Socratic vs. Confucian Pedagogy

Teaching like the Sages in the Classroom and Online

A friend of mine teaching English in China once shared the insight, no doubt unoriginal, that Socrates serves as the paradigmatic educator in the West, whereas Confucius serves that role in the East. Having long studied and taught Socrates, I have finally studied and taught Confucius. I spent all of my upbringing and most of my young adulthood in the classroom as a student. I have spent the better part of my professional life in the classroom as an educator. I am ready to weigh the relative strengths and weaknesses of both models, as well as the counterfeits of each.

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Hatch vs. Gregory

A Comparative Reflection on Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Great books are like great cities: each has a splendor of its own, a distinctiveness that it possesses, whatever similarities it may have with its peers – or with also-rans, for those that seem peerless. Despite such incomparable qualities, anyone hoping to understand the nature of books, as well as cities, would do well to compare the greats. As a scholar of religious history, I am particularly concerned with how books in my field bear the marks of their authors’ own religious backgrounds and historical contexts.

I have recently had the good fortune to read two singular works, as per this post’s subtitle. Each is the magnum opus of its respective author and each possesses a geographical and historical focus, scope, and methods very different from the other. The conclusions that their authors reach are diametrically opposed. Nonetheless, both works demonstrate the viability of diverse genres of scholarly writing, the value of transcending periodization and geography in exploring implications, and the tendency – perhaps inevitability – of scholars writing themselves into their work.

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Wonder, Wander, Win

A Professor’s Letter to First-Year College Students

Dear Freshmen,

Congratulations! You are embarking on a journey. The people and ideas you encounter and the experiences you have will define you for many years to come. The risks are great, but so are the potential rewards. Some of you have already undertaken great sacrifice to make it this far.

Many students succeed. Others fail academically and some – not necessarily those who fail academically – fail at life. As someone who primarily teaches college freshmen, I have seen what works. I have discerned some general principles to help you increase your odds for success, academically, vocationally, and personally.

Those of you who are my students, you are likely to hear parts of this from me in person. Enjoy this condensed version. Those of you who are not in my classroom, I hope you may benefit from these insights regardless. (And dear parents of my students, if you are listening in, this is a glimpse of what your children are in for.)

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There was a Sweetness Once

Imagining a Plausible Future without Bees, Remembering them for Those to Come

There was a sweetness once: rich, pure, and mellow. It flowed golden and sticky. It could cool into a crystalline mass or dissolve in a warm drink. It was the sweetness to which all other sweetnesses compared. When prophets spoke of a land full of blessing, this was the flavor of that blessing. But now those who make it are gone.

Bees were marvelous creatures. As a child, I learned to fear them. They were insects slightly larger than flies and without any of flies’ ugliness. Like butterflies, they began as eggs and hatched, worm-like, only to cocoon and hatch again as winged adults; but unlike butterflies, bees had the semblance of ferocity and toughness. They could soar and hover, humming ominously as they went. They could impale those they deemed threats, for each possessed a sharp barb behind her legs. One sting could ache and swell or even kill, for an unlucky, vulnerable few. Even though a stinging bee would lose her own life, she would do so gladly in order to protect her community, for bees were creatures of service and self-sacrifice.

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Network with Grace

LinkedIn Strategies for Academics

For business professionals, there is one premier place online to post one’s resume and to  look for jobs: LinkedIn. Indeed, those are the primary purposes of the professional social networking site. With our lengthy CVs and specialized job listings elsewhere, we academics have no need for such services. Nonetheless, both junior and established scholars have compelling reasons to use LinkedIn.

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The God of the Cardboard Cup

Starbucks as Religion

“Have you noticed the fervor of some of our customers?” I asked, mopping the floor in my green apron with a freshly minted master’s degree in theology. “It’s like drinking coffee from here is their religion.”

“We’ve got tradition, community, and ritual,” replied a fellow barista and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. “It fits.”

To this, I would add an explicit system of ethics, focused on care for all, and implicit belief system: the Cult of the Self.

The purpose of this essay is not to make the case that we can find religion and religion-like phenomena everywhere. To do so would be to risk diluting the term “religion” to the point of meaninglessness. Rather, the significance of this exercise is to demonstrate the potential connection between consumption and the transcendent, both real and illusory. What and how we drink forms part of the self we present to the world, how we perceive ourselves, and, in complex ways, who we truly are. You belong to what your worship, so drink with care.

The traditions of Starbucks are myriad. The stores mark the changing of the seasons. Individual stores trace their lineage nationally back to the mother store and locally back to whichever store came first. Old timers tell of the legend of chantico and the return of orange mocha Frappuccino. Some recall the evolution of the siren, which some hail as a neo-pagan deity, but which most recognize as merely a whimsical mythological creature capturing the spirit of fun and adventure, the antithesis of corporate America. Indeed, there is a distinctly countercultural strain in Starbucks’ corporate culture, though some anti-establishment types might see this as a veneer masking corporate hypocrisy. But I digress.

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Teaching is not Customer Service

How a Year as a Barista Helped – and Hindered – my Teaching

When I feel overwhelmed by a growing pile of papers to grade, I remember once having a growing list of  lattes to make, and I smile. It has been nearly six years since I was a barista, but that experience left an indelible impression on me and how I relate to others. I have now spent more time as a college-level educator than I did in the food service industry – but just barely. While wearing a coffee-stained apron, I honed the ability to empathize and listen unjudgmentally; and this has been a priceless asset. But, at the same time, I recognize that the sales tactic of catering to absurd requests does not serve students well.

Few things are more important to teaching than listening. Especially in discussion-based courses, which are all that I currently teach, I know that I must listen and respond thoughtfully to students in order for the conversation to move forward. I have long been frustrated with colleagues who ask an open-ended question and will not accept anything but one particular, narrow answer, for which they have been fishing. By adopting the stance of welcoming any answer as a contribution, no matter how tangentially related to what is correct in the strict sense of the word, I am able to encourage students to participate, even as I engage with them intellectually. Any answer is better than no answer. There is no such thing as a stupid question – and, at least for the purposes of class discussion, I do not believe stupid questions exist.

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Free Agents, Saints, and Citizens

Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Liberal Arts

Whether or not I am a conservative is irrelevant. In economic, religious, and political terms, there is a conservative argument to be made for the liberal arts and I am going to make it.

Just as fiscal, small-government conservatives hope, the liberal arts accommodate the variability of the free market. Just as religious conservatives of various stripes desire, the liberal arts empower individuals to care for their neighbors. And just as political conservatives profess, the liberal arts have the potential to produce the ruggedly independent citizens our nation needs.

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Reading the Writing on the Electronic Wall

Traditional American Higher Education Must Transform or Perish… But There is Hope

Some are sounding the death knells of traditional undergraduate education in the U.S.  Nathan Harden of The American Interest writes: “If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.” Harden further asserts that Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) will soon render traditional education “obsolete.” If they can provide education cheaper and more convenient, how couldn’t they?

Make no mistake. MOOCs represent an incredible opportunity. Higher education has become unsustainably expensive for the average middle class student. MOOCs will hopefully expand access to education and drive down costs. As Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust points out, they are a grand experiment, with opportunities for professors to rethink how they approach education, including education in the classroom (see Maria Bartiromo’s interview with her on CNBC).

But Harden and likeminded harbingers of the end-of-education-as-we-know-it  risk conflating education with information. Ironically, in his above-cited article, Harden himself presents  the crux of the matter without integrating it into his argument: “Just as information is not the same as knowledge, and auto-access is not necessarily auto-didactics, so taking a bunch of random courses does not a coherent university education make.”

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