Monday, October 22, 2007

Missing Persons: Thoughts on Impersonal Education

Personality is the fundamental fact of existence. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1-2). God is a personal being; in fact, God is tri-personal without being three gods. This God breathed on the earth and created human beings in God's image and likeness, built for relationships with the Creator and the creation. Of course, the fall marred all of this by introducing a futile attempt to escape from God, resulting in the alienation from self, others, and nature. Nevertheless, "the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14), that human persons might be restored by the divine personhood of God, that the healing of relationships would break out everywhere, and truth be restored to the earth.

This theological prologue should inform and inspire our educational endeavors: our learning, teaching, studying, and writing. Education is meant to bring restoration of persons by persons, whereby knowledge is communicated in life-shaping ways. I love knowledge and I love students, and I want to bring the two together.Now consider the manifold degradations of persons in American education. I will only list several with minimal comment.

1. Grades replace careful comments about a student’s strengths, weaknesses, and potential for growth.
2. Class sizes often make it impossible to learn student’s names, to know them in any meaningful sense. But such knowing makes teaching and learning deeper, better.
3. Many courses exclude personal presence entirely--on line education. One may hear a lecture recorded or perhaps see a video, but there is no person-to-person ambiance. It is privatized, segmented from any sense of community.
4. Students typically travel to and from classes, often involving the traversing of great distances; they have little time to linger and discuss matters after class. They are too busy being in transit to be anywhere for long.
5. Our Western sense of time is so chronologically oriented that event time (or kairos) is eclipsed. Classes last a precise time; after that, it is "time to go." Students fidget. But perhaps it is time to remain, to linger, to sit in silence. But no, the clock says... And we obey.
6. Multiple choice and true/false tests fail to test persons for knowledge. One can guess correct answers. Students can be good "test-takers" (an impersonal method) and not good learners. This is also vanity and a grasping of the wind. This mode of reduction also inhibits writing skills. Writing is a distinct avenue for personal expression—for eloquence, for articulation in one's own voice. Standardized tests mute it.

One could go on, but what is the answer? I honestly do not know, so I lament and make the best of my opportunities--and dream a bit.

1. I attempt to find a few students to invest in more heavily, even if I cannot reach them all in a profound way.
2. I never assign reductionist tests, but only essays. I often allow students to rewrite them (if the class size is not too great). Few do so, but some improve considerably.
3. I pray for my students.
4. Thus far, I have avoided having to create any on-line classes. I wrote against this in The Soul in Cyberspace. I'm happy that my apologetics lectures are on line, but that is not the same as taking the course.But what is the ideal? Perhaps something like this:

1. Students and teachers live not too far from each other or perhaps even on the same compound. They spend protracted time together in many different situations, as Jesus did with the disciples.
2. Class sizes are fairly small, such that students get to know each other and the teacher is allowed into the lives of the students and vice versa.
3. Class timing is more elastic, more kairos oriented and less chronos dominated.Few institutions allow for such oddities. Most that approximate these ideas are probably not "accredited" by an official agency. This would include the L'Abris worldwide and ministries that are similar.

So, I lament...and wonder and dream for something different, something more in the shape of the Kingdom of God. Do you share this dream--as a teacher, as a student? Have you seen it lived out?


BJS said...

Dr. Truth,
several thoughts here...

"2. Class sizes often make it impossible to learn student’s names, to know them in any meaningful sense. But such knowing makes teaching and learning deeper, better."

and on

"1. Students and teachers live not too far from each other or perhaps even on the same compound. They spend protracted time together in many different situations, as Jesus did with the disciples.
2. Class sizes are fairly small, such that students get to know each other and the teacher is allowed into the lives of the students and vice versa."

I am quite blessed in both of these issues.

First, on the name thing. I get around 50ish students each semester. The first day of class I make a point to meet them all individually (as they arrive, usually) and shake their hands (I make a point to always be there well before any student arrives). Then, as strange as this sounds, I take their picture. I put these together on the class website (only accesible to the students of the class). But, more importantly, I then use those picture over the first night to memorize everyone's names. I make a bet with the students on the first class that next class I'll know everyone's name. If don't, I give them all a candy bar. I've never lost the bet. To start the second class I name everyone. This has had a profound effect on my students and our instant rapport and respect. I highly recommend it to teachers. It's a lot of work. I am NOT someone who is naturally good with names. But it is worth it.

On the class size point, I am luckily in that my institution works very hard to keep class sizes (especially philosophy classes, which it recognizes are important to keep small). So I have about 10 to 12 students per class. This is fantastic and affords me a chance to actually get to know my students fairly well.

Next, I AM lucky enough to actually live quite close to my students. So, I make a point of it to have every student over for dinner at least once throughout the semester. I usually pull this off, or close -- with many of my students having come over for dinner on several occasions throughout the semester.

Now THIS takes some work. You have to host around a dinner a week, sometimes more often to pull it off. And, they have to be good dinners (you'll quickly get a good rep or bad with the students).
But, again, it is well worth it. The conversations that occur over the dinner table -- during a fine meal while sipping some good cab, surrounded by no longer simply fellow students but companions (literally) -- are fantastic. That's where some of the best pure philosophy occurs. Moreover, that is where many of my students see that I really care for them AND for their intellectual growth.
It's awesome.

So, I agree with your lamentations in education in general -- but these limitations can be fought to some degree.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Groothuis,

It is a shame that more teachers do not strive for an approach like this! I am convinced that students learn better in a personal setting. Also, it is many times in the lingering and discussing topics after class time that material is truly learned by the student.

Well said!

jcubsdad said...

Ohh how this resonates and ruminates in my soul. Due to my family situation and finances I just earned my theology degree on line. I have a solid degree, but some elements are certainly missing.

I found early on that finding a well educated and patient mentor helped me. In my case it was a pastor and he listened as I expounded my ideas, and how I understood the situation and what I was reading. This was an immense help in things like apologetics and systematic theology.

If I go for my M.Div I want to do it in a classroom setting. More ideas, more freeflow of thought and interaction. Nothing like Iron sharpening Iron.

Daniel said...

I really liked this post. It's so refreshing to hear about and see professors such as yourself take a genuine interest in their students and the ideas in which they teach to the students. It's unfortunate that many professors in academic settings can only relate with a handful of students (if any at all), but it's understandable due to busyness of lives and relationships needing time to culminate. I've been fortunate to have kept some relationships with professors from college and since coming to Den. Sem., it's so great to see the genuineness of the professors and their callings as not just academic scholars but also relational people who experience the Christian journey with their students. Thank you for all that you do Dr. Groothuis, we don't say that enough!

Terry Thornton said...

Dr. Groothuis,

Your ideal sounds a lot like "fishing" whereas what passes for modern education likes to think it is "hunting." Hunters always arm themselves with the latest weapons specific to their prey; hunters ignore other game in their quest to find just the target of their license; hunters only hunt during a specific short season.

A fisherman, however, can fish without much special equipment --- and a fisherman is happy with whatever he catches. He can spend hours in any of the seasons catching the large and the small.

In our foolish attempt to make a teaching a science we've adopted all those behavioral objectives based upon Skinnerian concepts of instant rewards and instant knowledge of results. Like the hunter, a modern teacher doesn't shoot until his target crosses his cross-hairs. But the better approach would be to cast out a line with some good bait on the end, let it sink, and slowly reel in whatever takes the bite!

Keep on fishing!

Terry Thornton
Hill Country of Monroe County, Mississippi (blog)

Becky Vartabedian said...

I lament the life of the adjunct, which often exaggerates this impersonality on a tremendous scale. Let me say, though, that I'm grateful to count myself in the ranks of employed adjunct philosophy professors

This semester I have a record 151 students, at three institutions on five different campuses. It's been a difficult adjustment, not just in terms of the practical matters of managing a teaching life (like working six days each week but only being paid for one), but also in terms of a personal commitment to the things in philosophy I care about teaching. In order to teach well, I've lost some of the steam I need to be a good scholar and so some of my enthusiasm for philosophy tends to get lost.

Again, although I'm glad to have a job, it's unfortunate that the system has shifted so fundamentally to adjunct labor. I know many adjuncts who are practically forced into convenience choices of multiple choice tests, shortening class periods so they can get to their next destination, etc. It seems that this is a pragmatic choice - who (besides me) wants to spend a Saturday grading 62 introductory essays on the problem of human freedom?

This paradigm fosters impersonal education, but I make it my goal to try and reverse the trend. Dr G is right - it means a lot to students just to learn their names ... and remember their names, even after a semester or two has passed.

D. A. Armstrong said...

Some considerations that I have:

I am currently working on an online MA. It certainly is not the same as being in class. However, I have learned to supplement my education with conversations and reading. A close friend of mine is working on a BA in Theology. The school he attends is quite intense compared to all other programs I know of. He and I have great conversations. He questions nearly every statement I make and makes me prove many of the things that I would love to just assert.

As to community, that is something I certainly miss. I gain some of that aspect here. I also read and have discussed some with William Vallicelli and read his blog. I also try to keep in contact with many of my previous teacher who I studied under in Bible College.

One consideration is that online classes are probably no worse than reading a book. A person can learn a lot from reading books, especially good books. The problem is just listening to online lectures and missing the discussion. If a person can supplement their lecture with a discussion with someone they are even better, even if you are teaching them as much as you have learned and are thinking

evagrius said...

You forgot libraries.

The worst develepment in libraries has been the compuerized catalogue and the inability to visit library stacks.

A catalogue is necesseary for only one thing; to obtain the call number.

What's more important is the ability to actually go to the stacks and explore the books next to the one you're originally interested in. Quite often one will find an equally interesting book.

Teaching students how to use a library is a skill often neglected.

Unknown said...

I just started my M. Div. at Princeton Theological, and I completely agree that education (at least theological education) should model that of Jesus with his disciples. Education is about truth that leads to the formation of character. Right now I am memorizing dates for my T/F church history exam --completely unforming!

Jeff S. said...

BJ: That's a great idea having your students over. I hope you can keep it up for all the years to come!

As for me, the eternal student "in transit" as DG put it... I feel these frustrations all the time as I'm working full time. I have had little time to get to know my classmates, and "linger time" only happens when I take an evening class, and even then it's 9:30pm when I'm lingering and students are ready to go home, like myself! While I know my Seminary experience has/had the potential for so much more, I am glad I've been able to do as much as I have.

The online classes were less fruitful, with forced "discussion groups" with people I've never seen. Online is fine for dispersing material, or handing in assignments. But give me face to face classtime any day!

Maybe I should start a Philosophy students' bowling league or something...

Jim Pemberton said...

This is one reason my wife and I homeschool. While we cover finite scope and sequence through formal studies. the learning doesn't stop there. We share our meals at the same table where the kids do many of their studies.

College is different. I always did better when I could interact with the professor. Even at CIU in the large classes, we always had the opportunity afterward, in the cafeteria or around campus to interact with our professors. Many would have us over to their homes and sometimes we would scrape together some change and treat them to supper. I tried to take some classes from Trinity off campus and failed miserably at the attempt. There was no sense of community and I knew no one. I could do the work, but I didn't know my professor from Adam and had no incentive to finish well.