Novak (novak) wrote,

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Personal: Great Teaching Compliments

One of the most embarrassing or humiliating things for me about having a hundred or more students in a semester is not getting to know a bunch of them. Students who remain silent fall pretty quickly into memory's oblivion by failing to make any kind of impression on you whatsoever, even while you have them. Unlike high school teaching, at the university level you cannot take so much time and effort to draw out or force individual student participation, and have to let them take more responsibility for their success or failure in the course (barring some specific learning disability that you're watching out for or trying to help). Thus, the other week, walking and talking with a repeat student of mine who has long since made an impression on me, we stopped briefly on the Peace Quad to talk with a group of young women sitting on a bench under the trees in front of the library, and I was greeted by and spoke with one of them, who hailed me like a student of mine, but who I couldn't place out of a police line-up of two people, although I had a good (and correct, it turned out) guess of who the student was.

Having apparently broken the ice with that exchange, this girl is now a talker, and chatted merrily with me at the end of the Catholicism course exam from this week, where she was the last student in that section to finish the exam, and was laughing that she was usually not the last, overly-careful student, who took a long time lingering over an exam. But she said that she was really excited that this third "quarter" of the course was the payoff, as far as she was concerned, as we now had completed the more historical and theological "background" study of Catholicism, and that this section of the course had been much more an "application" and spirituality component of the course. She was lingering over the exam, she said, because even the exam questions, along with the reading, had been such an opportunity of self-discovery for her, despite the fact, I gathered from what she said, that she wasn't a particularly religious or Catholic person.

Talking for a bit after turning in her test, she went on for a while about how this had been exactly what she was hoping for out of the class, after she had heard about it. She had heard of it? I asked about that and she said, "Everyone's talking about your class." This made me blink, not that it was bad to hear, but rather that that hit me as though I had been told "Everyone's talking about podiatry." A bit hard to imagine. But she went on to say that people talked about me being enthusiastic about the subject without being preachy, about being willing to argue the truth of ideas without being close-minded, and the like. And that added up to being about as cool as any letter of recommendation I could have ever received. So that was a happy surprise to hear from a formerly silent student, especially when I'm so conscious of all the hurdles I could still tackle and the ways in which I could still improve my instruction.

All this dovetailed with something from the day before, when I had dinner Tuesday night after my Modern Christian Thought course with Michael, talking a lot of music industry stuff, mostly, including the news that my advice had been influential and that as a result, after graduation, the members of Jones Unleashed (of which he is the lead guitarist) were going to be moving up to Nashville and pursuing the musical dream. It's always alarming when people take your advice seriously, I find, and you find yourself having had any influence over the subsequent course of someone's life. (The scariest thing about teaching, arguably.) I had simply pointed out that, given the way the musical industry works, no matter what you have to offer musically, you typically can't get marketed once you are out of your twenties, unless you've already been discovered and established. While I can appreciate that Michael's ultimate goals and desires have more to do with a career in academia, the desire to do both pretty much demands that he make his musical attempts now. Happily, Nashville also hosts a substantial graduate theological school (which the ultimate goal of this Physics major, as it turns out) at Vanderbilt, where my Marquette student Jessica is already ensconced in the Master's program, and so that might be able to afford him some opportunity for "keeping his feet wet" with some occasional coursework (which can also provide plenty of artistic inspiration) before he eventually commits to full-time studies.

In the course of dinner, he suddenly shifted gears and spoke about the class, where he said that people had been talking approvingly of the sense that they're starting to be able to navigate the tendencies and landmarks of the development of Christian thought from modernity in a serious way. Jones Unleashed is famous among those who know them as a band full of guys of serious and utterly conflicting theological convictions, all bound together by friendship. The other night, apparently, after rehearsal some debate or other got going and Michael found himself saying something that lost everyone involved, like that someone's theology was being overly-influenced by some holdover from the 19th century's Princeton Theology that really begged some reconsideration or development from more recent information. It was then, he said, that he realized how much information and different forms of thought he was starting to be able to recognize and navigate.

To hear him say that this was not only his own experience but that others in the class were reporting this as well was something of a relief. This is the first time I've taught this course, and so as with any first-time course, it is still very much in the nature of an experiment. In my case, having become convinced from my own experiences at Notre Dame and Marquette – arguably the two best Catholic theological programs in the country – just how poorly students are prepared for studying systematic theology, I was determined in this course to go for breadth, cramming every last thing I could into the coursework (in order to try to provide something towards the sort of comprehensive background that I know that I and my fellow students lacked), which is why I've refused to miss a single session of the class, no matter how impractical schedule-wise: I'd Skype in from an ambulance if I had to in order to keep these majors and minors immersed in the content I'm trying to communicate to them. So it's strangely a very advanced course in many respects, but still structured in the nature of a survey. This last week, for example, we tackled both Latin American Liberation Theology and Black Theology in America, reading for our primary source work a selection from Gustavo Gutiérrez's A Theology of Liberation and the whole of Martin Luther King, Jr's Letter From Birmingham Jail.

So that was reassuring, as far as it went. I know there's more I'd like to do with the class, both content-wise and what I've been able to contribute to it, but it is what it is, especially for it being a first-time-out-of-the-gates effort. But just to hear that it is achieving my goals for it in the minds of the students is gratifying, and always much better than being thought to have missed the mark or being reviled. So it was also honouring to have Michael, who is wildly excited about graduation so that he has more time to read for fun, talk about being excited to read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, and to invite me over to the dorm for eats and a viewing on Sunday evening of the latest episode of Game of Thrones with the guys, provided that they get back in time from the festival that they're playing in Austin this weekend. I also recommended that he tackle Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time as better than A Song of Ice and Fire, if I'm allowed to counter current fashion....
Tags: books, class-catholicism, class-modern christian thought, liberation theology, loyola, musical, personal, robert jordan, students, systematic theology, teaching

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