Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Outside the Classroom

This week, I saw an interesting post that came from the Rate Your Student site. For those of you unfamiliar, RYS is a place where professors go to kvetch about the trials and tribulations of teaching. Some of it is just pure kvetch, but there are moments of insight about pedagogy in general. I saw one of those posts this week.

The post was about the boring nature of classroom instruction, and how this particular academic gained his passion for his field outside the classroom—sitting on rooftops talking with other students, informal conversations with a professor—it was these things, and not classes, that fueled academic interest.

I thought back to my own years as an undergraduate. I had started out as an English major. I took a particular class with a really excellent teacher that got me interested in Religious Studies. At first, I planned to minor in Religious Studies. But our Religious Studies department was different—they would have lectures in the evening, and then invite students to either the department chair’s home, or the home of another senior faculty member who lived nearby. Sometimes they scheduled informal talks where a faculty member would present their ideas for a paper, and we would have an informal discussion, over drinks and food at a professor’s home. It was these community experiences that made me decide to switch from having a minor in Religious Studies to having a major. I still majored in English concurrently, but that department was too big and impersonal for me to really develop fondness for any but a couple of the professors there.

A couple of years ago, before I started teaching Religion as an adjunct myself, I had a conversation with one of the senior faculty in the Philosophy department from my alma mater over lunch. (Yes, I still kept in touch with everyone there, and still do). As an alumna, he wanted to know what I felt the best thing was about the Religious Studies department. Those who founded the department prided themselves on their more personal approach to working with students, but newer faculty disagreed that it was desirable or necessary. He felt that the days of having students at professor’s homes were numbered.

I understand the concerns of the more recent faculty—there might be insurance risks, perhaps it encourages personal relationships when you should have a teacher/student boundary, it places too much of a burden on faculty that are already busy. But to give that up would really eliminate the one thing that makes the department stand out from all the others—and it may be in those places, and not the classroom, where the passion for the discipline is cultivated. I happened to enjoy my classes, but I enjoyed those non-classroom opportunities just as much. I felt like my interests were taken seriously and respectfully; there is a leveling of the playing field when someone is talking to you one-to-one and not standing at the front of the classroom. At a time when the Humanities in particular have to justify their existence to schools more focused on vocational interests than scholarship, it might not be a wise move to eliminate activities that make their departments desirable.

Fortunately, my alma mater has not given up this tradition entirely, and they also have a “Philosophy and Religion Club” where faculty come and talk informally with students. I enjoy visiting these sessions, as it’s always refreshing to talk to a new crop of genuinely interested students. I hope the students feel the same way I do about it. The heck with university scholarship as vocational training—the college experience is supposed to enrich your worldview and teach critical thinking, and frankly, there’s not enough of that happening these days.

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