Category Archives: Teaching

The Goal of Our Instruction–What it means to be a Professor

 

iamproftshirt

The T-Shirt you see above has been appearing all over Facebook of late, as if it conveyed some self-evident and profound message. Instead, I find it contrary to every value a professor ought to profess. Why not rather tell your students to assume you are wrong unless and until you make a solid case that you are right? Why not tell them to search the Scriptures daily to see if you are right or not? If your professor wears this shirt, run, do not walk, to Drop-Add, and save yourself a wasted semester.

One who taught me the how as well as the what of thinking

One who taught me the how as well as the what of thinking

Are we professors there in the classroom to teach our students what to think, or how to think? I certainly have some ideas that I think are true and important, and I hope that my students adopt them. But unless I teach them how to think, how to know when to swallow something and when not to, it won’t really matter whether they swallow my ideas or not. They would only last until the next authoritative pontificator contradicts them anyway.

Another who taught me as much about the how as the what of thinking

Another who taught me as much about the how as the what of thinking

What to think or how? You cannot do the former profitably until you have done the latter. And you can’t do the latter if your students are not encouraged to question–even to question you. They need to learn to do it courteously and respectfully, but they need to know they are encouraged to do it.

 
Now these [the members of the Jewish synagogue at Berea] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, searching the Scripures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11).

Me when my students embrace good ideas for the right reasons

Me when my students embrace good ideas for the right reasons

Let’s raise up more noble Bereans!

Dr. Williams hopes his books are good models of how to think as well as what to think.  Order them at the Lantern Hollow Press estore!

https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/

Advertisements

Humility and the Philosopher’s Stone

In the fifteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel there’s an explosive little story about a Canaanite woman with a demon-possessed daughter approaching Jesus. The story is dynamite because it’s as close to mean as we ever see Jesus get in the Gospels. Not that there’s any shortage of bluntness in Jesus’s conversation – but He always seemed to turn it upon deserving targets. When we see Him put down the cocksure Pharisees and lawyers, we say “good comeuppance.” When He called out the Samaritan woman on her sordid history, we say the brazen hussy had it coming. Even when we see Him blow off Nicodemus’s earnest inquiries, we rationalize it on the grounds that Nicodemus was a well-off man, probably a bit too comfortable in his seat of authority, an esteemed teacher who likely needed knocking down a peg or two.

The Canaanite woman, though, approached Jesus with no “credentials” and no presumption. More to the point, she was in dire need – her daughter was “grievously vexed with a devil.” She persisted in seeking Jesus despite all the discouragement His disciples threw at her. Despite being a Gentile in a land whose inhabitants cared little for Jews, she respected Jesus’s lineage by calling “O Lord, Son of David . . .”

She bowed before Jesus. He called her a dog.[1]

Jesus’s leaden response to the woman – “it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to the dogs” – could quickly have turned the encounter into another tedious chapter in the history of ethnic name-calling. But she took His response in stride and ran with it. Having gone one mile in humility, she did not hesitate to go two miles. She finished Jesus’s apparently leaden thought with a golden one: “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

The exorcism of the Canaanite woman’s daughter.

Not a few readers have read this passage as if Jesus really had acted the part of ugly xenophobic Jew, and the Gentile woman schooled Him. While I hesitate to defend a man who needs no defense, my own theory about what happened is quite different: I think Jesus in His infinite shrewdness knew the quality of the woman standing before Him, knew how His disciples had treated her, and called on her the way good professors sometimes call on a shy student to humble their star students. Certainly the encounter impressed the disciples: it appears in two gospels and served as a prelude to the apostles’ ministry to the Gentiles. Later the story found its way into the Church’s liturgies for the Eucharist.

The reason I bring up the odd little story here, though, is because it points out the value of humility for storytellers, including would-be subcreators with fantastic imaginations.  One of Lantern Hollow Press’s vision statements claims that we are “creators of worlds.”  There’s nothing wrong with such a high ambition – so long as deep roots of humility support it. As I mentioned before, just a little self-regard in the Gentile woman would have killed her story. She would have blown up, or gone away sad, with her daughter left unhealed. Her story would have illumined nothing. By her humility, though, she perceived more than offense in Jesus’s part of this tandem story, and gained access into heavenly mystery. By the faith born of her humility, she turned lead into gold.


[1] “Dog” in St. Matthew 15:26 is sometimes misunderstood to mean a kind of feral scavenger dog; to call someone that would have been downright abusive. The word Jesus uses is softer; it means a small house dog. Still, it isn’t a compliment, and it’s a surprising response to the woman’s earnestness.

The Journey from Platform Nine and Three Quarters: Practical Magic

harry-potter-platform

Well, this is the last stop, but the journey can still go on.

As I have said in my previous posts, Harry Potter made a reader out of me. But if you are like me, you were probably left wondering what to do after you completed the series, especially if Harry made your children or your students readers. As an educator, here are three helpful tips on how make the most out of your Harry Potter perusal with your children, your students, or with fellow bookworms.

Tip One: Explore New Genres

When I said new genres . .  .

When I said new genres . . .

One interesting thing about the Harry Potter series is its genre. Obviously, the series falls under children’s fantasy, but Rowling uses a cauldron full of genres to create her characters, plot, and world. John Granger, the HogwartsProfessor, has written several books and keeps a website on the cultural influence of Harry Potter. One of his books is Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, a must read for any Potter fan. In this book, Granger breaks down the numerous authors, motifs, and genres that impact Rowling’s series. Examples of influences include Jane Austen’s use of misdirection, the Dickensian orphan, and the detective novel. Basically, if you loved the series, grab Granger’s book and see what other stories exist to satisfy your now whetted appetite for reading. As a school project idea, have your students read one of the “influences” referred to by Granger, and have them report on the story and how that story might have influenced Rowling. Hopefully, you will see your students open up to the vast world of literature beyond the gates of Hogwarts while still connecting to their favorite boy wizard.

Tip Two: Write a Story

Once upon a time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry . . .

Once upon a time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry . . .

Probably just a popular as the Harry Potter series itself is the fan fiction. Here fans of the series get a chance to write their own Hogwarts adventures using the characters they love so much. Fan fiction is an excellent idea to introduce children and students to creative writing. With fan fiction, readers already know the basic character and plot structure of the novels to serve as a springboard, but they get to expand the universe on their own. (I’m thinking about writing a story based on Starbuck and Leoben Conoy’s relationship in Battlestar Galactica and give their story the proper closure it deserves.) You could have your students create a story about Seamus Finnegan’s adventures in pyrotechnics, chronicle Luna Lovegood’s first four years at Hogwarts, or report Hagrid’s numerous attempts to woo Madame Maxine. I mean, the crazy antics of the Marauders and the Weasley Twins are enough to go on. Have your students read their stories to class, and you can always have them post it online. This strategy allows them to explore a new craft with the characters from the series.

Tip Three: Learn about Literary Criticism

What I have to do to my students sometimes . . . and what my professors probably thought of me.

Don’t you just love teachers?

When I entered grad school, I was wary of literary criticism. Now, I believe it’s a useful tool if handed correctly. The problem with some theories is they tend to be more about an agenda, and they write off good works of literature because they do not fit their standards (I’m looking at you Marxist, feminist, and post-colonial theories). However, even these theories can help us by providing a framework for our criticism and definitions for terms we need to know. Because of its cultural impact, the Harry Potter series has been examined by almost every possible theory out there. A good place to start is Harry Potter and Philosophy (covers first five books), The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy (covers all books), Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter, and Harry Potter and the Ivory Tower. As a teaching idea, assign each student a literary theory and have him or her reread one of the books with that framework. However, be warned: literary theory sometimes goes over the heads of experts sometimes, so don’t be discouraged if your students do not “get it.” If anything, you are showing them how the literary world of Harry coincides with our own and how literary theory will teach them something new and delightful about the series. 

I hope these new tips give you an idea about what to do with the series after completion. If anything, you could always reread the novels. . . .

Little Children: Cognitive Acceptance and Spiritual Gifts

I have always found it fascinating that our Lord told as many stories as he preached sermons. In fact, Christ usually included stories and parables in his discourses to help communicate his point to his audience. Stories resonate with people, and they tend to understand and remember them better than sermons. I had a friend comment to me one day that she remembered sermons better because of the stories the pastor integrated into sermon.

Ironically, Christ also told stories to be cryptic. He told stories not only because his audience would remember his discourses and truths better but also because he could communicate to the right people. Not everyone understood his stories (nor that his stories were about them), but Christ proclaims that the Father has obscured his teachings (including his parables) “from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11:25).

How interesting it is that Christ used the term infant to describe the people who could understand his teachings. At first, it seems like Christ might be speaking ironically. His words about God withholding truth from the wise correspond to Paul’s statement to the Corinthians about God choosing the foolish things of the world to confound the wise. Christ, thus, might be playing with meaning here as to who actually might be the more foolish or immature person.

Nevertheless, our Lord has decided to use one of the lowest members of his society for an analogy of his followers. Though Christ probably had a social comparison in mind when gave this statement, my study in children’s literature has brought me to a place of one possible understanding.

In studying developmental psychology, I have learned that children think concretely. They do not have the cognitive ability to think abstractly, which will not occur until they reach puberty. Hence, when you tell a child that he must behave because Santa Claus is coming to town, you will see his eyes light up and suddenly you have the best behaved child on the block. This child believes in Santa because you, the parent or teacher or adult figure, have said it is true and what you say must be so.  A child usually cannot comprehend that you are pretending unless you have told him otherwise. (Interestingly, children know what it means to pretend, though they sometimes have trouble understanding the line between pretend and fact.)

Children, further, accept everything their parents tell them because they tend to focus their understanding of relationships around the home. If asked who their best friends are, young children might tell you their mother, father, or sibling. All they really know are those who they have contact with every day, so their association with the word friend happens to be the people most familiar to them. As they grow older, they tend associate their friends with people outside their home.

Further, most of their activities revolve around the house. If asked what the word love means, children will project that meaning onto an individual or action, possibly stating again their parents tell them “I love you” and kiss them good night. Rarely can they conjure an abstract equivalent meaning to love, such as affection, sacrifice, unconditional, and unmerited. They think concretely, so everything about their reality centers on the tangible and familial.

In some regard, we can draw a spiritual application to this psychological behavior. Because children think so concretely, they believe anything you tell them. Followers of Christ perhaps will accept his teachings in this way. They trust their Father’s word almost completely and become defensive when someone says something contrary to his teachings. This is not a blind acceptance, though. Christ says that the Father himself gave them this ability. However, they receive Christ’s teachings as concrete truth, willingly accepting his words with faith and repentance.

Further, Christ uses the most familial term we know to express our relationship with God: he is our Father and we are his children. They have concrete evidence of the Father and his love for them through Jesus Christ’s personhood and his life and death. Christ is also the tangible person with which we associate abstract spiritual terms: the Way, the Truth, and the Life, for example. As proverbial small children, we hold fast to this relationship which encapsulates our need for our Father’s love and our desire to have his Son as our only true friend, all of which God gives us out of his love and good pleasure.

Christ makes several other analogies to his followers and small children. Most of the time, he does so to humble them and demonstrate the severity of their want of love and mercy for their fellow man. Here, however, Christ shows his disciples a different image of their childlike position to their Father. Truly, God has given his children a unique gift in understanding the truths of his Son’s teachings, for they all reveal his character and redemptive design and their need and total dependence on him.

Wise as serpents, innocent as doves — the value of reading an author’s letters

I don’t assume that renunciation goes with submission, or even that renunciation is good in itself. Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is. And along this line, I think the phrase ‘naive purity’ is a contradiction in terms. I don’t think purity is mere innocence; I don’t think babies and idiots possess it. I take it to be something that comes either with experience or with Grace so that it can never be naive.

Flannery O’Connor, To “A,” 1 January 56, in The Habit of Being 126 (Sally Fitzgerald ed., 1979).

I don’t have anything particularly profound to add to the foregoing quote from Flannery O’Connor’s correspondence. What the passage shows, however, is the value of reading the letters of good writers. To read their finished published works is one kind of education; to overhear them discussing with friends the various thoughts which, ultimately, are manifested in their finished works, is quite another. And that latter kind of education is what an author’s correspondence very often affords.