The centerpiece of my approach to teaching is the recognition that my task is to prepare my students for lifelong learning. This is the case in different ways, depending upon the student population I serve: undergraduates, or graduate-level ministry students My work in the classroom provides a foundation for their ongoing life and work, but it can never take the place of that work.
So much of ministry is not what you know but (1) who you are, and (2) how you proceed. Every pastoral context and every pastoral situation is unique, as has really been driven home to me in our Graduate Program in Pastoral Ministries (GPPM), which serves Catholic dioceses throughout California. Depending on my cohort, students may be primarily Anglo, Hispanic, Asian (primarily Filipino), or Black (mainly Africans); they may be liberal or conservative, they may be serving in schools, prisons, parishes, or among the unhoused. There is no single approach that they can all take in their ministries. And even within a single cultural context, each person has an irreducible individuality. As a result, so much of pastoral ministry is improvisation. Therefore, my task as a teacher is to provide the skills and frameworks that will enable them to improvise well.
There is an indispensable “content” that must be communicated in theological education, but what will make my students good ministers and/or scholars is what they do with that content. Therefore, in my classrooms, I emphasize the practices of asking the right sorts of questions, and engaging in theological reasoning. In other words, I prioritize the activity of the students in the enterprise of learning, for these are the same activities that will characterize their ongoing work.
Similarly, undergraduates are preparing for the remainder of their lives, which may or may not involve further religious study. If I can inculcate in them intellectual integrity and responsibility, the capacity to ask good questions and critically evaluate potential answers to them, I will have provided a foundation that will serve them in the wider horizon of their life, whether it explicitly intersects with theological inquiry or not. In other words, I prioritize the activity of the students in the enterprise of learning, for these are the same activities that will characterize their ongoing work.
This recognition manifests itself in a further commitment to active learning. At all points, I aim to recruit students into partnership in and agency over their own learning, seeking to draw them from passivity to activity. All inquiry is a matter of asking questions and pursuing answers to them, even if only implicitly. By inviting students to advert to their own activity of questioning and evaluating answers, I offer them the key to all learning, both within the discipline of theology and beyond it. Written assignments (e.g., daily reading logs that ask them to state explicitly what implicit questions are driving the day’s reading) and our classroom interactions lead students to thematize this process.
Among my favorite activities 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. For instance, I want my students to not only articulate the conclusions of the Definition of Chalcedon, I want them to be able to grasp the reason why Arianism, or Nestorianism, or Monophysitism were considered plausible enough to generate the controversies in the first place.
One’s pedagogy is never final nor complete. We must be fluid and flexible, as the pandemic and its disruptions have clearly shown. Best-practices are continually evolving, and it behooves teachers to stay abreast of developments and try new things. During the recent pivot to online learning, I experimented with such practices as social annotation to handle online discussion in my undergraduate courses. I was rather pleased with the results, as we remained more closely rooted in the text and allow for more targeted interventions from me than traditional threaded discussion boards allow. Moreover, it opened up unanticipated avenues for student exploration, beyond what I have seen with responses to discussion prompts, with students pursuing questions about aspects of the texts I’d not intended to highlight, but which had captured their attention.
Adjacently, I have adopted a labor-based model of grade assessment in my undergraduate courses. This practice assumes that students’ learning is, before all else, a function of the work they put into the course. With two years of data on the practice, I intend to continue the experiment for one more year in order to get a sample of non-pandemic-disrupted implementation, followed by a return to standards-based grading in order to get a control sample for comparison before I decide whether labor-based grading will be a more longstanding feature of my classes. Whatever I wind up deciding, I am quite pleased with how it frees students up to focus on their learning, and frees me up to offer more formative feedback, rather than instinctively directing my comments on student work towards justifying their grade.
Finally, and providing the context for the above, I aim to mentor my students, investing in them as whole persons within the totality of their life (of which my classes, or even their degree program is only a small fragment). I make myself available outside of class, meeting students for coffee, learning about their lives, interests, and concerns. Sometimes I am able to make direct connections to class material, or enrich my own presentation of material in light of this information, but most fundamentally, this allows me to model the sort of openness to others before God that Jesus showed is central to a life well-lived. It is, at the end of the day, my task to prepare them for such a well-lived life, ideally in friendship with God. There are a handful of students with whom I am still in touch, and it brings me great joy to see them thriving in their vocations beyond their degrees. I look forward to watching this list expand through the years.