The Spring 2017 semester of the Postdoctoral Fellows colloquium at Valparaiso University continues to explore the integration of Christian identity and the teaching vocation. We have benefited from in-depth discussion of the practical situation of the college teacher, as well. Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do has helped the group explore best practices as well as frustrations in the college classroom, opening up reflection on the telos of teaching, definitions of student excellence and success, and just what counts as great teaching. Bain’s book offers useful advice on setting standards, promoting intellectual excitement and curiosity, getting students to take responsibility for their learning, how to maintain students’ attention, and the role of lecturing—among many other things, as well.
Selections from the respective works of Mary Catherine Bateson and Dan McAdams offered the chance to think about the overall narrative in which our teaching is embedded, and what makes a good, and meaningful, life story. We considered the different significance of stories marked by continuity or discontinuity, the importance of developmental transitions, and whether we are called to provide a certain kind of repertoire of stories to our students. Is the syllabus a narrative construction? Are the texts we choose characters in a story? What might be the purpose of whatever story we’re telling? A screening of The Wild Child, the 1970 classic film by Franҫois Truffaut, invited the group to consider these questions further and in other lights, raising important questions about the teacher’s motivations and methods. Education and civilization seem to work together, but Truffaut’s film shows a tension between them, too.
The Fellows themselves have provided the material for the colloquium since then. Each week, one Fellow has submitted a reflective essay to the group. The mentor for each Fellow has delivered a response in person to the whole group, and discussion has proceeded from the combined insights and questions of each Fellow and his or her mentor. It’s exciting to witness the ongoing process of vocational discernment demonstrated in the Fellows’ writings. At the end of a long Monday, the colloquium group has been rejuvenated as we have revisited important, exciting, and sometimes confusing and frightening, moments from our teaching past. Their essays have led us into important discussions about such things as Christian motivation and mission in the classroom, the sustainability of Christian higher education, the challenges of religious diversity, adapting to different ways students learn, treating students holistically as full persons, our personal struggles as teachers, the role of mystery in the educational experience, and the challenges of teaching—and demonstrating—empathy to our students. It has been a rich, full season in the Postdoctoral Fellows colloquium.
Posted by Joe Goss