Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Good Advice for Religious Studies Teachers

One of the things I aim for in the classroom is to challenge students to think in new ways. This means that at times I am purposefully provocative. I will introduce a topic and take a side that I know most if not all of the students will disagree with. This is one way of helping them to see the other side of an argument for or against a particular interpretation or theological stance.

Sadly, that is not the case at some institutions. There are places where the only thing that is taught is what is approved by the trustees or the denomination. Sometimes the existence of other interpretations or theologies is acknowledged, but only as a way to demonstrate why they are wrong and why denomination X's statement of faith is correct. And woe unto those who dare even suggest that there might be valid interpretations elsewhere and that students can/should learn from them. It could, in all likelihood, cost you your job.

One of the things I like best about teaching at Ashland Seminary is that we have so many denominations represented in our classroom that often the issues will rise up on their own. For instance, it is kind of hard to get around a discussion about, say modes of baptism, when in the classroom you have infant baptizers, those who support believer's baptism and everything in between. And then of course there is the way that different groups look at various portions of scripture. It makes for a stimulating and exciting classroom experience.

In this month's Chronicle of Higher Education Brandon G. Withrow has an article that reflects on education along the same lines. He too is interested in helping students to think rather than just teach them how to parrot back lines from "approved" ways of thinking. He talks a bit about his experiences and lists out four things that help make for a classroom where learning can happen. Below is a summary of his four points, but do go and read the whole article here.

Acknowledge your own limitations and personal intellectual revelations. Students can (and do) look for mentors in their professors, so if we pretend to have absolute infallibility—or act like complete tools—we should not be surprised when we discover little clones doing the same.

Not all books on world religions are equal. To see another perspective, students need guidance in finding quality sources for research.

Lectures and books are helpful, but nothing replaces the opportunities that come from face-to-face conversation. In one class, I have my students interview someone of a different religion or worldview. I often receive e-mails from students confessing that they do not know of anyone they could interview outside of their Christian circle—which speaks volumes as to their preparedness for leadership.

Make the classroom an active, small-group learning experience. Have students discuss a controversial subject or reading. It often surprises certain students to learn that there are disagreements on beliefs or ideas that had seemed extremely clear and simple.


  1. That is one of the things that impressed me about ATS, too. In most classes, especially biblical studies, we were encouraged to engage the text, not someone else's interpretation of the text. What's difficult with this, tho, is taking it back to the local congregation that has been indoctrinated to think a certain way that may not be the best way.

  2. Mike,

    That is where the hard work is and needs to happen. Too much of what is learned in the classroom stays there. I am not sure why, but it has meant the continuation of a lot of unfortunate interpretations and ways of thinking.

  3. Regarding points C and D above, concerning discussion; I recently read a study which suggests that as little as 25 minutes of discussion at the end of class concerning the lecture/lesson/homework etc., significantly increases students' learning and retention of the material.

  4. Jason,

    Thanks. I used to be reticent about open discussion times, but have grown to see how valuable they are.