The most satisfying piece of student feedback I have ever received came in an unsolicited email, a portion of which read, “I admit that I did not have any interest in theology before I took your class, but I can honestly say that I was always intrigued in class, and you made learning the material fun and relatable. I used to feel very ignorant when it came to understanding religions and I feel much more comfortable and confident talking about different faiths and beliefs with others. You are also one of the few educators I’ve had that has taken so much time and attention to care about students.” I find it satisfying because it indicates that my two primary teaching goals—to invest in my students as people, and to captivate their imaginations—were effectively accomplished that semester. These two aims support what I believe is the overarching goal of teaching in higher education: to foster a lifelong lifestyle of learning in my students.
Because of Santa Clara’s core religious studies requirements, most of my students are in class because they have to be, and not all of them are happy about it. Therefore, from the outset of class, I try to show them that the subject matter is inherently fascinating. I do this by provoking wonder and by pressing students to ask real and penetrating questions. As a result, some of my most engaged students are those who struggle with belief, like the one quoted above. I never know what it will be that provokes wonder in students, so I must be attentive to them so that when something does pique their interest, I am ready to capitalize on it and lead them deeper into the material. One semester, two students in particular spent the majority of class attempting to make sense of my claim that monotheism entails belief that God is “not a thing in the world.” For another student, reading Athanasius’s On The Incarnation sparked a very fruitful throughline for the course material, as she engaged with the doctrine of salvation in new ways.
I want students to see that their pressing questions have a place within the discipline. Some of the best class sessions begin with me asking a provocative question, and trying to sustain a free-flowing discussion throughout the entire period. For instance, during a unit on salvation, students read the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I began class by asking questions like, “How many of you believe in hell?” (not many) “How many of you think anyone will be in hell?” (even fewer). I then turned the conversation towards the civil rights movement and what it might have to do with what Christians mean by “salvation.” This led them into a more fulsome understanding of salvation than simply an ethereal afterlife far removed from the concerns for justice that motivate them here and now.
To foster discussion, I seek to create a sense of levity and community in the classroom. In the time leading up to each class, I play music in the classroom, which I use as a sort of trivia game through which students can earn extra credit (the effect on their grades is negligible, but it draws them in and engages them). I incorporate musical tropes such as sampling, cover songs, and remixes to explain phenomena of intertextuality. One recent success involved sorting students into their Hogwarts houses, using the social media platform Pottermore, and then using a “house cup” to track participation grades.
Of course, I want to do more than merely interest my students. I want them to master content. Therefore, my teaching has an integral lecture component, which I use to introduce concepts and figures. However, even in lecture, my goal is student engagement through discussion, which I foster through active lecturing that uses quasi-socratic questioning to get them thinking, and prepare them for discussion. Discussion occurs either as a whole class or in smaller groups, and through a variety of activities including free-flowing dialogue. I make ample use of active learning activities, designed to allow students to make their own contributions. Among my favorite examples are two debates, one on Christology, and the other on the existence of God. In this quarter’s Christology debate, I was pleased to see students taking the concepts with which I had providing them, but developing their own arguments from them (e.g., one student used the analogy of a mule to describe monophysite Christology). The debate on the existence of God occurs after back to back readings of Aquinas and Dawkins, and involves cross-examination from a group of “agnostic” students, who also determine the debate’s outcome.
I seek to not only teach my students, but mentor them. In my first year of teaching (2014), I had a student who began the semester struggling. After a rather poor performance on her first exam, we began meeting regularly. I would offer her guidance in understanding course material, and also allow her to ask more wide-ranging questions, or talk about her own interests. I saw her performance improve over the course of the semester, and by the end, she had a firm grasp on far more complex concepts (e.g., Feuerbach and Rahner) than the material that gave her trouble at the beginning of the semester. The next semester semester, I had a student who was very reserved in classroom discussions. Through after-class conversations, and her writing assignments, I realized that she was quite bright and had a lot to contribute to the class. To draw her out, I assigned her team-leadership for an in class debate (I asked if she would be willing to do this first!). She rose to the occasion, doing additional research, and even discovering that the heresiarch Nestorius was probably not actually a “Nestorian.” This historical insight captivated her throughout the semester. After my class, she decided to major in Theology and recently graduated. We remain in touch, and I have written letters of reference for her.
I am available to discuss whatever questions students might have, relevant to class or not, during my office hours. In Fall 2017, I consulted with a student who wanted to write about biblical themes in Nat Turner’s slave rebellion for her history paper. She found similarities between Turner’s Confession, and the material we had covered in class when we discussed the Exodus. In this way, I was able to reinforce what she has learned with me, and invest in her success beyond our class. After the semester’s end, we had a lengthy discussion about Gaudium et Spes and its teaching on atheism. Because the bulk of my students’ lives happens outside of class. My goal is to, within my disciplinary parameters, prepare them to live that life well.