Note: While I wrote this essay a number of years ago, I still draw on these commitments in my course design and classroom practices.
This past week I had to write my final paper for my Course Design class. I designed a course that I hope to teach someday at a seminary near me. I’ve called the course “Holy Times: Worshipping Through the Seasons of Life.” It addresses the liturgical year and the Revised Common Lectionary. But also expands into talking about the seasons of our lives that are not addressed in the standard liturgical year: birth, menarche, menopause, new school years, embarking on missionary trips, going to seminary, moving, loss, unemployment. We’ll look together about how to mark these events ritually for individuals, families, churches. We also look at ordinary time and extraordinary time. We’ll read Kathleen Norris’ Quotidian Mysteries and we’ll consider the days after September 11. We’ll ask questions about how time is constructed: what are the cultural, anthropological, economic, scientific constructions of time? How does worship shape time itself–on a yearly, weekly, daily, hourly basis? And so on.
A major part of the project was not just creating the syllabus for the course, but spending a significant amount of time reflecting on that process. Part of that involved reflecting on my philosophy of teaching: what do I see happening in a classroom? what dynamics are present? how does learning happen? what makes a seminary classroom unique?
It was a very difficult assignment. Partly because we had an excellent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education which talked about how pompous and detached philosophies of teaching can be. The article advised the writers of these philosophies to be as concrete as possible. Don’t just say, “I believe learning is a collaborative process” and leave it at that. But explain the way in which you attempt to live out that belief in the classroom. “Therefore I begin each class session with small group discussions centered on the readings for that week.”
The article also encouraged teachers to be honest about what doesn’t work for them sometimes. What has gotten in the way for them in the past. Not to make themselves sound like Teacher Extraordinaire.
And finally, to be careful not to root all of your reflections in what the teacher can and should do, but to remember to write about students.
I ended up phrasing my philosophy of teaching in terms of expectations and hopes. So I said things like:
- I expect my students to have a rich and varied history with the subject we will be engaging together.
- I expect my students to have very busy, committed, and over-committed lives, of which their academic work is only one part.
- I expect my students will be bringing their fears into the classroom with them.
- I hope my students will see one another as colleagues and as resources to be mined.
- I hope my students will take our subject to places I never imagined.
- I hope my students will fall in love with the subject matter.
It is this last one that I thought I’d share with you today. I hope my students will fall in love with the subject matter. This is the stuff of revolution! If my students fall in love with worship or theology, then the way we worship and do theology will change for the better. If my students fall in love with worship or theology, then the world will never be the same. I hold very dear a quote from the Jesuit, Pedro Arrupe:
Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are inlove with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.
The only way I know to help people fall in love with something is to love it myself, to show them that the subject is worthy of love, indeed calls for a response of love. bell hooks writes: “When eros is present in the classroom setting, then love is bound to flourish.”
Indeed, we ought to enjoy what we are talking about and the questions we are asking. Enjoyment is one of the key intangible ingredients to fostering love in the classroom. There is a sense of playfulness in enjoyment. And there is also a sense of splendid possibility. Enjoyment and eros go hand in hand. They both have to do with knowing, and searching, and being known. Somehow all of these play together in a way that opens us up to the ecstatic experience of learning and breaking new ground. I experience this ecstasy in the classroom when I am brought to a place where my thinking goes to the edge of language, to the very edge where I can see the vast nothingness that has not yet been thought. Even while there, I am confronted by the realization that I have no ability yet to think even that–that is the ecstatic experience of learning.
It is also undeniable an experience of vulnerability. Just as opening ourselves to loving a person puts us in a position of vulnerability, so it is with coming to love a subject. May Sarton writes about the vulnerability in love:
Love at any age has its preposterous side–that is why it comes as a kind of miracle at any age. It is never commonplace, never to be experienced without a tremor. But to stop arbitrarily the flow of life because of a preconceived idea, any preconceived idea, is to damage the truth of the inner person . . . that is dangerous. Are we not on earth to love each other? And to grow? And how does one grow except through love, except through opening ourselves to other human beings to be fertilized and made new?
May Sarton, Recovering: A Journal. New York: Norton & Company, 1980, p. 250.
Sarton is speaking of falling in love with a person in this journal that she kept in her seventies. But we can apply her insights to the classroom as well. There is at the very least a certain preposterousness about falling in love with a subject in the classroom. But more than that, it can only happen if we keep ourselves from letting our preconceived ideas shut us off from new ideas.
To open ourselves to new ideas is a vulnerable thing to do. It is also, frankly, not very commonplace. In a classroom environment which cultivates the need to prove one’s point, to make oneself an expert on a subject before addressing it–it becomes very difficult to open ourselves to new ideas. It can also be a challenge especially for seminary students who may be under scrutiny from their ordination committees who are looking for “right thinking”–or worse, looking to root out “wrong thinking.”
A climate of fear will shut down the possibility of falling in love. But an overemphasis on safety is not the solution. A comparison might be fruitfully made between the age of terrorism and its accompanying race for “security”–even at the cost of civil liberties. It is much too facile to make security the solution to terror and safety the solution to fear. According to bell hooks an overemphasis on safety often stems from “the fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotions and passions will not be contained.” In an effort to contain emotions and passions, all too often we resort to a model in which “the professor lectures to a group of quiet students who respond only when they are called on.” The appearance of a calm setting, however, is often misleading about what’s really going on below the surface. “Many students, especially students of color, may not feel at all ‘safe’ in what appears to be a neutral setting.” (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge Press, 1994, p. 39).
Like bell hooks I believe that cultivating a sense of openness in the classroom (which may exacerbate feelings of vulnerability rather than smooth them over with a false sense of neutrality) is the way to draw people into profound, life-altering learning experiences.
I enter the classroom with the assumption that we must built ‘community’ in order to creat a climate of openness and intellectual rigor. Rather than focusing on issues of safety, I think that a feeling of community creates a sesne that there is shared commitment and a common good that binds us. What we all ideally share is the desire to learn–to receive actively knowledge that enhances our intellectual development and our capacity to live more fully in the world. It has been my experience that one way to build community in the classroom is to recognize the value of each individual voice.
bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge Press, 1994, 40.
I seek to cultivate a classroom community in which people can “try on” new ideas and insights before attempting to speak authoritatively about them. (Thus one of the final project ideas is to “try on a new spiritual discipline” over the course of the semester and write about the experience.) I also allow space for students to present their work-in-progress, rather than only presenting their completed work. Works-in-progress presentations demand different responses from among student colleagues who must see themselves now as essential contributors to a project which can only get better with their valuable insight. Presenting completed work too often results in either silent reception (students don’t understand what response is required of them) or de-constructive comments in which students point out what wasn’t present, or what they would have done differently.
I also seek to model openness to growth. I have been known to ask a question of my students during the question-and-answer phase of my lecture: “Do you know what has been confusing to me as I prepared this lecture?” I have said. Then I have followed up by asking for their insights on a certain matter. Such a question in no way abdicates my role as teacher. I take very seriously the responsibility to be fully prepared for each class session. However, it does model for the student the reality that I also continue to be a learner. It is my love of the subject that makes me that way. Not to ask my own questions would be to pretend I were not in love.