Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Philosophy of Teaching College Students

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word teach derives from an Old English term that means "to point out" or "to show." A teacher, then, is someone who points out or shows to others something they had not seen before. This metaphor suggests at least three things about teaching.

First, it suggests that the teacher knows something significant that is not obvious, something useful that is not immediately accessible. The critical transfer requires someone who can identify for the learners something they would not otherwise know. This aspect of the work of teaching places the first responsibility upon the shoulders of the teacher. He or she must possess a deep knowledge of what is to be taught. Every student has had the bad experience of being "taught" by someone who did not really know the subject. By contrast, students usually appreciate and truly learn from the teacher who "knows his stuff" as they say.

Second, a teacher must give attention to the question of method. It is rumored that when Yogi Berra became a baseball manager, many of his players recognized that he understood the game as well as anyone. But they were often frustrated when Berra struggled to tell them what he knew. By definition, a genuine scholar is someone who has gained a deep understanding of a certain field of knowledge. But not everyone who has mastered a discipline can effectively teach it to someone else.

What are the best ways to teach? The answers to that question will vary, depending on factors like the subject, class size, the length of class sessions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the teacher. However, none of those significant issues matches the importance of the students themselves. In recent decades, educational theorists have partially succeeded in their attempts to convince teachers to give due consideration not only to their subjects, but also to their students. More than anyone else, David J. A. Clines has challenged me to think of my students as fellow learners. His writings and lectures have helped me to become more effective in the classroom. He has taught me to resist the urge to adopt the role of "sage on the stage," and to act more like an expert "guide on the side."

Absorbing the best ideas, practicing the best methods, and becoming a more effective teacher of students is an on-going challenge for me. But having taken up that challenge, I have discovered a few things, and have come to some conclusions about applying the concept of student-centered learning. For example, I believe it is important for teachers to vary their methods of instruction, to come up with creative ways in which they can involve their students in an array of learning activities. Doing this not only helps to retain their attention, it also ensures that students engage and discover for themselves a wider variety of ways to learn. When students watch a video clip, listen to music, fill out a short questionnaire, or pass an interesting object around the room, the senses of sight, hearing, and touch become a bigger part of the learning experience. When students in small groups discuss a well-worded question, and then report their answers to the rest of the class, they challenge and teach one another in lively, unpredictable ways. They also develop a greater sense of responsibility for their own learning.

Third, the root meaning of the word teach suggests that an ideal learning experience is one where students want to see what it is that the teacher is pointing out to them. But how do teachers help to motivate their students to be real learners? How can they ensure that once the semester is over, the learning will continue?

As I see it, this is one problem where the much-maligned lecture can be a part of the solution. What good can the lowly lecture do? Current research indicates that, although the lecture has its pitfalls as a teaching method, there are a few things it accomplishes well. For example, lectures can help students to read an assignment more effectively by providing an orientation and conceptual framework. Lectures are also good for summarizing material that is scattered over a variety of sources. In my opinion, the great potential of a lecture is realized whenever a teacher speaks clearly and enthusiastically about his or her area of expertise. This is not only great teaching, it also models for students what it means to be a scholar.

Sometimes when I am leading a discussion, especially if the question is open-ended and still unresolved, a student will speak up and ask, "So where do you come out on this?" At that point, I have the opportunity to explain my choice, why I have chosen it, and my relative certainty about my decision. Best of all, at that point I am talking to people who actually care about all of those things. They want to know what the teacher thinks. In that moment, I'm teaching.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My 12 Best Books of 2012

I read a few dozen books in 2012. (See photo above!). You can see some of those books at my Amazon list for this year. Almost all of them were non-fiction, and most of them had something to do with American religious history.

What follows are the top picks: my twelve best books of the last twelve months, in the order that I read them. When I put this list together, I wasn't trying to be objective. These are just the books I liked and appreciated the most. After each title, I'll say a little about each one. One more thing before I get to the list: Please recommend to me at least one really good book that you read this past year. (But I don't mean books of the Bible. I'm talking about books I wasn't supposed to have read).

1. Legacy Churches, by Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond (2009)

In the U.S. alone, about 3,200 churches close their doors every year. This book explains that all congregations eventually die, and offers wise counsel to churches that are nearing the end of the life cycle. The authors recommend that dying churches become "legacy churches" by using their financial resources to begin one or more new congregations. Earlier this year, I posted a complete review: "When and How a Church Should Close."

2. Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea, by Edmund S. Morgan (1965)

Who should be recognized as a member of the church? Morgan, one of the truly great historians of American religion, traces Puritan ideas and practices regarding this question, beginning with the rise of the Reformation in England to about the year 1700. A classic source for understanding Puritanism, this book has remained in print for many years now. For more information, see my full review.

3. Calico Joe, by John Grisham (2012)

I don't read much fiction. But I always enjoy a novel by the great John Grisham. Calico Joe is one of his few non-legal stories. And, like A Painted House, this one has connections to Arkansas. It's a tale about baseball, and it helps if you know something about the game, I think.

4. To Live Ancient Lives: The Primitivist Dimension in Puritanism, by Theodore Dwight Bozeman (1988)

In this highly-significant book, Bozeman starts out by identifying the biblical-restorationist strand in early English Puritanism. Then he shows how this principle was commonly assumed in American Puritanism as well. He convincingly argues that Puritans were committed to a radical application of an old idea: "restoration of primitive purity was to be achieved by massive imitation of the New Testament pattern." Anyone who grew up in a restorationist church will immediately recognize that language. It's been around for a long, long time.

5. Making Heretics: Militant Protestantism and Free Grace in Massachusetts, 1635-41, by Michael P. Winship (2002)

This book is a first-rate, detailed account of the so-called Antinomian Controversy, "arguably the single most important event in seventeenth-century American colonial history." A great researcher and a fine writer too, Winship makes this story come alive.

6. The Enlightenment in America, by Henry F. May (1976)

Scholars often speak of "the Enlightenment," as though it was just one thing. In this ground-breaking work on the subject, May says there were actually four distinct Enlightenments that impacted America. In more or less chronological order they were, says May: Moderate, Skeptical, Revolutionary, and Didactic. This book is about understanding these four types, especially as they relate to American religion. For more, see my review.

7. Holy Fairs: Scotland and the Making of American Revivalism, 2nd Edition, by Leigh Eric Schmidt (2001)

A careful historian, Schmidt makes the case that the religious camp-meetings along the western frontier of America, like the Cane Ridge Revival, were neither spontaneous nor unprecedented. They were, in fact, planned regional communion gatherings, a tradition that began in Scotland in the early 1600s.

8. The Democratization of American Christianity, by Nathan O. Hatch (1989)

A contemporary classic in the field, this book argues that the predominant theme of American Christianity is democracy. History, tradition, and creeds were all swept away to make room for the impulse of the common man. The critical period in the development of this distinctive outlook was 1780-1830.

9. Noah's Compass, by Anne Tyler (2009)

A fine novel. The story's about a sixty-year-old man who's recently lost his job and has now packed it in, just waiting around to die, until he finds out that he's not through living. The author has a great feel for the quirky things that sometimes happen to people, double entendre, and how people sometimes get trapped by their own lies.

10. Religion and the American Nation: Historiography and History, by John Frederick Wilson (2003)

Originally three lectures in a series, this book is an overview of what's been written about religion in America. It's an excellent survey by one of the acknowledged masters of the subject. If you want to quickly get a handle on the topic, this is the place to go.

11. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South, by Albert J. Raboteau (1978)

How was slave religion in the South "invisible"? It was, says the author, hidden from the eyes and the ears of white society. Slaves who went to worship with their masters came to realize that Christianity was much greater and nobler, more liberating, than the moralistic lessons they were taught at church. So slaves sang to God and preached the gospel any place where they could find seclusion. Originally Raboteau's doctoral dissertation, this book is a ground-breaking, frequently-cited discussion of the topic.

12. Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America, by Matthew Avery Sutton (2007)

This is a carefully-researched, well-written biography that you're likely to enjoy. The author has family roots in the Foursquare Gospel denomination, which McPherson began. At times, he seems a little too sympathetic to his subject, and he claims too much for her. But it's still a fine book.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Why So Many Muslims Are Angry at the West

Every semester, I teach a freshmen-level course at Amarillo College titled "Introduction to World Religions." It's the toughest teaching assignment I have. In about 40 hours of total class time, I introduce, and we explore, five major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I have been teaching this course for six and half years now. During that time, every semester I've made it a point to read something that is new to me and related to the topic. One of the class sessions on Islam is titled, "Why Are They So Angry? Historical Sources of Muslim Irritation at the West." The following is an overview of two of my better sources for this class period. These are some of the notes I take with me to class:

“The Roots of Muslim Rage” by Bernard Lewis, first appeared in the Atlantic magazine in September 1990. The tag line reads: "Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified." Yes, the article came out more than a decade before September 11, 2001. It's now over twenty years old. But as you'll see, not very much has really changed since then. And that's why I believe this article is still pertinent. Here's what it has to say:

In order to provide some perspective, Lewis points back to German philosophers of the early twentieth century. Typically, they spoke of America as a civilization without a culture. Sure, they said, the United States is emerging as a world power. But unlike Germans, who are an “authentic” people, Americans lack the vitality and integrity of a long-standing, traditional culture. This view was absorbed by some Muslim intellectuals of the time. It is likely that they saw themselves as belonging to the same category as the European nations. Regardless of significant differences, they all possessed a time-honored, settled way of being.

Following the complete collapse of the Third Reich, German influence in the Muslim world was replaced by Soviet-style Marxism. As we know, the Soviets saw America as the most advanced and, therefore, the most dangerous version of Western capitalism. Again, much of this perspective would have been absorbed in regions of the world where Islam was the dominant cultural force.

Still later, the powerful West was demonized even by—in some cases, especially by—writers in Europe and America. According to this storyline, the innocent Adam and Eve of the East were being ruined by the evil serpent of the West.

No, the foregoing does not represent the source of Muslim rage against the West, particularly the U.S.  After all, it’s not as though the Nazi regime would have been sympathetic to Middle Easterners or to Islam. The same goes for atheistic Communism. How could the Soviet system have looked kindly at Islam with its devotion to Allah and the Quran? So, again, these items are not the source. However, they certainly encouraged the rise of Muslim resentment against the U.S., which in these instances represented a sort of common enemy that lived on the other side of the Atlantic. So what are the causes Muslim rage? Lewis lists three things:

1.  American support for the State of Israel (page 7).
2.  American support for hated regimes (7).
3.  Most offensive of all, iimperialism (8). But, says the author, that word "imperialism" has to be understood in the way it is used and heard in the Muslim world. There it has a religious flavor, “being used in association, and sometimes interchangeably, with ‘missionary,’ and denoting a form of attack that includes the Crusades as well as modern colonial empires. This is especially repugnant to Muslims because, in their eyes, the people being subjugated are the ones with the right religion. “What is truly evil and unacceptable is the domination of infidels over true believers” (9). 

So much for Lewis. My second source on this question is a series of lectures on Islam presented by Bill Humble who taught for many years at Abilene Christian University. In his presentation on "The Muslim World," Humble sized up the question with five points, some of which overlap with the article by Lewis. Why are Muslims angry at the West? Humble says:

1. Resentment at their own economic and military inferiority compared to the West.
2. American diplomatic and financial support of Israel against the Palestinians
3. American military presence in Saudi Arabia, the home of the two most holy cities in Islam: Mecca and Medina.
4. American military actions in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. While many Muslims hated and feared Saddam Hussein, they hate the West even more. They want U.S. and NATO military forces out of Muslim countries.
5. The impact of secular western culture (videos, music, magazines, television, etc.). "To many Muslims, especially those in traditional societies, American popular culture looks a lot like old-fashioned paganism, a cult that worships money and sex. For such people, Islam is an oasis of old-fashioned family values." Imam al-Awlaki, Washington, D.C.