Novak (novak) wrote,

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Personal/Theological Notebook: The Start of a New Academic Year; Teaching an Advanced Student

The start-up to the new academic year has really begun. The President's Convocation of the Faculty and Staff was Monday, which was entertaining in a new-of-the-university kind of way, but more interesting for just the social conviviality during and afterward at the reception. I met a young ancient history professor who studied with a grad school friend of my undergraduate ancient history mentor, Marvin A. Powell, Jr. When he decided to go pro in Babylonian/Cuneiform studies, he wrote to Marvin asking his advice. Marvin's response was basically to tell him not to ruin his life that way. Which is totally classic Powell.

The next day was our faculty "retreat," which was basically a meeting with lunch in a private dining room over at the Audubon Park Clubhouse. For a meeting, that was actually a great deal of fun. We were discussing the suggestions made for the Department of Religious Studies by the outside observers that were brought in last spring, and what made it especially "fun" for me was the extent to which the senior faculty really solicited and listened to our ideas. Most of the junior faculty are on one-year contracts because the university is still really picking up the pieces from Hurricane Katrina: while on the surface that seems all long ago and painted or paved over, the financial repercussions are still dominating the university, and the recovery will continue for years to come. And all that in the context of the current difficult economic situation. But given that Loyola's department is in a striking position in having both a Christianity and a World Religions track in the department, we are effectively trying to chart the course of what otherwise might be two distinct academic departments. It's an interesting balancing act and it was impressive just to be in the midst of a group of professors who so passionately care about what we are doing: hearing them weigh one another's ideas or offer their own was moving just in witnessing the kind of "ownership" they were all taking of their individual and collective efforts, and for the legacy that they want to create beyond themselves in the future of the department and in what we offer to the university's students.

Met with a student tonight, one of our majors, who wants to do a directed readings course in systematic theology, more of the contemporary stuff, and with whom I started sketching out a course in 20th century theology: a sort of a sampler to give him both a sense of the craft, and a taste of a lot of varieties of ways in which it has been done: Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic. I'm jazzed to be teaching my courses for a new semester, and to have whatever opportunity I will have to connect with, and broaden the horizons of a new group of students, but I have to say that as I've been looking over my bookshelves tonight, thinking about what to have this guy read, I'm feeling a different kind of excitement. This is a guy who will likely go on to do some sort of Master's work in the field, and who could even do a doctorate, if his vocational calling took him in that direction. He has a strong artistic background, and a mother who is a church musician and liturgical composer, but he's kind of chomping to do pure theology right now. And like with a few standout students I've had over the years – Jessica, Calvin, Haley – here's one who could go the distance.

So, in other words, I'm suddenly conscious of the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of starting to make a theologian. And that's uniquely exciting for me as a theological educator. It's somehow sprinkled with a hint of the epic. I'm not sure how to convey it. That's "You're the next Captain of the Enterprise" exciting. Most of the time, as a teacher, you're scattering seed to the wind, and it's always gratifying to find out from students years later how that may have paid off, but it's sort of random to find out how that worked. Here, this is like building something in front of you, maybe only the first story or level, but in your mind's eye, you know you're looking toward the completion of something beyond you and your own isolated efforts: the Empire State Building or Saint Peter's Basilica. So setting up this survey suddenly looks kind of momentous when I consider leading an advanced student out into these waters for the first time. It makes me wonder whether this feeling was in Professors Albert Resis and Powell when they began to talk to me about a doctorate when I was an undergraduate....
Tags: friends-loyola era, loyola, niu, personal, students, teachers, teaching, theological notebook

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