Friday, August 15, 2014

Finally a Chance to Respond – Part II


Belittling my thoughts

The student's response continues:

…but the class i took with you you belittled my thoughts and didnt help me prosper … as a teacher i believe it would benefit you greatly to encourage students more in their writing and work online then to belittle their thoughts

This is a critical point that deserves immediate consideration: “belittling” of thoughts. To fully consider this concern requires looking at both the medium in which these thoughts are expressed as well as the ability of the student to critically assess feedback on his/her thoughts offered in that medium.

After 10 years of teaching online courses, it is my observation that one of the real drawbacks of this format is the propensity for misunderstanding other human participants therein. Without facial expression, tone of voice or body language, mere words are easily misunderstood.

That works both ways in this depersonalized medium. It is quite possible for a student to see critical comments about their writing as somehow an attack on their ability to think per se, their belief systems, if not their very person, as this student did. Without any kind of context in which to consider those comments that’s not necessarily an unreasonable conclusion at which to arrive.

Conversely it’s also quite possible for an instructor to see comments offered without any context, references or explanations as cryptic and poorly formed. It’s a short leap from there to presumptions that the student him/herself is perhaps shallow and not terribly thoughtful.

In both cases, the ability to simply ask, “What did you mean by that?” which a face-to-face class would provide, not to mention the possibility of hearing what other students think about the same subject, is missing. As a result the potential for the worst presumptions to inform both student and teacher about the other is unlimited.

Human beings are incapable of understanding texts without contexts. When the latter is missing, we supply our own. And, sadly, given the increasingly driven, hypercompetitive atmosphere of the corporate university today, the context many of our students presume is that their relationship with their instructor is by nature adversarial. Thus they assume the worst about any critique of their comments.

That said, it is always the duty of responsible college instructors to point out to their students when and how their thinking and writing is lacking. Episcopal Bishop Jack Spong is prone to say that “It’s precisely because I take the Bible seriously that I do not take it literally.” Confronting a student on the limitations of their thinking might be experienced as having that thinking “belittled.” But, the reality is, limited, poorly expressed thought is already little. Drawing a student’s attention to that fact is not an act of cruelty, it’s an act of devotion to the vocation of teaching. 

Most of us have some difficulty separating our senses of our self and our thinking such that when the latter is drawn into question, we experience it as an attack on our person. While there is a great deal of difference between saying “Why would that be so?” and saying, “What a stupid thing to say,” increasingly our students have a difficult time distinguishing the two.

Critical thinking has been one of the major casualties of standardized test driven pedagogies in which there is only one right answer, a downward spiral that acontextual student ratings only exacerbates. And nowhere is that more true than when one’s religious beliefs are considered in the harsh light of academia outside the friendly confines inside the circled wagons of the tribe. 

I Shouldn’t Have to Agree With You….

…because my beliefs did not agree with yours on a matter of who God was and the importance of the Bible. I think you are talented but you need to realize that not everyone has the beliefs you do….

It’s a fairly common defense mechanism among students today to claim political correctness as the explanation for their own failures. When a student’s ideas are questioned or their arguments and explanations fall short on exams, a good way to save face is to say that their argument was correct but counted wrong because it was inconsistent with the instructor’s belief system. While comments like these are not terribly unexpectable and are given much more credence in a consumerist student culture today than they deserve, they also reveal a problematic approach to any college course and this course in particular..

The comments offered by this student arise from a class in Christianity. Previously the class was entitled Christian Thought but this was changed during a curriculum overhaul to make it commensurate with courses entitled Islam and Buddhism. The former designation clearly indicated the academic nature of this course. The retitled course proved subject to no small amount of confusion. As a result this course drew a large number of conservative Christians largely indisposed (by their own admission) to considering the subject matter in any kind of critical manner which would draw the understandings they brought with them into question.

What’s problematic in these comments is the student’s obvious presumption that personal belief systems - the instructor’s or the student’s - were somehow the subject matter of the course. In fact, I had gone out of my way to dissuade students of such a presumption from the beginning of the course.

On the course Syllabus, the purposes of the class included

·         to gain a historically informed understanding of the person of Jesus of Nazareth, his life and its impact on his immediate culture (and)
·         to ascertain how the movement within Judaism around the person of Jesus developed into an independent religion of its own.”

Under practical skills I had listed the goals of developing

·         critical analysis, questioning of presumptions, awareness of one's own hermeneutical lens
·         expansive thought, developing data into knowledge through understanding the context, subtext and significance of ideas
·          the ability to construct and defend logical arguments to support positions.”  

I also linked a document to the homepage and assigned students to read it the first week of classes. Entitled “How to hold an intellectually honest discussion of religion,” it featured an entire section on how to “Check your presumptions at the door.” Among the presumptions to be checked were the following:

·  What are you presuming about the existence (or absence) of G-d/the  gods?
·  What are you presuming about the nature of G-d/the gods?
·  What are you presuming about the nature of human beings and their        relationships to G-d/the gods?
·  What are you presuming about the nature of truth and how it is discerned?  

The essay further noted that “the value of any discourse on religion often turns on whether that discourse is marked by intellectual honesty including:

  • an awareness of one’s biases, unconscious and unreflective presumptions and the impact of one’s cultural matrix and individual life experience on one’s understandings
  • a tentativeness in discussing questions of “ultimate truth” based in a humility springing from the recognition of the limitations and partial nature of all human understandings and the human capacity to know

 I’m not sure what more I could have done to alert the student to the expectations of this academic class in which all ideas about religion would be discussed critically, their development examined historically and the dangers of presumptions guarded against zealously. This was not a Bible study or a theology class and I wanted students to know that up front.

Clearly that was not enough for some.

Being Mindful of Our Purpose Here

After grading the first round of discussion posts in the class, I found myself nearly in despair. In post after post, students had taken to the virtual pulpit to speak for G_d, to use the Bible as a weapon in their fight for revealed truth and to dismiss the text, its author and the instructor. This was *exactly* what I had sought to avoid in those opening readings. Clearly, few had read them or taken their contents seriously.

I began my weekly announcement to the class that week with these words:

When I first suggested that Christianity be taught this semester online, I wondered to myself and to others why it was not taught on a regular basis. Previously offered as a Humanities course, Christian Thought, it seemed to me that gaining an understanding of the history of the Christian streams of tradition was essential to understanding western history and culture. So, why wasn’t it offered every term?

After last night’s grade-a-thon of the first round of discussion posts and responses that ended about 11:30 PM, I think I understand why academics are hesitant to teach this course. It has little to do with the course materials themselves which those of us with degrees in religious studies find to be the most fascinating thing we have ever studied. Rather, it has much to do with the way students interact with and respond to the materials being taught.

The announcement went on to discuss the difficulty of separating deeply held beliefs from critical consideration of the concepts we were discussing. I noted that many people experience such consideration as being asked to reexamine understandings about things they thought they already knew. I noted that this had the potential to draw into question what they had been taught by significant others.

For many, having such teachings drawn into question also draws into question the authority of those significant others and thus can be experienced as an invitation to commit treason. There is no small amount of cognitive dissonance potentially generated by such conflicts and it is important to recognize that for what it is.

Even so, I reminded the students that they had entered a class whose syllabus and other course materials had made clear what the class was about from the beginning. But just to make certain, I added the following to the announcement:

In the Ways to Study Religions powerpoint lecture linked to the Schedule that I assigned for viewing, one of the final slides is entitled “What must I believe to pass a Religions course at UCF?” The slide is intentionally left blank. The message? You are not required to believe anything to pass this course. Conversely, outside this class, you can believe anything you want.

Let me be clear about this: Religious studies classes are NOT about believing, they are about coming to know about and critically understand belief systems. Whereas believing is personal, communal, experiential and existential in nature, knowing about and critically understanding are largely cognitive in nature.

Clearly, the problem here was not a failure to make course parameters clear. Nor was it a situation where the instructor pushed a belief system onto students at the expense of academic integrity. Rather, in this student’s case and a handful of others, it was a failure to provide the student what s/he had come to the class seeking – affirmation of the religious beliefs with which the student entered the class.

This post concludes in Part III.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div. Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
Osceola Campus, University of Central Florida, Kissimmee

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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