Reading, Reflection

by Robyn Whitaker

s200_robyn-whitakerLately I have taken to interrupting students who begin a sentence with “I feel…” and asking them to rephrase their statement on the basis of argument and evidence. While I’m not trying to convey that feelings are irrelevant, I am attempting to help highly churched seminary students learn to separate their own assumptions and emotions about the biblical text from interpretations that can be argued for on the basis of historical and literary evidence. At least that is what I tell myself. John Corrigan’s Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America has challenged me to think again.

If I’m honest this process of separating emotion from reason is frustrating and I find myself thinking back to a student I taught very early on. On the first day of an Introduction to the New Testament course she described herself as a “feminist, atheist, Jew.” She had never read the New Testament and I found her discovery of it throughout the semester rather delightful. At a superficial level it was easy to think of her as a student free of all that religious bias, a sharp contrast to the clearing of clutter that often has to occur for the highly churched when introducing them to biblical scholarship. Of course, she was no more “free” than the others; her assumptions and experiences of the text were just refreshingly different to me.

Corrigan’s Emptiness talks about the role of emotion in religion and particularly the requirement of emptiness in American Christianity. Whilst he speaks about a particularly American context it is an interesting idea to think with as a teacher of biblical texts. For starters, it has helped me become aware of my own bias as a teacher and some of my own assumptions that needs to be challenged. I am deeply ambivalent about emotion and I prize the rational. This means I rarely engage emotions in the classroom and I am at risk of ignoring them in the texts I teach.

There are a couple of implications for teaching the Bible that spring to mind when reading Corrigan’s work on emptiness. Firstly, students who come from the kinds of religious backgrounds Corrigan describes might not be aware of how all pervasive this idea is, that they are empty vessels who receive God’s word. In its worst form this emptiness ideology supports the doctrinal idea that the Bible came down from the divine realm in its final form and thus negates the insights of history, context, and a whole range of scholarly pursuits such as source and redaction criticism. That is, it negates human contributions to divine revelation. Similarly, it can manifest in a naïvety about students’ own assumptions or a resistance to having to do with “work” of interpretation. Surely the text should just be clear for those willing to receive it?

I currently use a couple of class exercises to try and counter these issues. At the beginning of semester I ask students to write a reflective piece about who they are as interpreters, explicitly asking them to name their biases and core identities. At the end of the semester I return their reflection and ask them to think about what has changed. Of course, this exercise works best for the already self-aware. In a seminary context I think it could helpfully be reframed in terms of emptiness and the desire to be filled. Additionally, I hold a debate in class about whether theology precedes or follows scripture and, lastly, I ask them to think about authority and whose authority they have trusted to teach or interpret the Bible for them. These latter two conversations tend to reveal unstated suppositions and can help with self-awareness, but there is still the issue of emotion.

An unavoidable implication of Corrigan’s work is that emotions relate deeply to cognition. If we are educating whole persons we are engaging with them intellectually, bodily, emotionally, contextually. How we do that in an integrated way is something I’m still working on: it is easier to find ways of sidelining or externalizing emotion than engaging it. Moreover, if Corrigan is correct, emotion plays a major role in every religion and here we move beyond the individual. I plan to try and help students recognize the emotions, including emptiness, on display in the biblical text so a conversation can begin. Indeed, doing so might help students, in the words of Corrigan, be “better positioned to appreciate the similarities and differences among religious groups in different parts of the world. … [and] able to better understand religion in relation to other aspects of life” (p. 16).



Reflection, February 2017

s200_robyn-whitakerBy Robyn Whitaker

In September 2001, when planes deliberately crashed into the World Trade center in NYC, I was on the other side of the world working in a small, Australian country town called Wangaratta. One of my roles was to teach primary-aged school children religious education. The curriculum I had inherited was explicitly Christian, without even the most token recognition that other religions existed. As I heard the rhetoric and ignorance about Islam emerge in news reports and local gossip following 9/11, I knew something had to change. So that week, I threw out the curriculum and taught a simple class highlighting all the things Christianity, Judaism and Islam shared in common (suitable for 10 year olds). There was nothing particularly insightful about it, but it was a minor act of resistance in one place where I could exercise influence. At the end of the class the teacher, a woman with a university degree, thanked me with these words: “I learned a lot today. I didn’t know Islam was a religion.”

Today we find ourselves in a similar global climate in terms of the irresponsible use of inflammatory language about non-Christian religions, the “othering” of certain groups, and shared ignorance in public forums. As a Christian, teaching Christian texts in a Christian seminary (that’s a lots of “Christian”!) I feel an urgent responsibility to educate in a manner that broadens minds, nuances conversation, and creates respectful dialogue between those of different religious faiths. My job does not require it. My role as a scholar and public intellectual does.

This post is for those of you who, like me, find yourselves teaching Christian things in explicit or implicitly Christian settings. What can we model in our classrooms and methods? How can our assignments and readings help foster the kind of thinking and dialogue we’d like to see in wider society?

As I teach “Introduction to Old Testament” this semester, I am going to attempt to subversively inject a bit of interfaith dialogue into my classroom. We’ll have an explicit discussion about titling of the Older Testament/Hebrew Bible as a way of thinking about why language matters. When we get to texts of violence I’ll ask students to reflect upon both ancient and contemporary modes of violence: who are the victims, who are the perpetrators, are these distinct categories, and does our interpretation do violence to others? We’ll have guest lecturers from other faith traditions and nationalities. We’ll discuss how key passages, like the Abraham and Isaac story, have been interpreted in Judaism, Islam, and Christian traditions. I’ll try and find a way to check “othering” language and stereotypes without shutting down discussion.

As Jawad Qureshi pointed out in his blog post in January 2017, Islamophobia is not new, but the “scope and intensity” is. The classroom is one place where we, as educators, can challenge the essentialist enmity towards other religions that has found a rather comfortable lodging place within much of the Christian tradition. Yes, such enmity is embedded in the biblical narrative itself, but that offers opportunity to question, critique, and examine the context and efficacy of such rhetoric. To do so gets to the heart of critical biblical study as distinct from a devotional reading of sacred texts.

Despite being educated in the Divinity School, where I stood in awe of the amazing things my friends studied that I barely understood, I feel ill-equipped to engage in interfaith education. I’m stepping firmly out of my comfort zone. Being comfortable, however, is no longer an option.

Claiming Authority in the Classroom

s200_robyn-whitaker“Don’t ever take baked goods to your class,” I was told one day by a well-meaning colleague. “It’s a thing only women faculty do and it completely undermines us.” My brain flicked through the myriad of times I’ve presented my classes with cupcakes, slices, or muffins to prop them up towards the end of term, reward them for enthusiastically attending 8am language classes three times a week, or simply wanted to care for stressed out, badly fed students. You see, I like to bake and I like to feed people. Little did I know I was apparently undermining my authority as a female professor.

There are many theories about how to claim authority in the classroom (see here for example) and even more when it comes to being female. Here are a few thoughts from my experience as a teacher, mostly in seminary or Div School settings, so I acknowledge that some of the dynamics are different for those who teach undergrads.

In my experience the challenge to authority comes in two forms. Firstly, that student who doesn’t really want to be there and whose body language is signaling that loud and clear. These I mostly ignore. My job is to prepare the most engaging class I can, but I cannot force a disengaged student to learn (I might however follow up with them privately). Second is the student who wants to challenge you, who sees the classroom as a chance to show what they know, or to take on the teacher. There is a particular manifestation of this last type in religion departments and seminaries where (usually) men feel the need to tell (usually) female faculty what the real “truth” is. In this case, it might be a matter of rising above and not letting such a person push your buttons, but we’ll address this person further below.

Here are some of my “rules” for claiming authority:

1. Set clear ground rules

This means being clear about your expectations from the first class. I tell students to be punctual (and make sure I am), I tell them what to call me, and I use the syllabus as a way to establish a set of expectations about their own conduct, obligations, and academic standards. In Australia we tend to be casual so students call me “Robyn” at my invitation. Check what the culture is at your institution and, particularly if you are a woman, demand the equivalent title to the male professors.

I usually start semester with a conversation about in-class method. I mostly teach Bible classes to students who come with their own deeply embedded belief systems and ideas about the Bible. I use this excellent piece about not being entitled to your own opinion in my classroom as a way to talk about the kinds of argument one can mount on the basis of evidence (i.e. the text). I also reassure them that I am not interested in all students having my theology, but rather that they know how to argue and think for themselves. It can undermine the attempts of that second type of student who wants to challenge your “truth” with his or have a theological argument.

2. The classroom is not a combat zone

One way to diffuse any potentially combative student is to take the approach that the classroom is not a combat zone. This relates to what we are trying to do as teachers. My model is to think of myself as facilitator and coach (as cheesy as those terms are). It means when challenged by that obnoxious student I don’t take it personally but see it as a chance to further someone’s learning. So I acknowledge them for their knowledge and preparation (if appropriate), or for a challenging question or willingness to engage, but I also challenge them to think more deeply and point out if they are being obnoxious or bullying to other students in an attempt to help them learn appropriate adult ways to disagree. Of course, you can still expect rigorous debate, but sometimes we have to show how it is done.  

3. Respect is mutual

Too often I see faculty complain they don’t get respect when they don’t respect the students. Respect is mutual. One of the ways I respect students is to learn their names and something about them as a person. It also helps to remember being a young person who was so desperately trying to figure out their place in the world. I show respect by making sure I am punctual, prepared and dressed like a professional. Don’t dress like a student and then complain when you are treated like one!

Part of respect relates to #1 and the expectations of the classroom. I say something like this to students on day one: “if I see you on facebook or texting during class I’ll assume you would rather be doing something else with your time and I’ll ask you to leave so that you can do that. If you are here, respect me and your classmates by being present.” See how I made that about respecting peers and not just the teacher?

3. Have good boundaries

Lastly, know your role. You are not a friend or mother/father: you are responsible for student learning in one particular subject area. No matter what you do not every student will like you and that is ok. Remind yourself that you successfully completed a PhD and bring real knowledge to the room. Equally you don’t have all knowledge. Admitting what you don’t know something can be powerful modelling. It allows for a conversation about how you’d find X out and approach research, and it empowers students to learn for themselves (and frees us from such expectations!).

4. Pick your battles

If the above does not create the classroom culture you’d like it is definitely not worth having a power battle with a student in front of everyone. Have the confidence to shut it down and say “let’s continue that conversation after class, we need to move on.” I find many of the students who like to grandstand in public are far less comfortable with a one-on-one combative conversation. Moreover, the other students will appreciate that you are valuing their time by managing the class and not letting it be hijacked.

Lastly, walk into your classroom with confidence – back straight, head up, voice slow, and a smile on your face. If need be, fake it until it’s real. And, if you feel so moved, take cupcakes to class. Not because you need to be liked, but because we are all human beings and sometimes sugar = happiness.