Originally published on the Emerging Voices blog, 1/8/2015.
Dear theology professors,
I have a request. Though it may seem short on words (and definitely short on tact), it is quite complicated. However, I trust you are up to the task.
Please stop making your classes so boring.
(What? How can I possibly say this? I’m a theology student, after all, isn’t the topic innately interesting to me?)
No. It isn’t. I love theology and all its related fields. I enjoy studying it, interpreting it, and creating my own highly irreverent and usually wrong versions of it. But no amount of love for the topic will make some professors’ lectures interesting.
Gone are the days when a professor can adequately educate a classroom of students by droning on about whatever happens to be of his/her interest. Actually, I’m not sure those days ever existed. It should come as no surprise that both education and religion are changing–whether by choice or by force–and the old ways of doing things do not work anymore. Furthermore, we know so much more about learning styles and the human brain and memory and everything else that is wrapped up in education than we did 25, 50, or 100 years ago. It is simply ineffective to ignore this and teach the same way your professors taught.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I know anything about teaching. I am (and pretty much always have been) a student; I have yet to become a teacher. However, after three years of undergraduate theological education and two years of seminary education, I’ve definitely seen a lot of methods that don’t work–and a lot that do. Here are some conclusions I’ve drawn:
- Don’t assume that your students will learn effectively by way of any one teaching style. Some take well to lectures, others to discussions; some to tests, others to written assignments; some to reading, others to hands-on experience. No one of these is more or less valid than any other. Account for the diversity of learning styles in your classroom–your students have probably figured out what does and does not work for them, so it may be as simple as asking–and try to keep the structure of the class flexible enough to work for any of these styles.
- Stop assigning dead people. Yes, I know, Augustine and Luther are important minds in the history of Christianity (that is, if your students are even entirely Christian, which may not be the case), but let’s be real: All of us have read and/or will read them. I was required to take several church history courses in my undergrad career and need at least one for my M.A. I’m familiar enough with the important works. Even if your students aren’t, they will be too. If you’re sending your students out into the world with a 500-year-old (or possibly more) education, they’re not prepared to do theology in the 21st century. I’m tired of reading dead white guys. Chances are, your students are too. (If you teach history … I don’t know what to tell you.)
- Having a Ph.D. does not automatically make you good at teaching. Just like faith, religion, and theology are things you do, so is education. Study pedagogical theory. Practice teaching people who haven’t spent most of their lives as students. Learn from the greats. Yes, you may be an excellent educator by nature, but this is your career, something you have put most of your life’s work and time towards doing. I can’t come up with a single good excuse to not strive for better, and I am excellent at coming up with excuses.
- Don’t make the teacher-student relationship one-way. If you believe you are the only person in the classroom who has something to teach, you’re dead wrong. Strive to learn from your students. They may not have the letters behind their names, but they’re trying to respond to the same questions you are, and they might help you see things in a way you hadn’t previously considered. Disrupt the power structure and see how much more learning happens.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. When you try new things, some of them will invariably fall flat on their faces. A certain class structure or teaching style might not work. If you’re paying enough attention, it doesn’t have to be a train wreck. You’re allowed to get things wrong–it’s our responsibility as students to have some grace with you–just make sure you’re aware of what is and isn’t working.
I know this is irreverent and I know I don’t understand the plight of the educator. I know I’m getting a lot of things wrong. But I also know that I’ve spent a lot of time in classes where I didn’t learn a single thing, not because there was nothing to learn, but because the professor didn’t know how to teach it. Furthermore, some of the best classes I’ve taken have been ones that, until I was in them, I was exactly zero percent excited about, but the professor really knew how to teach. Who knows–maybe your class will be next.
Denika Anderson, perpetual student and constant grouch.