As reported by The Atlantic, secular beliefs are on the rise among young people, and conservative Christians are withdrawing from secular society whilst demanding their religious beliefs be tolerated, even if it means discrimination and intolerance. And this week’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and other similar businesses that are owned by religious individuals only seems designed to further the religious-secular divide in the country.
The people I met and worked with at Collegium over six days (beginning here and ending here) did not seem to share this fundamentalist view towards religion. Repeatedly was the emphasis placed on diversity, inclusivity, dialogue, community — and all of that was extended to my group, the secularists, the atheists, the non-believers. With their focus on intellectual pursuits and social justice through collaboration as the path to God, shutting out those willing to work with them did not make any sense.
It doesn’t to me, either. We are all on this planet, and we have a wide range of ideas about reality. But if we all want to continue living on this planet, then we need to learn how to dialogue and respect one another to get along. I believe that the Catholics and individuals of various beliefs I was cloistered with at the College of the Holy Cross recognize this necessity. I also understand other things after that sojourn. And a week after being at Collegium, I thought I would organize my notes, collect my impressions, and delve into my thoughts to further understand what I had just experienced and what I could do to help in my own small part, as a member of the higher education apparatus.
I went to Collegium to hopefully answer this question: How do we translate the Catholic higher education ethos into an online learning community? In order to answer this question, while there, I reasoned that we need to answer the following subordinate questions:
- What is community?
- What is online learning?
- What is the Catholic higher education ethos?
- What is the Catholic intellectual tradition?
- What is translatable to an online context?
- What tools and strategies could help such translation?
I think I got some answers to these questions, and going over my notes have helped me recollect my impressions and make connections. I do not think I have all the answers that I need, and more work by listening and reading will be necessary, but hopefully this is a good start.
I also think that what I learned from Collegium does not have to solely apply to Catholic institutions of higher education. As an atheist, I think we can see ways in which all institutions of higher education — and, indeed, perhaps education overall — could learn from the Catholic approach to teaching and learning.
The Catholic Mission for Higher Education
What is the Catholic intellectual ethos? Many concepts and ideas floated through the air of Collegium. I heard or thought about many that may not have aligned exactly with the terminology they used, but nevertheless reflect the spirit I sensed. What I gathered is a focus on the need to learn to grow and adapt and change as a person through learning. All of this can be done through contemplation, insight, trust, leap of faith, discipline, but also needs acceptance, cultural appropriation, tolerance. A Catholic learner should be able to connect the new to the old through synthesis and integration. A Catholic scholar engages in examination, questioning, openness, reflection, introspection. A Catholic student, working through the principles of Catholic social teaching, is outside-directed, considerate of others. A Catholic is one who learns widely and thinks carefully; but, technically, that should be the hallmark of any scholar.
What, then, is Catholic social teaching? We had a lecture on this topic, discussing the central tenets. I paraphrase them here, modifying in a way that reflects a desire to allow such teaching to be approachable by non-Catholics as well:
- seeing the inherent dignity of humans
- believing in the goal of the common good
- promoting justice for all
- having a preference in attention for the vulnerable
- combating structures of injustice
- understanding the necessity for solidarity and community
- seeing the inherent dignity of work and workers
- seeing material ownership as a limited right
- respecting and caring for nature
- accepting ongoing transformation as fundamental to living.
When phrased in this manner, without any direct connection with a theology, this social teaching becomes a foundation for promoting tolerance, understanding, respect, and so many of the other traits we should be instilling in our students, whether they are in our classroom or out among the public. Indeed, these tenets are the foundation for progressive politics and practices around the world.
As part of another lecture, an interesting distinction was made that I feel needs to be considered for how we approach teaching and learning. In this lecture, a criticism was leveled at the common practice of higher education to focus on a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” That is to say, to focus on teaching students how to develop their skeptical, deconstructive, critical gaze in order to deal with the world. The lecturer argued that instead of promoting this critical so heavily, Catholic higher education needs to promote in students a “hermeneutics of wonder.” That is to say, to help them approach the world with a respectful, imaginative, awed gaze that does not critique the world but is instead amazed by it.
I would argue that both teachings are important, as we need to be both open to amazement and yet questioning of the world around us. While the first can lead to distance and disempowerment, it can also lead to recognizing possibilities and understanding the hidden. While the second can lead to being overwhelmed and having of inferiority, it can also improve creativity and motivate engagement. In order to move forward on anything, you need both critical and creative skills. You should not be blindly hopeful of a venture but instead should go forward strategically, critically, creatively, adaptively. Curiosity is not always fleeting; it can be what drives and sustains scholarship. Wonder –> curiosity –> question –> scholarship –> knowledge. Curiosity is a bridge between the two hermeneutics. Thus, both are important to progress, especially when handling complex problems.
Another big topic of the week focused on the incorporation of beholding into education. My understanding of beholding is that the more you engage with something, the more you need to do so without bringing your self into the engagement. Thus, the more you behold something, the deeper you look, the more you comprehend it as it speaks back to you. To behold is to understand something on its own terms and what it can reveal to you, and even about you. There is an importance to being an observer without being an interpreter. Repeated engagings could result in the intellectual level of “knowledge” of the entity and also reach the affectual level to produce a sense of “wonder” for the entity; and both could combine and foster a desire for lifelong learning. Beholding in education could help discernment, the development of an answer to the question of “For whom and for what will I give of myself?” But discernment and beholding are a process, not an end goal. In education, the end goal would be an intellectual and affectual engagement with the world as a lifelong learner.
Given the importance of the tenets of Catholic social teaching, it makes sense then for programs to be offered at Catholic universities that encourage students to learn while working for others in the “real world.” What such institutions need to remember is that such service or community-based learning should be seen as a practice, not as a project. A focus on community should be integrated into all aspects of a student’s education, and should not just be relegated to a tick box on some checklist. In order for social justice and lifelong learning of the self and others to become fundamental to a student’s identity, the importance of dialogue with other voices and perspectives to understand power and privilege must be stressed — and community-based learning can be a powerful tool for that development. Additionally, as I modified the tenets of Catholic social teaching, I believe that focusing on more generalizable pursuits like social justice, relationships, and community make it easier to get buy-in from a more religiously and non-religiously diverse faculty.
However, if the theology is removed as a motivator for such social teaching, does that make the university Catholic or just another small, liberal arts school?
One of the guest speakers had, what I thought, a useful metaphor for considering the identity of a Catholic university. She invoked the image of the cross. Along the vertical, that which is planted into the ground, a Catholic university has a distinct theology at its foundation. However, along the horizontal, which spreads out like arms to the world, a Catholic university should have a pluralistic inclusivity that welcomes all open and respectful minds to the table. The goal should not be conversion as in religious or ideological: the university is not the place to make more Catholics; that is the role of the church. Instead, the goal should be three fold: intellectual conversion, through the gaining of knowledge; affectual conversion, through the ability to fall in love with reality; and moral conversion, through the gaining of social and communal values. There should not be any preaching as in the missionary work of conversion to the faith, but there should be preaching in terms of communicating the ideals of community and being a global citizen.
A week later, and while I have some answers to my questions to defining the Catholic approach to higher education, I do have more questions. Given the nature of my quest, perhaps the relationship I posited earlier is best expressed not as a line but as a closed circle. Perhaps this is the hermeneutic of life that we need to be teaching.
A Catholic Influence on Class Design and Instruction
If we take these initial and limited learnings I had from Collegium (with the hope that I will both learn more either through experience or through dialogue with others’ experiences), then how can we think about applying this information to how we teach our students? Primarily I am interested in answering the question for our communities of online only students, but I did have some thoughts that apply to both.
I think this approach to education makes clear that in the 21st century we should not be stressing rote memorization and recitation. The skills of both hermeneutics require far more than just basic knowledge acquisition. And, indeed, the best way to learn may be through application, such as indicated by the impact of beholding. Any learning experience that requires comprehension through in-depth engagement could benefit from structured repetition. Such repetition could require the student to engage with the entity in numerous ways, both theoretical and methodological, to more fully comprehend the entity and the learning or beholding process. This could also occur during a class-long project, where the students are asked to repeatedly reflect upon the process of completing the project for what they are learning, how they are transforming, and then collect those thoughts for a final reflection paper.
If our goal is to foster the skills of those two hermeneutics, then classes need to be about internalizing the learning, and the desire to learn, in order for education to be transformative and help students to develop community, whether in the classroom or elsewhere. Classrooms, whether online or offline, should be spaces for reflection not just on content but the learning process. Thus, goals for the course need to be beyond basic knowledge or even skill acquisition, and should have more consideration of developing community and learning to learn skills, even if those skills are not assessed as part of the students’ grades. Different learning goal taxonomies, from Bloom to Fink, can help teachers learn how to develop course goals that aid their students reaching these higher level outcomes.
After course design, there comes course implementation and management. From Collegium, we discussed how the art of silence should be embraced by the teacher; teachers need to be able to ask a question and wait for an answer, even if that means sitting in silence for minutes on end. Such action may seem like punishment for students, but it can be a way to give students the reflective space/time to answer the question. Additionally, it can be seen as a way to reduce the perception of the teacher as the voice of authority in the room, which could squelch other voices and perspectives. Being open to silence, to not knowing, could model an openness that we seek our students to learn.
We also need to make students comfortable with failure, frustration, vulnerability, discomfort, otherness. Our students will not succeed in life if they are too afraid of taking risks for fear of failure. Too often they just want to keep their heads down and do what is necessary for a good grade, and even minor failing could be seen as preventing that outcome. But if they never learn how to learn from failure, then they are ill-equipped to handle the failures that are guaranteed to come at them in life. In this instance, I think of the usefulness of games in promoting fun frustration. We need to structure space/time for students to engage in failure that does not seem to be punishment but instead requires them to think through how to do the task differently in order to succeed.
Additionally, we have to create space/time for students to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. They need to learn how to encounter differences and otherness that may make them vulnerable because it has the chance to change how they think, feel, believe about the world. At Collegium we discussed the use of the hermeneutic circle pictured below that was included in our readings as a way of encouraging engagement with otherness. Following the steps of this hermeneutic could help our students learn how to encounter the other and to engage in listening respectfully. For example, I could use this hermeneutic circle in my persuasion class to help students analyze the arguments of others in an online discussion/comments section. They could be tasked with considering what leads the “other side” to formulate and use the arguments that they do, and then how to better respond in such situations so as to reduce defensiveness.
At my university, as well as at others, there has been discussion of utilizing an e-portfolio system to give our students the space/time to reflect upon their college experience. Indeed, we could use e-portfolios to encourage students to reflect on how they see themselves changing over time and to consider what such changes and their experience say about own calling/vocation. Students could be required to write a reflection paper and submit it as part of the audit process for graduation without needing to pay credits for it.
Basically, at all steps of the university experience, the Catholic approach to higher education could be drawn upon; whether it is designing a course, an assignment, or the experience, the goals of social justice, reflection, relationships, community, and so forth could help faculty determine how to help students develop their lifelong learning skills and become successful in numerous aspects of life. The ideas I reflect upon here are only a few, and I am certain my peers from Collegium have other takeaways that they will be applying to their courses and their universities. I have ideas that I am not posting here but will be sharing with my colleagues through our Center for Teaching and Learning excellence. I hope that, in the spirit of community, perhaps someday we can all get together and share these ideas and the techniques developed from them.
Building an Online Learning Community for Catholic Higher Education
So now we come to the crux of the matter: the real reason I attended Collegium. And I must say that everything of which I have already written should also be considered for this discussion of how to design online learning communities. An online space can be structured as a place for community, for beholding, for hermeneutics of suspicion and wonder, for reflection, for dialogue. In some ways, such a space would be better than a physical classroom, while in other ways it would be worse. The trick, of course, is to know these affordances and constraints and to design and implement accordingly.
While I do not have all of the answers, and would never deem myself worthy enough to have all of them, I have had some insights from Collegium that are specific to this consideration of the affordances and constraints, and I wanted to share those insights here. I do hope that at some point, as a peer suggested from the week, that we who are interested in this topic can gather at a symposium to really discuss the matter. We had only an hour devoted to it at Collegium, and we barely scratched the surface.
However, with online education becoming more and more prevalent, it behooves us all to seriously consider how the Catholic approach to higher education applies, lest online education become something completely divorced from Catholic social teaching. Indeed, with a Catholic institution’s mission of outreach to those who cannot pay much, online courses and programs could be a cheaper alternative to the full university experience. Online Catholic higher education could be seen as the embodiment of the social teaching tenets by providing for adult education and outreach to populations who may not have access to the full university experience, thereby improving overall education level of community.
I took away three main ideas from Collegium about how to foster a relationship-based online learning community, as well as one caution that we discussed. Again, these ideas are tentative, in need of empirical testing, but I hope they can provide a starting point for this conversation, at my university and hopefully beyond.
First, we need to remember that online community can be expressed through communicative acts just as with any physical community, but the acts are more limited online. This limitation means that the relationships developed in an online community tend to be based primarily on text communication, with visual communication (including body language) and aural communication (including intonation) being distant seconds (although, as bandwidth and recording capabilities include, this gap is quickly decreasing). For now, we need to take this constraint into account when structuring how our online students will relate to one another in order to develop a successful (i.e. cohesive and productive) learning community. For example, a technique was discussed wherein, for netiquette purposes and thus community purposes, students should use each others’ first names in their discussion replies, as well as have a picture of themselves for their avatar. Such structured requirements help develop recognition of each other as humans, and thereby builds on the human dignity tenet from Catholic social teaching.
Second, relationships among students can be built through a structure that requires students to consider how course content relates to their lives outside of class. We used to do this with our students when they were very young: show-and-tell was a way for students to share parts of their lives with their classmates, and thereby start to find the commonalities among them. We could do this in a more structured, more course-oriented format, by having students reflect upon the ways in which their lives relate to course work. Students could be asked to bring in different aspect of their lives, their hopes and dreams, and to share them with others. As we discussed at Collegium, with their utilization of social networks, students are comfortable sharing their personal lives as long as they have control over how to do it; this could mean, in an online setting, given them the choice what to share, how much, and in what way (i.e. textually, visually, aurally). Asking students to share what they are grateful for in their lives, their learning, and their peers can be a good way to develop community both online and offline. Indeed, I had the idea that we could start off each course by asking the students to define what the common good of the course is, whether that course is online or offline.
Third, a focus on sharing could also be a way to create and experience a sense of wonder in online learning. Through the exposure to new materials, new ideas, students could learn more of what is out there, more of the possibilities for themselves and others. We can ask students to bring back and present to the class community what they are in awe of, giving them reflective space/time to express their wonderment. If it is picture based, the class could also use a Pinterest board or other visual social network site; if it is aural based, then perhaps Soundcloud; and other tools for other types of sharing. Community could be fostered and/or strengthened by encouraging students to discuss what resonates with them from each others’ sharing, to find patterns amongst what they love. Again, show-and-tell could be related to course content, whether that is a hermeneutic of suspicion or wonder — and, perhaps it would be best as both.
Finally, the caution — which is one that I do not know if anyone is discussing or has discussed. Online education requires all activity to be done via the Internet, using tools such as email, discussion boards, and social networks. Of course, that activity is behind firewalls and password protected, but what happens in an online classroom has more permanence than what happens in a physical classroom: unless a teacher or student is recording the discussion or lecture of a physical classroom, there is no lasting text of what transpired. However, in an online classroom, everything is saved, and there is a record of what students say, from the personal to the scholarly.
Now, the big question: how FERPA compliant is online discussion? Can a student with restrictions against disclosure of their identity feel as protected in an online classroom as in a physical one? Also, given all of the concerns over NSA snooping and government wiretapping of the Internet, can people, such as some legal agency, request the discussions and other activities of an online classroom? What legal protection exists for online classrooms and its students? I know there has been discussion about the instructor who created the online course having intellectual property rights over it, but then not all universities offer that. And what about students’ intellectual property rights for their activities in an online classroom?
I have zero answers for those questions, but I do hope someone either has answers or has had the conversation to get to those answers.
As of now, those are the ideas I had during Collegium and in reflecting upon the experience. During the fall term, I will be turning even more attention to answering the questions: what of Catholic ethos is translatable to online education, and how? For now, I put these ideas out there in the hope of hearing more from those who have had the experience of being in a Catholic university and trying to replicate what happens offline to the online. I would honestly love to organize more conversation and sharing on this topic beyond just my university.
If you have such experience but do not wish to comment here, then please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.