city that marries earth and heaven. The stones inside are smooth from the millions of hands that have touched them, the millions of lips that have kissed them, seeking God in the physical mediation of stone dedicated to heaven. The hand drums with which the priests lead the people in dancing and singing boom with the gospel: the smaller, bottom end of the drum represents the Old Testament; the larger, bigger end represents the New Testament; between them is the body of the drum held together with leather straps, which simultaneously represents the womb of Mary and the wounded body of Jesus. With dancing feet, singing voices, and the bassy boom of the drum, the Gospel is alive: resonating between Old and New Testaments, the womb of Mary gives birth to the Messiah Jesus, whose stripes have healed the world and filled it with God’s glory.

AAE visiting St. Giorgis Church in Lalibela, Ethiopia (2016).

Deep in the hewn mountains of Lalibela’s ancient churches, my students encountered a surprising classroom for questioning Platonized Christianity, which emphasizes disembodied propositional beliefs that lead to an afterlife in an immaterial otherworld. There in Lalibela, sacred space is literally carved into rock. The cold of the stone reminds the pilgrims of holy earth beneath their feet. The colorful etchings and icons fire the imagination with divine history. The drum-driven dance of worship booms with an embodied gospel in a sanctuary filled with incense. Worshipers drink holy water and cross their foreheads with sacred ash. Going before us, Gashaw led us through a long, pitch-black tunnel from one church to another, crouching and struggling not to lose our footing – an embodied performance of the pilgrimage from darkness to light that is human history, climactically incarnated in the death and resurrection of Jesus as we walk together.

In Lalibela, we found that Christian believing gets embodied in Christian touching, seeing, tasting, hearing, and smelling – hewn into stone, oriented toward the east, calling humanity into a life of pilgrimage toward the New Jerusalem. My students were provoked and inspired by an unfamiliar Christianity, which is far more ancient than their American Evangelicalism. Authority, action, and ethics took on new dimensions.

Conclusion: Preparation, Expectation, and Reflection

The AAE pilgrimage is not a perfect model of site visits and theological education. But these two vignettes from a woman’s home and a town of ancient churches illustrate the rich learning that led my students to rethink their own authority, action, and ethics and to see this program as a pillar of their undergraduate education. In conclusion, what were some of the pieces that made these site visits so meaningful?

First, our site visits were preceded by thick preparation. Before stepping foot in Ethiopia, we did 16 weeks of rigorous study, dialogue, and fellowship. We cultivated epistemic humility by discovering our ignorance, while actively informing ourselves. We wove a deep sense of trusting community by regular meetings and meals together. We also developed a rich spiritual attunement toward our travel by assigning weekly ethnographic exercises and the readiness to encounter sacred presence with everywhere, in each place, in every circumstance with the ethical ethos “welcome: your coming is good.”

Second, our site visits were energized by a deep – in our case, daily – expectation. Yes, we traveled to learn “academic” material – dates, places, people, causes, complexities, and outcomes. But we went to Ethiopia expecting to be touched and changed by others. AAE was far more than a field trip to collect data. It was a voluntary risk to expose and share ourselves with others and their stories, who generously welcomed and received us, including Orthodox, Pentecostal, Muslim, agnostic, and atheist Ethiopians. Again and again, I invited my students to be deeply present, to listen closely, to observe carefully, and to open themselves to transformative learning. Of course, this spiritual practice requires voluntary investment from each member of the cohort, but we found that this developed organically out of this program’s application process and 16 weeks of preparation.

Third, site visits like AAE require enduring reflection. After we returned home from Ethiopia, the students were tasked with rereading the notes from their ethnography journals taken during our pilgrimage. They were then assigned to write an essay entitled “Paradigms of a Plausible Future” based on W.H. Auden’s poem “The Garrison,” where he writes, “To serve as a paradigm now of what a plausible Future might be is what we’re here for.” In this integrative essay, we asked our students to describe and analyze 3 to 5 of the most powerful site visits from our pilgrimage and how these Ethiopian people and/or places embody “paradigms of a plausible future” for our lives and leadership in global society. Thus, the students were given a chance to formulate how their rigorous preparation and materialized expectation formed into enduring learning about authority, action, and ethics that can be applied across contexts. Our site visits were not left behind like tourism but became part of us like pilgrimage. In fact, upon our return, students were challenged to consider daily life across contexts as an endless pilgrimage calling for their presence, listening, observance, and transformative learning.

Site visits are risky and can easily turn into “trips” that leave hosts feeling like disrespected tools and visitors like extractive tourists. But they can also be transformative and life-changing learning experiences. Across the three years of Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia, we found that our thick preparation, deep expectation, and enduring reflection designed a pilgrimage of learning that made our hosts feel deeply respected (a comment I heard frequently) and our students inspired and responsible.

With my colleague Dr. Matthew Robinson, I look forward to relaunching the AAE program later this year through the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms Universität Bonn and the Institute for Christianity and the Common Good.



Students in the Field: The Pedagogy and Ontology of Site Visits

By Kristen Tobey, John Carroll University

As a social scientist, I value fieldwork not only as crucial for much of my research, but also as central to how we learn best about religion. I was hired into my current position on those grounds, as someone who could expand my department’s methodological breadth and be a resource for students interested in religion as local and lived. My courses bear the stamp of my methodological disposition, but I am also the go-to, as advisor or sounding board, when a student has a sociological or anthropological project or thesis in mind. Part of my role within my department is to guide students through the tactics and ethics of field research, and I delight in that role.

Still, I have mixed feelings when it comes to sending students into the field. Ideally, site visits expand students’ horizons, allowing encounter with the “other” and highlighting particularity while revealing that difference isn’t scary, and often isn’t even altogether different. Especially at an institution like mine, where many of the students have attended Catholic schools for years and often have had little exposure to religions other than their own, these tandem outcomes are tremendously valuable, and students often express appreciation for them after the fact (in contrast to the trepidation they usually express upon realizing that a course has an experiential requirement). When they fall short of the ideal, however, site visits can disrupt the site and its practitioners, and discomfit students. At their worst, they may even confirm biases and prejudices. This is pedagogical ground to tread carefully, as Dr. Anne Mocko will discuss in her upcoming Craft of Teaching workshop. In tandem with that workshop, I offer some thoughts on how to help site visits go well, and how to render them valuable even when they seem to fall short of the ideal.

For the purposes of ordinary coursework, I send students in to the field primarily in two admittedly uncreative ways: independent visits to a religious service or event from a tradition that is unfamiliar to them, and class field trips. The “unfamiliar tradition” visits, especially, never fail to inspire dread in students. For most of my students, this assignment is their first exposure to a religious tradition other than their own, and I can count on one hand the students who have been excited about it beforehand rather than anxious. Little do they know how much more I worry about this assignment than they do.

Mostly I worry about them having an experience that seems tedious or difficult or otherwise off-putting, and coming away more bored or even antagonistic towards the study of religion than when they went in. Correspondingly, my pedagogical work around this assignment primarily has to do with managing anxieties and expectations—theirs and mine. We talk at length about details like how to dress (always students’ first question), but I’ve learned over time that questions about what to wear and the like often mask deeper concerns about the ontology of participant-observation. My mostly-Catholic students wonder what it means for them to attend a non-Catholic service, in the same way that the mostly-Methodist students I took on a short study-abroad trip to Cophenhagen a few years ago wondered what it meant for them to suddenly find themselves involved in an unplanned neopagan rite that none of us expected. I now make explicit what I didn’t always realize I needed to articulate: that visiting doesn’t have to include participating, and that what participation implies ontologically is theirs to determine. I emphasize to students, however, that if they wish not to participate, they should choose a site accordingly, one where a stranger sitting on the sidelines will not be perceived as threatening.

Students often are surprised to consider that their presence might arouse suspicion. This past year, however, a number of students experienced exactly that when they attended a synagogue service at a temple near campus. As the students entered the temple, they were approached and queried (brusquely, as they later told the story) about their purpose there, and then were asked to leave. Our Catholic university sits squarely in the middle of a heavily Jewish neighborhood; the nearby temples are accustomed to and have always welcomed visiting students at their services. I was fully taken aback when my students reported to the class that “people were mean” at the temple. What initially seemed to be all my students’ worst fears coming true, however, turned into an important pedagogical moment, as the class together connected the congregants’ wariness with a recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks on area temples.

I worry less about students having an outright bad experience—those instances are so very rare—than I do about students being “bored,” as they might characterize it: not finding a meaningful entry into the experience, not coming away with takeaways that they can recognize as significant. I have found that students are more invested in the visits when we all work together to generate a list of things they might fruitfully notice, most of which don’t seem to be “about” religion, necessarily. I ask them to think about what someone might notice or observe upon visiting a regular activity of theirs for the first time. For many of my students, a religious service would fall under the category of something they do regularly, but I ask them specifically to think first about non-religious activities, where the students (especially in the 100-level courses where site visits are a common assignment) have an easier time identifying the observable social dynamics at play. At your LGBTQ+ meeting, what might someone attending for the first time notice? At your sorority or fraternity event? In the few minutes before swim team practice? I do not mean to suggest to them that a religious service is reducible to its social dynamics. But coming up with concrete things to notice—somebody seems to be in charge (or not); women and men are doing different things (or not); some people seem like they really know what they’re doing (and some don’t); the room is set up in a particular way for the event (or it’s not)—helps students to feel less adrift when walking into an unfamiliar situation.

That many of those things are not explicitly about religion means that their observations might not be, either.  Often those ostensibly non-religious observations are the most teachable ones. After a class trip to Kirtland Temple (an important LDS site near our campus), several students seemed astonished that our tour guide had tattoos up and down both of his arms. “But he said he was a minister!” they gasped. Who was this man? What does it mean to be a minister? What does it mean to be religious? I hadn’t planned for the conversation that ensued (indeed, as a Gen-Xer, I had scarcely registered his tattoos); the students surely hadn’t either. But it was just the one we all wanted to have.

The Student’s Voice

By Allison Gray, St. Mary’s University

Those who attend the upcoming CoT workshop with Prof. Margaret Mitchell will get toALG headshot experience firsthand her fun and effective prosopon exercise, which invites students to internalize and embody the voices of biblical interpreters throughout history. I’d like to offer some reflections and resources for a complementary invitation we teachers issue in the religious studies classroom, the invitation for students to show up as interpreters themselves and share their authentic, informed voices with their classmates.

The challenge

Anyone who has stood in front of an undergraduate classroom probably knows what I mean by “student face” – the inscrutable, near-universal, apparently blank stare that can mask anything from utter boredom to fear of the cold call to quiet expectation that the class will be interesting. I’d venture to say that “student face” is the default starting position in most courses. But on the best days, that careful, safe mask slips, and we really see our students: something clicks and suddenly there’s a path into what they care about and what they’re most excited to do next. Now there’s something at stake in the conversation, they take ownership of the material, and together we’re looking for answers, or for more helpful questions, or for connections to life experience. What is it, exactly, that creates a space where students can show up and speak with authority in their own voices?

Watching students really talk to each other and engage in lively debate about a text is so rewarding, it’s tempting to attribute it to some kind of magic. Maybe it inheres in these texts I love (who isn’t thrilled to talk about the apostle Peter bringing a smoked fish back to life?) or maybe I can chalk a successful class up to my own infectious enthusiasm, or maybe that great discussion last week was a result of the Super Blue Blood Moon 2018. But in fact – thankfully – the magic is largely the product of careful preparation, and it can be built into low-stakes assignments due on the day of a class meeting where you’d like to hear students’ voices.

A sample assignment

I’ve had some success with assigning Position Papers in my advanced New Testament courses. First we lay the groundwork. We’ll spend one class period on method or theory, such as studying varied definitions of magic and miracle. The next class period is devoted to modeling application, for example, talking about whether the Jesus of Mark 9 heals with miracle or magic and interrogating our own assumptions about Jesus, the gospels, and the definitions themselves. Finally, each student has to write a Position Paper on a test case text that is the assigned reading for the next meeting; in this particular sequence we used the non-canonical Acts of Peter. In approximately 750 words, students must defend one of two positions, drawing on the methods we’ve discussed and using evidence from the assigned primary text (Peter’s works of power are miracle or Peter’s works of power are magic). Students bring their Position Papers to class, I ask them what they think and remind them to defend their position using evidence, and we’re off to the races. Students who don’t normally participate talk animatedly, many respond directly to other students’ comments and speak to each other by name, and it’s not unusual for the conversation to continue in the hallway after class. They show up, make their voices heard, and listen to each other’s voices.

Crafting an assignment

To my mind, assignments that create the potential for a dynamic class discussion combine several key features:

  • They are low-stakes assignments. This assignment isn’t going to make or break anybody’s grade, and the rubric places more emphasis on completion or a good-faith effort than on mastery. The assignment is not terribly onerous, so it can be repeated several times during a single term, giving students practice and increasing their confidence.
  • They build on work you’ve already done together. Test out a theory introduced in the last class or explain how this new-to-you text displays features of a genre the class is studying. On Bloom’s taxonomy, the main task of the assignment would be probably be classified as “application.” Students aren’t being asked to do something totally new but to take knowledge they feel confident about and bring it to bear in a new situation.
  • They require engagement with texts or other artifacts (i.e., students have to do the assigned reading). Abstract reflection won’t suffice, because everybody is analyzing a shared object. Students need to make evidence-based arguments instead of offering opinions.
  • They encourage creativity. The assignment leaves room for students to take it personally, to connect course material to things they care about outside of class, or at least to take a position and defend it.

With this combination of features, the assignment can allow or even encourage students to take calculated risks, testing out theories or methods they’ve just learned without too much fear of somehow getting it wrong. The result tends to be either frustration with the limits of a theory or excitement about a new discovery, both reactions that can be productively shared in a room of one’s peers and that generally create feelings of camaraderie among the students who are willing to use their voices. And no one just sits back with “student face.”


(Symposium with a Flute Girl)

Additional resources

Spencer Benson’s recent post on The Scholarly Teacher blog: “How to Use Questions to Promote Student Learning” [link: https://www.scholarlyteacher.com/blog/using-questions-for-student-learning]

Jakob Rinderknecht’s writing assignment modeled on the Thomistic disputation, described in a post on the TheoDepot blog [link: https://theodepot.wordpress.com/2014/05/01/thomistic-disputations-for-first-year-students/#more-52]

An exercise for listening to student voices on sensitive topics, from klguidero at TheoDepot [link: https://theodepot.wordpress.com/2016/11/21/talking-trump/]


A (Failed) Fugue for the Holidays

by Sonam Kachru, University of Virginia

“Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony”–Lou Reed

“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” –Edward Gibbon


It is hard to know where one is with teaching. Of Richard Feynman’s legendary undergraduate lectures in physics, a treat required of all Caltech freshmen and sophomores (of all majors) between 1961-1964, some reported that it was like going to church. Not the solemn and somber kind, but the joyous, effervescent, in-your-bones variety of energizing spectacle you might carry with you through the week after.

sonam_kachru_religious_studies_01hr_da (1)Others, however, reached for different if no less pious fictions of foreign worlds to essay more sober assessments:

I found the lectures exciting and understandable in the hall, but they were Sanskrit outside [when I tried to reconstruct the details].

(Between us, Sanskrit—it is not so hard, whether you’re in or out of a classroom; it’s cognitive music, I find, and not at all like the study of Anglo-Saxon, the forced study of which Guy Davenport declared he would not forgive on Judgment Day, one of three pedagogical catastrophes, in fact, he was determined to begrudge the Maker: Philology was right up there along with having to learn how to abandon a sinking ship, and having to learn how to crawl under live machine‐gun fire.[1] To each, you see, their own very personal nightmarish figures for the halls and hells of learning.)

The thing that interests me here is that the student for whom physics turned to Sanskrit (and life, presumably, a little like the Lou Reed song quoted above) was in a position to agree with Feynman’s own considered thoughts regarding his pedagogical experiment.

In June 1963, Feynman offered the following assessment, one which he admitted to be widely at variance with the conclusions of the majority of his students and colleagues:

“I don’t think I did very well by the students. When I look at the way the majority of the students handled the problems on the examinations, I think that the system is a failure.”

That’s a simple enough criterion: can students solve the problems? If not, what would it mean to “know” the concepts introduced in the lectures?

It is hard to know where one is with teaching. Here’s one reason. To generate, and to maintain, the interest and enthusiasm of students for a subject is one thing; to convey what you need to “get around,” or, at least, to “know your way around” in a subject, where such skill is assessed by the professional standards of a discipline, is quite another thing entirely. Thing is, at least Feynman had a criterion. I don’t.

I used to think I had one. I recall the first time I read Feynman’s comments. I was sixteen. It sobered me right up.

Here’s why. In an India of a less global-market-friendly time, I had access to the three much-faded black-and-white photocopies of the originally unmistakably red volumes of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a treasured and much used hand-me-down my elder brother left behind when we went off to college. It was an indulgence of time as well as of money. I read them greedily, and furtively. You read them at night for inspiration, for orienting clarity and insight, for “the pleasure of finding things out” and the kind of entertainment some found in MTV in the houses of friends when their night-shift working parents were away. Feynman’s lectures were not on our school syllabus. They were neither assigned nor recommended in the long, brutal, trench-war-slog for the entrance examinations that determined where you might end up in this world. (Ha!) In the trenches, you “read” (meaning fought, ducked under, wrestled with, threw, slammed head against, pencil in hand) books like this, then available to us only in samizdat form:

Problems in General Physics

Feynman was for after-hours entertainment for some of the reasons he himself discerned. It got your blood flowing, ideas forming, changed your breathing even, showing you things in a light you could not have imagined possible. It was orienting, providing context and explanation. It taught you how to think, and why it matters. But it did not help you solve problems. Or, at least, it didn’t on its own.

What it means to “know” a concept, my instructors and tutors for my teenage years of failed rebellion repeatedly said, is to be able to recognize occasions where it could be applied, and to know how to apply it. Which meant: learning a rule, an exemplary problem, and then hacking through the undergrowth of proliferating cases till you got the feel of it in your bones. Were my teachers right and never mind Aristotle? Was “wonder” a dish best served after more nutritious fare and long labor? Is understanding (in the big-picture, orienting variety) for after-hours? (Vasubandhu, meanwhile, believed wonder came after long analysis and argument. But that’s another story.)

Feynman, I would now say, is not an example of, shall we say, how to read, but how to re-read. What he offered was a master-class reintroducing material we only thought we knew. A teacher of materials twice-removed from my students, in time, and tradition, I am rarely in a position to offer such classes. Typically, I must introduce. And by what criterion shall I judge my successes or failures?

I’ve found that learning a language, learning poetics, or even poetry, philosophy certainly, mythology sometimes, or more grandly, other human worlds, can, and ought to, really, require of one a discipline a lot closer to the kind of crawling through Irodov I begrudged then than it does the engagement Feynman seduces you into feeling.  But where is our Irodov for humanities?

Sure. We in the humanities don’t have the neatly defined paradigms of problems or solutions (much less paradigms of problems and solutions). But this is in part a function of decisions. I’m with Anthony Grafton (among others). It was not always the case that scientists and scholars have always been good neighbors forever sundered by the fences of methods and sensibilities. Here’s a riddle for a learned lore-master in an age of suspicion: how do you connect a wizard (Gandalf), a detective (Sherlock Holmes), a doctor (Sigmund Freud), an art critic in disguise (Giovanni Morelli), and the wonderful (perhaps, only seeming) anachronism of a Franciscan nominalist on the threshold of a new paradigm? With the help of a literary critic, a philologist, a micro-historian, and an impossibly learned semiotician, of course.[2]

We do have a zoo of quixotic objects (in the mathematician’s sense of “object”), and these exemplified at different scales; we have a battery of methods, disciplines, skills, and, more generally, varieties of craft-honed sensibilities we had better be in a position to pass on or at least to make less idiosyncratically and unreliably available than they currently are. (Must you really still apprentice with a doctor-fater-wizard to learn discipline, skill and craft in the humanities?) For the most part, we neither drill students on the premodern ‘cognitive technologies’ of argument, memory, attention, nor exhaustively test (in Irodov’s sense of “test”) students on their grasp of the modern (and premodern) tools of our trade, the comparison, the field-note, the time-line, the list, the tree-diagram, the genealogy, the ‘humble’ description…[3]

Perhaps my longing for an Irodov for the Humanities is inflected by accidents of biography. (I would have loved to have been tested on my ability to read, and to produce, kinship diagrams, a variety of tool which I am now, sadly, entirely unqualified to use.) Certainly, I am not advocating for the pedagogy of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, man of realities, fact, and calculation. I do not believe with Gradgrind that what is called taste is another name for fact; I do not advocate seeking mechanical substitutes for their tender young imaginations. And I disagree with Feynman, who at times could speak as if what we do in the humanities is a little like unjustified confidence in search of eloquent obfuscation. Why should beauty reside in this dimension of one centimeter, Feynman once asked of the flower reserved for poets, with the idea that the virtues of inquiry need not be confined to one discipline. That is so. But why, then, should rigor reside only at some scales, for some variety of objects, and not others?

For a certainty I believe that there is room for more pulling-up-your-sleeves and hewing-wood-and-drawing-water variety of in-class work than the model we’ve now got going in the humanities. On the current system any class with fewer than thirty students and which is not a class constrained by the demands of being responsible to a work in a foreign language, seems destined to descend into free-form (only apparently spontaneous) conversational séances from which truth or meaning (or whatever it is we take ourselves to exemplify) is expected to leak out of the ground like oil in Dehran. Not so much a Socratic chin-wag as the conversations Amos Bronson Alcott made the model for children at the Temple School in Boston in the nineteenth century: experimental, bold, innovative—all the things administrators love, and which are, often enough, like big-drilling, wildly self-defeating. For at the end is rarely discovery, too often only the broadcasting and search for confirmation of entrenched commitments from those already far too comfortable with their own voices.

At least in religious studies, home to every discipline and none, we outsource too much of craft and training, believing learning to be the same thing as finding your own voice, or some such, or after the kind of big game only found in conversation (as if thought were always and only the same thing as conversation). We leave too much of our teaching for those last, hastily scribbled comments on the margins of papers few will ever pick up again.


Of course, you’ll want both, skill-sets and virtues like curiosity and the wonder of the Big-Picture Stuff, the reverberating and clarifying joy of the revealing detail. I don’t know how to make magic in a classroom and transmit essential skills in a single class with the one set of students I’ll probably only see once. Well. That’s not quite it. I have, in fact, no criteria for knowing whether or not I have successfully done either.

I’ve begun experimenting with lectures. (More about which in my next post.) And I have begun trying to generate tasks, not conversations in class, an attempt to find that sweet poetic median between silence and incoherence. But I remain tethered at the other end to the variety of assignments second-nature to the humanities, the essay, the reading-response, the multiple-choice exam.

Part of that is lack of experience. I’ve been at this only three years. I have neither sufficient experience of teaching, nor any evidence of particular distinction therein. Seriously. None whatsoever. To adapt the sage Spike Milligan: no fear of awards, no time soon. Partly my befuddlement is surely because of the truth in Dickens’ saying of a more principled and worse instructor than I: “if he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might taught much more.”

But it’s not all grim news. I’ve newly learnt that an assignment need not be an assessment. And I’ve had good fortune with assignments designed to invite the engagement of students with materials with which they have no prior acquaintance, either in their lives or in the classroom.

Listen to this, for example:

This is a final assignment produced by a freshman student in his first semester of college: a musical transposition (and condensation) of the entire lyrical narrative of Aśvaghoṣa’s Life of the Buddha as it survives in Sanskrit and as this student read it in the translation of Patrick Olivelle. I like to think of it as a series of musical illustrations of the life of the Buddha. At least, that was the assignment: illustrate, in any medium, at least three episodes or scenes from the Life of the Buddha, and think of the illustration as a particular kind of vehicle joining translation and commentary.

You’ll want to bear three things in mind when judging this assignment. First off, this is from a student who has decided to commit to the study of commerce despite his love for music, with zero exposure to Buddhism, or indeed, any religion in an academic setting. What the hell, let’s be honest. This student did not produce a single piece of writing the entire semester that involved more than two sentences or the use of much punctuation at all. He said almost nothing in class. He only once approached me outside class. And that was to ask if he could write a piece of music for his final assignment.

Here’s the second thing. As was made clear in this student’s accompanying note briefly outlining his process of composition and the aesthetic principles governing the work, this student has recapitulated, without knowing it, the discovery in South Asian literary criticism of the possibility that moods can serve as principles for the unity of a composition. He even confronted a problem that exercised literary critics in South Asia, and T. S. Eliot at the beginning of the last century: how do you unite a succession of disparate moods in some culminating and contextualizing aesthetic state?

Now for the kicker: This transposition involves a finely considered act of judgment. Unlike Aśvaghoṣa, my student believed that the story required as an aesthetic context an intimation of the long background of the Buddha’s past lives. But he did not articulate this at first in words. It was only when asked for the function and value of a musical prelude I did not at first understand that it was made explicit that Aśvaghoṣa, as my musician-accountant averred, wanted improving—“It just doesn’t work otherwise.” I disagree. But if I do, it is only because he had given me something with enough shape and reach to disagree with. It wasn’t one more case of something “not even wrong.”

Clearly, this is cognitive engagement of a high order. This not-verbally-blessed student has worked his way into Aśvaghoṣa’s narrative. A+ I gave him. He was dignified. “Cool. Thanks,” he said and walked out of my office for the last time.

Such a blessed marriage of assignment and assessment is rare. I’ll be frank. My typical attempts at engaging the students with #unessays, or non-traditional assignments, produce little you could dignify as knowledge. Some enthusiasm. Not a little ingenuity (if a little too much like American high-school projects for my taste). And yet, little learning. And the traditional writing assignments? They have produced monsters born of the pairing of a teacher’s lack of invention and the abysmal high-school “education” of students that has taught them to call anything longer than fifteen pages a novel, and anything under, an op-ed.

Exceptions? Sure. I have had the pleasure of teaching one undergraduate, a first year, in fact, who reliably, consistently, and brilliantly outperformed my graduate students, producing finely-crafted argumentative prose for every writing assignment, with clearly formulated and insightful questions, well-weighted conclusions, the whole-thing balanced on a delicately arranged garden of references. Give her the name of a book and she’ll have read the shelf on which she found it in the library by the time you next meet. I have had nothing to do with her success. And my pedagogical ambition with respect to her is to try as much as I can to not get in her way.


It’s a little like parenting, I suppose. We may own only the inevitable failures. (The quote from Edward Gibbon in my epigraph was lifted from Feynman’s preface to his lectures—in failure, we may at least expect to keep good company.)

At least we can try and fail better.

And take comfort in failure. And then, particularly with failures of assessment. That’s where I’d like to leave things. There is one failure which I repeat to myself like a catechism this time of year. (Non-Hindus, you may read that to say “like a mantra.”)

Take that all-rounder in education, the good citizen and specialist in medicine, Dr. Watson. Do you recall his assessment of his singular roommate? It went something like this: Knowledge of Literature—nil; Knowledge of Philosophy—nil; Knowledge of Astronomy—nil; and so on, not without excluding this gem: “Knows nothing of practical gardening.” Holmes was no good as a liberal arts student, you’d deduce. Nor, I take it, a good citizen, at least not of the kind we are trying to produce.

It is not just that you’d rather spend time with Sherlock. Dr. Watson was a poor assessor. Holmes had Latin, Shakespeare, Goethe, and markedly unlike our current crop of citizen-parochials, Hafiz even. As Watson was to own to later, he didn’t just play the violin, but composed for it. Sherlock’s mind, self-bestowed by a singular commitment to his own course of study, eluded all but self-assessment. In the third week of November 1895 he devoted himself to the music of the Middle Ages, the “Polyphonic Motets of Lassus [Orlando di Lasso—I had to look that up].” You can’t play such music. To write the book on them, as Sherlock did, one would have had to “read” these pieces or at least “hear” what was written for multiple voices (and no other instrument) in the echo-chamber of one’s mind.

Mightily idiosyncratic, and formidably difficult to assess, requiring a lifetime to know, may young Sherlock be the patron saint of our grading season. Or so I mutter to myself, especially when I come across works like that my inscrutable and mute accountant-musician produced. I should have entirely overlooked him but for the happy accident of assessing him on the basis of an entirely idiosyncratic assignment.

I recall what I have learnt from Hugh Kenner (RIP), a geometer in prose, and a gentleman who remained almost, but not quite, utterly unintelligible in the lecture hall. A Victorian arithmetic of persons would have us add up Sherlock and Watson to exactly one: a single person, one half of which is a calculating machine, the other all beating heart. One creature lives in the mind of Charles Babbage, and the other in Tennyson’s In Memorium.

If you persist in such Victorian divisions of labor, you’ll forever need the pair, even if both halves ever after slander one another in perpetual friendship. Sherlock accused Watson of betraying what ought to have been an exemplary lecture for a tale, logic for romanticism. Watson, wrongly I think, would not believe the general public—the fabled citizenry we continuously invoke in our manifestos to administrators—ready for Sherlock’s style of incarnating thought in language. The success of Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces suggests that Watson was too quick in his dismissal of the fabled common reader, even as the awful pedantry of Holmes’ own attempts at prose, and the limited success of Feynman’s Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, suggests that entertainment is not the only virtue narrative (and other imaginative pedagogical devices) might claim in a competition with logic and analysis.

We might not get away teaching only as the Sherlocks of this world. But even as we teach as the Watsons, let us not forget that we must surely, then, not only aim to teach the Watsons. (That is a sentence that might have suggested far more wit and eloquence in Sanskrit with the possibility of its music of cases. Sigh.) Handicapped we might be, but we might exercise enough freedom and judgment to discern that we ought not to calibrate our successes and failures by only such standards the Watsons so nobly and helpfully extrude into this world. This season of grades and otherwise good cheer let us not forget those who may slip through the nets of our vexed assessments, those who may sit among the indolent and the blank-eyed, the slouchers and the seemingly indifferent, stubbornly and idiosyncratically learning what we cannot always know.

My new year’s resolution: continue to refine the #unessays, while sitting down to develop problem sets for the humanities.

But there is also this. I might not give my daughter Irodov for her fifteenth birthday. But I am sure to give her my non-cyclostyled proudly red copy of Feynman’s lectures. Not without William Dwight Whitney’s A Sanskrit Grammar: Including both the classical language, and the older dialects, of Veda and Brahmana.

Along with my apologies, naturally. As with parenting, you never really know where you are with teaching.



[1] As the essay is a gem, a triumph of detective-work with an improbable protagonist, I’ll cite it here: “Hobbits in Kentucky,” The New York Times, February 23, 1979.

[2] Read Guy Davenport’s “Tolkien, R.I.P.” for the October 3, 2005 edition of the National Review alongside Carlo Ginzburg’s better known “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” followed up by a re-reading of The Name of the Rose.

[3] How do you pass on “ways of seeing” rigorously and engagingly, beyond assigning John Berger’s book of that name? The next time I teach the necessarily ill-fated comedy of errors called THEORY & METHODS, I’m going to dial back the so-called Theory in order to bring up METHODS into the mix. Methods like comparison, or translation, or description—to help put that last on the table, for example, I’ll be assigning “Cloud Physiognomy” by Lorraine Daston (Representations, Vol. 135, No. 1, Summer 2016: 45-71) alongside Guy Davenport’s “reading” of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, from Geography of the Imagination. Homework will involve choosing a single object dug up from the ground and describing it in 250 words, then 500, then 1000 (with footnotes), the larger piece taking into account other relevantly similar objects, and take up for evaluation the student’s first attempt.

The Other Door

by Emanuelle (Mandy) Burton, College of Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago

In one major respect, I’ve traveled further afield than any of my colleagues on this blog, both past and present. My office at UIC is less than ten miles from Swift Hall, but it is in the computer science department. My purview is one-half of a course (required of all CS majors) called “Ethics and Communications in Computer Science.”  If you’re reading this head shotand thinking that the connection back to the Divinity School seems tenuous and perplexing…. Well, I still have those days, too. There are a lot of things I want to write about for the Craft of Teaching this year – the value of generalist education, the role of pedagogical ideals in shaping one’s practice in different institutional contexts, and a few other things besides – but I have realized that before I can write about any of them, I need to contextualize myself as an alumna of the Divinity School who is now embedded in a STEM program, and to clarify what light my experiences can shed on the present questions and concerns for upcoming scholars and teachers of religion.

Teaching ethics to computer scientists is not, to put it mildly, what I expected to be doing when I set out to pursue a PhD in religion & literature, or at any point along the way. I arrived at this position through a series of accidental intersections, noteworthy primarily because of their arbitrariness rather than because I followed any particular discipline or dicta. Shortly after graduating in 2014, I moved to Kentucky to teach humanities at Centre College. A few weeks into the term, I was standing in the right place one afternoon to get myself invited to a party full of people I didn’t know. At that party, I wound up chatting with a computer scientist who asked for my email address. She wrote to me the next day to invite me to coauthor a paper with her and a former student: she had been teaching ethics to her CS students using science fiction and was now writing a conference paper about it. It was due in two weeks. Would I like to join them? Sure, I replied: I could probably help out. As busy as I was teaching at a new school in a new place, two weeks wasn’t much of a commitment, and I could return to my own concerns afterward. Nothing about that first collaboration seemed particularly significant – only in retrospect does it appear as the first step toward anything else. But it is nonetheless the case that, three years later, I am coauthoring a science fiction-based ethics curriculum for computer science students (with these same two coauthors, plus two more), been granted an NSF postdoc to help produce said curriculum, and have found a long-term home in CS ethics pedagogy.

It’s true that some of the confluences in this serendipitous string are specific to my particular background: they were looking for somebody with a background either in ethics or in non-realist fiction, and I had just finished writing a dissertation at the intersection of those two fields. But the pedagogical capacities and commitments that inform this new work are things I share with many other scholars of religion, particularly those trained at Chicago. Most of the people I met while training at Chicago, whatever their methodological avocation, held in common the basic conviction that human meaning-making matters, as do the terms on which it takes place. A further shared conviction, in my experience of religious studies scholars, is that the critical tools from across the many disciplines encompassed in religious studies can be usefully brought to bear on all manner of human practices and articulations of value, whether or not these practices or articulations recognize themselves as religious or are best understood under that label. To choose religion as one’s field of teaching and study is not only to specialize in a particular discipline and body of knowledge; it is to choose a peculiarly fruitful avenue into the truly astonishing range of things that humans get up to. While it is true that I have had to step back from that particularly fruitful avenue, the questions that drove me there remain to be engaged from slightly different angles. There are still students ready to wrestle with these core problems, and to learn to recognize their contours. Their needs are different, but no less urgent, and teaching them requires the same array of skills as religion and humanities teaching—because of, rather than in spite of, their different needs.

My background in religious studies has fundamentally shaped my approach to this new and unexpected pedagogical avenue. After years of teaching religious studies and humanities courses, it seems clear to me that my students need more than just exposure to the key ethical issues in computer science: They need to come to grips with the complexity and ambiguity of the circumstances in which these issues emerge. They need critical tools that can help them recognize the very real kinds of knowledge that exist outside the logical positivism that undergirds all of their other coursework in the major. And finally, they need practice wrestling with the work of interpreting the world on terms that are, for so many of them, profoundly alien.  Incorporating all of that is a tall order, but it is one I am able to meet—with at least moderate success—thanks to my training in religious studies. When we discuss online communities and the role of platforms in shaping community dynamics and norms, I draw on my knowledge of the formation of religious communities in late antiquity and medieval Europe, and prod them to think alongside Durkheim, Anderson, Booth and Arendt. When we explore the information explosion that has accompanied the internet, I draw on Augustine, on Gadamer, on David Tracy and on Bruce Lincoln to destabilize the notion that any entity (human or digital) can merely collect objective units of meaning, and I push them to think critically about how those units came to be recognized, to seem real, to seem definitive. The course also necessarily involves some straightforward engagement with the topics that every professional ethics course in computer science needs to cover, such as self-driving cars, the proliferation of smart technology, and the reproduction of bias through social decision-making algorithms such as COMPAS. But as the term progresses, the students become steadily more capable of recognizing the foundational questions—of personhood, or epistemology, of justice—without my help.

Some things about teaching computer science ethics actually aren’t so different than my earlier teaching in humanities or religious studies. The task of training students to recognize the limits of their own understanding, and encouraging them to grapple with and through their own discomfort rather than taking refuge in specious clarity, is always and everywhere required. And some of the challenges peculiar to this moment are common across settings, such as the burgeoning onslaught of false or misleading “news,” and with it, students’ evaporating trust in any kind of information source. In my new context, I find myself discussing these discursive shifts by examining the technological conditions that have created or enabled that shift. And if they are less equipped to think about the discursive construction of religious minorities, or the languages of power marshaled by political leaders who claim to lead through Christianity, I can at least call their attention to those realities by routing them through more familiar concerns.

And some things were never that different – such as most students’ profound and often unreflective commitment to logical positivism. Teaching computer science ethics has given me uncommon pedagogical access to what are surely common concerns, such as the fact that few to none of my students have any expectation of privacy, or even much concern for it; or the fact that many of my students do not think that “trolling” and “engaging in debate” can be usefully distinguished, at least in online contexts. These sorts of cultural-generational divides (and technologically-determined generations are very short indeed) are precisely the sort that are often invisible until they are discussed directly, and they can have profound implications for how our students understand the world and engage in it.

So I haven’t left that past behind. I’m doing all of the things I’d hoped to do when I decided that I wanted to teach at the college level. The context is unexpected, but it’s one that nonetheless pushes me to grow and excel, as a teacher, in all the ways I would wish. But my experiences also help explain why I needn’t be, and maybe shouldn’t be, the only one to venture out this way, into a world that desperately needs our particular gifts.

Communicating about Academic Integrity: Reflections on the Value of Intellectual Production

by Kristen Tobey, John Carroll University

The post you’re reading isn’t the post I intended to write. The one I intended to write, scheduled to go live just as I and perhaps many of you return from Boston and this year’s KTobeyAAR/SBL Annual Meeting, was going to offer some reflections on the pedagogical lessons we might learn in such a setting, and how to bridge the often-divergent settings of the classroom and the academic conference, and our often-bifurcated selves, for the benefit of our students. I was going to write about collegiality and professionalization and interdisciplinarity and the ways we might bring those back to our students, and about how perhaps we do our students a disservice when we work so hard to “meet them where they are,” to render broadly accessible and relevant what seems too esoteric and granular for them.  I was going to write about ways that instead, I have invited students to meet me where I sometimes want to be, at the level of the esoteric and granular, about when that has been successful and when it hasn’t.

I was working on that very essay, seated at the computer station in the front of the classroom where students in my 300-level elective course were taking a test.  Then I saw that a student in the very back of the classroom was reading notes from his phone, for the entirely of the test.  Yes, I did allow him to finish the test oblivious to the fact that I was watching him cheat in an epic way.  I wanted to avoid rattling the other students with a dramatic scene, but if I’m honest, I didn’t call him out then and there in part because I was too staggered by what I was seeing.  I didn’t know what to do.

In almost a decade of teaching I’ve certainly had experience with academic dishonesty.  Students plagiarize, deliberately or not, when they write papers; their eyes wander, deliberately or not, when they take tests.  Until this episode, though, I’d never been faced with such inarguably premeditated, blatantly disrespectful cheating.  My syllabi clearly state my policy on academic integrity, so the consequences this student now must face are predetermined and thoroughly documented.  But I had no predetermined plan for what to do in the moment of discovery.

Academic integrity makes sense as a priority within a conceptual framework that assigns intrinsic value to intellectual work. As academics, we are so enculturated into that framework that we run the risk of forgetting that many of our students are not, and are not oriented as we are toward the idea of intellectual production as itself a good—which is by no means a self-evident idea.

Of course some are, like the student who inspired the musings that I thought would form the basis of this post, the one on the pedagogical lessons of the academic conference setting.  The author of a book we’re reading in my Minority Religions in America course mentioned the AAR and its annual meeting, and one student, curious for reasons that elude me, did some internet sleuthing and sent me a breathless email pointing out that at the conference this year, there would be six panels treating LGBTQ+ issues in religious studies, an area of particular interest to her.  These are my people!, she enthused.  This student is a Theology and Religious Studies major but has no interest in pursuing graduate studies.  Indeed she is vocal about having no such interest, and she has little patience for excessive abstractness or particularity.  But she saw value and meaning in the work that takes place at an academic conference, as abstract and particular as that work is.

That student was on my mind in Boston, as I thought about how best to bring back to my students the intellectual excitement of the conference setting. Also on my mind, though, was the student who cheated so flagrantly on his test, as a metonym for all those students who are not already oriented toward the intrinsic value of intellectual work.  Clearly he, more urgently than the student who wished she could attend AAR, needs the lesson that intellectual work is valuable, and clearly my syllabus statement on academic integrity had not inculcated it. I can only imagine that the policy, severe though it is, failed to sway not only the student who was so bold in flouting it, but many others who may not be so overtly defiant but who nonetheless find no purchase in its words.

During the conference, AAR president Eddie Glaude spoke in his plenary address of the pressing need for the liberal arts generally, and religious studies specifically, to train students who are “amateurs” in John Dewey’s sense of the word. For Dewey, experts too often indoctrinate, while amateurs are better suited for the kind of deep communication that is constitutive of democracy.  A syllabus statement on academic integrity is indoctrination, not communication.  If the student who was so excited to learn about the papers included at AAR demands my expertise (not, I hope, in the Deweyan sense, but in the sense that she requires of me the skills in which I am highly trained), then the student who cheated demands that I be an amateur.  Taking the term at its non-Deweyan face value, he demands skills in which I am untrained, such as policing and disciplining.  But in the Deweyan sense, he requires that I communicate better about why the things I value and prioritize might also resonate for him.

I don’t yet know how I will do this, how I will move from indoctrination to effective communication about academic integrity.  My syllabus statement will remain in place, but how will I make the somewhat formulaic words meaningful to students, especially those who don’t already buy in to the assumptions on which they are based?  This isn’t a question with a quick or simple answer, I’m sure, but it is a reminder that just when we think we are being called upon to performs tasks for which we are radically untrained, such as policing and disciplining—and this was a recurring theme in conversations with friends over the weekend, that is, the extent to which teaching requires of us so many things that we do not feel we know how to do; and how much we often feel the roles of teacher and scholar as competing with one another, even though in all our best versions of academia they inspire, inform, and improve one another—we are also being called upon to do what we are best trained to do: to demonstrate why and how intellectual work matters.  To remember that both the most- and the least-invested students require exactly that may go a long way toward bridging the bifurcated academic self.

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!