Life in the academy has allowed me to pursue my lifelong love of learning as a profession. As a teacher, I have the opportunity to share that love of learning with others. While I do not expect that all of my students will come to share my interest in theological and religious studies, through my teaching I hope to impart the sort of intellectual curiosity, knowledge, and skills that will serve them well as they move out of the classroom and into the world.
Because college marks an important transition from adolescence to adulthood, I believe that theology and religious studies courses in particular play an essential role in facilitating the intellectual and personal development of students as they work to develop an adult understanding of faith and religion. For this reason, I am eager to help students engage in academic, theological inquiry in a way that promotes self-reflection and personal transformation. This is part of my broader commitment to creating a community of learners oriented toward the integration of intellectual development and human values in the tradition of liberal education.
Getting students to grapple with the key concepts, questions, and methods of theological thinking and religious studies is a central goal in each of my courses. I aim to empower students to think constructively within and across religious traditions by exposing them to primary source readings right from the start. Though at times this is daunting, I support them along the way by providing the relevant historical context and by asking probing questions to guide their thinking. Doing so establishes a historical foundation that students continue to draw on throughout the semester as they move from basic comprehension of data to deeper analysis and synthesis.
Beyond primary texts, I bring contemporary articles, news stories, and case studies into class as often as possible in order to demonstrate the relevance of questions discussed thousands of years ago to students’ lives today. I find this approach particularly useful for connecting with students who are less comfortable with the categories and vocabulary of theology and religion, but who have interesting perspectives and insights to contribute nonetheless. Small-group work is productive in these situations because it promotes active engagement with the material while also fostering general critical thinking and oral communication skills. Additionally, the small-group setting encourages direct interactions between students, which builds a sense of community within the classroom and facilitates peer-to-peer teaching and learning.
Recognizing that students learn in diverse ways, I also incorporate a variety of pedagogical methods into my teaching. For example, I couple creative in-class activities, such as concept mapping and on the spot text message-based polling using the website polleverywhere.com, with writing assignments that are meant to cultivate students’ grasp of the course readings and themes. These assignments range from brief summaries of the daily readings posted to the course blog to personal reflection essays to longer final papers centered on well-supported arguments. These tasks are intended to help students synthesize what they have learned in class while also helping them develop skills, such as research methods and creating a thesis, that will serve them well in other aspects of their education and careers.
As a professor and through my postdoctoral fellowship, my love of learning has grown to encompass the subject of best teaching practices, and I continually seek out ways to improve my teaching. Recently, my approach to assessment has changed in significant ways. When I was a student and a TA, I mostly saw exams and papers as ways for students to show that they had taken in and understood the requisite course material. Today my approach to assessment is more formative in focus, and I see exams and papers (as well as blog posts, reflection essays, and group projects to name a few other assignments typical of my classes) as learning opportunities in and of themselves. In other words, in my assignments, I not only ask students to make use of what they have learned in the course so far, but I also try to craft the assignments in such a way that they students come to a deeper understanding of the material or a learn to apply new skills through the process of completing the assignment. An example of this from my teaching is an application essay I typically use on the midterm exam of my Problem of God course. (The full details of this exercise can be found in the “Teaching practice examples” section of this portfolio.) The exam question asks students to analyze a contemporary event or community through the lens of a classic theory of religion (e.g., Freud’s definition of religion as a neurosis or Marx’s understanding of religion as a by-product of the economic system). This exercise has the effect of prompting students to make connections between the dense theoretical material of the course and the events, people, and places in the world around them. Ideally, it also gives them the tools to continue interpreting and analyzing new experiences long after they have finished my class.
The final component in this approach to assessment is that I try to give students frequent, detailed feedback on their performance in class so that they know how to improve in the future. Of course, this has not always easy, particularly in semesters when I’ve had 75+ students, yet it is a process that has yielded results as I have witnessed many students make significant strides over the course of a semester as a result of steady feedback and support as well as their own hard work. In a similar way, I utilize regular informal in-class assessment techniques to gather feedback early and often from my students about what is and is not working for them in the class. This allows me to make adjustments along the way to meet their learning needs instead of waiting to discover through an end-of-course evaluation that an exercise was a flop or that the students missed the point of an important aspect of the course.
Beyond these technical aspects of my pedagogy, forming a personal connection with students has become an essential part of my approach, and feedback from my students suggests they see this as a hallmark of my teaching. My commitment to connecting personally with my students is not just about showing that I value them as individuals, though that is certainly important. Indeed, I believe that embodying the quality of caring in my teaching actually improves student learning insofar as they feel encouraged to fully participate in and take seriously the course. I also believe that they are better able to see the connections between the course content and their lives when I make an effort to understand the significant personal and intellectual influences that have shaped their identities.
I think my students would say that I hold high expectations for them—in terms of class participation and assignments, for example—but I also make it clear that they can expect a lot from me in return. They can see that I work hard to make sure that each class period is productive, and they know that I am willing to do whatever I can to help them succeed in my class (and in college generally), including meeting outside of class, one-on-one iterative writing sessions, and offering suggestions about particular themes or future courses that might fit their interests.
This dedication to helping students learn and develop grows out of my own love of learning. My postdoctoral fellowship work reinforced my commitment to teaching with both a theoretical and a practical understanding of how learning works and what the best teachers do to make learning happen. Though there are certainly days that are challenging and class activities that do no turn out quite as I hoped, working with students has encouraged me to continue in my efforts to master the craft of teaching and continue to share my love of learning with others.