First Assignment for Sophomores

Our “Sacred Song” exercise is the first homework assignments all sophomores have here in the History of the Abrahamic Traditions course. It’s paired with an excerpt from Karen Armstrong’s first chapter, Homo Religiosus, in her book The Case for God (2010).

After reading the first few pages of  Armstrong’s chapter, where she agues that “The desire to cultivate a sense of the transcendent may be the defining human characteristic” (p. 9), students are given the following assignment:

Please submit the URL of one song that you would characterize as sacred, using whatever definition of “sacred” you see fit. The song needn’t be religious in nature, but fit the understanding you have of the word sacred at the point in the course, the understanding you’ve aquired at this point in your life in light of previous experiences, class discussion, and/or Karen Armstrong’s chapter Homo Religiosus.

We then start the next week’s worth of classes playing a few of the selected songs at the beginning of class. After about 2 minutes of each song, students get an opportunity to share a little about why they chose what they chose, as the respond to some of the following questions:

  • What made this an easy or difficult exercise?
  • While finding your song, what did you think about?
  • In what way does your song have meaning for you?
  • What does this song tell us about you that we might not have known?
  • How does this reveal to the class your understanding of the sacred ?

The aim is to reveal that we’re all coming from different places in terms of how we understand the sacred–for some it’s very much predicated in a transcendent reality, others simply a set or series of values that are rooted in the material world. For some it draws upon the self, for others it moves their gaze to focus on others. For some it’s a notion that offers a hoped for future of what life should/could be like, for others the sacred comes from a particular experience or memory of the past.

It’s one of the student’s favorite exercises because it allows them to share a little about themselves. As they find out, each song is wrapped up in their identity and is a nice way to start the year–especially for the new students. Here’re some songs students have selected this year:

Making the Game Worth Playing

This week I am working to read through David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole. (I’m also aiming to write in smaller, more blog-sized thoughts.)

In the second chapter, Perkins argues that teachers ought to make the game worth playing in order to help students learn by wholes and achieve understanding or mastery. Early on, he adds that making the game worth playing can be approached in two directions: the content and the process.

On the content side, the challenge is to choose and frame content so that it is genuinely worthwhile and its worth is transparent. On the process side, there are way of leveraging beginnings, understanding, expectations, and choice. Each of these can contribute to making the game worth playing. (p. 56)

I like this distinction and, with Perkins, place emphasis on the content portion when thinking about how to make the game worth playing in my classrooms. [Though I think Perkins spends more pages on process, twice he reminds his readers, drawing from his Smart Schools (1992), “Our most important choice is what we try to teach” (p. 61, 76) as opposed to how.]

As a college student, I remember becoming disengaged in my philosophy courses the minute I felt the rubber no longer met the road. It was that feeling that drew me to Religion, Religious Studies, and Theology courses, courses of study I felt had measurable and immediate ramifications for society (at least when thinking about the way the specific classes were taught when I was in the classroom). In that sense, I find great appreciation for the enlightenment, empowerment, and responsibility (p. 61) model Perkins offers for making the game worth playing. That said, I think the choice of what to teach can be one of the most difficult aspects of the classroom, whether deciding specific readings or particular themes to address.

In my four years of teaching, I’ve had to learn how to find accessible readings and topics heavy with generative knowledge, as Perkins writes. Material that “relates widely and readily to the many important dimensions of life.” (p. 57) My experience in undergrad has helped fuel this search, but that’s not to say I’ve mastered it just yet–some of the content I’ve chosen or focused on is still too esoteric or theoretical for the students (the hermeneutic circle is ALWAYS a battlefield of difficulty). But, good content, when found, is a wonderful thing. Thankfully, I’ve been lucky to find great stuff both on my own and through collaborating with colleagues.

And I think it’s this good content that makes possible the junior versions of the whole game for which Perkins is calling. I look forward to focusing on this in the coming months before the fall.

Letters towards Understanding?

This week I am working to read through David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole. (I’m also aiming to write in smaller, more blog-sized thoughts.)

In the past, I’ve had students write letters to their congresspeople and the president as culminating activities in various units ranging from the environment to drone use. The game here then is less about religious studies and more about citizenship and expression of one’s social conscience–the reasons why the game might be worth playing–as influenced by various perspectives encountered in the classroom. I’d always thought this was an easier assignment for the Applied Ethics courses and less so for the Abe Traditions, but Perkins may have convinced me otherwise.

In the first chapter, Perkins offers his readers a few questions to ask themselves when working to identify the whole game of a discipline.

Ask: What would this topic be like if it’s not just about content, but learners are trying to get better at doing something? What would they be getting better at doing? Ask: What would the topic be like if it were not just routine, if it required thinking with that you know and pushing that further? Ask: If there were some problem finding involved, where would it figure? (p. 31)

These questions, when also paired with his discussion of understanding as performance, the moment students can “think and act flexibly with what they know” (p. 48), serve as a nice reminder that learning ought to be about doing. And maybe this can help give a picture of the game of religious studies, again, if even a junior version.

Back to the letter writing…

With some creative thinking, the Abe Tradition essays might very well be turned into letters for government officials, local or national newspaper editors, congregational or inter-denomination and inter-faith organizations, etc. These are very much the bodies RS scholarship seeks to inform, educate, and influence, right? Of course, each essay would likely need to be directed/tailored towards a particular audience, but this could be part of the problem finding that Perkins begins with in the chapter. That is, in any given unit, we can ask ourselves how we might use our newly acquired information for the betterment of society, to be active citizens, to inform an audience, or argue a particular perspective… For example, the Presbyterian Church (USA), whether a local congregation, a home congregation of the students, or the national offices, might have been a nice audience for our sexual ethics essays as they met just last month to discuss and vote on the place of same-sex marriage in their tradition.

I’ll have to keep developing these thoughts.

David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole

This week I am working to read through David Perkins’ Making Learning Whole. (I’m also aiming to write in smaller, more blog-sized thoughts.)

Perkins provides seven principles to lead his readers towards what he calls learning by wholes (p.8), rather than aspects or parts. He argues he learned baseball by playing junior versions of the game with his neighborhood friends, not merely throwing catch or spending his days in the batting cages. Sure, those can help us master the difficult aspects of the sport (more on that later…), but we best learn the sport when actually playing the whole game.

Using the analogy of baseball (and other sports), Perkins’ first principle is just this: play the whole game.

Much of formal education… feels like learning the pieces of a picture puzzle that never gets put together, or learning about the puzzle without being able to touch the pieces. In contrast, getting some version of a whole game close to the beginning makes sense because it give the enterprise more meaning. You may not do it very well, but at least you know that you’re doing and why you’re doing it. (p. 9)

So throughout the introduction, I found myself asking, “What is the game of Religious Studies?”  It seems Perkins’ whole venture would require one to have a vision for what the game actually is, right?

Religious Studies on the whole is a secular look at various religious traditions. It doesn’t aim to be doctrinal or define right belief as much as to take an anthropological, historical, and cultural look at religious traditions’ claims on doctrine and  orthodoxy. It’s comparative in nature and makes use of a whole host of disciplines within the humanities and social sciences (as noted in an earlier post, quoting from biblical scholar Amy Jill Levine: literary criticism, anthropology, economics, political science, history, art, anthropology, mythology, cross cultural studies, among others).

But I don’t think this is what Perkins is talking about. It just doesn’t sound very game-ish. Mind you, I’m still reading.

But I suppose my answer to defining and playing the whole game, if even a junior version, relates somehow to his second principle: make the game worth playing. In order to answer this, I ask myself “Why do Religious Studies?” To which I can think of a multitude of reasons: to broaden one’s understanding of society and culture, to identify patterns in history, to be engulfed by poetic and creative verse, to develop a deeper sense of empathy and compassion, to work for justice, to get a better sense of the human predicament, among others.

Is this playing the whole game or is this just how it become worth playing? Food for thought; thought for food. Either way, I’m excited to keep reading.

Thoughts on Developing a Classroom Wiki

A week ago I was invited by a friend and colleague to a meeting with University of Delaware English Professor Christopher Penna. Will, this friend and colleague of mine, set the meeting up after coming across Professor Penna’s Brit Lit Wiki and thought I’d enjoy coming along, as I too am working to find ways to best draw students to create original content that moves beyond the private transaction that is the traditional paper. For more time than I had in quarters at the parking meter, we sat in Professor Penna’s office looking over one another’s shoulders, discussing the origin of the wiki, the timeline for class, best practices for student engagement, how he assesses student contributions, how it integrates into the next year, as well as the things he wants to improve, change, and do differently in coming semesters. It was a wonderful exchange of ideas (mostly in our direction!) and Will and I left both intellectually exhausted and stimulated. Thankfully, there was no ticket upon our return to the curb! (Unless that kind of thing is mailed in Newark…)

After resting our minds a little at the start of our drive home, we began to brainstorm together and think of ways in which we could incorporate a wiki in our classrooms. I think Professor Penna’s work with his class and the subsequent conversation with Will have inspired me to use a wiki to help my students more fully explore the various lenses or “reading glasses” (PDF) one can use to better comprehend the traditions’ texts.

In thinking back on the year that’s just closed, I’ve thought I’d love to get students thinking earlier about various approaches to traditions’ sacred texts, specifically the various methods of biblical and literary criticism that can be applied. This thought arose out of our final exam of the year in which students were asked to respond to a supplied scenario from three different perspectives, one of which had to be their own. Students demonstrated they weren’t as familiar or comfortable with the historical critical methods as I’d hoped by the end of the year.

So here’s how I envision using a class wiki to remedy that discrepancy. They’re merely initial thoughts and I’d love any feedback, additional thinking, or resources that could help in this endeavor.

Once students have a basic understanding of the various critical approaches (I’m taking any suggestions for accessible resources if you’d like to make a recommendation in the comments!), I could assign groups to take ownership of a particular lens and build a wiki page for that method. In that sense, students would be responsible for building upon that page with each reading they’d have from a particular canon. Actually, we could break the wiki up by method or by the text itself. TBD.

So for example, we read the Abraham narrative quite early in the year as it offers the basis for,  you guessed it, the Abrahamic traditions. One group could focus on the narrative of the reading (what’s actually taking place in terms of plot, character, movement, etc. in both the Qur’an and Genesis texts), another group could center in on the form or sources of the texts (from where did the Qur’an draw in developing it’s narrative? what sources did the Genesis account draw from? how does the genre of the text help readers better understand the text?). Still another could approach it from a feminist perspective (in what way are Sarah and Hagar presented? does the text promote patriarchy? can the text be rescued or ought it be rejected?). This could continue for as many methods and narratives as we’d like to focus on.

In class discussion then, students, in conjunction with other authors and sources, would get to be the specialists on the particular method they were assigned (or opted for in groups?), responsible for presenting the concerns and content contained within the text as deemed important by their method. At the end of each unit, the groups would be responsible for making a contribution to the wiki page of that topic (again, the actual text or critical approach) in order to add to the broader class’s understanding.

By the end of a given unit (or probably some other division of time–month, quarter, or semester), we could switch each group’s focus so that students would have an opportunity to master a handful of methods by the time the exam came around. (This could also offer fodder for the counterarguments they’ve been lacking in their essays, of which I’ve recently written about and don’t want to get away from completely.) By the end of the year, with this wiki project, students would have a higher degree of focus on and familiarity with the various methods, and would thus be better prepared to present a host of perspectives in response to the presented scenario, that which is the final exam.

Building a Loose-Leaf Sacred Canon

I attended a UU service back in the spring that gave me an idea I think I’d like to integrate into coursework for my sophomores. The service’s sermon drew from Rev. Richard Gilbert’s “While Standing On One Foot: A Unitarian Universalist Catechism.” Gilbert provides a fascinating approach to the role of sacred scriptures in the UU tradition…

The Bible with its Jewish and Christian scriptures, is a vast and valuable compendium of human wisdom and folly collected over a period of centuries. The lovely legends of creation, the poetry of the psalmist, the insight of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the zeal of the prophets, the moral imagination of Jesus, and the eloquence of Paul are a rich resource. It is a human book, however, shot through with the best and the worst of human nature. It is not the word of God to humanity, but the word of humanity about its understanding of humanity and divinity and where they meet in human life. There are other religious scriptures to which we would also turn. The ethical demands of the Koran, the beauty of the Tao Te Ching, the simple ethic of the Analects of Confucius, the mystical insights of the Bhagavad Ghita, the existential wisdom of the Sutras of Buddhism – and the rich abundance of the whole human literary tradition – all these contribute to our human store of goodness and beauty and wisdom.

We celebrate a loose-leaf bible which affirms that revelation is not sealed. Truth has not been embalmed in any one age or tradition; it is an unfolding process. The truths of yesterday are often the superstitions of today. We need the freedom to remove from our loose-leaf bible ancient ideas that no longer stand the test of time, keep those that do, and add our own insights to its pages.

The sermon that worked from this excerpt went on to explain the way in which the speaker had borrowed from this idea and created her own testament, full of her own original writings, images, thoughts, poems, and artifacts from other authors and sources as well that she found to be sacred and meaningful. As Gilbert writes, the speaker acknowledged the dynamic nature of her testament, the way in which the meaning of an object is sometimes transient. But, rather than remove an object that had lost meaning, she put them in a section dubbed as her “old testament.” Of course, I’d argue such language is problematic, playing off the idea that the Hebrew Scriptures, traditionally referred to as the Old Testament in the Christian tradition, have lost meaning, therefore promoting supersessionism, while in fact such texts are quite full of meaning both within and outside Jewish and Christian communities. Still, I find the general concept fascinating.

What if we had students build their own set of “sacred scriptures” or collections of texts throughout the entire year that speak to their understanding of humanity and divinity and where they meet in human life? One of my colleagues has students keep notebooks throughout the year with the various handouts and notes they keep; this would be different but wouldn’t have to replace the other in that it would simply include what the individual students determined to hold special meaning in their own lives within or outside the class.

We already do a small scale version of this at the start of the year in what we call our “Sacred Song Exercise.” Students are asked to bring in a song that they’d define as sacred; after some self-reflection, we play excerpts of it and offer the students a brief moment to share a little about why they chose that particular song. Pedagogically, it’s meant to help students discover the various ways we define, understand, and locate the sacred in our lives.

But, if we had a collection of student writing, various texts, links, videos, songs, anything really, that were compiled throughout the year, I sense there’d be the added benefit of also shedding light on the way in which sacred scriptures have been created, edited, redacted, added to and subtracted from, etc. In fact, if they included their own original work, it also plays into the whole idea of building a portfolio, something of which I’ve written briefly about before and one of the projects I’m focussing on this summer. In that sense, it’s value is also in offering a space for students to collect their own work to reflect upon throughout the year.

Still, I could also imagine it taking shape by collecting an entire section’s set of texts to highlight that any sacred canon is created in community and not simply by an individual. After particular decisions were made, we could work to highlight the power dynamics and context that played a role in determining what artifacts were in or out.  Does the diversity of the texts included reflect the diversity of the class? Are there more Christocentric texts included in the final canon because there are more Christians in the class? In what way does the class’s sex, gender, and race help us understand what was or what wasn’t included in the final version of the canon?

Certainly something to think more about over the summer for the fall.

Brief Thoughts on the Year: 2 (Seemingly) Successful Practices

In my first year of teaching, a friend shared Brookfield and Preskill’s “Discussion as a Way of Teaching” in which the authors argue that classroom discussion is part and parcel to the democratic experiment—“an important way for people to affiliate with one another, to develop the sympathies and skills that make participatory democracy possible.” Throughout, they offer a number of applicable exercises to help cultivate, sustain, and track discussion, one of which I’ve used consistently throughout my four years of teaching. Here’s one ripped from their text (pg. 69) and the context of how I’ve integrated it into my course as outlined in my course description…

Students are expected to do all nightly readings and come prepared to discuss the material each meeting. In an effort to best prepare for discussion, students are expected to complete a short homework assignment with each reading. These assignments are intended to help students access the readings and begin to wrestle with the concepts and ideas presented before class discussion. For example, students may be asked to finish two of the following four statements:

  1. I find the author’s primary concern to be…
  2. What struck me most about the text we read was…
  3. The idea I most take issue with in the text is…
  4. The question I would most like to ask the author of the text is…

Somewhere along the line, the four statements above transitioned into an exercise we called “The Idea I found most…” Exercise in which students were asked to identify the ideas they found most interesting, challenging, absurd, and applicable in any given reading. We ended our last several classes discussing these ideas we identified within our final text, Rehmann and Baptist’s Pedagogy of the Poor, and the course as a whole (syllabus in hand to remind ourselves all that we’d covered). It was a nice way to wrap up the year and left me excited about the different ways the course had affected students—many were still confused by the hermeneutic circle; many felt Rehmann and Baptist offered much that was applicable to their future selves. In the end, it gave me a handful of lasting impressions the students had, certainly things that will guide my planning for next year.

However, the most rewarding testament to this exercise came today. Over two weeks after graduation, a former senior wrote an email sharing, “Just this morning I finished Jim Holt’s “Why Does the World Exist?” which [the Religious Studies Department] generously gifted me. I thought, for old times’ sake, I would share a few reflections on this existential smorgasbord of a book (Which was difficult to say the least).” He went on to write two pages worth of analysis using the exercise noted above (identifying the interesting, challenging, absurd, and applicable ideas).

Though I’d always seen value in the exercise, I’d been unsure about how often I would employ this technique next year. However, this student’s email speaks powerfully to the value in repetitively asking ourselves these questions as we engage a text. As evidenced in the recent email, it builds a habit that can be long-lasting; not only causing us to identify specific concepts or ideas that stand out, but it moves us enter into conversation with them as well, in conversation with the text, with one another around the discussion table, and with one another outside of class.

Another practice I adopted from Brookfield and Preskill’s work, and arguably the most helpful as I look back on the year and begin to plan for the next, was their Critical Incident Questionnaires, or CIQs (pgs 48-9). These are weekly evaluations that asks students to reflect on the following…

  1. At what moment in class this week were you most engaged as a learner?
  2. At what moment in class this week were you most distanced as a learner?
  3. What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find most affirming or helpful?
  4. What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  5. What surprised you most about the class this week?

It’s aimed at feedback for the whole group, not simply the instructor. Each week students had an opportunity to praise one another or offer critique, receive feedback and thoughts on their contributions. Truth be told, sometimes I wanted to leave the criticism out—”Spoon feeding ideas and making things obvious vs. having us come to our own interpretations; may have talked too much” will forever be etched in my memory!—but I promised from the start that I’d keep all their criticisms in no matter what was written. (For the greater good, democracy, right?) So any given week we’d begin classes with a brief glance at the prior week’s reflections, asking ourselves, “What do we want to be conscious of and avoid or embody? Who can we celebrate and model our contributions after?” Some meetings took more than half our time to discuss and debrief, others only minutes. On the next week’s CIQ, students would write that our discussion on the previous CIQ was helpful because it made them feel their voice was being heard; others complained discussion of the CIQ was detrimental to their learning because it took away from the day’s prepared content.

Some students struggled to be specific, merely offering a word or name in response, but many wrote in detail that offered insight both for the week ahead as well as, I trust, for my planning for next year. After 30-some-odd weeks of class, I have pages of feedback on what readings paired well, what concepts were consistently confusing, what teaching opportunities I missed (“We didn’t talk about Romero or the newspaper. Learning opportunities missed. Those were the 2 most interesting discussion topics we’ve had and we didn’t take advantage of them!”), as well as what readings were, as one student wrote of Peter Singer, “too long—could have gotten to his point in about 2 pages.” Here’s an example (PDF) from the middle of the year after I compiled their responses into one document.

I only used CIQs for my seniors but felt I had such success with them that I look forward to integrating the practice into my work with sophomores next year. (Its successes aside, I don’t expect an email anytime soon with a student’s weekly summation of their summer break: “I was most distanced as a learner this week when my mother woke me up early and forgot that summer means I can sleep until noon!” etc.)

All that’s to say, I encourage you check out Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill’s “Discussion as a Way of Teaching.” There’s great stuff in it that is immediately applicable, helpful, and rewarding as a teacher aiming to help facilitate positive discussions. For those hesitant to buy, I also came across an easily accessed (read: free) online document Brookfield has put together with various (not all)  discussion techniques (PDF) he explores in the book. The CIQ information is on pg 22, though the “Sentence Completion Exercise” is not in the online document.

Counter-Argument v. Counter-Thesis

One of the goals of the Religious Studies curriculum is getting students to engage perspectives outside their own. In that vein, we encourage students to be critical of their own argumentation by way of providing thorough counterarguments in their own work.

Working with younger writers, I often find that they have difficulty in formulating a counterargument. If included at all, it comes in the form of, “Some say X. However, Y because Z.” I’d describe this as a decent but not excellent counterargument. It’s decent because they’re taking the time to show how they support their claim, claim Y, via Z. Yet, it falls short of excellence because the students are not showing how “some” support X (it’s rarely an actual person or author they draw from, but that’s another story). In that sense, they do not give much of an argument in their counterargument, but rather offer a counter-thesis.

Here’re some examples from a student over the course of their final three essays of the year.

The first comes from an essay in which students were asked to write on the extent to which Christians are responsible for the Holocaust:

Many will continue to argue that it was anti-Semitism that was responsible for the concentration camps and the majority of the deaths, thus Christians are directly to blame for promoting anti-Semitism. Although this is a valid argument, it was not anti-Semitism being present that caused the Holocaust but how Hitler was able to use it.

The next example comes from an essay in which students were asked to craft a theodicy in response to the problem of evil:

On the other hand, some may continue to argue that if God is all-powerful, why does he not simply eliminate evil all together and let humans progress in other ways. Yet, if God would do so there would be no conception of good and evil at all, we would simply be living in utopic world where we have no decisions or free will and are a slave to the concept of “good”.

This final example comes from the student’s last essay of the year in which all were asked to write on the extent of which the sacred scriptures could and should be used to create a sexual ethic:

Some will argue that this theoretical sexual ethic I created is a result of me “picking and choosing” as I praise parts of the scriptures but show vast contradictions of them later. Although this is a valid argument, one cannot create a sexual ethic from the scriptures in their entirety as the bible commonly contradicts the good themes of love and faith. However, those good themes are very powerful, and alone, can be utilized to create an exceptional set of sexual ethics.

I’d argue there’s growth from the first to the last here. What begins with no analysis on how one might attribute anti-Semitism to Christianity, ends with at least analysis on how one might claim the author is “picking and choosing” in developing his own sexual ethic. Still, this particular student hasn’t quite captured what I would described as an excellent counterargument. (Obviously, there are more problems than the counterarguments here; I trust my readership can spot the other concerns as well, but my aim here is simply to focus on the student’s formation of a counterargument.)

As a result of facing these kinds of counterarguments all year, I began to draft a document that emphasizes the difference between a counter-argument and a counter-thesis. It began as an email I sent to students before their final essay was to be submitted, but I still need two examples which can model what I’m asking of students. I’d also need to explicitly connect the document to the rubric we provide students with at the start of the year as well. Once completed, I plan to share this document at the start of the year before the student’s first essay is assigned. I’ll also likely share it with other departments beforehand to glean ways in which they help students on this front. That said, I welcome questions, critique, and thoughts on how other educators help facilitate the development of counterarguments among their students as well as feedback on the drafted document, both in the comments below and within the document itself (I’ve aimed to allow anyone with the link above not only access but editing and commenting capabilities as well).

Pedagogical lessons from Whereabouts in America

For the last couple of years I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with a group of seniors taking the environmental science course at my school to talk about a bike ride across the country I took in graduate school. In the past, I’ve found that I focus on different aspects of my ride. This year was no different.

Most often, my focus has taken the form of reflections on the generosity of strangers. Throughout the 4000 mile journey, countless folks took me in and cared for me, fed me dinner and breakfast, packed me lunch, let me sleep in their guest rooms, offered me their shower, allowed me to wash my clothes, and even stay for a couple days.

One iteration of the presentation centered in on the reason I rode: to educate the people I encountered along the way about the plight of the asylum seeker in our country. Before the trip, I briefly worked as the coordinator of The Riverside Church’s Sojourners Immigration Detention Center Visitation Program. As a result, I made it my mission to share the stories and realities from detained survivors of torture, democracy movement leaders, and ethnic minorities who’d come to the US to seek refuge, but instead found imprisonment for months or years, waiting for an immigration judge to determine if they had a “credible fear.” All the while, shareholders in private companies like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) reap profits from detaining fellow human beings.

Other moments of reflection have focused on the sheer beauty of the ride–the Appalachian Mountains; the smell of burnt firewood just before sunset; the continental divide at 11,000ft; Utah’s buttes, domes, and vast systems of canyons; the high desert in Nevada. I had certainly rode through a variety of environments, but have little experience or training to speak of such things outside mere commentary on their beauty and the awe they instilled while visiting on bike. This has been challenging in the past because I want to relate my trip to their course. Yet, my takeaways from the trip, as noted above, rarely border upon science-proper.

I think part of the reason the presentation has been so changing is that my host never gives me an agenda. He simply invites me to come “talk about the trip.” I’ll pose questions concerning a direction he thinks I ought to take and he supports my thoughts, regardless of the content. Looking for ways I could draw my reflections a little closer to these student’s work, I opened up Hessel and Ruether’s (eds.) Christianity and Ecology and Leonardo Boff’s Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor for some inspiration. And that I found!

Ruether, Johnson, McFague, and Keller provided me a framework I could work with, as most rooted the current environmental crisis in the platonic dualism that serves to secure the ideological foundation for anthropocentrism and patriarchy. This reminded me of Cone’s Whose Earth is it Anyway?, in which Cone situates the same destructive ideology in the logic of white supremacy. Dividing reality into in forces of opposition (humans–natural world, man–woman, white–black), with one archetype over and against the other, this ideological framework has led to some of earth’s most traumatic systems and experiences.

Yet, Boff spoke powerfully to a solution to such a crisis:

First of all, we must being about the great revolution in perspective that grounds the new cosmology; we cannot understand ourselves as separate from the Earth nor can we continue with the classic vision that regards the Earth as a lifeless planet, a clump of soil and water full of the hundred elements of which all beings are composed. We are much more than that. We are sons and daughters of Earth, we are Earth itself become self-aware, the Earth journeying… When an ecological agronomist studies the soil compositions, the cosmos is studying itself. When an astronomer points a telescope toward the stars, the universe is gazing at itself. (p. 119)

How incredibly poetic.

In truth, I’d centered in on what was shaping up to be a paradigmatic shift in even my own thinking. I don’t think I’d fully thought about the way dualism had shaped so much of my view of the natural world (which in itself, the phrase “the natural world,” is an expression of that dualism, right?) But to understand myself as a product of the earth, no more or less than a forest, reef, or bird, that is copernican in nature.

Further, both texts touched upon Rudolph Otto’s model for speaking of the sacred, something I’d certainly come to understand my trip as bordering. Boff writes that Otto’s notion of the sacred is experienced in two distinct ways: tremendum and fascinosum. A feeling that sends us fleeing in a kind of fear, yet draws us in all at the same time. Boff understands this acknowledgment of the sacred as just as much a part of the solution to our crisis as the rejection of dualism, writing:

When taken on in this manner, the sacred brings us back from our exile and awakens us from our alienation. It brings us back to the home that we had left, and we begin to treat Earth, each thing in it, and the whole universe, as we treat our body, each of our organs, every emotion of our soul, and each thought of our mind. Only a personal relationship with Earth makes us love it. We do not exploit but respect and reverence the one we love. A new era may now begin, not one of truce but of peace and true connectedness. (p. 118)

Finally, Boff posits that it’s not enough to learn about the world through books, movies, or the classroom. Instead, we ought to be out in the world and experiencing the sacred, a challenge I aimed to leave the class thinking about:

What we need is to be stirred and to have a deep experience. We need to enter into this knowledge about the cosmos, Earth, and nature, because it is knowledge about ourselves, about where we come from, about our deepest reality. It is in being stirred by such feelings that we change our lives. (p. 117)

In the end, I felt it was the best iteration of the presentation I’d done yet. And the more I think about it, I can’t help but wonder if its success was brought about by my host’s insistence on giving me free reign over my assignment. This certainly corresponds with my thinking before. In the portfolio design team I’d mentioned before, one of our weekly exercises was to share details about a peak learning experience in our development as students and teachers. For many of us, we cited moments in our college careers in which our instructors and professors gave each of us a large degree of independence with various assignments. We each expressed that it was the independence that facilitated the peak experience, even moving some of us a step closer toward our career in teaching. In that regard, I cannot help but wonder the negative effects of providing too narrow of a prompt for my own students, one that limits the scope of their work, their creativity even, too much. This, I’ll have to think about more over the summer, as we’re to the end here.

In regards to the peak experiences, I should note that many cited a moment in their junior year of college, strangely enough, as being the moment. I invite you to detail on your own peak learning experiences in the comments!


The image The Agony of Gaia at the top and in the presentation is from Kentucky artist Jeff Chapman-Crane. The video linked of Hogback Road in the presentation is from Ron Cox.

The Strength of Reflection and Dialogue

Starting at the end of March, I got involved in a Portfolio Design Team at my school. Our task is to “design a menu of options for faculty to create teaching portfolios that share the narrative of our practice——the story of our class, progress of our students, and reflections on our craft.” The basic idea is to document and share our work as teachers. Collaboration, reflection, and process have been our chorus.

In truth, this blog has been integrated into the project as a means for reflection and collaboration. We meet weekly to plot, plan, and probe our developing menu but also give ourselves homework assignments to ensure we’re sticking to our aim. It’s been a great way to not only put together a larger product for others but also challenge myself to think deeply about my own teaching. Our assignment for this week was to read and comment on various examples of self-reflection that each of us had put together for our last meeting. I found this exercise incredibly rewarding and wanted to share a post-reflection of a reflection that stemmed from my week’s homework.

My colleague, John, invited feedback on an evaluation he provided students after a presentation on Alan Turing given in observance of GLSEN’s Day of Silence. Turning was a bit of a 20th century computer mastermind who was essential in all things computer related, integral in the lineage right up to the modern conveniences of our iPads and iPhones. Through the presentation, the kids learn not only of Turing’s computational accomplishments but also that Turing was convicted by UK officials of “gross indecency” with another man, underwent chemical castration, and ultimately committed suicide.

John’s reflection for our group was eliciting feedback on the student evaluation he was going to share with his class to assess the presentation. In asking for our feedback, John shared that his presentation aimed to “put the spotlight on the small ever-present micro aggressions that continue the legacy of homophobia that is such a part of our culture…[to] educate themselves on how homophobia still permeates our culture today and take real actions to change their own understanding and use of homophobic language.”

John’s goal brought me back to an essay I’d just discussed with my sophomores from feminist LGBTQ theologian Virginia Ramey Mollenkott called “Overcoming Heterosexism–To Benefit Everyone.” In my own reading, I was struck by Mollenkott’s choice to use heterosexism over homophobia, but this thought didn’t surface in class discussion. Thankfully, I was reminded of it while reading about John’s hopes for his Turing talk.

At the start of her essay, Mollenkott shares,

I speak about heterosexism rather than homophobia for strategic reasons. It is too easy for people to interpret a phobia as a morbid personal matter. A phobia can be someone else’s private abnormality. To speak about heterosexism, however, bears witness that the basic phenomenon is public, institutionalized prejudice against, gay, bisexual, and lesbian people throughout this society.

As I wrote in a comment for John, I find great strength in this approach and hope to work it into my own pedagogical language. I’ve written before of students’ tendency to separate themselves from an author’s claim because, perhaps, it’s too challenging for their understanding of the world. Instead, students will try to situate various “controversial” claims as pertaining only to a certain time in history, but not their own: “Cone is rightly angry. He’s writing at a time when American society was so racist.” Implying both racism has been eradicated and anger at racial injustice is rendered futile. Thankfully, we have authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates who call us to slow down in separating ourselves so quickly (some recent John Stewart analysis doesn’t hurt either).

But as I move forward in my “Sexuality and the Scriptures” unit with my sophomores, I find Mollenkott’s strategery as a possible route to take. That being said, a danger worth noting is the continued distancing between students and, not time this… time…, but structures. Might a student ignore their own homophobia as a result of such a focus on institutional heterosexism? In truth, I don’t think this poses much of a concern; emphasizing the institutionalization of heterosexism means highlighting the way we’re very much not out from under it’s purview. The institutional permeates the individual.

So thanks to John for his reflection and invitation for feedback. Having engaged in such, he moved me to think both about the value of collegial feedback and my own approach in talking about the structural nature of heterosexism, something I’d been struck by at first but failed to bring to the surface with my students.