Pedagogical Fatigue & Empathy

By this time in the semester I’m always tired. It’s partly physical fatigue, and emotional (so many new relationships to establish). There is, however, another kind of weariness. It always sneaks up on me. I am fatigued from traveling up and down, what I’ve come to call, the teaching and learning ladder.

I don’t know what else to call it. Let me know if you have a better term. For the longest time I didn’t realize the ladder existed; but it was there, always, and in every class I was traveling up and down without knowing it. Now that I recognize it, and know that my ladder2students and I are on it together, I have an entirely new sense for the importance, centrality even, of this: pedagogical empathy. Let me explain.

I stumbled upon it in the weirdest place. In the Preface to C.S. Lewis’ little commentary on the Psalms, he describes the perplexing difficulty that students have with getting answers from teachers. Sure, teachers are constantly offering responses to student questions, but do our responses — Socratic, didactic, or otherwise — actually address the questions our students are asking?

C.S. Lewis describes it like this:

It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than a master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought to me by my pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms [Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1958], 1-2)

I know that struggle! Compared to my students, I stand on the ladder several rungs higher and thus hear their questions from my rung. Not their rung. Questions make perfect sense from their rung, because the student and her questions live and breathe the same air. And that’s the rub: I live and breath on a different rung and share the air with different questions and insights. From my rung, I can sometimes see their questions aren’t quite the right ones. I see, as Lewis puts it, “a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.”

Pedagogical empathy is meeting a student on her rung, and its hard. “I’m not used to the air,” I gasp. “The vista looks strange from here,” I complain. “These aren’t the right questions!” I gripe. Its hard, but I’m learning at least two benefits from all my trips down the ladder. Continue reading


Prayers for Overwhelmed Students (from my students)

Student-led prayer is an essential part of the daily repertoire of my theology courses. The prayers are composed in the form of collects, an ancient form still regularly practiced in many churches. For each class one student composes a collect according to the theological content of the day. Following the collect form, the prayer springs out from the day’s content into a fitting address to God that leads to petition. As the preface to our study, it sets our feet on the cadence of lex orandi, lex credendi. The idea for this practice originated years ago with something Ben Myers wrote on the purpose of theological education: “not simply to make students cleverer, but to help them learn better ways to speak to God in prayer, and to one another in witness…In this way, scholarly discipline becomes a form of discipleship; theology becomes an exercise in prayer.

I can hardly emphasize this more: the daily collect prayers my students write time and again amaze and humble me, both in their theological richness and in their sensitivity to the lived moment of the day in which they are spoken.

The following two were recently offered In the midst of semester-end busyness. I reproduce them here for the sake of  students elsewhere who are experiencing the same (the doctrinal topic for the day is in italics).

Image[eschatological hope] Hebrews 10:24-25 – “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Everlasting God, sovereign creator from the very first day till the very last, as we all look forward to the near horizon of the end of this semester – the day – let us remember not to neglect to meet with one another these last few days, but to hold together both our sadness at departing and our joy of the future, let us hold all of these emotions in the hope of you. In the same way, let us all look to the far horizon – the Day – and let us not neglect to hope for all that you will do for us in the future. You are our hope. Do not be ashamed to be called our God” (W. Stauffer).

[theological interpretation of film] “When we come to the place of exhaustion, where we question the purpose of hard work, and the fruits of our labours, I pray we look to you for our reward. I ask that you help us to persevere not in the hopes of greater recognition, but in the hopes that we are no longer able to depend upon ourselves so that we learn dependency on you, and so that we are humbled by what we accomplished knowing it was all through you and not in ourselves. Let us rejoice in this recognition of your grace and guidance. God be glorified in all things, in our weakness and in our strength. We delight ourselves in you who is our awesome maker and our true source of life” (O. Watkins).

Here is a short reflection from another student on what she sees happening in the process of composing the collect:

What took place was a giving back to God what I thought I had accomplished on my own. I had done the reading. I had answered the questions. I did the learning. But it is God who teaches. He enables me to learn. By praying my learning to him, I praise and acknowledge him for it. Grace encounters even my pride in my studies and begs me to be transformed; to acknowledge and worship God for everything in my life, including my studies (H. Lutton).


Lent for Academic Theologians

What are the dangers of academic theology for the theologian? This is something I often think about, so I was keenly interested when I stumbled upon this Lenten meditation from a theologian at Notre Dame. The entire post is worth reading here, but this bit in particular stood out to me.

Lent for the academic theologian is thus not simply an occasion to participate Doctor of Divinitya bit in the practices of the Church. Rather, it is an time for us to realize the fullness of our vocation as those who seek to perceive the world according to the logic of divine love revealed in Christ. It is a moment in the liturgical year in which we are invited to give up our desire to control discourse at all costs, to succeed through fame. Instead, we must learn that the theologian is one who prays, who has undertaken that ascetic practice that enables him or her to perceive the world as a divine gift. The formation of the theologian is not complete with the reception of a degree. Instead, it commences until we begin to mirror that divine love which we study.

Let me add a few thoughts.  It seems to me that one of the principal dangers for the academic theologian is their  vocational self-understanding (by “academic” I mean a theologian, like myself, whose work is formally and primarily, though not exclusively, carried out in the university). What frames the meaning and fitting practices of their vocation? Continue reading

Call for Papers: Virtues, Vices, and Teaching (October 2013)

Kuyers Institute Logo

I am co-chairing a conference in October 2013 that will be hosted by the the Kuyers Institute for Christian teaching and Learning ( on Virtues, Vices, and Teaching. The conference will be held at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI), October 3-5. See below for registration information and details for the call for papers.

The purpose of this conference is to explore the implications of a focus on virtues and vices for the way Christian teaching and learning are approached. Discussions of virtues and vices direct our attention away from rules and consequences and toward the role of character.

The scope of the conference is not restricted to moral education per se; papers are invited on topics that connect virtue/vice in general or specific virtues and vices with learning in any discipline or area of educational activity. Papers should focus on some aspect of pedagogy; both theoretical studies and accounts of practice are welcome. Questions that might be explored include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • What virtues and vices are evident in, or influence, our teaching and students’ learning?
  • Can we teach virtues? Do we teach vices?
  • How might a focus on virtues and vices help students in their vocation as Christian learners?
  • How might a focus on virtues and vices affect our approach to curriculum and pedagogy?
  • In what ways might the question of virtues and vices arise within the pedagogy of various disciplines?

Plenary Speakers include:

Jennifer Herdt (Yale), author of Putting On Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices

L. Gregory Jones (Duke), author of Forgiving As We’ve Been Forgiven: Community Practices for Making Peace

David Naugle (Dallas Baptist), author of Reordered Love, Reordered Lives:Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness

Paper proposals of 1-2 pages, including 100-word abstracts‚ should be sent via e-mail to no later than May 15, 2013.  Notification of acceptance will be made by June 3, 2013.  Additional information is available under the Conferences section at

Questioning Theological Education

To start this post, let me begin with several qualifications: First, I think that theological education has some serious meditation to do concerning its task. Second, I think the overall model / approach upon which we’ve built is flawed. Third, I am excited about virtually anything that seeks to think creatively about this. In comes Mike Breen. Mike Breen, who I know little about but have heard good things, posted this back in November. It is a wholesale engagement with the kinds of worries I have. In light of that, let me again state some qualifications: First, I know nothing about this other than this post. Second, if I saw this right when I graduated seminary I probably would have called him up and said, “Sign me up and tell me what to do.” Third, I have some doubts about some of the statistics in the video, but for the purpose of this discussion lets assume they are true.

Now, qualifications aside, I was left frustrated by this post. But why? Why would I be frustrated by someone who is, for all practical purposes, hitting all of my sweet-spots? I actually found myself asking this exact question at times. Let me try and point to some issues I think are inherent to this project (keeping in mind how limited my knowledge of it is). Continue reading

Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Crossway, 2010) represents his latest in a string of works on this issue, including Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Eerdmans, 2010) and Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Crossway, 2009).  In this volume he ventures an exposition of the two-kingdoms doctrine that aims to clarify its biblical and theological roots and to unfold some of its practical implications in relation to knotty issues like mission, education, and politics.

In the introduction VanDrunen recognizes the helpful emphases of much of the recent literature on the Christianity-and-culture question: God as the Creator and Ruler of all things (including material things), the universality of human accountability to God, the viability of Christians’ involvement in cultural pursuits, the wide-ranging effects of sin, and the hope of resurrection and new creation.  However, he also registers his hesitation about talk of ‘redeeming’ or ‘transforming’ culture in a gradual process that will, with little discontinuity, culminate in the establishment of the new creation wherein ‘our cultural products will adorn the eternal city’ (p. 13).  VanDrunen then states his intention to propound the two-kingdoms alternative, in which ‘God is not redeeming the cultural activities and institutions of this world, but is preserving them through the covenant he made with all creatures through Noah in Genesis 8:20-9:17’ (p. 15).  To illumine the features of the two-kingdoms approach, VanDrunen outlines the transformational approach as instantiated in the concerns of neo-Calvinism, N. T. Wright, and Brian McLaren.  From here, he pledges to develop a two-kingdoms doctrine that respects the goodness of creation but resists ‘dualism-phobia’ and instead makes the distinction between a redemptive kingdom and a common kingdom (p. 26).  Before commencing with the body of the book, he also clarifies that he’s not using the term ‘culture’ in a technical manner:

culture refers to all the various human activities and their products, as well as the way in which we interpret them and the language we use to describe them….The popular expression, ‘Christianity and culture’, which appears in the subtitle of this book, simply refers to the variety of questions that emerge when we consider how Christians and the church are to relate to these broad activities of human culture and how Christian faith affects our interpretation of them (p. 32).

Continue reading

Theology as Apprenticeship

In his memoir, Hannah’s Child, Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas reflects on the relationship between the crafts of brick laying and theologian (the initial quotation is from Seamus Murphy’s memoir Stone Mad).

‘With hammer mallet and chisel we have shaped and fashioned rough boulders. We often curse our material, and often we speak to it kindly – we have come to terms with it in order to master it, and in has a way of dictating to us sometimes – and then the struggle begins. We try to impose ourselves on it, but we know our material and respect it. We will often take a suggestion from it, and our work will be the better for it.’ In like manner, I think of theology as a craft requiring years of training. Like stonecutters and bricklayers, theologians must come to terms with the material upon which they work. In particular, they must learn to respect the simple complexity of the language of the faith, so that they might reflect that radical character of orthodoxy. . . . Karl Barth’s work represented for me an uncompromising demand to submit to a master bricklayer, with the hope that in the process one might learn some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ (p. 37)

I resonate with Hauerwas’s description (see here), and it makes an apt metaphor for the professor.   I step into the classroom as a theologian and stand among young men and women who are themselves theologians (whether they know it or not). That they hone the craft of speaking to and about God under my watch and under my care is profoundly humbling. How I interact with the Christian Scriptures, which “masters” I direct them to look with me, and how my life takes shape under the Cross all has a part in their apprenticeship.

Perhaps more humbling is the apprenticeship of my children. Their theological instincts are  shaped through our everyday life together: our prayers, walks, my discipline or lack thereof, my tender or hurried embraces, the way I hold my wife, the look in my eye when they disappoint me. Whether I like it or not—whether I seize the opportunities or not—each are “showings” of life with God, living speech of an ongoing conversation. That is humbling.