Why I Teach (With Help From Parker Palmer)

I’m back in the teaching game after a sabbatical. In some ways, it’s hard to gear up–I was getting used to a leisurely life of research, writing, and coffee drinking. But in many other ways, it’s good to be back. It’s certainly caused me to reflect a bit on the teaching craft–and why I do it.

I recently came across a typically thought-provoking piece from Parker Palmer on “good teaching.” In this piece, he challenges the notion that teaching is about presenting “objective truths” as if we can simply read these truths off of reality, and then spoon feed them or just pass them off, without remainder. Teaching is an event. It’s an occasion. It’s a collision of minds and hearts in a dialogue and a quest for truth and meaning.

When teachers hold to Enlightenment assumptions about objectivity, they forget that knowledge and its dissemination doesn’t really work in the clean, tidy ways of rehearsing and repeating propositions. Our highest aim ought not be that students “get the propositions right.” He goes on to say,

“The only objective knowledge we have is the provisional outcome of a complex transaction in which many subjectivities check and balance each other. It is a fluid process of observation and interpretation, of consensus and dissent, conducted within a far-flung community of seekers who agree upon certain assumptions, rules, procedures—many of which are themselves up for debate. This, I think, is an image of objectivity that is faithful to the way we know. It is also an image that clarifies the goal of good teaching: to draw students into the process, the community, of knowing.”

This makes a whole lot of sense to me. Whenever I find myself retreating to the old objectivist model of teaching, droning on with propositions, concepts, and definitions, I can sense students disengaging. Their eyes drop a little, they shift restlessly in their seats, and they probably check Facebook, Twitter, or the basketball score, again. Obviously teaching theology requires teaching quite a few propositions. (Ever tried talking about the Trinity or the nature of Christ without them?) It’s impossible to avoid being didactic and imposing high-minded words and phrases, now and again. Palmer acknowledges this too is part of teaching: “raining words,” he calls it.

But in the moments that I can drum up a little passion, press into some meaningful questions, induce vulnerability to share my real self, and invite students into a dialogue about stuff that really matters, I know that teaching and learning is taking place. The existential and transformation kind. Then I’m reminded why I do what I do. And I’m reminded that it’s all worth it.

Palmer says that teaching is a mystery. After eight years of doing it, that’s one thing I know for sure. There’s no predicting when it will be powerful. There’s no orchestrating when it will be transformational. There are no fool-proof techniques. The Spirit blows where it pleases. Indeed, “To teach is to crate a space in which the community of truth is practiced” (Palmer). That’s the best we teachers can hope for. And it’s a fine thing.

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