In my view, my job as an educator is to help my students to become better readers—more rigorous, critical, and ethical readers who can engage respectfully and rigorously with texts representing a range of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. I aim to achieve this first of all by always assigning challenging course materials and by giving students the greatest possible opportunity to both develop and demonstrate their skill in reading through discussion and writing.
When I refer to “reading,” I am thinking primarily of written texts. At every level, I aim to assign texts that require students to stretch, that push them to develop as readers. In the context of a theology department, that means assigning primary texts from a range of historical periods and contemporary perspectives. Students in my class should expect to engage directly with both Athanasius and James Cone, with Anselm and Rosemary Radforth Ruether. The length and difficulty of the texts will necessarily vary depending on the course level, but for me the requirement that students grapple to some extent with primary texts firsthand is non-negotiable, even in a first-year introductory course.
Helping students to become better readers requires making the text, not the professor, into the center of authority for the class—which I have found to be particularly crucial when I teach texts as a person who is relatively privileged. Being honest and vulnerable about the ways texts challenge me can be crucial for building trust, as I learned when teaching courses in feminist theology as a male feminist ally.
Centering the text will look different at different levels. In a large introductory course, lecturing is unavoidable—not only to provide historical context and background, but to model the style of reading I am hoping to inculcate. In lectures, I aim not merely to explain the reading, but to narrate the strategies that enable me to enter into productive dialogue with the text. My hope is to provide tools that can be directly applied in discussion, whether led by me or by a teaching assistant.
My experience at small liberal arts colleges has convinced me that getting students engaged in discussion is absolutely essential to their intellectual growth. We learn by doing, and in the context of theological education, that means that students must actively participate in theological discourse. Many students and professors alike are skeptical of class discussion, due to the perception that it replaces the informed view of the professor with the less informed opinions of fellow students. Keeping the discussion centered on the text at hand is the best way to create dialogue among the students (displacing the professor as the center of attention) while avoiding the descent into a mere exchange of opinions. Graduate students will obviously be able to engage with the texts differently from first-year students, but the principle remains the same in both cases.
The other way that students develop and demonstrate their skill at reading is through writing texts of their own in dialogue with the course texts. I believe that teaching writing is the responsibility of all faculty members, regardless of discipline, and it is an area that I have come to enjoy a great deal. My experience has shown me that the best way to achieve that is to be in continual dialogue with students throughout the writing process—from talking through paper topics to commenting on drafts and allowing space for rewrites. I recognize that there are limitations to what can be done in the setting of a larger class, but I believe there are strategies that are not excessively time-consuming which can allow the professor to provide real engagement with each student on their writing.
Finally, though texts will be the primary materials under discussion in most theology courses, they are not the only ones. I have experience teaching students how to “read” music, visual art, architecture, and film, and I have noted that they can be great confidence-builders for students who are less comfortable with written texts. At the same time, it would be a mistake to view such materials as “easier”—non-textual “texts” have a rigor of their own, which students should learn to recognize and respect.