Hospitality: Hosting Dialogue on Big Questions as a Form of Counter-Cultural Learning

By Andrew DeCort, The Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology

Sometimes what we need to tackle big questions in the classroom is not simply more knowledge but a wider network of friends and warmer hospitality. For me at least, the instinct is to read a ton, prepare a compelling lecture, and then field questions from my students based on the question(s) I want to address.

But that is not always the most fruitful approach. Instead, I’d suggest inviting someone to come have a conversation with you and thus modeling for your students how to ask questions in a respectful and thoughtful manner, how to listen carefully and charitably, and how to follow up with fresh comments and questions that can extend the dialogue, enrich learning, and deepen relationship.

For example, last year I taught a new seminar at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology entitled “The Command of Neighbor-Love: History, Theology, and Ethics.” This course rather ambitiously poured over the biblical texts on neighbor love within their cultural contexts, then marched through major figures in the history of theology and philosophy, and finally addressed specific questions of practical relevance for neighbor-love in the Ethiopian context. One of these questions was how Islam approaches neighbor-love and whether Christians and Muslims can work together to promote a shared vision of neighbor-love for the common good in Ethiopia.

As I said above, my initial instinct was to read closely our assigned texts; to immerse myself in the Quran, Hadith, and other secondary sources on the topic; and to come to class with a dense lecture that would impress and challenge my students. Frankly, outpacing my students’ knowledge on this topic wouldn’t have been very difficult, and we could have easily had a safe and even stimulating class session on our questions.

But I decided against this, and I invited my friend Abduletif Khedir, a lecturer in Human Rights at Addis Ababa University and a devout Muslim, to visit my class for that session. In truth, I was unsure how this was going to work. To my knowledge, my Christian institution had never invited a Muslim into the classroom, and the session was three hours long, so there was plenty of room for misunderstanding or awkwardness. But this turned into one of the, if not simply the, most energizing and thought-provoking sessions of the entire semester.

First, I gave a very brief introduction on the ethics of listening to others based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, what he calls “the first service” of loving our neighbor. Then I gave a very respectful introduction to my friend Abduletif, expressing my gratitude for his willingness to come to EGST and why he was qualified to educate us on this topic. Next, Abduletif and I had a focused but free-flowing dialogue for over an hour based on questions I had prepared in advance and the spontaneous back-and-forth that resulted. Here I was able to model for my students how to ask relevant and respectful questions, engaging sensitive topics (e.g., jihad and the Islamic State) without being offensive or arrogant. After a short break, the seminar resumed, and I opened the classroom for Q&A between the students and Abduletif, which lasted for well over another hour.

I was very pleased with the result. The students followed my lead in expressing gratitude and respectfulness to our guest. They also did a good job of formulating real questions that combined sensitivity with seriousness and importance. What followed was a warm, rich, and thought-provoking dialogue. Far from having too much time, we went over time because the students wanted to keep asking questions and learn more from our guest instructor/dialogue-partner.

Afterward, several of the students told me that they loved that session and that they had never talked with a Muslim at such length and in such depth about Scripture, faith, and ethics. This was striking to me, because approximately 35% of the Ethiopian population follows Islam, so meeting and talking with Muslims requires little effort. And yet my students told me that what we did in class was unprecedented for them and eye-opening.

Frankly, I think we all left the classroom with a sense of deep gratitude and awe, because our conversation partner modeled such kindness toward us and command of his tradition, offering nuanced and honest responses to our questions that left us feeling respect for his faith and rich possibility for further dialogue. Far from a dry lecture or an apologetic debate, that session truly was an energizing, mind-expanding conversation.

In fact, what I loved the most about this session was that it performatively embodied the topic we were dealing with: practicing neighbor-love beyond our Christian bubble with Muslims and trying to figure out how we can pursue the common good together. So rather than theory or sheer information, the students got to observe and then participate in the subject matter – to do it for themselves with a Muslim neighbor who is actively involved in our shared city.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that inviting a guest is the only good way to tackle big questions in the classroom. But I’ve found that it can be an especially fruitful way to break down barriers, stimulate deeper curiosity, and give your students an opportunity to practice the real dialogue that all big questions should generate.

In conclusion, let me mention a few practical tips that I think contributed to the success of this session.

First, I had organized a few previous dialogues with Abduletif when I brought my Wheaton College students to Ethiopia, so we already had a relationship and I was confident that he was comfortable with and skillful at conversation with passionate students. I was also confident in his expertise and capacity to communicate his knowledge of Islamic thought with fluency.

Knowing your dialogue partner before addressing sensitive and potentially controversial questions is important. If you haven’t already cultivated friendships with relevant dialogue partners for a big question you want to ask, this is a great opportunity to build bridges with other scholars and community leaders who can engage your classroom. I encourage you to think about people you know and/or potential contacts that you can start cultivating dialogue with now to avoid last-minute invitations and unnecessary blunders.

Second, I gave my students plenty of readings in advance of the session that laid the groundwork for the dialogue, challenged stereotypical assumptions, and stimulated a desire to learn more from our guest. Those readings – mostly from Muslims on neighbor-love rather than Christian interpretations of Muslims, which can be a temptation in confessional settings – gave fruitful reference points for the students to ask exegetical questions of the Quran and Hadith, as well as more immediate questions of practice and ethics today. Setting strong context for the dialogue is crucial.

Third, I did my homework and prepared about ten carefully formulated questions to ask Abduletif in front of my classroom for our live dialogue. Again, my primary goal here was to model for my students how to formulate compact, precise, important questions that were respectful and real rather than rhetorical or cornering. I’ve found that students can struggle to articulate what they actually want to ask and easily end up asking something else or confusing what they want to know. Thus, it’s valuable to model for students the thoughtfulness and care that goes into formulating clear, concise, crucial questions, including mentioning that these questions were actually prepared and written in advance rather than spontaneously generated by their teacher’s genius.

Asking questions well requires time and effort. At the beginning of the session, I invited my students to write down their questions and to work on them as they listened, so that when the open Q&A started, they would be focused and prepared. This worked well.

The capacity to ask questions – big and small – is essential to what makes us uniquely human. For all we know, we are the only species that can formulate questions, listen carefully to responses, and then change how we think and live based on this free flow of language (dialogos). Given the ideological polarization of our age fueled by arrogance and insecurity, it would be easy to fabricate (pseudo)questions as tees off of which to hit home-runs with our answers for our students as passive consumers of information.

But what our students may need most from us is not our convincing answers but our courageous questions and our patient capacity to model the moral virtues of dialogue that make learning possible, worthwhile, and life-changing. Inviting a thoughtful, passionate dialogue partner into the classroom is one way to perform this counter-cultural practice. As one of my UChicago mentors, Professor Donald Levine, insisted, this is the very heart of education: “conversation about the meaning of life, as each sees some part of it, on behalf of everyone.”[1]

In many cases, this begins by extending hospitality toward others with different points of view, sharing honest conversation, and discovering that there is often far more that unites us than divides us.

 

P.S. If you’re interested in my class’s conversation with Abduletif Khedir, you can access a transcript of it entitled “Love Your Neighbor: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue on God, Jihad, and Neighbor-Love” on my Facebook here.

[1] Donald Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1965), xii.

Teaching Religion, in America

By K. Tobey, John Carroll University

During my doctoral years, when I was adjuncting in a few different Religious Studies departments in the Chicago area, I had a conversation with the chair of one of those departments that remains with me some ten years later. Still naïve about the realities of the job market, I asked about the chances of longer-term employment in that department. I was teaching courses on religion in the United States; the department’s Americanist would be retiring before long. Might the stars align and produce a job in the vicinity of my field? The chair told me that tenure lines wouldn’t be getting replaced just like that, and that a full-time hire in American religions was unlikely, given that, in his words, “Anyone can teach that.”

Nearly every Americanist I know has at least one similar story, and bristles at the telling of it. I imagine those in other concentrations could recount analogous conversations as well.

Exchanges like these are troubling not only because they render Americanists expendable and devalue the work that we are trained to do, but also because of the fundamental untruth they contain about what teaching Religion in America entails. I will concede that there is a sense in which my former department chair was right, or partly right, that “anyone”—at least, anyone with solid training in a not-entirely-unrelated field and a few good reference books—could teach some version of a course on American religion. In the same way that I once muddled my way through a semester teaching Philosophy of Religion (mostly successfully, the students reported, though it felt like a fifteen-week nightmare to me, and I suspect that any philosopher of religion looking at my syllabus would take my view), anyone trained in Swift Hall probably could keep at least a step or two ahead of the students even in a course as far from their area of expertise as Philosophy of Religion is from mine. But a less benevolent presumption undergirds these conversations: that teaching Religion in America is something anyone can do because it involves no more than a simplistic recounting of a superficial master narrative. That former department chair of mine entirely elided the complexity and particularity with which Americanists, like any experts, are trained to see their subject of inquiry.

Indeed, highlighting those complexities and particularities is not always easy to do in the sweeping survey courses that many of us will teach. In ten or fifteen weeks, how do we do anything but race through a master narrative and hope for the best? Some of my more fruitful approaches to this quandary have involved resisting the “Religion in America” label altogether by either zooming out or zooming in.

One instance of zooming out involved taking a group of students to Denmark, which neatly foils the United States in its religious dynamics. There is a lot to learn about religion in Denmark, and there is a lot to learn about religion in the United States in Denmark, by way of both connection (the first non-English translation of the Book of Mormon was into Danish, for example) and contrast (unlike in the United States, churches sit empty while almost everyone professes church membership, and the reported level of trust in religious leaders, also unlike in the United States, is astronomically high). That trip was a lucky opportunity that I may not happen upon again, but whether or not travel is involved, we do our students a favor when we help them to perceive the wildly idiosyncratic nature of the American religious landscape.

Zooming in is easier to do, at least logistically. I am fortunate to teach in Ohio; it’s not an exaggeration to say that everything important in American religious history happened here. Replacing the general survey in American religious history with a course on Religions of Ohio was a simple and logical curricular switch resulting in a course that still functions as an introductory survey, but at the same time emphasizes and theorizes particularity. Thematically oriented courses can accomplish this as well as geographically oriented ones, but if, like me, you teach at a school whose student body is mostly local and possessed of an ardent hometown loyalty, the geographic lens may be just what you need to get students excited about the subject.

By zooming out and zooming in—by examining idiosyncrasy and particularity—students learn the value of extrapolation and comparison, and the limitations. When we as instructors resist, in this or any subfield, the presumption of a superficial master narrative, we give students an opportunity to wrestle with complexity, a skill that employers situate near the tops of their lists of hiring preferences. The simplistic master narrative, then, is an impediment to understanding religious dynamics in America, but it is also a betrayal of what coursework in religious studies—all its subfields—can contribute to the personal growth and professional success of our students.

In its best version, religious studies, whether as a solitary required course or a lifelong scholarly pursuit, comprises an endeavor profound in both its simplicity and its consequence: it invites us to a better understanding of other people, providing tools with which to apprehend vastly different logics (whether cognitive, emotional, or embodied), and to better interrogate logics that we have taken for granted. It requires us, whether scholar or student, to engage our own interiority and equips us to participate thoughtfully and responsibly in a complex, diverse world. These are abstract outcomes, but they depend on the acquisition of practical, demonstrable skills that are useful far beyond the religious studies classroom, including reflective and critical inquiry, synthetic analysis, and constructive communication.

To teach religion is to insist on the power of reasoned inquiry, constructive discourse, and compound explanations. Religious studies is inherently multidisciplinary, a simultaneous celebration of an eclectic and disciplined focus. It requires us to marshal diverse resources as we approach intricate problems, and to examine questions from multiple angles. It requires us to suspend judgement before analysis and practice critical empathy, and raises powerful warnings against the tendency to dehumanize that which is unfamiliar. Today’s America needs these skills perhaps more than ever. Against the presumption of superficial narratives and simple explanations, let us take seriously our discipline’s resources, and our own responsibility.

Scaling Up

By Mandy Burton, College of Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago

I’ve always liked teaching required classes. It is a genuine preference—a happy accident of temperament rather than a boast about what a superior departmental citizen I am—but also a fortunate one for me, since most of us end up spending a lot of our classroom time in core seminars and introductory courses. While I can’t bottle the preference itself, I can identify the aspects of this kind of teaching that have sustained me through multiple iterations of the same course (and in some cases the additional bog-down-y millstone of a standardized syllabus.) In the end, it’s pretty simple: focus on the students’ experience of the text, rather than my own. However many times I have read the Nichomachean Ethics or the Inferno, the other readers in the classroom are new to me, each time, and the freshness of their own encounter with the material refreshes it for me. It’s not an approach that works with every kind of course, but in those introductory courses that aim to teach students a new way of seeing the world, I have found it both sustainable and sustaining.

This somewhat Pollyannaish approach to teaching, however, crashes up against another challenging aspect of required courses, and one which I myself had been spared until relatively recently: their size. I’ve taught overloads before and drowned in seemingly-endless stacks of papers, and it is a challenging situation even when an overload means 45 or 50 students (as it has in my experiences.) But all of those papers, and all of our in-class discussions, still took place between the same 45 or 50 people. In my present position, I have 120 students. Next year will likely be 150. I am not yet certain I can persuade my chair that 150 should be the absolute cap, rather than 175.

120 faces, 120 minds. 120 transformations to observe, nudge, or wheedle along as necessary. The issue isn’t simply the volume of grading for so many students (although of course that matters, too); it’s the challenge of being present to 120 different individuals. It’s the challenge of getting to know them well enough to push them in productive and individualized ways, and knowing them well enough that they trust that this is what I’m doing, rather than trying to cram them into a preconceived box. How could I do that for 120 people in a single term?

The first thing I learned is that it couldn’t be done, at least not in the ways I had done it before. The second thing I learned was that I had to figure out how to do it anyhow, because it was profoundly demoralizing for me to imagine dispatching my particular pedagogical responsibility—the one and only ethics class that most of my computer science major students would take during their undergraduate career—in any other way.

So I am puzzling through changes to my approach that allow me to accomplish (most of) the basic goals I have for my classrooms, on a larger scale than I could have imagined a few years ago. My thoughts here reflect work in progress, rather than a collection of strategies that I am eager to defend, let alone canonize. I can make no promises about how directly helpful they will be for other courses. But the process of adaptation can itself be instructive, and I hope that this list offers the seeds of useful ideas for other classrooms as well.

Make more assignments credit/no credit

I open and close my ethics course with guided reflection papers, which need to be substantive enough to get credit (more than a sentence or two per prompt question) but are otherwise ungraded: a complete assignment gets full credit. This decision initially grew from the specific conditions of my course, which is a professional ethics course: though I push my students to sharpen their descriptive precision and to reflect on their own values and assumptions, I didn’t want them to think I was grading their personal value systems and reasoning processes (and in any case, I wasn’t sure what criteria I would use.)

What I have learned is that these credit/no credit assignments are hugely freeing for me, allowing me to disentangle the attention I pay to them, qua getting to know the students, from the more time-consuming and exhausting kind of attention that is required when assigning grades. Whether I am reading carefully (as I do at the beginning of the stack) or only skimming to make sure that the assignments are sufficiently detailed (as sometimes happens toward the end), I pick up enough details to have a sense of my students’ beliefs, values, growth points, and willingness to engage. And without the worry about assigning (and keeping track of) specific grades, all of my mental energy can go to simply learning about them.

Do I get some half-assed assignments? Of course I do. I think we can be confident that I would anyway, even if there were letter grades at stake. And the chance to interact with the assignments on more enlightening, less burdensome terms makes it worthwhile.

Be selective about when your graded assignments are due

One of the best things I learned about teaching while in graduate school, from an advanced writing program course called Composing Composition, was the notion of a progressive assignment structure, in which each assignment is understood to build on or develop those which have come before. If one imagines that the assignments for a term are a coherent arc, then it becomes easier to assess how any one assignment fits into the course’s larger goals. It also becomes easier to make choices about which assignments are essential for the goals of the course—or essential in their current form—and which can be dispensed with, or covered in another way.

While I have not abandoned the principle of progressive assignment structures, this year has forced me to abandon some of the practices that I have always associated with them, simply because I cannot afford to give as many assignments as I could when I had fewer students, and have (for reasons detailed above) dispensed with the idea of a large culminating project at the end of the term. And while part of me genuinely regrets cutting back the number of assignments—and with it, the depth and duration of the arc by which I get to communicate with each of them and watch them grow—the rest of me is still huddling shell-shocked in the corner, contemplating the grading that still needs to be done.

I have found a counterintuitive way to preserve the spirit of the progressive assignment structure, while yet forsaking some old practices, by putting all of my graded written assignments in the first third of the term. This approach has several benefits. The first is that I get to see their work, and their thinking, earlier, rather than later. It also allows me to communicate several important thing about the course to the students early on. On a broad level, it telegraphs that the goal of the assignments is to help them build a body of knowledge they can use in the course, rather than to prove to me that they’ve learned it. It also helps on an individual level, simply because they get to see feedback from me very early on.

There are additional benefits to this approach. The students’ work benefits from being produced at a point in the semester when there is less competition for their time and attention (and before they’ve begun to burn out) and w e are all pretty delighted to get the labor-intensive part of the term out of the way.

Increase small group facetime

(not FaceTime™.)

I have unwillingly come to acknowledge my own limits in keeping track of such a large group of students. A semester still feels long, after so many years at a quarter-based institution, but it’s not long enough for me to get to know all of my students, at least not on the terms I am accustomed.

This realization has forced me to analyze, in fine grain, why I think that kind of one-on-one knowledge is important and valuable. Part of the reason is because it enables me to respond to my students in an individualized way, both in person and in comments on their work. But why is this individualization itself valuable? The answer, it turns out, is twofold: because it enables me to respond to the specific aspects of each student’s thinking that should be reconsidered, and because it helps communicate to them that I see them: that it matters what and how they think, and that I, at least, believe that is both possible and worthwhile for them to grow. Convincing the students of this latter point is vital. And though it works better if I can give them very granular and personalized feedback on their work, I have learned that even the blanket recognition that their individuality matters helps to increase their trust in the feedback I give.

One idea that I came up with too late for this semester, but which will be central to my course next fall, is “ethics lab.” In the early weeks of the term, every single student will meet with me and one other classmate for a half-hour conversation about an issue of their choosing. Like the opening and closing assignments, they will receive full credit for attending, assuming they are present mentally as well as physically. The only required preparation is that they identify an issue to talk about. The real event is the time we spend together, and the goal is simply to be in the room together, having difficult conversations. A half an hour isn’t long, compared to a full term; but for a student who is accustomed to fading into the background—for whatever reason—it’s a lot of time to spend in a room with one’s professor and one other student, being listened to and challenged on one’s premises and asked to find new ways into an old problem.

It is going to be a gamble, and (for me) a time-intensive one. And though I like to imagine that I will retain some key details about every single one of these conversations, I suspect that, in practice, the sessions will blend together in my head. But even if many of the details fade for me, over the long term, it is my hope that the students themselves will remember them, or at least remember the feeling of being seen: of being recognized as an individual who can and must take responsibility for their own thinking.

This is what I’ve figured out so far. I’m not convinced it’s all going to work. I am fairly certain that none of it will work quite as well as the thing I’ll figure out next, on the basis of trying these things. But if I can model for my students that I, too, am continuing to change and to grow in the face of new challenges, that seems worthwhile too.

Learning about Your Teaching, or, Self-Assessment for Everyone!

By Allison Gray, St. Mary’s University

Almost every list of “best practices in teaching and learning” talks about self-assessment, and we all know that constructive feedback and thoughtful reflection can lead to improvement and innovation in the classroom. However, the typical tool for a professor’s self-assessment – the student evaluation – is incredibly problematic: evaluations are demonstrably biased against people of color and women, and students don’t always have a clear understanding of how evaluations are used, which can lead to a lack of thoughtful comments or low response rates. Yet most schools continue to use some sort of standard evaluation, and as junior faculty members I think most of us need and value student feedback about our courses and our pedagogy. What can we do?[1] Since the end of the semester is rapidly approaching, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about how to facilitate (and participate in) meaningful self-assessment as scholar-teachers in the academic study of religion.

Go beyond the standard course evaluation

DIY. If you find the typical Likert scale ratings less than informative, you can try to create supplementary evaluations that provide you with the information you actually want. If you really want to know how students liked your switch from powerpoint to Prezi in the last month of class, ask! Each semester I draw up course-specific evaluations, tailored to the content and activities of a given semester, and I set aside time in one class period for students to fill them out. For example, I’ll provide a list of the in-class activities we’ve completed that semester and ask students to identify those that were most and least useful for their learning and to provide explanations for their selections. You can also ask about how helpful or interesting students found particular readings or lecture topics. I’ve learned a lot over the years from asking “What could the students and/or instructor do to facilitate more active class participation?” And one of my favorite things to read is a set of student responses to the question, “What new question(s) do you have about Theology/the Gospel of John/Discipleship [make it as specific as you want] now that you’ve completed the course?” Invariably students’ answers to this last question reveal (1) surprising gaps in what the syllabus covered, which can guide future course revisions and (2) the ways that students connect course content to their learning in other courses, their major fields of study, or their personal lives.

Make self-assessment an ongoing process. Build self-assessment and student reflections into the course early and often, and use them to tweak your teaching as you go. As part of any major project or paper, students can complete a self-assessment form or write a paragraph describing what they learned by completing the assigned task. At the end of a class period, give students 3 minutes to write down how a class discussion affected their perspective on a course topic or reading, and start the next class meeting by filling in lacunae or responding to good insights. Not only can these forms of self-assessment encourage students to think about and become aware of their own learning, but they can give you concrete information about your classroom in real time, so that you’re not waiting in suspense for that end-of-term eval. On a larger scale, one of my colleagues offers a mid-semester course evaluation that asks students to identify classroom and teaching practices that she should keep and which ones she should jettison, and she makes some adjustments accordingly.

Be transparent. I mean this in a few different ways. Inviting students to assess their own work can help to demystify the grading process, reminding them of your expectations while there’s still time in the term to make improvements. By the time they get to the standard course evals, they may be more likely to give you a good rating for “instructor makes expectations clear.” But it’s also important to talk with your students about why you’re asking them to assess your teaching and to explain what you’ll do with their feedback. I feel like this open communication makes it easier to take risks in the classroom. For example, a few semesters ago I organized a class meeting around a collaborative GoogleDocs exercise. I had no idea if this would turn out well or if students would hate the activity. At the end of the class period I revealed they had been the first to test out this new in-class activity and that their experience would help me decide when and how to use it in the future. I got some very helpful suggestions that I’ve since incorporated in other classes.

Harness your religious studies skills

Ways of collecting the data are great, but reading what students have to say about your teaching style, your materials, your courses, and your discipline can be terrifying. I’m starting to think it’s inevitable that I’ll get at least one evaluation a semester that says, “I wish we didn’t have to take this class. I hated everything about it.” But we’re scholars of religion, so we know how to get through tough experiences! Make the process of reading evaluations into a ritual – Centering yourself in a tranquil setting. Reading the text aloud in a supportive community. Crying out in lamentation. Drinking wine. You know the drill.

[1] There are so many excellent articles and blog posts if you want more than my two cents. Here’s one recent post about gender bias in evaluations: Victor Ray’s “Is Gender Bias an Intended Feature of Teaching Evaluations?” on Inside Higher Ed [link: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/02/09/teaching-evaluations-are-often-used-confirm-worst-stereotypes-about-women-faculty], and the Carolina Women’s Center has a short reading list on gender and racial bias here [link: https://womenscenter.unc.edu/teaching-evaluations-and-bias/]. For an interesting approach to self-assessment, check out Sherrie Steiner’s post “How Using Autoethnography Improved my Teaching” on The Scholarly Teacher blog [link: https://www.scholarlyteacher.com/blog/autoethnography-to-improve-teaching]

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-flute-girl

(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/]