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Best Practices and Ideas about Education: From the LFP Colloquium

Here in the Midwest, the spring semester has gotten off to a snowy, cold, and somewhat halted start.  Valparaiso IMG_20140213_095036283University started the term on time, just barely, but closed operations just before the semester began due to snow and cold.  We closed the other week during that latest cold snap – when temperatures were in the single and at times negative digits.  To say that we are eager to leave winter behind just might be an understatement.


We want to hasten the end of winter. We are eager for the next thing, especially when it might mean warmer temperatures. (There’s talk that we could get into the forties by the end of the week!) While this all seems reasonable where spring is concerned, this attitude also fits with our general hurried lives.  We rush to work, only to rush home again.  We hurry through meals, catching a bite for lunch as we may grade papers, meet with students, prepare for classes, get something, anything, accomplished that work day.  For those of us who have become imprisoned by our technology, we check our phones for mail, text messages, twitter feeds, and intriguing dog videos. (Oh, is that just me?)  We have so much information to process, whether news, students’ papers, our own research, or important and insightful blogs like this one.  We skim; we only hit the headlines.  We learn in graduate programs to “read” a book for the argument, to check the notes, and see how it will help or challenge our work.  We assign pages and pages to our students, as we pass on our own tried-and-true methodologies to become a part of our disciplines.  To what end?  What are we teaching are students about reading and ideas, when we model behavior that runs counter to a thoughtful, slow, and deep reading of texts and other sources?

LivingRoom 1This semester, the LFP Postdoctoral weekly colloquium has returned to a question of previous years – “What are the practices and ideas about education that I and my students bring to the classroom?” What exactly do we hope to convey to our students over and above the subjects or material for individual courses?  Are we teaching or hope to teach our students to be more than efficient processors of information who then can compute, repackage, and spit out information right back at us?

The readings for the term have returned to a few familiar texts and articles and brought in some new material that speak to recent trends in the academy.  We began our semester with Mark Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America.  We read selected chapters including “Adam’s Education” and the Conclusion – “Adam’s Exile.” Collectively, the group sought to determine to what end do we foster critical thinking among our students?  Or put more plainly as our discussion leader did for that day:

Hence, we teach students to critically examine stories [in this case, Genesis], including the ones they inhabit, thus leaving many of them, including the most thoughtful of them no doubt, no place to live, at least temporarily. What more do we owe students when we give them the tools for such iconoclastic work?

Are we challenging our students, who may or may not be Lutheran, Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or nothing at all, when we teach Genesis, to reconsider their origin stories, for a different one that is spun by professors in the academy? (At Valparaiso University, freshmen, both in Christ College, the honors college, and in the general population read Genesis.) Or are we providing them with the space to inhabit the text and consider its meaning or truth (that is an intentional lowercase t)?

This led us to our later readings, where we considered how we read and study, and how we encourage our students to develop best practices, or right attitudes towards study.  This fit with our other conversation about what exactly is the role of the university to inculcate virtues and values among its students.  We turned to Paul J. Griffiths’ “Reading as a Spiritual Discipline,” in L. Gregory Jones and Stephanie Paulsell, The Scope of Our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher, and David I. Smith’s “Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy,” in Smith and Smith, Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning to tackle the first question and next Julie A. Reuben’s “The University and Its Discontents,” The Hedgehog Review (Fall, 2000) and Mark W. Roche’s “Should Faculty Members Teach Virtues and Values?:  That is the Wrong Question,” Liberal Education vol. 95, no. 3 (2009) to debate the second.  

Why do we read?  Does it have a benefit to us as individual scholars or provide any greater significance? Do we read simply to acquire information?  This, Paul Griffith’s argues, is an academic model which he challenges as “not aimed at and does not lead to God, or true art, or effective happiness, or moral transformation.” (Griffiths, 39)  Griffiths is not against acquiring information, but there is something more he requires of us as readers if we are to truly develop our reading “as a spiritual discipline.”  Smith, for his part, considers how we can encourage our students to have hospitality for texts and in his chapter provides unique examples from his own teaching of German literature where he has done this.  Griffith asks about reading practices as a Theologian; Smith demonstrates how he has used literature and his classroom in dynamic ways. (In one class he begins by starting class by walking in and sitting down reading, not saying anything to his students.)

LivingRoom 2As is our nature in colloquium, we drew from our readings to get at what might or might not work within our own disciplines and classrooms. As a historian, I wondered how I can spend time with one text, slowly contemplating its significance.  Can I, for example, spend an entire semester on one text?  Sure, but is that what I do as a historian?  Our group, made up of historians, theologians, a poet, musicians, and English literature scholars, all come to these ideas form different directions. I have a hard time seeing how I can follow Griffiths’ or Smith’s models and do my job.  But does this mean that I do not have a right attitude or hospitality for texts? I argue that I do, as I treat all my sources with respect and charity.  I will never fully understand the past – most historians will agree that they cannot determine with absolute certainty based upon their available sources the motives of people, societies, and cultures of the past.  But we try to get close.  We can do this by taking our primary documents seriously and approaching them with a right and honest attitude and not put into the sources something that is not there to fit our own agendas.  This translates into how we treat our students.  Do we put our fingers on the scale to push on them our own agendas, either political or something else?

That is a tough question, one which we tried to address in Rueben and Roche’s articles.  Are we to teach values and virtues in Humanities and the Arts, as Rueben’s argues what has happened since the 1970s in the academy?  Are virtues and values the moral purview of religiously affiliated institutions?  Can as Roche suggests secular scholars and institutions teach students something about values and virtues?

Of course this lead us to a rousing discussion of what do we actually mean by virtue and values.  We have not solved all the problems of the day nor answered all aspects of this semester’s question.  Next, we turn to selections from Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science (“Introduction” and “Education of a Knife”) and Daniel F. Chambliss, “The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers,” Sociological Theory vol. 7, no. 1 (1989).  After this, we will move to David Foster Wallace, “2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address,” Emily Temple, “’I Urge You To Drop E67-02’: Course Syllabi by Famous Authors,” and Katie Roiphe, “The Extraordinary Syllabus of David Foster Wallace: What His Lesson Plans Teach Us about How To Live.”  We will follow this up by returning to a recent, old favorite, Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do before we spend time reading and discussion Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.  This play was read last year by our Fifth Cohort of Lilly Graduate Fellows.  The members of the colloquium will have the privilege of seeing a production of this play in April put on by our own Valparaiso University Theatre Department.

From Gawande to Bain and to Stoppard, we seek to answer what are the best practices for us as teachers.  What is it that we hope to learn? What conclusions will we draw at the end of the term?  For those of you reading along with us, what conclusions are you drawing?

Posted by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

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  1. From the Colloquium | Exiles from Eden

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