Final Day: Thursday, June 26th
Here we are, at the end of a very long week. Long but fruitful. I do not regret coming, although I will be very happy to once again be sleeping in my bed, with the nice padding.
After days of discussing, debating, defining what is Catholic intellectualism, Catholic social teaching, Catholic mission and identity, today was about how we could put into praxis the ideas of our discussions. Sometimes, in case you haven’t noticed, we academics can be very good about talking and philosophizing and imagining possibilities and potentialities, but things get trickier when we attempt to practice what we preach. Which, of course, could be said about anyone who has a code for living that sometimes is at odds with the realities of his or her life. Thus, today was about how to practice beholding, the sacramental imagination, reflection, community, and social justice in our classrooms, institutions, and everyday lives.
Today was the time to bring the lofty goals down into our busy lives.
One of the things to remember as a religious institution is that while you may believe in God by whatever name you call it, this being will not do your hard work for you. You may desire to create an educational experience that in some way serves or reflects the tenets of your religious beliefs, but desire is not enough. You have to do the dirty work. You have to be willing to listen to what others do, to listen to what your students need, to try new things and even fail at them. But, above all, in order not to be hypocritical or dissonant with your moral code, you need to do something.
But you do not have to be along when you try to do this something. Others have come before you and exist around you who are struggling with the same questions of how to make the work students do meaningful while being educational and preparing them for the rest of their lives. Even if you cannot get to something like Collegium, there are people presenting novel approaches to teaching and scholarship at discipline specific conferences. There are books, journals, websites, blogs where people share their ambitious failures and successful experiments. We can bounce ideas off each other, appropriate what someone else has done for our own class with just some tweaking. We should not treat the improvement of our students’ education as some competitive sport where only the brightest and the best at experimenting are allowed to teach. We should be supporting each others’ attempts to develop innovative approaches to teaching, and to not squelch one person’s ideas just because it does not fit with the way we do it. We need to embody the idea of being collegial and colleagues: this is not a reality TV competition show; it is just reality.
We discussed the idea of flipping the classroom so that all content engagement occurs outside of the classroom, meaning that lectures go online and class time is spent on discussion and application. But who is to say that is the only way to flip. We also discussed the idea of turning class sessions into the time when they do the content engagement, since many students may not have the time to do so outside of class. This means doing the readings in class, in a guided way that could involve discussing prompts, completing activities, or even being quizzed on what they had just read. Who is to say one way is better than the other? The key is to determine what works best contextually: for your class, for your students.
But, again, that is hard, as it means experimenting, trying things out, and perhaps even failing — and being okay enough with failing to learn from it and not run from it. It means perhaps constantly reworking your course design to meet the next context, and the next context, as your students change over time. It means not being complacent and accepting tradition just because the class has worked in the past. It means taking the time out of a busy schedule to devote it to something many of us have not had enough formal training in: teaching. None of this is easy, but all of this is necessary.
So how do we put all of these aspects of Catholic teaching into practice?
Well, now, just to be clear, this is coming from an atheist. This is coming from someone who sees a church as a lovely bit of architecture, art, and design, but not as a holy site.
But this is also coming from someone who does agree that we need to be educating our students to be better citizens of their communities, their world, their lives. We need to be helping our students realize their passions (what my Catholic colleagues might call their vocations or callings) and giving them the knowledge and skills they will need to follow their passions. Hopefully those passions are more than just making money and living a comfortable life. Hopefully they will care deeply about something in reality, whether it is oppression, intolerance, cruelty, or insipidness.
As their professors, and hopefully as their mentors, we can help them realize their passion, and we can most certainly give them these tools to mold their lives through their passions. As I mentioned yesterday, our job is to provide them with opportunities to be able to have these experiences. These opportunities should occur throughout their college career, and that means they should also occur in the classroom.
My first semester teaching, I tried to do the lecture –> exams route of teaching. Hated it. Pretty sure the students didn’t like it much either. After that, I decided I needed to focus on a project-based pedagogy. In my classes, you are not learning content to answer questions on an exam or write a great term paper. You are learning content in order to produce something related to the things in the world you care about. You are developing the skills of analysis, synthesis, integration, critical thinking, problem solving, creating as you learn how to apply that content to design a technological application or create a persuasive campaign or conduct a research study or produce a social media campaign.
At least, I hope they are gaining those skills as they gain that knowledge and produce their projects. I think I need to assess that more.
What I do know is that the students, while they are working hard, can at least walk away from the class having produced something. And as I let them pick the topics — pick the social issues, problems, questions they want to address — that they are able to learn more about their passions, themselves, and how they could use their college career to address these things down the road.
To me, not being a Catholic, that is why I teach at a Catholic institution. Because we are trying to create the leaders and citizens of tomorrow who will be working towards making the world a more humane and just place. Even if they never believe in God or experience a sacrament. Even if they do not believe in Jesus or any aspect of divinity. Even if they are full of doubts about their spiritual nature. I hope that no matter what, they will come out of my classes knowing more of what they can do, how they can do it, and why.
That, to me, is Catholic teaching. That is the mission I wish to support. And Collegium has helped me to better realize this, as well as to consider new ways of doing so, regardless of what content or in what mode I teach.
And that is why I do not regret coming.
Day 1 is here.
Day 2 is here.
Day 3 is here.
Day 4 is here.
Day 5 is here.