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, and 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!