Friday, October 1, 2010


Learning how to teach has been a real challenge. What makes a good teacher? People who want to be school teachers go to school to learn how to teach; profs go to school only to learn what to teach. There is a lot of on-the-job training. It's an experience alright.

One of the challenges that is a part of teaching young adults is figuring out how much lecturing and how much - for lack of a better word - seminaring is best. "Adult learning" is a big thing these days. Don't lecture, facilitate, they say. I have found that that doesn't work all that well at OLSWA. One of our profs got so frustrated over that!  But why let the way things should be bother you? There is a certain wisdom in seeing how things are and working with that. Yes, it would be better if... but it's not, so move on. Undergrads need a lot more guidance than you might think. Why this is, I don't know. Likely just the way they've been schooled up to that point. Part of the 'problem' is particular to OLSWA. Our students are kind of spoiled with the low student-to-teacher ratio and by the fact that we actually care about them (love is actually a bad thing sometimes!)

I have found that my students need to be encourage to enter the deep waters of dialectic, to believe that they can actually play a role in discovering truth for themselves, and that there is an innate advantage at times to knowledge intuited over knowledge just read or acquired otherwise passively. What is this advantage? Knowledge 'discovered' is more significant to the person. It is more significant in the way Augustine said that knowledge gained with difficulty is not easily forgotten. But it is also more significant because the things that one discovers in this manner often bear a specific importance to that person individually. One might be seeking to understand the relationship between faith and reason, for instance, but the path of the actual discussion is beaten by the questions and observations that person believes relevant at the time. This will also differ from one person to the next, or from one class to the next. Sometimes students get frustrated by this, since they have exams and papers to think about. And that is too bad. But you do what you can.

'Dialectic' by Giotto
Students, of course, deserve to have their needs taken into account. I just follow what I perceive they can handle in all of this. It varies year to year. Many of them have the naive belief that all the questions in life have been decided by the Church, and it's my job to put them on a platter and serve them up.

But I got to tell you, I have learned so much from the exchanges in class. My students often make me see things in ways I hadn't considered before. So often when a professor writes a book you see that he has dedicated it to his students. You might think it an empty sentiment, like he wants to seem like a people-person or something, but usually he does this because he knows how many of the insights recorded in his book are owed to his students.

I have a real feeling that occasionally there are students who despise the fact that teachers can actually owe something to their students. I suspect that there are a higher proportion of such in OLSWA than elsewhere, since the conservative mind is often built upon a chauvinistic sense of superiority of self or of one's Church. It derives psychologically, I suspect, from the relationship they have had with their fathers. Their fathers have reigned as monarchs, but monarchs full of real insecurity. So they expect the same unquestioning sovereignty from me. They don't find it in me because my father was a lover of wisdom, not of himself. My father could admit mistakes, ignorances and inferiorities; my father enjoyed the learning process experienced with his sons and his own students at the biology department at Dalhousie University. What an awesome thing!

But sometimes they dislike this process because they don't realize that theology and philosophy are not like certain other disciplines, and that is okay.

My classes, as I've said, this year are really encouraging. There are some really fine students. There are even more really fine human beings. I could list the ones to whom I am especially indebted, but that would be just plain wrong.

Just as a case in point for all the things I've been saying in this post. I gave a talk last Friday to the faculty and certain interested students on Augustine's pedagogy as seen in Confessions, and I've got to tell you the impact of the subsequent question period was significant. Now, I am the indisputable master of Augustine at OLSWA, so you might ask, what have I to learn from others less expert on the subject? I have been looking at the material and reflecting on it for quite some time, so how can someone who has not contribute anything? In a nutshell, it is because their questions prompt you to look at it in a way you hadn't before. Now I need to go back to my paper with their questions and observations in mind. Thus, I owe them a significant debt.


  1. i think that you articulated a sentiment that i have had for years regarding the fathers of 'religious' families - they are often supreme monarchs with extreme insecurities. i have been struggling to articulate this for over a decade - good thing i read this post. and re. your dad - ours were obviously cut of the same cloth. i often feel like a complete learning slacker in comparison.

  2. First time I saw your dad he remimded me of mine! My father is still my benchmark for academics. The most insecure of his sons just had to get a phd like him!!!

    My theory of the monarchs is a theory that I've been working on. Funny how we 'use' God for our own inequitous purposes, often without grasping it fully. Funny how that registered with you. I thought it was just my own private, twisted brain.