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Naming the elephant (or, how I learned to do the obvious and get out of the way of the conversations my students really wanted to have)

Naming the elephant (or, how I learned to do the obvious and get out of the way of the conversations my students really wanted to have)

          It matters how you enter a room.  Particularly when you’re the teacher and you’re trying to set a tone for the rest of the semester.  And particularly when the tone you’re trying to set is the disruption of the power dynamic inherent in any classroom.

     I’ll stop using the second person.

To me, the first premise of student-generated learning is to bring my authentic self into the room so that I can establish the trust for my students to do the same. 

     Again with the kumbaya (see "Notes from Underground" post), but here’s what I mean:

 I didn’t always bring my authentic self into the classroom.  It’s something that should have felt intuitive, but I’ve actually had to figure out how to do it (and why to do it).


          I used to try to mask the knots in my stomach on the first day of class (still there every first day, even after twenty-seven years), my being scared to death of public speaking, by putting on my best impersonation of “professional/authoritative” when I would walk into the classroom. I find it embarrassing (and a little hilarious) that I used to psych myself up for the first day with a ritual that involved looking in the mirror and playing Mickey to my own inner Rocky Balboa: “you’re gonna go in there and crush ‘em, let ‘em know who’s boss.”  In hindsight, it felt more than a little antagonistic, like I needed to win students over and get them to acknowledge the power I exerted over them in even the simplest regard.  I mean, I always went in with a smile and a joke, something to acknowledge the awkward silence that inevitably characterizes the minutes before the first class begins. But it was a tempered smile, a strained joke.  Because, it’s a strange set of moments, really—those moments before we collectively jump into these contractual fourteen weeks, those moments before I reveal to students the physical manifestation of that contract, the syllabus, an intentional and deliberate shaping of the narrow slice of material that I’ve chosen to represent x subject.  It’s strange and scary, and a little arbitrary, this game we’ve all bought into.  And I knew (and was uncomfortable with the fact) that, once class officially began, I was supposed to be in charge of the learning that happened and the way that learning happened.  That knowledge felt to me that it loomed over every interaction.

     It felt like a betrayal, the smile and joke I would throw out to mitigate that space that was ultimately a space of judgment.


           Around six years ago, I made the decision to transparently acknowledge that we were playing a game by changing the rules.  I knew I needed to do something to shake things up.  The dynamic of the classroom had begun to feel extremely confining and demoralizing to me. I felt the distance from my students, and that distance seemed to me to significantly compromise the experience of the classroom.  It felt to me, often, that there was an invisible wall we would come up against, a glass ceiling, as it were, with regard to how far we could take our conversations, how deeply we could interrogate the material, how relevant we could make it.  It all felt so… academic.  So disembodied and divorced from life itself.  There was subject matter I felt we needed to “cover” and “get through,” points that needed to emerge, epiphanies that felt I had to lead the students to. I had friendly interactions with my students, but those interactions were ultimately curbed by students’ anxiety concerning what they were being asked to learn, and how I was asking them to show that they had learned it. I had always thought I ran a student-centered classroom, doing what I could within the parameters of a traditional course outline (i.e. essays with directive prompts, exams, mini-lectures, discussion forums, student presentations with designated objectives) to provide a space for students to tailor my assignments to their interests, to take ownership over in-class conversations, to access the material through a number of media and learning styles.  And it all worked pretty well, given that we were all still operating within a top-down system.  But, at some point, it hit me viscerally that there would remain untold layers of the material we would never reach as long as I was still assigning them a grade based on benchmarks that I defined.  As long as I was directing how they needed to process the material, writing essay prompts and exam questions that reflected my own sense of what was “most important” in the literature we read or the religious traditions we encountered, we were doomed to play the “what’s in your head and how will I need to know it for the test?” game.  We were doomed to a mere transactional relationship, only ever scratching the surface of the material that should have been spinning off in unprescribed directions.

The truth of the matter is that, as much as I have always felt called to teach, as much as it has always felt like an inevitability that I would become a teacher—as a little girl, I would play “school” for hours, inspired by my mother, who taught K-5 remedial reading in a largely low-income school district in the suburbs of Philadelphia and by the days I spent with her in her school and classroom and those ever-enchanting visits to the supply closet—teaching has played out for me more as the natural extension of my love for my subject matter.  I’ve come to find that what I’m really most lit up by in the classroom is having the chance to talk with people about this material that means so much to me, these texts that I am drawn to because I think they tell us something so vital about how to live.  The colleague who described me as “too student-centered” also described my positioning in the classroom as that of a “searcher.”  He meant it in a disparaging way, I think, as if professors are supposed to be beyond searching, somehow already in possession of the answers (hence profess), but he hit the nail on the head:  it captures why I felt (feel) so inauthentic in a classroom setting that was so tightly constructed, a setting that prohibited collective searching.  Living in the midst of this material has never been an academic exercise for me. It has never just been words on a page.  And yet, all of it was being flattened out into just that.  The expectation was that I should flatten it out, and for so long I conformed to that expectation. 


          My changing of the rules began with a small act (it felt small to me but was in fact at the center of the storm I was about to experience with my colleagues).  A student who had taken an introduction to religions course with me the prior semester, and by way of responding to my request for feedback to make the discussion more engaging the next time I taught the course, described to me the strange feeling of disembodiment she had had throughout the semester when she heard her fellow students talk in class about the material:

 “The entire time I’m sitting there wondering what people believe, how they’re filtering their understanding of religions that they might not know much about through their own beliefs and experiences.  And I’m pretty sure everyone is thinking the same. It’s the elephant in the room.  I just wish we could have talked to each other at some point about what we believed and how we grew up.”

On her suggestion, I built a fishbowl conversation (an exercise that promotes active listening, a small group of students sits in a circle at the center of a larger circle of students, who listen in to the conversation.  Students rotate in and out of the center circle as the discussion deepens, with new questions being introduced throughout) into the course the next semester.  The conversation (which covered essentially any questions students wanted to ask each other about their religious upbringing, their beliefs, their lack of belief, anything was fair game) took place halfway through the course, when we moved from the Eastern traditions—which tend to be far less familiar to students and, so, far less anxiety-producing for them to confront—to the Western traditions—the “danger zone” for any student who is taking the class for personal and existential reasons.  In my experience, this constitutes the majority of students who find their way into the class.  They’re there to interrogate, question, confirm, reject, and/or shape their system of belief in comparison with and/or in contrast to the ideas they’re exposed to over the course of the semester. It’s a fraught space for them.  There is much at stake.

And of course my former student was right.  The conversation—the act of trust that opening up the space for conversation demonstrated—completely changed the dynamic of the class.  Everyone now had a context for the things people were saying, everyone felt respected, and we could more transparently address the material when it sometimes seemed that there was resistance and anxiety in the way we were treating religious traditions—Christianity, for the most part—that were deeply important to people.  But, by introducing this opportunity for students to talk about these things that mean so much to them, I opened up the space of belief that I had been coached by my colleagues not to tread into. Theology, in general, is a no-no in the department, as it represents, in several of my colleagues’ view, an uncritical and “insider” approach to religion.  As a literature person, this rejection of belief and theology never quite made sense to me.  To me, all of it is text that we can interpret, analyze, look more deeply into, mine for meaning.  But I listened for years to my colleagues, second-guessing my own gut and my own teacherly instincts.  Feeling terrible, I would provide the requisite departmental response—“we’re not talking about personal belief here, we’re talking about how other people perform belief”—when students introduced so-called statements of belief, shutting down conversations that they wanted to have and that would have enriched our class overall.  Even as I said it, the response sounded (and still sounds), condescending and circular, a complete power play that negated the value of my students' deeply held beliefs and damaged the trust of our class.  I so wish I could un-say this party line.  So much time, so much opportunity was lost.


          In their advocating for the line, my colleagues were demonstrating their concern that engaging students’ beliefs would create a “confessional” space, a space that compromised the critical distance from religious traditions that they sought to cultivate.  And, to be fair, I do get that concern. A confessional space nurtured in a vacuum can definitely produce navel-gazing, something we don’t need more of in this age of social media.  I couldn’t be less interested in cultivating or participating in this kind of thing—in or out of the classroom—claustrophobic and cloying as I personally find this kind of conversation.  And I share my colleagues’ sense of obligation to help our students achieve this critical distance with regard to religion, their view that that’s what our courses should be about.  That’s the whole point, in my opinion, of any truly worthy academic exercise: that we come away looking at whatever it is we’re looking at from a position of height and distance.  A clarifying lens, as it were, that allows for reflection and connections-building, that helps us to see something that we generally hold close from a new perspective. 

Shout out again to Nietzsche (see "Everything I ever needed to know about kindergarten I learned from Nietzsche and Kafka" post), who promotes this positioning as the first principle of the revaluation of all values.  

Thing is, as limiting as confessional-space-in-a-vacuum is for studying religion, so is critical-distance-in-a-vacuum.  The current pedagogical trends in religious studies* bear this out, and confirm my own experience when I created space in the classroom to talk about personal belief in a way that bolstered the connections-building and comparative approach that leads to critical distance.  Students were so much more willing and able to look at their own religious traditions from a space of critical distance when their beliefs weren’t being cut out of the conversation.  

This small step, which seems it should have been intuitive… wasn’t.  It took me ten years and nearly as many iterations of the course to just get out of the way and let the students have the conversation they were clearly so eager to have. 

When I saw the power of a conversation that I was completely absent from, it started to occur to me that there might be something profoundly energizing for students (and, in turn, for me) about my “taking leave” of other aspects of the role I had always thought I was supposed to fill.


From here, the floodgates opened.


Photo from ​

*See, for instance:  O’Connell, Laurence J. “Religious Studies, Theology, and the Humanities Curriculum.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 52.4  (1984):  731-737; May, William, “Why Theology and Religious Studies Need Each Other.”  Journal of the  American Academy of Religion.  52.4 (1984): 748-757; Soleau, Jeffrey, “Moments of Transformation:  The Process of Teaching and Learning.”  Journal of The American Academy of Religion. 65.4 (1997): 809-830; Ochs, Peter, “Comparative Religious Traditions.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion.  74.2 (2006): 483-494; Hyman, Gavin, “The Study of Religion and the Return of Theology.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 72.1 (2004):  195-219; King, Ursula, “Is There a Future for Religious Studies as we Know It?  Some Postmodern, Feminist, and Spiritual Challenges.”  Journal of the American Academy of Religion. 70.2 (2002): 365-388; Martin, Luther and Wiebe, Donald, “Religious Studies as a Scientific Discipline:  The Persistence of a Delusion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion.  80.3 (2012): 587-597. See also, Neusner, Jacob, “Religious Studies:  The Next Vocation.”  CSR Bulletin 8/5.  Method and Meaning in Ancient Judaism.  Brown Judaic Studies, vol. 10.  Chico, California, Scholars Press, 1977; Smith, Jonathan Z., “’Religion’ and ‘Religious Studies’:  No Difference at All.”  Soundings. 71.2/3 (1988).




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