Teaching Undergraduates (continued)

Anthony Ruff offered a recent post on “Teaching Liturgy to Undergrads.”  In it, he mentions that his institution (College of St. Benedict / St. John’s University) requires undergraduates to take an introductory or foundation course in theology and then a second course of their choosing.  The same is true at my institution, Villanova University.  I share here on my approach to the foundational course because I will be incorporating this approach into my own liturgy courses.

At the end of a recent fall term in which I taught two sections of Villanova’s foundation course, “Faith, Culture, and Reason,” I asked my students two questions.  First, I asked them to raise their hands if, before the fall term had started, they had heard of the Inquisition.  I advised them that it was not a matter of knowing details of exactly when or under whose order who did what to whom.  It was simply a question of whether they had heard of the Inquisition.  In each section, twenty-two out of twenty-five hands went up.  I told them to put their hands down.  Next, I asked them: “Think back to the start of this term.  By a show of hands, how many of you thought on the first day of class that this course would discourage if not prohibit the asking of questions?”  In each section, twenty-two out of twenty-five hands went up.

88% of students came to the course with some awareness that the Catholic Church had used at least some form of violence in an attempt to squelch dissent.  88% of students had the sense that in at least some form, the instructor (me) would not tolerate questions.  Clearly, the data suggest that the course starts significantly behind the proverbial eight ball.  I have no reason to suspect that this finding is particularly unusual in first-time undergraduate theology courses.  In this connection, it is worth quoting from Going, Going, Gone, a 2017 study of the disaffiliation of young Catholics.  Conducted by Saint Mary’s Press, the study found:

The median age for when formerly Catholic teens and young adults left the faith is 13.  Nearly four in ten (39 percent) report leaving between ages 13 and 17.  Only 5 percent say they left before age 5 and 18 percent between ages 5 and 10.  About a quarter (24 percent) left between ages 10 and 12.  Eleven percent left in the first few years of adulthood, between ages 18 and 20.  Only 3 percent left from ages 21 to 25. (Going, Going, Gone [Winona, MN: Saint Mary’s Press, 2017], 42)

I wonder whether / how the suppression of questions by catechists / grade school teachers / high school teachers plays into both the views expressed by my students and into the rate of disaffiliation—disaffiliation which in the vast majority of cases has already played out *before* students enter college classrooms.

In any case, I think it is important to talk with undergraduates about pedagogy, about how instructor and students together will approach the tasks of teaching and learning.  To that end, I have begun using David Smith and Susan Felch, Teaching and Christian Imagination (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017).  Though this book was written primarily for instructors of college courses and not for students in those courses, I have assigned portions of it to my students.  Together, we have read about and discussed the ways in which taking a college course is like (and unlike) setting out on a journey.  How is our course like setting out on a pilgrimage?  Do we journey together or as juxtaposed individuals?  Do we seek to reach our destination as unchanged persons or do we hope to have learned something, at least about ourselves?  Along the way, what does it mean to choose a path?  What does it mean to follow a path that many others have already trod?  In what ways do we view ourselves as setting down a path for others to follow?  Do we see ourselves becoming guides of any kind for others?  What did it mean for ancient Israelites to set out on *annual* pilgrimages to Jerusalem?  In what ways do college courses sometimes revisit material covered in other courses but with an invitation to consider that material afresh?

I am using this text for the first time this semester so I do not have full results yet.  For one thing, I myself am still learning how to engage and apply the book to the course and with my students.  However, I think that inviting students to think about their *education* and not just about course content (e.g., there is an Old Testament and a New Testament, eschatology is not ecclesiology, and so forth) changes class dynamics for the better.   Indeed, how one thinks about theological education *is* a matter of content, as well: it is an application of principles such as full, active, and conscious participation (Sacrosanctum concilium, 14) and “good understanding” (Sacrosanctum concilium, 48) and it encourages thinking along the lines of Lumen gentium, 9, according to which humans are saved as a people and not merely as individuals.

I look forward to seeing how these ideas will inform my next undergraduate liturgy class . . . which I probably won’t be teaching until fall of 2020, given my other commitments.  If you are a teacher or catechist, how do you invite students to ponder the nature of theological learning?

One comment

  1. I taught a liturgy course for almost 20 years. The students were typically parish volunteers who had been tapped by their pastors to participate in a three-year leadership training program. My course was delivered in their third year.

    I was initially frustrated by the students’ lack of engagement. I didn’t start out with much formal training as a teacher, and I figured I must be doing something wrong. So I read a lot about adult learning and teaching method. These were some of the most helpful resources:

    • Halsey, Vicki. Brilliance by Design: Creating Learning Experiences That Connect, Inspire, and Engage. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2011.
    • Knowles, Malcolm S. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. 4th ed. Houston, TX: Gulf Pub. Co, 1990.
    • _____. Using Learning Contracts: Practical Approaches to Individualizing and Structuring Learning. San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 1986
    • Maslow, A. J. “Defense and Growth.” The Psychology of Open Teaching and Learning: An Inquiry Approach. 4th ed. Boston: Little, 1972. 43-51.
    • Palmer, Parker J. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.
    • Postman, Neil, and Charles Weingartner. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Delacorte Press, 1969.

    I simplified Knowles’ learning contract method by asking the students to come to the first class with answers to five questions:

    In regards to my habits, knowledge, and attitudes about liturgy:
    1. Where have I been?
    2. Where am I now?
    3. Where do I want to get to?
    4. How am I going to get there?
    5. How will I know that I have arrived?

    These questions — and Palmer’s assertion that the teacher is not an “expert” translating a “object” for “amateurs,” but rather a fellow learner engaged in the exploration of a subject — shifted the energy of the room from me lecturing to the students engaging in real dialogue. It wasn’t always perfect, but the way I ended up teaching was much more effective than the way I started out.

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