course represents all that I feared about computers intruding
into the classroom," Professor
Michael Lancaster said to the Curriculum Committee at Keymark
Theological School. A respected theologian, he was used to exercising
intellectual leadership at KTS. And the syllabus he held in his
hand alarmed him. It was a proposal from first-year professor
Derek Concord to re-structure the "Introduction to Ethics"
class required of M.Div. students. Concord was not present at the
meeting because most of the time the Curriculum Committee simply
rubber-stamped new courses. Indeed, it was not clear that Concord
even had to submit a new syllabus when he was simply revamping an
old course. Nevertheless, he requested that the committee consider
the course because he wondered if it might create a stir. He was
more right about that than he knew. "How can you expect students
playing with computers and watching television to think deeply about
the complicated questions of post-modernity?" Lancaster continued.
"Where is the depth, the writing, the real learning? This
course is nothing more than the triumph of style over substance."
me the syllabus
the course has merit," Alicia
Valencia responded. "There is a Niebuhr-ish quality to
the course. Students have to deal with complicated issues in all
their real-life messiness. The discussion with pastors will see
to that. And I'd say they read quite a bit. The Hays book will stretch
them, as will Rasmussen and Volf. But then he makes then go the
extra mile and translate their thinking into a medium that speaks
to this generation. You know, Michael, I am not sure that there
is a problem here at all."
is more pooled ignorance here than actual learning."
is highly over-rated," Prof.
Lancaster said with a snort. "And reading newspapers is
not the same as reading scholarly texts -- just as some 'on-line
discussion' with local pastors is a far cry from struggling with
wisdom that has stood the test of time. There is more pooled ignorance
here than actual learning." He paused for a breath before continuing.
"And reading on the Web simply does not elicit the same thoughtful
response that a book or article engenders. Where are the hard issues?
I mean, how can you do social ethics in this day and age without
assigning at least one serious treatment of theodicy to address
the post-holocaust encounter with evil? Look at it this way. Students
will have been primed in my theology classes to ask important ethical
questions. They'll eat this guy alive." He concluded with a
look at the dean, Catherine Blackburn.
"Someone should take him aside Kitty."
can't fall in love with the Internet. I'm worried he might try
publishing his scholarship to the Web."
sure you want to be so hasty, Kitty?" Professor
Tom Bruno said before the dean could respond. Bruno was greatly
respected in the faculty for his wisdom -- and his gentleness. Yet
his students jokingly called him 'Buddha' because he often adopted
the kind mannerisms of a sage when skewering the class with particularly
pointed questions. "Do you think, Michael, that we might be
having the same conversation we had when we interviewed young Derek?
Am I correct that you said at the time that 'ethics without philosophy
is not really ethics'? Don't you think he is proposing just the
kind of course that many of us hoped he might produce? Perhaps we
should give our new ethicist the same leeway we give other professors?"
And then turning to the dean, he said, "But Kitty, I do think
that you may want to have a quiet conversation with Derek. Make
sure he understands that he can't fall in love with the Internet.
I'm worried he might try publishing his work to the Web. And that
would bring him grief come tenure time."
are complaining precisely because his new and different course
is new and different."
conversation concerns me," Alicia
Valencia said shaking her head. "I am not sure what we
are talking about. Are we hoping to help our new colleague improve
a course that he has in good faith submitted to us? Or, are we arguing
about computers in the classroom? We already decided as a faculty
to encourage experiments with classroom technology. We had good
reason when we made the decision and I think we still stand behind
it. We listen over and over to our student interns complain when
a church tells them to 'try new things, but don't change anything.'
Aren't we saying the same thing to Derek. He took a lot of time
to put together exactly the kind of new and different course that
we as a faculty requested. And now we are complaining precisely
because it is new and different. I say let him go for it."
simple 'Yes' from us is as useless to him as a scowling 'No.'"
support Derek's efforts," Dr.
Bruno said slowly, "But I do think we might be able to
spot a few rough patches in the syllabus. A simple 'Yes' from us
along with a pat on the head is as useless to him as a scowling
'No.' What can we do to help him improve this draft of the course?
For example, there are a few questions he might consider. Like..Does
he have a mechanism for sifting through the morass of newspaper
articles that students will encounter? Is he going to help students
make sense of the conflicting opinions and indeed the crackpot ideas
that students will encounter if they spend much time wandering through
cyberspace? What I mean is, will his students know how to separate
the wheat from the chaff?"
not yet forty, but he is from a different generation than I
is something else I particularly like about the course," Alicia
Valencia responded. "It appeals to both first-career and
second-career students. It takes older students seriously as adults,
while at the same time bringing in new media that would presumably
appeal to students fresh out of college. His is a new generational
voice. I mean, I'm not yet forty, but Derek is from a different
generation than I am."
People's lives are at stake - no less for our students than
for medical school students."
try again," Michael Lancaster
said quietly, almost humbly. "I want to be understood.
I hold no grudge against Derek although I admit I did not initially
support his appointment. I hope you know me better than think I
am that petty. But I remain concerned about the rigor of his work.
Alicia, you mentioned a Niebur-ish quality to his work. So let's
start there. When I was a student at Yale Divinity School, H. Richard
Niebuhr was the ethics professor. His classes were hard. They stretched
you. He made you think about the serious implications of your work.
People's lives are at stake - no less for our students than for
medical school students. Look at the issues he takes up: economics,
euthanasia, poverty. These are life and death issues for very real
people. We can't afford to play games in class. We can't wait for
students to magically understand. We may have to take them places
they don't want to go. But we have to teach them. It's our responsibility
to make them learn."
can't make anyone learn anything."
you Michael," Alicia
said. "That helps me understand why you push students so
hard. You feel a tremendous responsibility." She continued
as Lancaster nodded his agreement. "But I wonder if you can
really accept all the responsibility. I can't make anyone learn
anything. I can only put them in a position to learn. They have
to take the step for themselves. They..."
methodology is not designed to produce rigorous thinking."
Wait. Wait." Professor Lancaster
interjected before Alicia could finish. "I know where this
is going. We have this conversation all the time around here.
And I think it is a cop out. No one wants to admit that good teaching
produces good learning and bad teaching yields bad learning. It's
as simple as that. An on-line discussion group is tantamount to
a cocktail conversation at a party. There is no forethought, no
detailed footnoting or careful argumentation. We have to face up
to the fact that his methodology is not designed to produce rigorous
thinking. What's he have them doing for research? Newspaper articles
and Barbara Walters on 20/20? Preaching should be informed
by the best thinkers available -- not the most 'accessible.' I'm
sorry if this offends people, but I don't think this course measures
come to our school to learn how to make spiritual sense of life's
issues and questions."
to what standards is the course so lacking?" Professor
Valencia responded. "It seems to be teaching students to
do the very thing that they came to seminary to learn -- namely,
to make spiritual sense out of life's issues and questions. Whenever
we hear back from churches and from our graduates, they tell us
that this kind of very practical course is the most useful thing
that seminary can provide. Now, Michael, I am not denigrating the
work you do in theology (nor the work I do in biblical studies).
But I do think that by whatever standards our students use to judge
our courses, this one does indeed measure up -- and it measures
up in ways that your course and mine do not." Then she paused
and looked around the room. Michael Lancaster was shaking his head
with a professorly look of disappointment. No one spoke for a moment.
Then the dean stepped in.
are the strengths of the syllabus?
could Derek improve it?
that two of the three of you support the syllabus that is before
us, as do I," Kitty
Blackburn said with a tone of finality. "We are not going
to vote because Derek does not need our approval to re-write a course.
But I would like to take up Tom's suggestion that we spend a couple
of minutes looking for ways the course could improve. I'd suggest
we adopt the course goals that Derek defines -- but feel free to
critique those as well. Michael has suggested that he add some more
'scholarly' readings. Tom asks how students will sift through the
massive amount of material. And I did hear the word about talking
to Derek regarding tenure implications. What are some of your other
ideas?" Alicia asked a few questions about adding diverse voices
and Tom wondered about contemporary topics that might have been
omitted. Michael simply scowled. The dean drew the conversation
to a close. And the committee moved on to other business.