A Prayer for the Teaching Task

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“Since it hath pleased Thee, O Lord, that I should be called to take my part in the teaching of this College, grant that I may not assume the same lightly, or without a due sense of the importance of my trust; but, considering it a stewardship, whereof I shall have to render an account hereafter, may faithfully fulfil the same to Thy honour and glory. Grant, O Lord, that neither by word nor deed I may do aught that may weaken the faith, or slacken the practice of those committed to my charge; but rather grant to me such measure of Thy Holy Spirit, that my duties may be discharged to Thy honour and glory, and to the welfare of both the teacher and the taught. Grant this, O Lord, through Thy son, Jesus Christ, who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Amen.”

J.B. Lightfoot, 19th-century New Testament Professor, Bishop of Durham,

Professor Robert Creech taped this prayer on his desk. He shares this in an interview with The Baptist Standard.

Teaching is a trust, a responsibility to be stewarded. In a theological school, all teaching should be undergirded by prayer, so that God, by grace, might draw us together heavenward.

For the good things that are taught, to God be the glory, and for the mistakes that are made, Lord, have mercy.

What is Safetyism?

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Safetyism is the cult of safety–an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. Safetyism deprives young people of the experiences that their antifragile minds need, thereby making them more fragile, anxious, and prone to see themselves as victims.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

There is a difference between throwing someone a life preserver when they are in danger of drowning and barring them from getting into the pool at all, or in only allowing the pool to be so shallow as to not enjoy the freedom and thrill that comes from entering the deep. Without sufficient depth, we never learn how to swim.

Lukianoff and Haidt identify three bad ideas that prevail on too many university campuses: the untruth of fragility (what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker), the untruth of emotional reasoning (always trust your feelings), and the untruth of us versus them: (life is a battle between good people and evil people).

As a solution, they argue for the elevation of wisdom.

Unpleasant experiences and exposure to discomfort can result in growth and maturity. While our emotions are part of our humanity, alone, they are insufficient for sound judgment. And while there are good ideas and bad ideas, righteousness and wickedness, and there are arguments worth having, it isn’t always easy to make such neat divisions. The Christian doctrinal commitment to human sinfulness and God’s position as rightful judge simultaneously humbles us when we do make arguments and chastens us in the knowledge that our judgments may be in error.

Lukianoff and Haidt wrote their book to address a deficit in our intellectual discourse as it unfolds on university campuses, and then, by extension, in the culture. It’s a great book. It not only contains insight for the classroom, but also for how we think about public debate. All of us would benefit from sharpening our ability to reason, to listen, to learn how to make compelling and persuasive arguments, and to make those arguments in a way that acknowledges reality as it is: a real mess.

This book has another benefit: it exposes flaws in the way we have come to measure reality, and challenges us to instead seek to become people of wisdom. The first step to move beyond a problem is to admit that you have one and to accurately define it. The second is to chart a path forward. The third is to walk the path.

A Few Agreed Upon Principles

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The conservative critique of American higher education is well known to Journal readers: The universities are run by intolerant progressives. The left counters with an insult: The lack of intellectually respectable conservative arguments is responsible for campus political uniformity. Perhaps a better starting point in this debate is the students, most of whom actually want freer discourse on campus. They want to be challenged by views they don’t hold.

[. . .]

True engagement, though, requires honesty. In an anonymous survey of my 110 students this spring, 68% told me they self-censor on certain political topics even around good friends. That includes self-described conservative students, but also half of the liberals. “As a Duke student, it is difficult to be both a liberal and a Zionist,” one wrote. Another remarked, “Although I support most BLM ideas, I do not feel that I can have any conversation that even slightly criticizes the movement.”

To get students to stop self-censoring, a few agreed-on classroom principles are necessary. On the first day, I tell students that no one will be canceled, meaning no social or professional penalties for students resulting from things they say inside the class. If you believe in policing your fellow students, I say, you’re in the wrong room. I insist that goodwill should always be assumed, and that all opinions can be voiced, provided they are offered in the spirit of humility and charity. I give students a chance to talk about the fact that they can no longer talk. I let them share their anxieties about being socially or professionally penalized for dissenting. What students discover is that they are not alone in their misgivings.

John Rose, associate director of the Arete Initiative at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics, writing in The Wall Street Journal, “How I Liberated My College Classroom

Rose set ground rules and then helped his students stick to their agreements. After observing over three hundred students engage civilly and honestly on a range of complex and emotionally loaded topics, his conclusion is that they have flourished. Rose writes:

On the last day of class this term, several of my students thanked their counterparts for the gift of civil disagreement. Students told me of unlikely new friendships made. Some existing friendships, previously strained by political differences, were mended. All of this should give hope to those worried that polarization has made dialogue impossible in the classroom. Not only is it possible, it’s what students pine for.

Rose’s class enters the fray on political topics. These same dispositions and postures, however, prohibit the free flow and exchange of ideas in the theology classroom. Institutionally, we are a confessional body. We have doctrinal commitments and agreed upon ideals that define our community life. But as a Baptist institution, we believe in religious freedom and respecting the conscience and conviction of the individual. Some of our students are still working out what they believe. There are differences of opinion. Some perspectives are shaded by the debates of the moment, current events, or popular ideas in the culture. But being honest about those differences can be tough.

You’d think a Christian community would be uniquely equipped to navigate these differences. A commitment to truth, humility, seeking unity together in Christ, confidence in the Spirit, love of neighbor…I could go on. Virtues must be practiced. When we assume everyone is of the same heart and mind, it can take courage to bring other opinions into the open. When we believe we represent a divergent viewpoint–whether that viewpoint is liberal or conservative–we fear being marginalized and rejected, labeled a false teacher, or rejected outright.

I’m going to keep this Rose essay in mind this year.

There are insights I may apply. As I engage with students, I try to demonstrate the ways in which I do my own homework, even going so far as to try and explain the position that differs from my own, even while disclosing that I do not agree with that position. I also try to call attention to the moral and ethical commitments the Christian community shares, and to point to the Scriptures and the wisdom they contain for disagreeing with one another, both in how we can engage with one another constructively, and when it may be necessary for our disagreements to be sharp.

Nice Classroom Virtues You Have There

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Molly recently began here Doctor of Ministry work at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

One of her pre-seminar sessions was with Dr. William J. Abraham. He offered the students a list of classroom virtues and practices. What are those virtues? As follows, with Abraham’s expanded description.

Desire for Truth

The aptitude to discern whether the belief-forming processes, practices, and people yield true beliefs over false ones. People motivated by this desire will be more likely to conduct thorough inquiries, scrutinize evidence more carefully, investigate numerous fields of study, consider alternative explanations, and so forth.

Epistemic Humility

The capacity to recognize reliable sources of informed judgment while acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and the fallibility of our judgments. This is not created in isolation but takes into account feedback and correction from other sources of informed judgment.

Intellectual Honesty

The capacity to tackle difficult questions without seeking simple answers. Ignoring complex and difficult questions only solidifies vices such as intellectual dishonesty, close-mindedness, and rash judgments. These vices preclude the possibility of refining our thinking and of participating in conversations with others.

Don’t oversimplify.

Be able to say, “I don’t know.”

Open-mindedness

The desire to engage in an open-ended search for knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and so on. Presumed here is the capacity to take seriously different ideas and counterarguments, recognizing that being impulsive in assessing evidence fosters intellectual deficiencies and hinders intellectual growth, both personally and communally.

Courage

The willingness to articulate one’s own position while considering other perspectives. Responding to objections entails tenacity but should not be confused with close-mindedness.

Articulate robustly. Deal with objections as friends.

An Integrative Habit of Mind

The capacity to grasp how things fit together in light of one another and how an understanding of this sort relates to the situation at hand.

Molly records Abraham saying, “If you cultivate these, you will be more able to detect the divine in the world.”

What Steven Garber Learned From J. I. Packer About Teaching

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Over the shoulder, and through the heart.

The image is born of my years pondering pedagogy, of what we teach, the way we teach, and why it matters. Though a thousand things could be said about what good teaching is and isn’t—which in reality is a perennial challenge in every century and every culture—the contrast between “I teach history” and “I teach students” begins to get at the problem. The same is true of philosophy, of engineering, of business, of biology, of literature, and yes, of theology, maybe especially of theology. What is the task of teaching? And when does teaching move from information to transformation?

What changes a mind and a heart? A pedagogy that understands that the truest learning is always and everywhere “over the shoulder, and through the heart.” Simply said, it is why Jesus, the rabbi of the rabbis, begins his teaching by saying, “Come and see.” If you want to know, you will have to enter into what you want to learn; in Michael Polanyi’s great insight, you will have to “indwell” what you want to know. If we fail to show that words can become flesh, our best efforts stumble, which is why the vision of “incarnation” is the heart of the truest theology and also the heart of the truest teaching.

In these days of remembering J.I. Packer, now two weeks after his death, ordinary folk in ordinary places the world over have in an almost-cosmic chorus said, “Packer changed me—everything that matters most to me I see differently because of him.” To think about that for a moment is truly amazing. What was it in him? What was it about him? There was something profoundly transforming of his theological vision and the way he communicated it. Yes, he was brilliant, but it was something more, because he was more. A Puritan scholar of the highest order, yes, but it was his ability to draw ordinary people in—over his shoulder, through his heart—that transformed people throughout the English-speaking world and far beyond. A theology for life in the very best way.

Dr. Steven Garber, Professor of Marketplace Theology and Leadership at Regent College and Director of Regent’s Master of Arts in Leadership, Theology, and Society program, “Reflections on Knowing God & Knowing J.I. Packer

Seth Godin’s Zoom Agreement: Everyone, Make it a Good Experience

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There are things about using Zoom I enjoy.

Other things I hate.

Some I tolerate.

A few I accept. A few I resist.

The Breakdown

What do I enjoy? The connections. I like seeing other’s faces, I like that the technology makes a conversation (or at least an exchange of ideas) possible. I like the reactions feature because I like visuals when words aren’t necessary. The “thumbs up” is my favorite hand signal, as anyone who has ever hung around with me or sent me a text message has discovered. I like the chat feature and I often use the group chat.

I hate that there is a global pandemic going on right now that necessitates the use of Zoom or another video conferencing tool. Meeting in person is better. Mediation is not the same. The pandemic is not Zoom’s fault, unless you believe this. Maybe I do believe that, maybe I don’t, but people are telling me this, this is something I’m hearing, and I understand that people are looking into it, and I think they should look into it.

I tolerate the ways side conversations are limited, moments when it is evident a person on mute is distracted or steps out of the frame to handle a matter, or the fact that some people log on from bed.

I accept that people don’t always keep their video on and that some people are logged in but not really engaged. Some will make that choice.

What I resist is temptation. To check my email, to visit other websites, to do other stuff. I feel it. I admit that sometimes I give in. But I know that detracts from the experience for everyone.

The Godin Agreement

Seth Godin wrote a post, “Toward a Zoom Agreement.” Here’s what he said:

If you promise not to check your email while we’re talking, we promise to not waste your time.

If you agree to look me in the eye and try to absorb the gist of what I’m saying, I agree to be crisp, cogent and on point.

If you are clear about which meetings are a waste of time for you to attend, we can be sure to have them without you.

If you can egg me on and bring enthusiasm to the interaction, I can lean into the work and reflect back even more energy than you’re contributing.

The purpose of a meeting is not to fill the allocated slot on the Google calendar invite. The purpose is to communicate an idea and the emotions that go with it, and to find out what’s missing via engaged conversation.

If we can’t do that, let’s not meet.

Multi-tasking isn’t productive, respectful or healthy.

When my classes move online, we don’t have the option to “not meet.” But we can have an exchange before or after Zoom meetings that will help me improve, to use the time more effectively, to communicate more clearly.

My Commitment

One of my greatest struggles as a teacher is sticking to the time allotment. I let others talk, and I talk, and I make the mistake of trying to cover too much ground. I’m still learning how to be a good steward of time, and Zoom has made that even more challenging. The chit chat is where we connect. The side conversations are where we get the chance to goof around and listen and learn about one another. Zoom isn’t conducive to that.

I have to accept the limitations of the medium. I also have to stay disciplined in covering the ground we’ve agreed to traverse that day.

And if there are still ways to make it better, I want to learn how.

But as Godin writes, one way to make online meetings more enjoyable for everyone is to bring your energy to the meeting, to come ready to engage. Don’t put everything on the leader. Show up and do your part. And I’ll promise you I’ll give my best on this end.

A Sacred Trust

I believe that we became educators because we know–on our better days–that the lives of each one of our students is an irreplaceable gift. We want our students to grasp this truth, to live into their God-given potential. We know that we might end up being the only person who sees that one young student for who he or she is: a unique person, made in the image of God, loved by Jesus, and placed here to give him glory. Is there a more sacred trust?

Christina Bieber Lake, The Flourishing Teacher: Vocational Renewal for a Sacred Profession, p. 206

The semester begins in twenty three days.

This captures well how I’ve seen every student, either while in service to the local church and now in service to the seminary. Teaching is a responsibility. People are a gift.