The Track Less Traveled – A Guest Post

“What do you know?” These words quite regularly came from one of Dennis Quinn’s colleagues and was directed towards students (Iris Exiled, 21). Dennis Quinn was part of a school of wonder, better known as the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. Quinn nor the school are the foci but both illustrate the power of wonder within the educational setting or conversion process. Ultimately, it is the experience of wonder which leads a person towards a fulfilling life. This fulfilled life is one steeped in truth and love, and the pathway towards truth and love ignite the fires within our souls and intellect to contemplate life outside of our ever present limitations, trials and tribulations. When the mind is grappling with the sense of wonder there is a sheer joy and exhilaration with the possibilities which exist before us. It is this true sense of life which keeps us coming back for more truth, it is this sense which calls us out of ourselves towards something genuine and concrete, something eternal. It is the sense of wonder which continually orients a person towards the contemplation of God.

This track or pathway towards the contemplation of God is traveled by everyone. The secular, individuals who do not hope to reach this end or are unaware this end exists, and the religious, people actively attempting to strengthen their relationship with God. The secular and religious person start off riding the same train whether they realize it or not. Unfortunately, both the secular and religious get off at one of the many false summits, believing they have reached absolute truth and the end of their journey. This person says to their self, “I know everything now, there is nothing left to ponder because I have all of the truth I need to live a fulfilled life of purpose and meaning and the remaining journey is one filled with unknown and meaningless contemplations which will only lead towards a disillusioned sense of absolute truth.” However, the train does continue and the contemplations only grow in beauty and majesty. The track less traveled, the one which perpetually carries on and leads towards the Absolute Truth, the contemplation of God, is the focus of this work. It is aimed at the secular and religious alike and charges them with continually answering the question, “What do you know?” in hopes the person will stop getting on and off the train at false summits, will catch the next train as it approaches their current resting place and the individual will reenter the train, take their seat and enjoy the ride, growing in their love of truth, beauty and God. The train is fueled by wonder and it is wonder which keeps the individual on the train and sustains the conversion process, or the contemplation of God. In order to prove this thesis three areas will be expounded (1) explanation of wonder, (2) necessity of wonder within conversion and (3) actual examples of wonder used as a tool within the educational or conversion process.

(This is the first in a series of guest posts by Brad Bolt.)

Day One – How To Wake up a Student

Ironically, the precious first-day energy from students typically gets wasted on the silliness of syllabi. On day one, we have the opportunity to speak before the walls of apathy entrap the student’s mind. Full of questions, expectations, rumors, doubts, the students file in and nervously sit. Will I pass? Will this class be boring? Is this professor as difficult as everyone says?

All this nervous energy sadly ends in a crash when we slowly walk students through the syllabus, promising that things will get better next time. Eyes gloss and get heavy. Snores resound.

Tired of squandering an opportunity, I like to start the first day with a bang! Let’s look at “Intro to Christian Ethics,” which begins for me with a living case study. After a quick prayer, I tell the students, “I’ve never liked how subjective grades are. I also can’t stand all the work at the end of the semester trying to figure them out! Therefore, I propose we get this whole grade thing over with right now. Any takers?” Believe it or not, a majority of student hands shoot up. I ask each student to write her/his name on a piece of paper, rip it out, and pass it up to the the front. Writing the letters A, B, C, D, and F on the board, and placing the names in a hat cleverly revealed from behind the podium, I state that we’ll be assigning grades by lottery. Going through the entire class, giving an equal number of each grade type, student faces transform. From Cheerful A’s, to happy B’s, to contented C’s, to disgruntled D’s, to furious F’s. At this point, jaws have dropped, adrenaline has been rushing for a couple minutes, and students are still trying to discern whether I’m serious. But at least they’re awake.

At this point I ask: “Does anyone object?” Hands shoot up from one B, half the C’s, and all the D’s and F’s. The A’s, hoping to disappear, move not a muscle. Here’s where the real fun (and learning) begins. By the time an hour has passed and the socratic conversations have ended, the students have attempted to argue that my method of grading is unethical in every way they can imagine. Most common arguments relate to “fairness,” “standard rules for grading,” and “effects on student learning,” or “you’ll get in trouble if you do that.” Only rarely does a student suggest it’s not conducive to human flourishing or happiness in general. Without knowing it students have done deontological, consequentialist, and eudaemonistic ethics. They also encounter the various the typical choices facing a person who attempts to convince the “other” of a moral position: (a) walk away and forget it; (b) find common rational ground and move from there; or (c) appeal to coercive power (i.e., if you grade this way, we’ll see that you get fired). As if that weren’t enough, in addition to arguing against my “objectively fair yet bad method,” they have offered a better “ethic of grading” based either on deontological, consequentialist, eudaemonistic grounds, or a mix of these approaches. They didn’t know it but they actually DID ethics on day one.

Ultimately, the students may not come away from day one having read the entire syllabus, but they came away with an experiential sense for the field of ethics and definitions for three ethical methods. Hopefully what I’ve done on day one is a little intellectual Jujitsu–using the student’s own mental and emotional energy to move their minds somewhere they didn’t think they were going…on beyond apathy-land.

Position Papers – Starting with the End in Mind?

A temptation exists for students to treat classes much the way they treat going to the movies. Both involve an exchange of money for content. Students may be tempted to expect “edutainment” from their professors rather than Socratic, intellectual weightlifting. Stretching the analogy even more, we might say most of the students come to class as anything but a tabula rasa. That is to say, they’ve already “read the reviews” for this movie. “How hard is this class?” “Does the professor give a lot of reading?” “What are the tests like?” In other words, many students have front-loaded expectations and perceptions about the class (usually for the good but occasionally not). Those expectations serve as a kind of momentum for the professor to work with (and at times against). We have all probably experienced this reality. This momentum can occasionally be difficult to direct.

The challenge to inspiring pedagogy is discovering what’s written on the student’s tabula when they come into class. This is why I require a one-on-one meeting with each student during the first two months of the semester. What kind of predispositions and background noise does this student have buzzing in his or her brain when I mention the word “baptism,” or “sin,” or “chastity,” etc. in class? My knowing the students is crucial in my capacity to effectively present material and ignite their intellect in meaningful Socratic dialogue.

I have found a similar reality when it comes to applied ethical questions. For the most part, students have not spent much time thinking about in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer, or about whether contraception serves or countermands the human good, or whether marriage is or isn’t indissoluble, whether capital punishment is just, or what conditions make for a just war. No, students haven’t typically sat and thought about these questions, but if my class is a movie about these topics, then they have many times already “read the reviews.”

What do I mean by this? I mean that (for better or worse) students bring to class the intuitions about these moral questions that have accumulated in their mind from personal interactions, personal experience, parents, friends, media, and ecclesial communities. For example, on the question of in vitro, the most typical response to the question, “do you think in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer corresponds to a life of Christian discipleship?” is…”well, I know this person who did it and, she’s a nice person, a great parent. So, I guess it’s a good thing.” The point is, students generally begin the class having some kind of intuitive position on most of the moral questions we treat–even if they’ve never expressed it before. Those positions sit on a spectrum from precisely examined to wholly unexamined. These positions are a kind of momentum that the professor has the privilege of working with, directing and redirecting.

The challenge for solid pedagogy in moral theology is to invite those intuitive, unexpressed, unexamined positions into the front of the students’ minds from the get-go. For this reason one of the first assignments is to write a brief position hypotheses/statements on the applied moral questions we will treat throughout the semester. What I’m really asking for is an “immediate, intuitive inclination” from the student. In other words, what are the first arguments and conclusions that come to mind for you on this moral question. This is an ungraded assignment, the purpose of which is to begin the students journey toward making explicit their vision of the good life. I am most interested in the reasoning the students use (and whether they’ve used reason at all) to arrive at their positions. Students also know that they aren’t “married” to any position they’ve expressed in their position paper. The assignment merely makes explicit the first “gut reaction” the student had in the face of the moral question. Whenever we then treat one of the applied moral questions in class, I ask the students to revisit their position paper and consider how their own gut reaction relates to the various arguments we encounter for all the sides of the issue at hand. Did anything change? Did things stay the same? If so, what arguments buttressed their initial intuition or changed their initial intuition?

This level of personal engagement with the material is, of course, contingent upon how well students learn the various arguments and principles applicable to the cases.  I rely on my personal meetings and the “position hypotheses/statements” to help me discern how best to deliver the content. My knowing where the students are coming from, that is, what’s on their intellectual tabula, gives me an insight into kinds of approaches students have been exposed to already, which gives me the best chance of giving them all the resources they need to make these moral decisions themselves and take responsibility for the formation of their consciences.

This practice is new for this semester, so I am not sure whether it will be good in the long term. One critique I’ve thought of myself is this: by asking students to come up with intuitive position statements at the beginning of the semester, am I actually making it harder for them to be open to development or change on those very same questions? Am I contributing to the ossification of the implicit conclusions they’ve already received (whether for good or ill)?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea. I’m sure there’s much to honed here.

A Dress Code for the College Classroom?

One important responsibility of a teacher is to create a classroom setting conducive to learning, one that minimizes distractions (not only for the students but for the teacher as well). Among typical distractions we all know about cell phones and food, but increasingly student clothing has become a distraction for all. I’ve attempted to fix the problem at the beginning of the year by adding a section on “dress” in the “classroom decorum” section of the syllabus. Here’s how it reads:

Dress like you mean it. Whether or not we like it, the way we dress is a form of communication. The way I dress tells you a few things: (1) what I think of myself; (2) what I think of you; (3) what I think about the nature of the activity that takes place in this classroom. As to the first—I am a person created in the image and likeness of God, with dignity. My identity and dignity as an image and likeness of God demands that I take care of my body, as it, in union with my soul, constitutes my very person. As to the second—you are persons created in the image and likeness of God, with a  destiny to be with him eternally in heaven. Your great dignity demands that I present my best self to you. Your worth demands that I not come here all slovenly and disheveled. If I didn’t clean up before arriving here, it might communicate to you that you aren’t that important to me. As to the third point—I wear formal attire because the nature of our activity is formal, serious, and professional. I set the tone for what we are doing by what I am wearing. Think about how this is true in other contexts–e.g., football (pads vs. no pads day), theatre (rehearsal vs. dress-rehearsal). If you are going to yoga class, you wear yoga pants. If you are going to a Packers game, you might wear a Packer’s jersey. If you are going to work out in the gym, you wear your sweat pants, etc. If you are coming to a class at University, you should look like you take this seriously. Dress in a way that helps YOU take the class seriously. Tell me what you think of yourself, what you think of me, and what you think of your class based in part on what you wear. Again, whether or not you like it, you ARE saying something through what you wear. What do you want to say?

My efforts might be wrongheaded, but I can report that this semester some men and women have dressed more intentionally for class–to the benefit of all. Do other people have thoughts on this question? How can we best dispose our students to be ready to learn when they enter the classroom?