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.” With this message, my student confirmed 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.
Lifetime learning only occurs to the extent that students take ownership of their learning. Therefore, my classroom is designed to promote active learning, to lead students out of passivity and exercise agency. 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. If they are to take ownership of their learning, I need to recruit them into partnership. My first recruitment strategy is to create a sense of levity and community in the classroom. I find that music and games serve this purpose well.
My other strategy is more substantive. From the outset of class, I try to show them that the subject matter is inherently fascinating by exhibiting my own enthusiasm for the material, 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 want students to see that their pressing questions have a place within the discipline. In the Fall 2018 Quarter a student explained to me that she was raised in a “very fire and brimstone Catholic” home where the worst question one could ask was any question at all, and that our class is of great benefit for her as she figures out what she actually believes, because we pose and encourage searching and critical questions.
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,” and I lead us from a discussion of the populations of heaven and hell to a consideration of the “hell” of the Jim Crow south and what the civil rights movement and what it might have to do with what Christians mean by “salvation.”
Of course, I want to do more than merely interest my students. I want them to master content. For each class session, I identify a learning objective in order to focus my efforts. Most sessions involve some lecture, 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, either in small groups or as a whole class. I make ample use of active learning activities, designed to allow students to make their own contributions. Among my favorites are debates, which not only reinforce material (something students regularly report), but also promote critical sympathy with diverse viewpoints, since students are randomly assigned to their positions.
I also endeavor to mentor my students, making myself available outside of class to discuss whatever questions they might have, relevant to class or not. One example is 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. 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.