Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Notes for the Professor, #1: Novels/Poetry as Assigned Reading

This is a new series that will be random and ongoing in nature. I am preparing and planning to teach as a university professor one day, and as a current student I constantly try to take note of what to do and what not to do as a professor. The variety and range of quality between professors in terms of actual teaching is startling. Some simply don't teach. Some can't teach. Others try and fail -- others succeed without trying. I am convinced, however, that the single greatest trait a professor can have is an openness, a willingness, an intentionality about exploring new and better ways to teach -- including stopping bad habits.

So I hope to nip bad habits in the bud before they happen, and to form good habits before I start. I have had the great blessing of being taught by phenomenal professors and thus feel like I have an unfair, but fortunate, head start. On the other hand, I don't know how much I have been picking up -- adding things to the arsenal, so to speak -- versus how much I merely receive and enjoy as a student without grabbing, naming, imputing, and incubating the virtues and qualities I hope to emulate.

David Wray, a professor at Abilene Christian University who teaches ministers how to teach, leads students through various "teaching tips" and invites them to keep an ongoing list as a helpful guide in all teaching endeavors. (How many "teaching"'s can we fit in one sentence? I'm sure we can beat that.) Here I want to be more specific: not little things that help in general with teaching any kind of class, but specific, concrete actions that will enhance an actual university (or seminary/graduate) class of students.

Furthermore, because I will be in the university setting for years to come, and many friends and readers are involved somehow in the system as students or professors, this space is ideal to begin the process of learning from others what does, and does not, work and what has, and has not, been tried. I don't want to have idealistic hopes, as if my earnestness will produce invigorating classrooms and perfect, "I'm here and ready to learn!"-proclaiming students. Neither do I want to be cynical and treat students (whose ranks I still belong to!), undergraduate or graduate, as the hopeless, illiterate, apathetic, immature, or lost generation that many deem them to be. My peers may be the last four ... but they are not hopeless!

(Just kidding. Sort of.)

So, I hope you enjoy, and get in on the conversation. I don't plan for these to be epic posts, but then, my inclinations usually overwhelm my intentions. Either way -- let's start class.

Professorial Note #1: Novels/Poetry as Assigned Reading

Teaching theology poses a peculiar problem regarding reading: on the one hand, the temptation to drown oneself (along with one's students) in the terrifying deluge of literature that seemingly has no end; and on the other, to buy into the lie that the only important literature is theology. The former scares students away; the latter walls them in. You can see either student in any school of theology (possibly more so in undergraduate Bible studies programs): the self-professed nerd with a stack of Yoder, Hauerwas, Wright, Hays, et al brushing shoulders past the self-professed contrarian with a stack of Faulkner, Shakespeare, Vonnegut, Bellow, etc. The one has discovered the deep, rich, life-giving well of theological writing, and the other has found (God in) everything else.

Well, the good news is simple here: there is no contradiction between the two! In fact, for either to be divorced from the other is to rob the richness of both. Theology is not some kind of master discipline in the sense that talking explicitly about God somehow elevates it above other forms, especially storytelling and poetry. In the same way, to act as if storytelling and poetry are good, or even that they have something to say about God, but that they belong "out there" in the leisure time of students or in the alien worlds of "other disciplines," arbitrarily severs ways of talking and thinking about God and God's world merely by form. God is not compartmentalized, and the Bible theology purports to be grounded in is itself composed primarily of stories and poetry. (Poetry is one third of the Bible!) How could we possibly be faithful theologically if we limit ourselves to systematic theologies and bare exposition, when God does not so limit himself!

Besides, and equally important, how are we forming theological students' minds and lives by solely assigning them "theological" books? This is the exciting, daring, radical life of discipleship which theology names: 500-page monographs written in German! Woohoo!

Instead, as a professor I want to make it a practice to give non-explicit theology as assigned reading -- specifically novels and poetry. I realize how unlikely it is to get students to read an actual book of poetry, so that is more likely to come out in class -- you better believe my students will know the name "Wendell Berry" -- but novels seem a pregnant possibility. I mentioned David Wray above; he became convinced a number of years ago that, no matter what class he was teaching, he needed to assign at least one book relating to missional ecclesiology, because to teach ministers how to teach or to do administration (or whatever) without exploring the final telos of those means is an exercise in missing the point.

In the same way, I think it could only be a good thing to assign one novel per class. Now, it needn't be Dostoyevsky or Melville: I'd be laughed out of the classroom. But offering a handful of 200-300 page novels from which to choose, and finding creative ways to theologically explore those novels in the classroom, seems to me to have great potential for expanding and forming theological minds, as well as for welcoming those whose reading habits do not accord with Barth or Augustine as easily (or happily) as others.

(A final note: I would want to assign novels written by authors of various religious stances, including atheism, rather than limit myself to the Marilynne Robinsons and Shusaku Endos of the world. "What would it mean to step into and explore the theological world of an atheist?" seems an infinitely worthy question for students of theology to ask!)

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