Teaching at a Christian College
Good Christian theology is the disciplined reflection upon the practices of Christian worship, and all human endeavors ought to worship the one true God. My work in a Christian college setting will combine the full character of good professorship with the practice, ancient as Paul’s letters to Timothy, of encouraging and mentoring young Christians. I believe and I tell my current students that a liberal arts education worth the name should develop those virtues proper to a free person, and taking our cue from classical ethics, we often turn our critical eyes on ourselves, asking whether our own lives embody and develop wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice, and when our practices do not, though I have small authority in my role as teachers to stop students’ partaking in those things, I always make efforts to name the things that rob us of freedom, connecting the books we read to the lives we live. In a Christian college, of course, we can add to those Classical virtues the theological virtues of faithfulness, hope, and charity. Excellence never stops at naming the practices that bear fruit, but the disciplined reflection on what good fruit looks like stands to be a help to those Christians willing to take the time.
When I teach I develop imaginations. Before one goes about changing one’s world, one ought to understand the contours and character of that world, and every subject’s interaction with objects happens through and with and in response to words and ideas and debates and traditions. Whatever else happens when a college professor teaches college students, the class’s vocabulary should grow, not only in words and dictionary definitions but also in interlinked concepts and complex categories. As an apprentice chemist learns the notations and categories that make up the chemist’s discourse through study and experiment, so a student of literature learns both the terminology with which the scholarly community converses and studies. In both cases the student studies with a more experienced practitioner texts and other artifacts that the teacher decides might be worth studying. Both practices expand and refine vocabularies, hopefully to the end of shaping human beings as self-conscious and world-conscious intellectuals. And such consciousness always results in changed imaginations, minds that see differently the world and the self. In a Christian college, self-knowledge will always involve knowledge of self as creature, as sinner, as redeemed, and knowledge of the world will always be knowledge of God-beloved creation. To begin from those assumptions is not to forsake conversation with scholars claimed by other convictions but to offer ourselves as lights, our scholarship as more adequate to a created universe, and our friendship as we convince one another of the goods to pursue as academics and how best to pursue them.
As students’ vocabularies expand, practical disciplines anchor intellectual pursuits in embodied communities, a key for the humble appreciation of the discipline. My classroom is not a time and a space simply for lecturing and note-taking but also for moral formation, the kind of thing that happens when a coach teaches a player how to excel within the rules of basketball or when a practicing scientist mentors a laboratory assistant in the ways that the scientific community lives a scientific life. With English in particular moral learning must necessarily involve honesty at the level of research and composition but also extends to courage in the ways in which a community asks difficult questions together, a hermeneutics of kindness as well as suspicion in reading texts, and diligence in adjusting one’s self and one’s vocabularies to the inquiry at hand. When I evaluate and grade a paper, my purpose is not primarily to communicate to graduate schools a student’s talent abstracted from the aims of the class but to let the student know where the next step towards excellence lies. When we read texts together my aim is not merely to “problematize” conventional wisdom but to model and to develop those aptitudes that allow one to live well alongside and within complex situations (including those most complex of entities, human communities). Every incoming college class is in some sense a class chosen for service, young people with the drive and ability to effect change for the good of communities, local and global, church bodies and bodies politic. My classes always attempt to make small steps towards developing that servant-class.
When a student leaves my classroom, I have contributed four months’ instruction to a life that spans years. Thus humility ought to inform my goals for students. In one semester a student in my English class ought to have a stronger grasp of critical and conceptual vocabularies relevant to the texts at hand. She should have practiced, at least for the span of one major project, those virtues proper to a truthful and diligent researcher and synthesizer of the scholarship available. Depending on the sort of class, he also should have at least a working familiarity with the spectrum of approaches that might lead to a good life in a world made more complex and perhaps some apparatus for evaluating those approaches. As a Christian teacher, I should also have presented a particularly Christian intellectual life as a compelling way to be human, and everyone in the classroom for those four months should have a strong sense that such a life is not only sustainable and adequate to created reality but also, to the extent that my embodiment is capable of showing, truly beautiful. If the student reaches those things, then the person leaving my class will have partaken in the humanities, those disciplines that bring consciousness and ethics and imagination together for the good of a larger community.