Sunday, October 31, 2010

Teaching Experiences - Second Guessing

This past week I had one of those classes that make you reflect on teaching. Teaching is a task that, if you allow yourself, you can constantly second guess yourself. There are classes where you have to be instinctual and go with your gut. You can plan only so much in teaching and sometimes all the planning in the world won’t produce or avoid certain exchanges in the classroom. In the middle of a discussion you make choices and it is difficult to know if you’ve made the right one at least in the moment. In retrospect I think I would have handled the situation differently, although it is hard to know for sure.

If I look at the results of the discussion, it appears to have had an affect on most of the class. First we had a number of students very angry. Two students actually got up and left the classroom because they were frustrated by particular responses from other classmates. There was a sizable group of students that were disengaged from the discussion altogether—probably a third to two-thirds. I don’t think this meant that they were not listening, but as one person from that group admitted at the end she simply did not know enough to even begin to offer an opinion. Finally there was the one student who was both vocal and contrarian. This student ended up dominating the discussion, as it became something of a debate between them and me. In retrospect I probably should have conceded that they would not accept the approach I was advocating and move on. Instead I engaged them in an attempt to show the student why I had come to the conclusions I had. At least with this student in the classroom, my engagement really didn’t get me anywhere.

Let me provide some context. We had read Pamela Eisenbaum’s Paul was Not a Christian and we were concluding with a discussion of our thoughts on the book. I had students read the book using a series of questions that assisted them in evaluating the author’s arguments. I intended for us to talk about what students thought were the strengths and weaknesses of the book. However I began with a general question: “What did you think of the book?”—We never got past that question.

A vocal group of more conservative students hated the book. Among other things, they felt that Eisenbaum caricatured Christians negatively—Eisenbaum is Jewish. After one person stated this a chorus of others agreed save one student. One of the students, our vocal-contrarian, disagreed and offered a very affirmative view of the book. She found convincing the universalism with which Eisenbaum concluded her book.

What ensued was a debate not so much about the book, but about universalism vs exclusivism and relativism, is any one interpretation better than another? These topics arose from the book of course—Eisenbaum concludes that Paul was a universalist and maintains a “two-ways” soteriology; further, she claims that Jesus saves only Gentiles—but the conversation hovered over the book at about 30,000 feet in a debate about abstract ideas. For my part, I decided to continue the conversation thinking that a conversation about critical thinking and critical realism would be beneficial for the entire class. I'm not so sure that was the best tack to take. I should report that in post-class correspondence there is a continuing engagement via email. One never knows.

I take solace in the fact that we’ll have another shot at it this week. What a wonderfully humbling profession we have.


BTW: Paul was not a Christian is a challenging book written in polemical style.

I would say some of the strengths are:
1. A historically contextual reading of Paul
2. The stress on the ambiguity of several of Paul's key phrases (e.g. pistis christou and ek ergo nomou)
3. The emphasis on ethnic distinctions in Paul

The weaknesses are significant:
1. The christology in the book is wanting- there's just no way Paul thinks that Jesus is Messiah only for Gentiles
2. The two-ways salvation and universalism in Paul is highly suspect; it could only be asserted by means of a contorted reading of Pauline texts.
3. The optimistic Pauline anthropology advocated is improbable


Doug Chaplin said...

I guess most of us have had the experience of a class running away from us, but we work out how to have prevented it very much after the event. Many of us have similarly runaway experiences of chairing meetings.

Personally I find that sometimes the experience helps me prepare for the next time by trying to anticipate bear-traps e.g. I know this is a very controversial book, but what I'm asking you to do is try to …"

Sadly, I have discovered an unfailing ability to be ambushed by things I failed to anticipate.

Rafael said...

Thanks, Joel. These are always the fun lessons, aren't they? I find there's value in giving the students something to react to (even if the reaction threatens to overshadow the material itself).

I preface just about every discussion of this type with something along the lines of, "I don't require you to accept this, but I do require you to understand it." And, of course, the ability to present an idea fairly and without polemical asides is an important part of demonstrating their understanding. So the student that says on his (invariably) final exam: "This outlandish and stupid idea claims that . . ." already loses points just for being snarky.

Rich Robinson said...


Thanks for sharing your experiences. I have only had a few teaching opportunities but yes, dominating students can be a problem. My two biggest fears, that I've actually experienced, are 1 - students whose comments or questions I have a hard time understanding - either because they can't articulate it well enough or because I have a brain cloud - and 2 - a class where nobody really wants to engage the material. I'd rather have a dominating student and people stalking out than a class where no one seems to care!