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Phil Salter, a current student and muse of this Blog, in describing himself as a seminarian, said, “I am learning on the fly.”  Intrigued by this notion, I have been thinkalating … Habakkuk has come to mind….Recorded in Habakkuk (v. 2 & 3

Recorded in Habakkuk (v. 2 & 3), “Then the Lord answered me and said:  Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.  If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” 

Suppose a growing number of seminary students are best described as skilled runners who are attempting to read our etched vision tablets as they sprint through the experience known as seminary?  When I design a course it is for students who are planning on lingering with me for a time - not moments, but years. I have the expectation that my students and I will gather - a kind of banding together (like Earth, Wind and Fire or Sweet Honey in the Rock).  I have worked on my facility for gathering and hospitality as I see this mode of teaching as a sacramental experience. Problematically, if students are learning on the fly, there is no gathering, no banding, no welcoming of the stranger.  Our encounter will be only moments, mere seconds, a breath or two – in the scheme of time. If they are learning on the fly, then I must change my perspective of teaching in rather dramatic ways.  What is the wise, biblical/theological metaphor which might guide this kind of relationship between teacher and learner?

My hunch is that this would be more than shifting from models of cloistered education to the accommodation of commuter students.  For learning on the fly, the effectiveness of our time together would depend upon my ability to translate the vision into only a few significant, meaningful symbols and eloquent images which conform to the immediacy of the moment and comply with the limited space of the tablet.  Our job would be to make the message recognizable and decipherable in the time/space which, from the runners’ perspective, is realistically meager/scarce.  And, most importantly, which would sustain the runners’ life and give them hope in the journey of ministry.  I am halted by the precision of artistry seemingly necessary in this challenge.

Learning on the fly will require teachers to have the ability to record the vision in large pica --- in billboard clarity for students will not have time for, or intension of, mulling it over.  I would need to shift to a new awareness that the Word (singular) was made flesh and not my usual interpretation that the Words (plural) were made flesh.  There could no longer be an over-complication of message.  The priority of the teaching moment would be simple, elegant and straightforward.  Learners would be in need of, deserving of, desirous for, a glimpse of a tablet that can be seen from a far, and then seen better in the approach, then, vivid close up because the vision will have to sustain them for their larger curriculum, i.e. life, vocation – the holy spiritual journey.

If teaching brings center the scribing of the vision for the learner, then roles and responsibilities will need to be rethought.  In my tradition, the ones who would write the vision inhabit the role of the preacher, the prophet and the priest.  The role of the teacher is not anchored in the giving of the vision.  What would it mean to employ the functions, perspectives, identities, and abilities of the preacher, the prophet and the priest in the role and responsibility of the teacher?

Here’s the rub – heretofore, I have made a conscious effort not to lay claim to the proclamation of Whackamolethe vision in my classrooms.   I have recoiled from students’ response of “…that will preach, Doc!!” when they feel resonance with certain materials. In these instances, I have thought my students to be on the verge of contracting or conflating critical materials into non-critical troupes.   I have thought their requests for simplified messaging to be derivative and contrived.  My aim has been to guide my students toward my version of exploring the deep, and have, heretofore, disdained translating the deep into what I would call monotony, homogeneity or simplicity. 

Perhaps, in my efforts to strengthen my students, I have created an experience of convolution – a kind of Whack-A-Mole of ideas.  Learning on the fly asks that the vision be revealed rather than shards parsed out over time.  

This is the 6th post in this series by Nancy Lynne Westfield this semester (Fall 2015).

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

About Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D., is the fourth director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a home with family and extended family dedicated to public education. Her father was a school psychologist and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who, as a volunteer organizer, greatly influenced the school board of the city of Philadelphia. Lynne holds a BS in Agriculture from Murray State University, a MA in Christian Education from Scarritt Graduate School, and a PhD in Religious Education and Womanist Studies from Union Institute. Lynne, as a United Methodist clergy person, served on the staff of the Riverside Church (NYC) where she redesigned the family education program. From 1999 to 2019, she was on the faculty of Drew University Theological School (Madison, New Jersey) as Professor of Religious Education.
Lynne’s first book was a children’s book entitled All Quite Beautiful: Living in a Multicultural Society. Her second book was a publishing of her doctoral dissertation entitled Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality. Her books written in collaboration include: Being Black/Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies and Black Church Studies: An Introduction. She also, for a brief time, wrote for the Huffington Post.

Reader Interactions


  1. Even though I certainly consider myself to be learning on the fly in many moments throughout this theological exploration, I must also be reminded that it is only a facet of my experience and identity. It does not lay claim to the fullness of my own being. This tension between running and banding together has been a hallmark of my theological existence for the past few years. Whether in class, at work, at home, at play, or on break, it is there. But isn’t this tension always within us to some degree or another? Are we not constantly being exhausted and transformed, weighed down and uplifted throughout the countless moments of our lives (particularly in this theological experience)? If truth exists in either question, we should certainly begin to reflect on how we can better experience the spaces between gathering/banding and running/learning on the fly – and do so together. I am hopeful that the existence of one of these does not mean that it must shadow or dilute the potency of the other.

  2. Your concerns for the complexity and slowing down of the process in analyzing the significance of the content is parallel to the experiences I have had through the years when suddenly graduation is approaching and particular students reached that moment of “Aha”, while others were caught up “Learning on the fly”. I sometimes wonder if I have fallen “victim to the same err”. The difference being one where I have had the privilege experiencing the sustained focused attention to the layers of complexity with readings, concepts, theories and gifted professors in class. The course you offered two years ago illustrates for me your style in “taking time to allow for experiential learning. I remember spending a weekend with you and your father. Just listening to his voice sharing stories moved connected me back to the elders in Puerto Rico, when visiting family. I always listen beyond the words and experience the joy of wisdom and try to stay in the moment.
    Yes, it is possible to engage in experiences where an individual is responding from the heart and the “soul”. Even the texts you required were ones appropriate for the intended objectives and everyone was engaging with one another from a genuine perspective. The art we all created was unique and provided another dimension of our gifts. I am rethinking how you indicated you would like the students to explore the deep from your version can be reframed to examining how each student defines what is “deep” for themselves. Exploring something profound requires moving away from superficiality and really delving into the phenomenon. Meeting for extended periods of time allows for this to happen to the degree each individual is ready to enter into a profound discourse. I am also rethinking your question regarding the role and responsibilities of the preacher, prophet and priest. That is something I will need to continue to think about in terms of how I identify as preacher, prophet or teacher. When I take on a role during worship service as preacher, there is a feeling where I will surrender to being led through the spirit. That is what I can identify at this moment. Once again, I have to think about this question further. Thank you.

  3. I personally feel like life is done on the fly. In a society where everything needed to be done yesterday it is very hard to “catch-up.” Whether in seminary or in my personal life there is never enough time in the day or days in the week to give the true experience great thought and contemplation. In seminary we are thrown into a pit that covers us with immeasurable readings, papers, projects… that cannot be absorbed in the way each professor would like it to be. There is a need to “just get it done.” I would love to have the time to immerse myself in what I am learning to get all I can out of the assignments, but the truth is that there is no time. When we are told to “skim” the readings-aren’t we then not absorbing the true context and nature of that reading? In my own mind for a professor to assign just what is able to be absorbed in a slower pace, I believe, would have more impact and depth. I think I would get so much more out of reading just two books than of twenty that I can only read “on the fly.” We are told as students to discern and make good use of our time-yet professors do not have to use those same skills to figure out which readings and assignments hold the most weight. Instead they pile it all on and expect us to absorb an enormous amount of information. Most students I know do not even bother to read the assignments. I try my best to keep up but I am never getting all that I should out of them because there is too much. So yes I believe most of us here are on the fly through seminary, but until someone lightens the load I see no other way.

  4. Lynne:

    You have articulated a tension that I’ve felt but never named. The use of sound-bites, flash images, video clips, troupes, metaphors, etc. as information delivery systems requires a certain type of literacy that I am not confident our students have. Moreover, it’s not altogether clear that the sort of dense content that is religious scholarship or theological thinking can compress into such delivery systems. What all this means for teaching strategies, the realities of student’s lives, and our (i.e., the teacher’s) obligations in the learning space will need to be fully explored. “Thanks” for getting me (us!) started.

  5. “There is no gathering, no banding, no welcoming of the stranger.” Who has time for that? Seminary like most institutions of learning in this dear country seems to think that the more material we go through the smarter we will become. Maybe that is their way of justifying the high cost of tuition. Unfortunately this notion has proven erroneous and even harmful at times. This “do more” theory is the father/mother of “learning on the fly.” So when we (seminarians) seem to gravitate toward simplified messages it is because we are seeking reprieve from the complexities of the various visions that we are required to read; these visions are written in our school, church, family, work etc.
    Maybe it is time for retooling and reorganizing our methodologies for teaching and learning in our schools. This just might allow us to slow down enough to read and understand the vision.

  6. I’ll start off by stating that I am looking forward to ‘thought 2’. As a student, there are often times that my experience of learning has felt like ‘Whack a Mole’ but for me it is on the part of the mole. I have felt like professors keep hitting me on the head with ideas and concepts until finally something gets through or I stop popping my head up! I can’t say that the method does not work because it has but it is definitely not my favorite way to learn. Whereas I do often look for those little sound bites of info that I can grab on to and run with I am probably most impressed with the slower, larger, thinkalations. They are not instant gratification like the soundbites, but they are the concepts that I keep with me, think on a little at a time, recollect when the concept materializes in my life. I have said it to many people that I never leave Prof Westfield’s classes without thinking “Hmmmm” . A good professor leaves you with something not just to grab and go, but with something to ponder for the rest of your life.

  7. Thanks – as always – for the conversation. I would say that I, only partially, feel resonance with the comment of “learning on the fly,” and haven’t necessarily felt that within seminary. For me, I’ve probably (for better or worse) compartmentalized my seminary learning. That’s not to say I have not brought this learning to my current ministry, but it’s to say that I’ve seen the classroom as a place to learn whereas, outside of this place, my work – ministry – family environment becomes the primary place in which some of that learning can materialize or become incarnate. When I think of “learning on the fly,” I think more of some of my ministry experiences in which new and unforeseen circumstances arise but even so – I would say it might be too simple to suggest that those experiences are about learning on the fly as even those unforeseen circumstances are met with some prior experience / learning that can help me “fly,” if you will. I think that Phil’s clarification post upfront provides a helpful recast of his comment as any learning (on the fly) is just a portion of our total experience. While I do see your post as intentionally emphasizing this particular element and appropriately so (to create a valid question / conversation), it does take an either/or approach vs. a both/and perspective which acknowledges the limitation of a particular type of learning but also acknowledges that such limitation is mitigated by additional forms of learning. For me, a certain “lingering” given my 7 year extended track program, perhaps creates less of a “learning to fly,” feeling but at the same time, I am a commuter student who struggles with establishing any clear sense of community that could enhance my learning here. For me, I understand and am ok with that limitation as the education I have and continue to receive is often played out in the context of other communities (church /family) that I am not only lingering with but deeply entrenched with.

    Grace & Peace,

  8. I must first say that I appreciate just about any use of a running metaphor. As a runner, it does my heart well to see it brought into an explanation. When I’m out on a run, there is not a tremendous amount of time to take in every sight. You learn to interpret scenery quickly, especially in regards to your footing. Perhaps there is something to be said about this in regards to learning in the classroom and how it is difficult at times for us to be concerned about more than where our next step will be. At least here in seminary, I get so lost in academia and learning that I lose sight of my spiritual learning and health at times.

  9. I agree with Connie, life is lived on the fly, running from one destination to the next not taking the time to reflect on the moment. I cannot believe the Christmas season is here again, while the memory of last Christmas is still in the forefront of my mind. What did I do in the interim, it is all a blur of trains passing in the night. I am in my first semester of seminary and I do not want to experience seminary on the fly. I want to stop and smell the flowers, I want to move in slow motion and soak up all I can. I wish I had the means to attend seminary full time and sit in the lobby and become part of the scenery, the vibe and the rhythm and flow of its community. But I work full time and am in for class and out for home. Therefore, for the time that I am in the classroom, it must be full and meaningful. For me I must find the time to mull over my learning experience. The classroom has to be a dance between the student and the teacher. The teacher and student must take part in the birth of the vision, for what a is a vision that no ever sees. It’s just a thought.

  10. In my mind, it would nice to envision seminary as some bucolic environment in which we sit in a circle under a shade tree pondering the deeper meanings of life. But the reality is that we have hundreds of pages to read, papers to write, families that need _____, jobs, churches, and a multitude of other items that demand our time. So, in that respect, I can understand the imagery of running a race and looking up to view billboards with the message(s) that our esteemed teachers, prophets, priests, and preachers are trying to convey.
    Somehow, we (students) need to be able to achieve that balance in which we can have the deeper conversations and not feel as though our time and energies are being pulled from all angles. Seminary should not be like a “Whack-a-Mole” game in which we learn on the fly. One cannot derive meaning from that.
    At the same time, I would imagine that the “learning on the fly” attitude could almost be viewed as insulting to someone such as yourself who has dedicated her life to the endeavor of providing that education to seminarians. Everyone wants their work to be seen as valuable. How valuable can it be if we’re just reading the headlines on our pursuit out the door?
    There needs to be a better balance between the bucolic and the sprint. I know that I am learning in this environment, but I’m so busy I couldn’t stop to tell you what it is that I’m learning. It makes me realize that the homogeneity that you fear from the billboard approach to seminary may still be exactly what we get simply because we’re too busy to stop.

  11. The last line resonates with me. “Learning on the fly asks that the vision be revealed rather than shards parsed out over time.” I think when you have those of us, who are bi vocational pastors, in addition to being seminarians, it does seem like we are learning on the fly. Therefore, I think big picture ideas are critical for us, because we often only have the short time in class to do our critical work with you or other professors. i believe that time is important, and it is imperative that we get those “shards”, not as preachable clips and quips, but as essential nuggets and pieces that are connected to the larger vision of learning for the classroom. So, even in learning on the fly, while not ideal or even desired, if properly mediated and monitored, some critical learning can occur.

    For example, when I came to our prayer class, I came with my own vision or desire for how prayer might inform my personal devotion. I had no idea that the class would reshape my thinking on even the question, “What is prayer?”When I saw the billboard, my goal became to use each week to transform the static building into an infomercial. Each week the contributions of class are refining my definition and understanding of prayer – as both a corporate and personal practitioner. Therefore, the class for me is no longer a quick bit of information that I grab as I go. But it is now a infomercial, where each week I use the information to connect to what I learned prior.

    Therefore, the billboard has become a data dashboard. Maybe it sounds crazy. But it’s how I process my journey.

  12. Upon hearing Phil’s comment my first thought resonates deeply with a meaning for me that cause me to agree with his comment fully. Today many students are faced with the challenge of learning on the fly. They must juggle life’s happenings along with their selected opportunity to further their education. With this thought in mind, I value well planned instruction that desires the lingering for a time and not just for the moment. This happens when the instruction that happens IN the classroom encourage deep discussions, critical thinking, and interactive involvement. The learning that takes place IN the classroom in the few moments that we gather creates the lingering for a time. Once we leave the room, life’s happenings often invade our minds, sometimes forcing out what we desire to keep in. I have heard seminary students say that once their experience is over, they would like to go back and read material or really think through ideas, which they could not fully experience while actually in seminary. I wonder what their experiences IN the classroom were like. Thanks, Dr. Westfield, for bringing rich, thought provoking and varied opportunities of learning to our prayer class. These experiences IN the class have certainly created the lingering for a time for me.

  13. As a seminarian, I would have to admit to moments of learning on the fly. I can’t say that learning on the fly is the best way to learn but because of the work load of seminarians; the long nights of studying, the amount of reading, and the many other things that go into the the seminary experience; learning on the fly becomes second nature. I think there are classes and material that we appreciate more than others which in turn causes seminarians in many cases to bond with some and learn of the fly with others. I would love the opportunity to bond and connect with each classroom experience in a way that goes beyond surface learning, but honestly that’s not always the case.

  14. Dr. Westfield, I have to admit that because of the seminary work load, many of us learn on the fly. We don’t always get the bonding experience because we are juggling so much. Nevertheless, I will say that for those professors who are intentional in there teaching are those I have learned the most from and that’s not everybody.

  15. Three images in the reading caught my attention – that of “runner; commuter student and billboard.” I was reading this blog while traveling on the bus to work from Jersey to New York City. As I glanced through the window there were messages on billboards all along the highway sharing direct but yet subliminal messages from companies who had paid billions of dollars for a one-liner or one “worder” of advertisement. These companies took a risk hoping that their ad would resonate with the reader and cause an action of participation either to buy a product or use a service.
    This caused me to further think theologically. How many of our sermons resonate with the congregants during the week or do they forget the message even before stepping through the doors after the service? We spend hours in research, using the skills of exegesis, “connecting problem in the text with problem in the world; and concluding with gospel in the text with gospel in the world.” The hearers are like runners as they run to the church on Sundays and then return to the track of life for the next six days. Are they “learning on the fly, are they commuter congregants?” I speak not for others but for myself. I need the Word of God to be on a billboard which catches everyone’s attention and resonates with them so much that the zeal to further inquiry prompts the congregant to directly want to own this new life of Christian living. Unlike the ad the congregant does not have to pay for the service for it has been already paid with the blood of Jesus Christ.

  16. “I am learning on the fly, ” that’s something that I did for years, while in undergraduate, and partly in graduate school. It was not my intent, yet working full time, single parent, ministry and life, what was not on the “fly?” I enjoy learning greatly, and have a sincere respect for educators, as I am an educator. However, as a seminarian study, relatively new, I find it difficult to be a successful “runner” with all of the responsibilities required. The “learning on the fly” can become the mode of operation to survive. My intent is to contemplate the journey and experience it in a profound manner. Yet, deadlines are due, or grades or poor – so much for meditation and absorbing. I wish and hope that there will be a vision from the administration of the Theo department that will allow students to become the priest, prophet and preacher, and write the vision, and allow time for the “runner” to mediate and absorb the vision, and not just see it, but live it.

  17. I too agree with Connie, in that “life is on the fly.” I long to have more time to ponder, mediate and grow with all the learning that comes in seminary. Unfortunately due to deadlines, and procedures, there is a limited amount to bond. Therefore, we miss so many opportunities to make a difference or to make an impact, based on limited time or time proportioned inadequately. Therefore. often times, ” learning can be on the fly.” It would be great for the Drew administrators to seriously consider other opportunities to study as opposed to thesis and other assigned papers. I am not suggesting all together to be rid of papers, but to reduce, and have more creative projects, and practical lessons for practical living as we are learning in the Art of Teaching Life!


  18. Renewal of the mind allows change to occur. The beauty in life is steeped in change in so many facets. These changes are made evident as we see the seasons changing, ideologies changing, even the lens by which scholars approach interpreting the bible shifts from their traditions.

    I appreciate your willingness to create differentiated instruction for students to engage in life changing alternatives to learning. Not everything we learn in seminary will stick; however, being introduced to a different type of learning helps turn theories into practice. The Art of The Teaching Life is one of those experiences for me. It is indeed transformative!

  19. I secretly envy some of my mature in age parishioners who have time and space to dive deep into thought and consider questions and potential answers over time. Of course, they would say with some level of disappointment and mourning that they can do these things because many of their friends are gone, and they can no longer do the things they used to do. ln my journey through seminary I did not have enough time to sit with some ideas and thoughts that were provoking and inspiring. However, I also experienced that the most thought and life transforming conversations took place when we made space outside of the classroom, with study groups, partners, and professors to hash out ideas. Learning on the fly, requires that we as students make intentional stops in our learning.

  20. Professor Westfield you mentioned when you design a course it is for students who are planning on lingering with you for a time and I believe this sentiment is true for most seminarian students. Many students have found themselves learning on the fly when they answered the call to ministry, believing seminary affords the time and opportunity to grow, meditate, ponder on all of the learnings presented by the educators, a desire to sit under our instructor’s feet and soak in the knowledge. Seminary for many second career students, commuters and minorities have been a journey towards the promised land, filled with doubts, frustrations and at times wondering. Many of these students I believe long for the ability to linger with our educators, however the demands of life, time, course requirements coupled with the need to perform, produce and maintain in a timely fashion rob us this opportunity and we are forced to revert back to the practice of learning on the fly. I have a sincere respect for educators and appreciate the diverse visions, however, if many of us students are learning on the fly, which entails us asking that the vision be revealed rather than shards parsed out over time how can this be accomplished?

Wabash Center