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Teaching the Twenty-first Century Undergrad: A Conversation with Caryn Riswold

Recent literature and conversation about contemporary undergraduate students and emerging adults inspired one college professor to explore their faith identity and Christian privilege.  I had a chance to sit down with Caryn Riswold and discuss these issues which appear in her new article, “Teaching the College “Nones”: Christian Privilege and the Religion Professor,” in the April 2015 issue of Teaching Theology & Religion.

Mary Beth: Your recent article in Teaching Theology and Religion focuses on teaching an undergraduate population that increasingly identifies themselves without a religious affiliation. They are the “Nones,” a term popularized in Patricia O’Connell Killen and Mark Silk’s edited book, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Northwest (2004).  How new is the concentration of Nones in the classroom?

Caryn: In my fifteen years of teaching undergraduates, I have seen a steady increase in students who don’t identify with any religious tradition.  I think this is for a variety of reasons, and there are plenty of scholars of church and generations writing about it.  The word “none” is of course contested and complicated, as I talk about in my article.  It might mean not religious, or not a believer, or something else entirely.

It seems that I have always talked with young people who proclaim themselves to be “spiritual, but not religious” … and inevitably some of them think that they invented the concept!  Linda Mercadante’s recent book, Belief Without Borders, is pretty instructive on this phenomenon, actually.  What I have noticed in recent years is that students are more likely and more comfortable actually saying they are agnostic or atheist.  A few years ago in particular, there were several students who talked about this identity in one of my classes, and it made a noticeable difference in discussions.  A good one.  For those of us who have been reading and talking about millennials for a while now, this is one of many things that makes them distinctive, and I think presents an interesting challenge to conventional pedagogies of religion.

MB: You were a Postdoctoral Lilly Fellow.  In what way did your experience as a fellow help you think about who and how you were teaching?

C: I think that the experience of being a Postdoctoral Lilly Fellow means that I ALWAYS think about who I teach, along with how I teach and why I teach the ways that I do.  Because of the LFP, I assume that discernment and reflection on the life of a teacher-scholar is essential.  If teaching is a vocation, and I do think it is, then it bears the responsibility of a calling to do work that matters in other peoples’ lives.  I still have hanging over my desk a simple page of “some quotations on teaching” that Arlin Meyer (LFP program director in my postdoc years) shared with us.  One that I regularly remind myself of is: “Teaching is fundamentally about relationships, about not imposing oneself upon the subject or upon the learners, but in fashioning an appropriate response to both.”  That’s from Mary Boys’ essay on “The Grace of Teaching” in a 1996 issue of The Cresset.  And that is some of the spirit I carry with me into the classroom and my work with students, primarily because of the LFP.

MB: Your article talks specifically about teaching in a religion (or theology) classroom.  Do you think how we understand who college students are today applies to other classrooms, say like history, mathematics, or biology?

C: I think that every one of us who works with college students is able to do our job better when we know something about our students – both as a generation and as individuals.  It helps us understand why they actually might like talking to their parents every day (while we cranky GenXers would rather have done anything other than that!), why they respond to direction and instruction they way they do (or don’t), and so on.  The religious piece of it is simply another window into the world that they bring with them into any and every classroom.  A history professor might not be able to presume that all of her students know something about Christianity in U.S. history through their personal experience with a church;  a biology professor might be relieved to know that students aren’t necessarily taking literal biblical creationism seriously as a rule.

MB: At the same time you speak of Nones, you also identify Christian privilege.  What is this?  Early women’s historians spoke of decentering the male narrative. How can identifying Christian privilege and decentering the Christian narrative change our classrooms?

C: Decentering the Christian narrative makes room for more narratives to be in the room.  And it is a fact that there are more narratives in the classroom these days, the ones that students bring in with them.  It is also a fact that students are part of a world in which they already encounter multiple narratives, religious worldviews, belief systems, and so if we don’t make space for all of that in the classroom, we are doing a disservice to their current lives and their future work.

Christian privilege is, to echo Peggy McIntosh’s analogous description of white privilege, an invisible package of assets and assumptions that I carry with me, that I can use to my own advantage in a social setting, that I don’t really know I have.

Naming Christian privilege can have the same effect that naming white privilege and male privilege had on movements toward multicultural awareness on campuses and in communities.  It educates those of us in the norm that we are assuming things that might not be true, and things that are not true for other people.  In terms of Christian privilege, examples of those assumptions are things like this that a student (or a professor) might think:  Other people in this class have been in a place of worship like my own;  Other people in this class know what I’m talking about when I talk about my sacred text;  Devotion to my faith, including wearing symbols associated with it, will be understood by others in this class and mostly viewed favorably.

The fact is that if you are anything other than Christian on a college or university campus in the U.S., those things (and many more) are not true.  This includes identifying with another religion and it also includes as identifying as nonreligious or atheist.

MB: Is this something more than being ecumenically minded in the classroom? I have Eboo Patel’s Interfaith Youth Core in mind when I ask this question.

C: I think of this as being aware of the social, political, and theological structures around the classroom.  Understanding those things that students as well as teachers bring in with them that end up advantaging and disadvantaging each of us.  It is more than being ecumenically- and interfaith-minded (though it includes those things) because it takes seriously the power that systems of privilege and inequality have.

MB: You talk about becoming an ally to students, stating, “[t]o be an ally in the context of teaching and learning is to be on the side of the student, to work for her or his learning, growth, and development as an engaged citizen.” (p.139)  How have you thought about this in your own work as a theologian and as a teacher?

C: The Mary Boys quote from earlier seems appropriate to this question as well.  The way I think about this is that each student not only brings something unique into the classroom, s/he needs something unique while in the classroom.  Perhaps one student needs to be allowed to question the rigid dogma she’s learned by memory, while another student needs to be introduced to the rich tradition of Christianity.  Maybe a different student needs to see how to read the Hebrew Bible on its own terms, while the person sitting next to him needs to be able to articulate a response to the Islamophobia that he hears from others on campus.

MB: One thing I enjoy about your article is that you give practical examples of how one can be an ally to her students.  How did you develop the “Trial of the Garden of Eden?”

C: I’ve been doing it for so long I’m not exactly sure anymore!  I think it was in conversation with a colleague in my department who has worked with the Reacting to the Past curriculum in his teaching … as a way to get students actively engaged with historical material in more interesting ways.  I decided to play with the ways that I try to get students to see what is – and  isn’t! – in Genesis 2-3 as one example of close textual reading and discussion about how religious traditions indirectly emerge out of texts.  This also ends up decentering the Christian narrative insofar as it challenges assumptions about what happens there, and whose “fault” it really is.

Caryn Riswold was a postdoctoral fellow for the Lilly Fellows Program from 2000-2002. She also serves on the board of the Lilly Fellows Program National Network. Riswold is a Professor of Religion and Chair of Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois.  She is the author of several books, including Feminism and Christianity:  Questions and Answers in the Third Wave, and Two Reformers:  Martin Luther and Mary Daly as Political Theologians. To learn more about Caryn see her blog at Patheos, Feminismxianity

Posted by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly


A World Transformed – A Conversation with Lisa K. Deam

Lisa Deam Christian PhD Author Speaker Writer TeacherRecently, former postdoctoral fellow, Lisa K. Deam released her book, A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps (Cascade Books, 2015).  Deam’s work brings her study of medieval history and theology to her exploration of spiritual practices for twenty-first century readers.  Intrigued by this new book, I sat down (virtually) with Lisa to find out more about her work.

Mary Beth: When did you first become interested in Medieval Maps and how did that interest develop into this book, A World Transformed?

Lisa: For my dissertation, I studied a 15th-century chronicle that included a map of the world as one of its illustrations. The map was “old-fashioned;” it was a type that was popular around the year 1300. This led me to investigate the tradition of medieval maps. At first they seemed rather quaint—monsters at the edge of the world! Jerusalem at the center! But they helped me to understand the manuscript I was exploring. I gradually began to realize that the features that seemed so strange were also spiritually compelling.

Here’s the way it began. One Sunday, at the English-speaking church I attended while living and researching in Brussels, Belgium, the pastor said in his sermon that our lives are like circles. We all want the circle of our life to be perfectly round; no one wants a squashed, lopsided one. So we draw and redraw the outline of our circle. We smooth it out here, only to find that it’s bulging on the other side. We rush to fix it, but now it’s caving in somewhere else. We run frantically around and around the circle, unable to keep the outline round and smooth.  In the meantime, the center of the circle doesn’t move at all. It is the only fixed point, the only source of stability in our collapsing world. The center of our circle is, of course, Christ Jesus. We should fix our eyes on the center, not the circumference.

The pastor’s message reminded me of medieval world maps. They, too, are circular in shape. They have a circumference and a center. Not just any center. Their center is the city of Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified and resurrected.  At that point, I began thinking of the maps not just as a representation of the medieval worldview, but also of a Christ-centered worldview that could shape my own life. When I finished my dissertation, I couldn’t get these beautiful maps out of my mind! I began writing and speaking about them, and soon I realized there was so much to say about their worldview that I needed to write a book.

A World Transformed (cover)MB: The process of developing and writing a book does not always go smooth nor is it a straight path.  To borrow from your book, it can be quite the “journey.”   How did you get from a pastor’s sermon in Brussels and a dissertation to this book?  Are they all connected?

L: As you say, it’s a long way from an insight or idea to an entire book! The Lilly Fellows Program helped me begin that journey. At the beginning of my fellowship, we fellows were asked to choose an image that symbolized our scholarly and spiritual journey thus far. Having recently finished my dissertation, I thought immediately of medieval maps. The maps worked well for this exercise since they are divided into three continents, each with a distinct character, which provided three spaces in which I could plot the different areas of my life; all three are centered on the sacred city of Jerusalem.

At the end of the year, I returned to medieval maps to write the reflection that the first-year fellows presented in Colloquium. Here I further developed the metaphor of medieval maps as an image of life and faith. It was wonderful to combine two sides of my life that had previously been kept fairly separate—the scholarly and the spiritual.

The LFP helped me to discover a new way of thinking and writing that integrated scholarship and faith. I began to write essays that intertwined the two. Eventually, I combined this type of writing with my belief that medieval maps have something to say to a wider audience, not just academics. I wanted people in my church to know about the maps and receive encouragement from them. I began working toward the goal of writing about medieval maps for a general audience. But it was years before I was finally able to organize my thoughts into a book that really worked!

MB: You begin A World Transformed by talking about “spiritual GPS.”  How did you develop this idea and why are medieval maps relevant to today’s readers? 

L: The idea of a “spiritual GPS” came about as I was trying to make a connection between today’s readers and maps of the Middle Ages. We use maps all the time to orient our movements and to get us where we want to go. But what about a map for where we want to go spiritually? Isn’t that the journey for which we need the most assistance? My argument is that medieval world maps provide orientation for our journey of faith.

Then I realized that we don’t actually use maps, at least, not the folded paper ones–we use GPS units and other satellite devices and apps. To show readers that medieval maps really are relevant today, I compare them to GPS units. There are some interesting comparisons (and contrasts). GPS units organize the world around us and our movements. But is our spiritual world organized that way? Should we be at the center? It bears thinking about.

MB: Whether we use (or don’t use) maps or GPS to find our way in the world, your work gives readers a way to consider their spiritual path (or journey) through tangible, tactile objects.  In particular, I am thinking of your fifth chapter, “Journeying to Jerusalem.”  You articulated some of these ideas in a different way in your piece in The Cresset, A Packing List for Jerusalem.”  Can you say a little more about how you use the material culture that is a map to get at spiritual journey? 

L: Let me answer by picking up on your term “spiritual journey.” When we think of spiritual journeys today, we often use the term “pilgrimage.” In fact, we are encouraged to do so by the Hereford Map, which prominently features several pilgrimage destinations. Yet for the people who saw this map, pilgrimage meant something quite different than it does to us. When I delved into medieval pilgrimage accounts, I was struck by how physical and, well, worldly, these journeys seemed. They were filled with battles with weather, animals, other human beings, seasickness, tedium, and fear—to name a few things. I’m almost surprised that anyone ever went on a pilgrimage! To me, these very real and physical journeys help us understand what we face, give up, and battle as we make our own journey to the cross. My take is that if we’re going to borrow a term from the Middle Ages, we should explore what it meant in the Middle Ages. Pilgrimage is one example of how medieval maps give us an entree into cultural practices that in turn can shine a light on how we practice faith today.

MB: Who do you hope will read your book? 

L: Thoughtful individuals who want to be intentional about their journey of faith will, I think, enjoy the book. It will give them a new way of seeing and practicing some of the classical spiritual disciplines. But I also hope that individuals who have never read about spiritual disciplines (or maybe even about Christian history) will be surprised to find themselves in its pages. I hope they’ll be drawn in by the language and imagery that medieval maps give us to express our faith and our doubt. I think I’m preaching to the choir in this forum, but I always encourage potential readers who might be wary of the book’s historical focus to let themselves be surprised by the marvelous, monstrous Middle Ages!

If you wish to learn more about A World Transformed and Lisa’s work, check out her guest post at Caryn D. Riswold’s Patheos blog, FeminismxianityAnd if you are in the Mooresville, NC area May 13, head on over to the Centre Presbyterian Church from 7 – 9 pm for Lisa’s book party.

Posted by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

From the Colloquium, November, 2014

Since 2006, the Lilly Fellows Program Director has published a “From the Colloquium” column about four times per year. The idea behind this column is to share some of the common readings from the colloquia of the Lilly Postdoctoral Fellows Program and the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program.

Common readings and group discussion have been integral to the Lilly Fellows Program’s (LFP) fellowship programs from their start over twenty years ago.  First with the Lilly Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship program at Valparaiso University starting in 1992 and then with the Lilly Graduate Fellows Program in 2008, Fellows have encountered readings intended to engage Christian thought and practice as they intersect the tasks of teaching and scholarship that make up the work we do in the academy. The readings address these issues on both the personal and institutional level, examining our individual practices as scholars as well as those of our academic institutions (with, of course, a special emphasis on those institutions of higher learning that connect to a church-related mission).  Click here and here for a partial list of readings over the years; you can click here for recent “From the Colloquium” columns in this blog.

In the fall of 2014, the weekly colloquium of the residential Lilly Postdoctoral Fellows is addressing the question, “Given the changing conditions of the academy, including church-related colleges and universities, how might spiritual perspectives and practices drawn from Christian faith enrich the life of scholarship, teaching, and service?”  The idea behind this question is to think about the ways we have been shaped by educational institutions in both personal and professional ways.  Stepping back, we want to examine this formation through he lenses of both secular and sacred writing on what it means to flourish—as people and professionals (or whether we should even make that distinction).

To start this line of inquiry, the colloquium began, as it has over the past several years, with a discussion of Robert Frost’s poem, “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” which poses core questions about what does or ought to motivate our labor and sense of vocation—is it justice? pleasure? need? From there, the colloquium has considered texts that address how these ideas find expression in our work and, especially, in our institutions.  We examined sections of Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is and Should Be, which offers, from a non-religious point of view, reflections on the value and meaning of the liberal arts, much of which is based on the borrowed capital of the earlier Christian missions of American institutions of higher education.  From Delbanco we explored Evangelical, Calvinist, Roman Catholic, and Lutheran approaches to higher education.  For the first three perspectives we discussed The Future of Christian Learning: An Evangelical and Catholic Dialogue with Mark Noll and James Turner, edited by Thomas A. (Tal) Howard (Lilly Fellow ’97-’99); for the Lutheran point of view we read Mark Schwehn’s “Lutheranism and the Future of the University” along with essays by Mel Piehl and Michael Beaty in the special issue of The Cresset that focused on Schwehn’s Exiles from Eden.

While these readings examined this question from an institutional perspective, in the second half of the semester we focused on how we as individual scholars are formed by and encounter these ideals and practices.  Many of the works examine concepts such as hospitality, grace, sacrament, attention, leisure, and transcendence.  As in most years, we read Simone Weil’s “The Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God,” in Waiting for God, and Stephanie Paulsell’s (Lilly Fellow ’93-’95) “Writing as a Spiritual Discipline” in The Scope of our Art, L. Gregory Jones and Paulsell, eds.  Current Lilly Fellow Katherine Kennedy Steiner led us in a discussion of the writing and music of Hildegard of Bingen (in particular her Ordo Virtutum), along with an essay on Hildegard by Margot Fassler, “Composer and Dramatist: ‘Melodious Singing and the Freshness of Remorse’” in Barbara Newman, ed., Voice of the Living Light:  Hildegard of Bingen and Her World.  We then read selections from Kathleen Norris’ Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace, followed by Marilynne Robinson’s, “Psalm Eight,” in The Death of Adam.  We will round out the semester with Joseph Pieper’s Leisure:  The Basis of Culture, and the film, Babette’s Feast.  We recommend all these works to you for your own reading or for group discussion on these topics.

By Joe Creech

Books, Vocation, & Education – Pedagogical Wisdom from Caryn Riswold at Patheos

A new post by Caryn Riswold on her blog, Feminismxianity, talks about the importance of introducing books to our students in a thoughtful and purposeful way.  Caryn’s post reviews several books that she has recently encountered that discuss higher education.  She also makes note of a recent call for nominations for the biennial LFP Book Award.  Go check out what wonderful things Caryn has to say.

Post by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly

Call for Nominations – The Biennial LFP Book Award

The biennial Lilly Fellows Program Book Award honors an original and imaginative work from any academic discipline that best exemplifies the central ideas and principles animating the Lilly Fellows Program.  These include faith and learning in the Christian intellectual tradition, the vocation of teaching and scholarship, and the history, theory or practice of the university as the site of religious inquiry and culture.

Works considered for this year’s award address the historical or contemporary relation of Christian intellectual life and scholarship to the practice of teaching as a Christian vocation or to the past, present, and future of higher education.  Authors and editors cannot nominate their own works.  Single authored books or edited collections in any discipline published in 2011 to 2014 are eligible.

A Prize of $3000 will be awarded at the Lilly Fellows Program National Conference at Belmont University, October 9-11, 2015.

For more information about the LFP Book Award, including past winners, see our website.

The deadline for nominations is March 1, 2015.  

Post by Mary Beth Fraser Connolly
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