A great article on bold pedagogy in Catholic Social Teaching.
Lent is my favorite season for teaching Catholic social doctrine. How can you not smile when the liturgical season gives a nitro boost to your pedagogy? The prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of Lent presents a goldmine for teaching the CSD principle of “solidarity.” Every CSD class requires students to complete a solidarity practicum. Rather than simply learning about solidarity, the students actually enter solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. It’s like dissecting the frog after learning its anatomy, except moral theology works in a laboratory of virtue. So, what does it look like?
First, students learn about solidarity through course reading and generally a film. As my main textbook I’ve been using J. Brian Benestad’s Church State and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine. While very strong all around, that text itself is light on “solidarity,” so I’ve had to supplement with JP II, Dorothy Day, a documentary called Sister Helen (not of Dead Man Walking fame), a Mother Teresa documentary, even a feature film about Damien of Molokai, etc. Who better to teach solidarity than a man who chose to minister to the sick on an island where he would certainly be infected with the same deadly sickness that had sentenced them to exile.
Second, students choose a way of being in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable. They enact this way and write a reflection paper that considers not only what they’ve done, but also what we’ve learned in class about solidarity. Students consistently love this aspect of the course. Here are some inspiring things the students have done or are doing this lent as part of their solidarity practica:
1. Slept for 1 week in his car.
2. Go through all of lent with just three outfits to wear.
3. For 5 days picked one meal out of a hat to eat for that day. On the 6th day, ate nothing.
4. Lived for a month on our state’s foodstamps “allowance.”
5. Sleeping on the floor with no blanket or pillow.
6. Eating only cheese, bread, water, and juice for all of lent.
7. Washing all clothes in the sink.
8. Occupying a technology desert for Lent.
9. Not looking in a mirror for all of Lent.
10. Went without a car for a month (even though it was a normal necessity in the student’s life).
11. Go on a “street retreat”
My experience has been that students enjoy the more challenging of the practica. Students are free, of course, to make their own. In fact, most of the ones listed above are the students’ own creations. What’s really neat is when students can get the fast to generate the almsgiving. For example, going without a car will likely save money on gas. The students calculate what they saved and give it to a charitable organization. Many just give it to the Franciscan Friars on campus.
Do you have any interesting ways of teaching solidarity? What are students doing for Lent? Can it be a pedagogical moment for one of your classes?
What does your “Intro Day” or “Syllabus Day” look like for your course on Catholic Social Teaching? I like trudging through the syllabus as much as any other professor, but when it comes to a class like Catholic Social Teaching (CST), I might as well be speaking in Aramaic. Context and vocabulary. Day one demands a little shake-up, a little intellectual trampoline—in other words, a “heuristic exercise.” So here’s what I do.
When the students walk through the door, sign in, and sit down, after prayer I split them into five groups and tell them this will be their first, graded group project. Without explaining what the materials are for, I distribute pieces of paper and instructions for how to fold a paper airplane. The distribution matches the general distribution of the world’s wealth (richest fifth, second richest fifth, and down the line). If the richest fifth has 82 percent of the world’s wealth, that group gets 82 pieces of paper and a book all about paper airplane folding. As the groups get poorer, the number of papers and the quality of the instructions decrease appropriately.
Having distributed the capital, I explain that they will be competing as teams to make the longest paper airplane flight. I tell them the winning team earns an A, the second team a B, the third a C, and so on. (Another grading alternative is to award a box of cookies to the winning team. Then they’re looking at a concrete good rather than the ethereal “grade.”) The teams have 10 minutes to make airplanes. At the end of ten minutes each team flies all their paper airplanes (from the top of a big lecture hall for extra fun). The group with 1.2 pieces of paper and no instructions quickly discovers their distinct disadvantage. The project without fail opens up the students to each other and engenders no poverty of laughs. Some teams have tried crunching up papers into a ball and throwing the ball down the hall. Victory eluded them, but it was close.
The success of the intellectual trampoline, how high it sends the students, largely depends on how much “rebound” you provide in the lively discussion that follows the initial “bounce” of the exercise itself. This is where we earn our keep as teachers. I start with this question: was this competition fair? Students respond with both “yes” and “no.” Follow up questioning ensues…How so? Why not? What could we have done to make it fair? What do we even mean when we say “fair?” Answers explode into a full out theoretical consideration—by the students—of the nature of justice itself. When the conversation goes well, the students end up developing definitions of commutative, distributive, and social justice (albeit without using those words).
Inevitably, one of the “teams” will have included a student well-schooled in the ways of paper airplanes. Students never fail to note this apparent injustice, and without knowing it they segue into the question of moral and intellectual virtue and the necessary distribution thereof in a community for the achievement of the common good. The uneven distribution of resources combined with the fact that only one team could get “A” always raises the question of “structures of sin” (even if not by that name).
The best discussion of the grade distribution happened this year. When I asked what we could do to make the exercise fair, one student responded: “what if you made it so that nobody had to lose? Like, what if flying the plane 20 feet got you an A, 15 a B, and so on? That way, if teams collaborated and shared resources and knowledge, everybody could win. Not everyone would win, but everybody could win, regardless of the hand they were dealt. Each person deserves whatever we have together so she gets her own best shot at the ‘A’.”
Let’s see, what Catholic social teaching principle can a good professor pull out of that kind of student contribution? Human dignity? Yup. Common good? Yup. Solidarity? Yup. Subsidiarity? Sure. Justice? Absolutely. Finally, and best yet, that student’s contribution allowed me to make the important distinction in CST (emphasized by Benedict XVI) between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God. Our paper-plane competition operated on the logic of the kingdom of man, where my victory requires your loss; Catholic social teaching operates on the logic of the kingdom of God, where my victory makes yours all the more likely.
And with that…class dismissed!
This exercise can be improved, without doubt, but it consistently works well. I’d love to hear what you do to introduce CST in your classes. I look forward to hearing your best practices.
Just the other day, I was meeting with a student in preparation for a “debate day” on same-sex marriage for a course on Catholic Social Teaching, and the strangest thing happened. Upon receiving a randomly assigned position to defend, this student responded with serious concern on her face, “I don’t think I can do this. I couldn’t defend this position.” She wasn’t faking. This Catholic student, seemed honestly concerned that defending the Church’s position on same-sex marriage would violate her conscience. Her mind could not tolerate what seemed like such an intolerant teaching. Wow! I thought maybe a Catholic student would have trouble taking up the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, but I found the exact opposite. A shock indeed.
So now I had a difficult situation.Was I going to ask a student to violate her conscience by defending the Catholic Church’s position in a mock debate? Consider where our students’ consciences must be, if they think it intolerant to even consider the reasonableness of the Catholic Church’s position on the topic of same-sex marriage. This student’s claim is not an isolated incident. My students’s consciences are unfortunately malformed. What could I do? I had to appeal to a word I knew would resonate with her…”tolerance.” I appealed to her great desire to be tolerant. True tolerance, I explained, asks us to care enough about the other to actually listen to that person’s best reasons for thinking what they think. Even if understanding those reasons only reaffirms one’s original commitment, knowing them is a moral and intellectual duty. Knowing the best, most reasonable arguments for “the other’s” side humanizes that other, prevents us from placing them in the “bigot” box. I reminded her about the Franciscan charism of the University, which tries to enact Francis’s prayer “to understand rather than to be understood. I reminded her about the theological method of Aquinas, who listed every objection to his position before even expressing his own thought. I encouraged her to have the same kind of intellectual disinterest I attempted to demonstrate in class. With a sigh, the student agreed to her task. We’ll see how the debate day goes.
“Debate Days” are nothing new to solid moral theological pedagogy, but successful debate days are the real trick. Success seems entirely contingent on preparation. Here are some best practices that have led to success:
1. Don’t make the students go hunting for arguments. Give them readable, compelling sources for all sides of the debated questions. Furthermore, everyone reads both sides of the argument. This allows students to anticipate the objections from the other side. If students want to do more reading on their own, I encourage that. I just don’t want to send them out into a world of ad hominem attacks, red herrings, and all other manners of fallacies.
2. Ask the right questions. I give the students context questions to answer before giving the arguments themselves. Otherwise, they don’t really understand what is actually up for debate and what the payoff is if either side really is the truth. For example, “what’s at stake in this debate?” Why bother debating this question at all? What social and personal consequences result from either side being identified as the truth? Might these consequences blind us to honestly considering the truth of the arguments? If so, how or why? Do you personally have anything at stake in this debate? When it comes tot he arguments themselves, I ask the students not only to find them, but to rank them and put them in categories: natural law, Scripture, social science, consequentialist, etc.
3. Know the assumptions. Many times, students don’t realize why a person won’t accept what seems like a valid argument. Many times it’s because the person doesn’t accept an assumption or premise of the argument. For example, I ask students to consider whether and how the Christian, Catholic, or secular commitments/assumptions of a given author affects what kind of arguments he or she can or will make and/or accept as true when it comes to same-sex marriage. When student stop expecting the atheist to accept Genesis 2 as evidence for what is demonstrable without Genesis 2, we’ve already made a lot of headway toward having a good debate.
4. Written responses! Students articulate themselves so much better orally when they’ve been force to articulate the same ideas in writing. I’ve tried debates with “notes,” and with written statements to be turned in. The latter was more successful.
5. Be a good Referee. One of the most important things I do on the debate day is referee the arguments. I often stop to ask whether someone on the “other side” can restate the argument they’ve just heard. Misunderstanding is among the greatest problems preventing a good debate.
6. Invite other faculty. If possible, I like to make the debate days one of my “faculty assessment days.” Hopefully this demonstrates my ability to prepare students for and treat difficulty issues faithfully and in a way that respects all parties and positions. It can be a risk, but the extra pressure tends to motivate me to help the students (and myself) prepare better. I’ve had faculty give great substantive feedback for these debate days. Students also report them as among their favorite class days.
7. Clear expectations and prime the pump. First of all, students need to know the purpose of debating. It is to arrive at the truth! Too many students come to class assuming that debates are merely “informative.” In other words, they think debates are good as a kind of intellectual buffet that presents all the “preferences” or “opinions” they might choose from. A debater is seen as “good” if he passionately, attractively, and clearly “stands up for what he believes”—-regardless of whether it’s true. Truth is not an important question for them to ask, generally. Unfortunately, they don’t know what the criteria for truth are. They are afraid of making a truth claim in many cases. they just want the intellectual buffet of diversity. This is dangerously problematic. Debates require diversity, but they are not for the sake of diversity. Diversity comes together for the sake of a better shot at finding the truth and being conformed to that truth if it can be found. In the classes leading up to the debate, I am getting them ready with mini-debates in class. I might debate myself out loud, for example. I might have them read a debate or watch a debate. Also, I introduce the moral principles that will be at stake in the debate so they don’t get thrown into the deep end without a life jacket (let alone the ability to swim).
8. Finally, emphasize the outcomes you want: (1) knowing and articulating the best arguments from each side; (2) convincing students that the Church actually has reasonable (even compelling?) arguments for its positions; (3) and discovering that we can attempt to persuade each other about the truth while remaining civil and friendly.
These are just 8 practices I use. I have a lot to learn about using the debate format in class. I’d love to hear from others.