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Christian Colleges and Bridge Building

Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard, The Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Ethics and Professor of History at Valparaiso University, is a former Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow (1997-1999). Here’s a link to his timely, insightful article from 2/14/17 on “Christian Colleges in the Age of Trump.”

From the Colloquium

The Lilly Fellows Program’s Postdoctoral Fellows continue their weekly colloquium this spring with a new question: How do practices and perspectives from Christian faith and tradition already inform our teaching, and how might they shape our vocational aspirations as teacher/scholars? The discussion has moved from, in the fall, broader questions relating to the overall academic environment to more specific considerations, drawing on our own teaching experiences and aspirations.

The guiding text has been David I. Smith and Susan M. Felch’s recent book Teaching and Christian Imagination (Eerdmans, 2016). Far from a simple “how-to” book, it invites us to meditate on several images that have resonance with teaching and learning. The colloquium has considered the book’s metaphors of pilgrimage, gardening, and building, asking to what extent these are relevant and fruitful in our day-to-day (and lifelong) vocations in education. Although our teaching often relies on metaphors such as these (consider “planting seeds,” “laying a foundation,” or the very term “curriculum,” which, the authors point out, means in Latin “the act of running” or “race track”), we don’t often reflect on the full extent of their use, nor do we often realize the grounding they have in tradition and scripture. With this book, we’re gently reminded of the wide variety of useful imagery available to us as we design and deliver our courses. The book shows us that the Christian imagination and metaphorical thinking can be a rich source of wisdom for the classroom and curriculum. Imaginative teaching may be able to reach students in ways that technique and disciplinary knowledge alone cannot.

The authors do not attempt to answer every question they raise, nor do they suggest everyone ought to make use of the book in the same way. Moreover, the book’s meditative, poetic quality calls for the reader to take it slowly and not all at once. In fact, the colloquium at one point considered whether we were reading it the wrong way by reading from cover to cover, without interlude. Other reading strategies would be interesting to try, but ours nonetheless gave us some useful new tools to try out in class, and a new perspective on the classroom community. Truly, it’s a book out of the ordinary, representing a fresh, challenging, potentially fruitful approach to teaching.

Yet the integration of teaching and Christian imagination is not simple, as our discussion has revealed. Questions have been raised about the book’s metaphors: are they appropriate? Are some better than others? Does the “pilgrimage” metaphor extend to refugees and exiles? How do we overcome thinking of each other as strangers on the journey? How can we turn the educational pilgrimage into a communal adventure? If we are gardeners in the classroom, are we charged with planting, feeding, pruning, and harvesting? Who chooses the seeds? What do we do with the weeds that inevitably creep in? How can we think of an entire university as a garden, beyond the single plot that is our own classroom? Or, when it comes to the metaphor of building, what counts as a foundation? How do we involve students as apprentice builders? What happens when our edifice runs afoul of the building code? The questions have been many and deep, prompting our imaginations and offering much to think about after the discussion wraps up.

Posted by Joseph Goss

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