Learning by Teaching:
THE WABASH CENTER AS LISTENING AND LEARNING COMMUNITY
Jack L Seymour, Professor Emeritus, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Since its founding in 1996 on the campus of Wabash College in Crawfordsville, IN, the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion has significantly transformed the conversation about teaching and learning in theological schools and departments of religion. More than this, the Wabash Center has transformed the ways faculty interact and cooperate across schools and disciplines. This brief history rehearses the story of that transformative work. Organized by the key contributions of the center, the story highlights the impact of the center on faculty, schools, and the wider culture. (For a full history of the events of the Wabash Center, see the “Timeline of Programs.”) 
While excellent planning has directed the work of the Wabash Center, a dynamic stance of openness and listening has guided its work. Wabash Center leadership has honored, listened, and learned from those they serve – the faculty of religious studies and theological education. As such, the Wabash Center has been a learning organization that listens, collaboratively plans, evaluates, re-listens, and re-plans in partnership with those it serves.
Funded from the beginning by grants from the Lilly Endowment Inc., the idea for the center arose out of conversations in the 1990s between Dr. Raymond Williams of Wabash College and Dr. Craig Dykstra of the Lilly Endowment. Other faculty colleagues and administrators at Wabash College contributed to the shape of the center as well as Dr. Dan Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools and leaders from the American Academy of Religion. From the beginning, Lilly Endowment staff saw the Wabash Center as a significant part of its wider “Theological Teaching Initiative”—to impact the training of religious leaders and thus the ability of religious organizations to affect communities of faith and the wider society. Planning grants awarded in 1995 were followed by an implementation grant in 1996 and sustaining grants from then to the present.
The purpose of the center, defined at its founding, has remained consistent: “to enhance and strengthen teaching in theology and religion in North American theological schools, colleges and universities.” Without a doubt, accomplishing this purpose during times of profound change has been amazing. The continuing vitality of the center is due to its openness to listen to the experiences and insights of those they serve, to gather them in conversation, to engage projects, and to review, rethink, and respond.
The Wabash Center Honored College and Seminary Teachers
After my second year of teaching, I attended the Wabash Center early career workshop. While I had worked on content goals for my introductory classes, I had never thought about student learning goals and aligning classroom practices and assignments with them. Mentors in the summer program honored my previous efforts and stood beside me as I explored options for teaching.
The mission of the Wabash Center focuses on strengthening teaching. Raymond Williams, the founding director, sharpened that mission by saying that the center focuses on all the work of the teacher. The teacher’s experience in the classroom, in preparing to teach, in evaluating teaching, in the department and school, and throughout a life of scholarship and service has thus defined the work of the center. From its founding, the center offered dignity and welcome to those who teach in the many disciplines of the study of religion, listened to their experiences, and responded with conversations, projects, and resources.
In 1998 the work of the center began in earnest:
- the first workshop for theological school faculty was scheduled,
- a consultation was begun with faculty in a teaching area to explore their common work, e.g., theologians examining the introductory course in theology,
- a first grant was awarded, e.g., to the Boston Theological Institute to review course changes in cooperating schools,
- a consultation with undergraduate faculty leaders was held,
- conversations began about an academic journal (that became Teaching Theology and Religion, TTR), and
- explorations were begun in using the “world-wide web” as a tool for teaching.
These initial activities set a pattern for the center. Each of them created an interdisciplinary space of dignity, welcome, and inclusion allowing teachers to be known and to thrive. The center honored teachers and their work.
The Wabash Center Nurtured a Rich Conversation about Teaching and Learning
I had been teaching for twenty years. Of course, I talked to my teaching assistants about classroom goals and about criteria for grading, yet I had never talked with colleagues from other schools about the goals for our teaching and the various classroom practices we used. The Wabash consultation generated a rich partnership with colleagues as we sought to understand ways of teaching students.
Creating conversations about teaching has been the primary strategy of Wabash Center programming. While workshops, disciplinary groups, and grants had focused agenda and goals, the conversations about teaching that occurred both in the events and around their edges made a significant impact across the study of religion and theological education.
Much of the work of a teacher is personal and individual. Teachers study their content, prepare goals for students, organize syllabi and lesson plans, and enact teaching usually all alone. While faculty members meet in faculty meetings to discuss policies for students and their institutions, most of the work of a faculty member is private. Too often the result is that the successes of the faculty member in the classroom are not celebrated and their anxieties and difficulties in teaching are rarely shared. One senior faculty member mentioned that he had felt like an impostor for 20 years. He had conversations with colleagues about research but had never spoken about his experiences of teaching until an on-campus consultation on teaching led by a Wabash consultant.
Changing this “private” pattern of faculty life was a genius of the Wabash Center. The Wabash Center staff honored the academic disciplines. In the first few years, faculty from theology, Bible, church history, preaching, education, practical theology, ethics, and inter-religious studies, as well as theological librarians, gathered to explore their disciplines and their teaching. Such reflection expanded conversations beyond research projects to the very character of the disciplines themselves and the best ways to help students learn and use the contributions of the disciplines.
Moreover, the Wabash Center gathered faculty across disciplines. These interdisciplinary and multigenerational gatherings of faculty for conversations about teaching were a totally new experience across higher education. While a few such conversations had previously been scheduled by AAR, ATS, and individual schools, faculty conversations about teaching experiences were not an ongoing and sustained effort, nor a part of the regular preparation of doctoral students. Wabash Center events thus invited faculty members to talk about teaching and their vocations. This work was an innovation. Those first workshops for theological faculty and undergraduate teachers were unique. Colleagues gathered with listening and mentoring leaders to explore classroom commitments and practices.
Through the years the Wabash Center has added and expanded its teaching workshops. A pattern of mutual consulting, listening, and promoting respectful conversations has emerged about the practices, career, and meanings of teaching. Such generative spaces empowered faculty members to share, focus insights, explore syllabi, share experiences within their classrooms and schools, to address their vocations, and consider the impact of their work.
Furthermore, these conversations have generated scholarship about teaching – resulting in new resources; for example, books on teaching preaching and teaching biblical languages, on the vocation of the theological educator, and on service learning were published as well as articles written for TTR. In addition, two major research projects were supported by the center. Both Educating Clergy and College Introductory Courses expanded the attention on the mission and impact of theological schools and departments of religion and on the alignment of teaching practices and the goals of and schools.
Complementing the work with faculty members was also attention to the schools who were preparing future faculty. From the beginning, the Wabash Center convened directors of the doctoral programs. At these gatherings, leaders shared how the goals of doctoral programs to prepare scholars and researchers did and did not connect to concerns about preparing students as teachers. Schools shared their struggles and successes: teaching assistant programs and classes on teaching. Building on suggestions given in these consultations, the Wabash Center first developed meetings for doctoral students at professional societies and then a broader Graduate Teaching Initiative (2010). They also provided grants and consultations (beginning in 2007) to assist schools to improve efforts in preparation for teaching.
Across all the events of the Wabash Center, conversations begun in workshops have been expanded through actions of individual faculty members, through collaborations across faculties, and in research projects. Professional academic guilds now also sponsor conversations on teaching. Individual schools request the Wabash Center to provide consultants and grants to assist them to explore practices of instruction, issues of community life, and the vocation of teaching. Prior to the work of the Wabash Center only limited conversations among faculty across disciplines about vocation and community life had occurred. The Wabash Center has stimulated a rich conversation on teaching.
The Wabash Center Was a Catalyst for New Possibilities of Teaching and Learning
Our school hoped to expand our course offerings to include those at a considerable distance from campus. While I had used digital resources to enrich my teaching, I had never taught a fully online class. When my dean asked me, I was both excited and anxious. I was willing to try. I contacted the Wabash Center who connected me with others who were teaching online. It was a wonderful gift.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the Lilly Endowment partnered with the Wabash Center to explore online learning and digital technology. The use of digital technology in teaching was just beginning. The Lilly Endowment provided grants to several theological schools to help them acquire the infrastructure to test the potential of this new way of learning. In concert, the Wabash Center organized conferences to assist these schools in the acquisition, use, and evaluation of technology. They organized conversations where schools shared concerns and contributions. Furthermore, they worked with theological librarians to explore the expansion of library collections and digital resources.
While there was some resistance to these new forms of online education with some faculty fearing that the learning community necessary for theological learning was being bypassed, several schools entered into explorations. Slowly the contributions of digital learning began to emerge. The use of the world-wide web for academic resources, online and hybrid learning, and the development of courseware for classes showed possibilities for extending theological education to new populations. The work of the Wabash Center had been pivotal in examining how a new form of pedagogy might expand the reach of schools.
As always, the Wabash Center founded conversations and listened to experiences and needs. By 2006 and continuing through 2018, the Wabash Center sponsored workshops for teaching online. Some of these partnered with university online teaching programs. Again, as usual the conversations at the Wabash Center expanded and supported workshops at professional academic societies, grants for schools, consultants, and research on the contributions of online teaching.
The importance of these learnings about the practices and effectiveness of online education were made apparent in the necessary 2020 shift across higher education to online learning because of the Covid pandemic. In fact, schools discovered they had the necessary infrastructure, a sufficient group of trained teachers, and the appropriate courseware to continue education during and after the shutdown.
From 2020 to the present, the Wabash Center has continued to resource and support these shifts that were often difficult and traumatic for students and faculty. The center expanded its podcasts on teaching, organized support groups (salons) to help faculty deal with the trauma of being forced to move totally online, provided networks to assist faculty members to find and explore options for teaching in the pandemic, and offered consultants to assist schools in their responses. The work of the Wabash Center provided background, experience, and research foundations on which schools could build. The Wabash Center has been a catalyst for new directions in teaching.
The Wabash Center Created Communities of Advocacy, Conversation, and Empowerment for BIPOC Faculty
I looked around the room. This was the first time I had been in an academic setting with all African American colleagues. We shared about teaching, but even more, we shared our experiences of often being the only faculty of color at our school. We talked about how hard it was to explain to our colleagues back home the need to ground teaching in our contexts. The Wabash Center was a godsend. I could be present, truthful, and engaged.
Just as most faculty had not engaged in much conversation about teaching, little conversation had taken place in BIPOC communities about the vocation of teaching. There had been little focused sharing of experiences of teaching in higher education. In the early, 2000s many theological schools and departments of religion had few, if any BIPOC faculty. Faculty members were therefore alone or a minority in institutions predominated by historic “white” patterns of interaction, scholarship, and expectations.
A workshop at the Wabash Center in 2002 for faculty of African Descent proved path breaking. As participants in this workshop attest, it was the first time that a group of black faculty members across theological disciplines and institutional experiences could gather to share their experiences in teaching, to discuss together their home institutions, and to reflect on their vocations as educators. Of course, there had been gatherings of womanist faculty and the Society for the Study of Black Religion had met, yet these groups had a research purpose. While conversations about the experiences of being a faculty colleague could be shared around the edges, those conversations were not the focus.
Just as in other Wabash Center workshops, conversations focused broadly on teaching practices, institutional contexts, promotion and review, and experiences as a faculty colleague. The workshop generated reflection on what it meant to be African American faculty in theological education and religious studies.
Networks of support and collaboration were built, truth was told about the experiences of serving on faculties, and attention was given to how social location profoundly affected teaching and vocation. This transformative workshop named patterns of “white supremacy” within higher education. Communities were formed to explore ways of addressing the character of institutions, naming and encountering resistances, and calling for more openness and responsiveness. These actions have made a difference.
The experiences of insight, awareness, collegiality, and action discovered in the workshop for faculty of African descent has been replicated in workshops and gatherings for Asian/Pacific Island faculty (beginning in 2006) and for Latinx faculty (beginning 2008). These workshops (continuing into the present) along with consultations with BIPOC faculty (like the colloquy on race critical consciousness for transformative theological education in 2019 and 2020) and work with the Hispanic Theological Initiative, the Forum for Theological Exploration, and the Asian Theological Summer Institute have continued to build communities of reflection and networks of action. They have enriched the fabric of theological schools and have identified key issues at the heart of higher education. As we know, significant issues remain embedded in the character of institutions, but challenges are truthfully made apparent. Not only have leaders for schools been developed, but consultants have assisted schools to examine their teaching and learning environments.
A current effort of the Wabash Center of “mobilization pedagogy” extends this contribution. “Becoming Anti-Racists and Catalysts for Change” combines online podcasts with grants for individual schools to gather to reflect on the podcasts and seek actions for change within their institutions. Because of the work of the Wabash Center, BIPOC faculty have had a context for reflection on institutional structures, on the vocation of teaching, and for building community and collaboration to work across disciplines and schools.
The Wabash Center Has Affected the Environments of Theological Schools and Departments of Religion
We had three department chairs in five years. All the faculty of color who came up for promotion were delayed. We met our classes, worked with students, attended obligatory faculty meetings, but teaching was a grind. So much conflict existed – all underground. A colleague who had been at a Wabash Center event obtained approval from our dean to ask for a consultant to help us clarify criteria for promotion. With the presence of the consultant, we began to share some truth with each other. We have a long way to go, but it is a start.
Addressing the educational environments in which theological education and religious studies occurs has been a goal from the beginning of the Wabash Center. How faculty are supported and challenged, how promotion and review occur, and how faculty become a community working together for the mission of the school all affect the quality of the work of teachers and student learning. A grant program was conceived in the founding of the center to assist schools and faculty to engage in projects to enhance their contexts for learning. Grants have assisted faculty communities to look at teaching practices, expand teaching resources, address conflicts, assess curriculum, and explore the alignment of classroom practices and institutional mission.
Complementing the grant program has been the development of a group of consultants that the Wabash Center could send to work with faculties and schools. The staff of the center provides in-service training for consultants and has defined clear goals for the program. An example of the impact of consultants can be seen in the linking of the Educating Clergy and the College Introductory Course projects with consultants. Following large workshops where the research of each project was shared, schools were offered grants and consultants for follow-up. Many schools did respond, and they were assisted in examining their teaching and learning goals and the effectiveness of their missions.
Over and over those interviewed for this history project have commented on how their institutions were made more aware of their dynamics and were beginning to address ways to enhance their work together. Schools have talked about impediments to thriving, and about practices to assist colleagues to grow.
The last 20 years have been a period of significant change for higher education. Budgets of schools have been stretched, departments have been discontinued, student recruitment has shifted, and the pandemics have shifted the ground under schools. The Wabash Center has helped schools explore new and meaningful possibilities for their futures, for their teaching, mission, and community life.
The Wabash Center Has Nurtured Leadership for Theological Schools and Departments of Religion
I had never thought about leading my colleagues in a teaching project. My research had been rewarding, but solitary. At the Wabash Center mid-career workshop, participants helped me think about next steps in my career. I had published and enjoyed teaching. I had five rotating classes that I liked and taught well. My school was supportive and faculty colleagues worked well together. But something was missing. Workshop participants helped me express my passions as a faculty member. I talked for the first time about my “vocation” as a teacher. Then I realized what might energize our department. Checking with our chair, the dean, the Wabash Center, and my faculty colleagues, I applied for a Wabash Center grant to help us clarify our departmental mission and the interaction of our various courses. After some struggle, the project has expanded our conversations and our mission.
Conversations during workshops, digital salons, and colloquies have encouraged faculty members to examine their own vocations in theological education and religious studies and their contributions to the missions of their schools. The power of mentoring and colleague support has been clear. Individual faculty have been asked to join workshop teams, to serve as consultants, and to be mentors for others. Styles of collaborative learning and empowerment have emerged in on-campus workshops and in consultation and grant projects.
As faculty members have thought through their own trajectory in a vocation, some have identified gifts of leadership as well as heard calls to serve. In turn, others have been identified by colleagues in workshops and consultations as potential leaders. As such, the Wabash Center has provided a context for leadership assessment and the development of skills.
Several persons interviewed for this project (many of whom now serve in some form of seminary or college administration) spoke about how their experiences in teaching workshops had called out their gifts. In addition to being teachers, Wabash Center alums serve as department chairs, academic deans, and seminary and college presidents.
By listening and responding to teachers, by providing interdisciplinary and multi-generational spaces of formation, and by modeling ways of empowering and nurturing, new leadership has emerged from Wabash Center participants for seminary and college administration and for public service. The Wabash Center provided the collaboration and support that enabled individual faculty members to learn possibilities of expanding leadership.
The Wabash Center Continues to Stimulate Reflection on the Role of Religion in Public Life
I love working here. The college takes seriously its religious heritage. Having a dean that understands that heritage is one of the reasons I joined the administration. Yet, I was not aware of the extent of the college’s financial struggles. Our board of trustees are appropriately concerned about the bottom line. I have been asked to review which programs have the fewest majors, to examine the costs, and to propose ways of cutting the budget or expanding enrollment. I need help to address administrative realities and hold onto my commitments to the role of religion in the liberal arts.
The contributions of the Wabash Center have been fueled by attentive listening to those it has served. The sponsoring of conversations about teaching and learning has been its genius. Enhanced tools for teaching and learning, the alignment of classes with institutional mission, and the development faculty support networks have all resulted. Because of the Wabash Center, teachers can draw on the wisdom of others as they face classroom and institutional concerns.
Those I interviewed thanked the directors, Raymond Williams, Lucinda Huffaker, Nadine Pence, and Nancy Lynne Westfield for their vision and courage. They spoke of the network of friends and acquaintances across schools that they had developed. They acknowledged that their attention to vocation had been stimulated. Moreover, they noted that schools had been changed because of the work of the center:
- schools had developed clearer missions,
- promotion and tenure policies have been refined,
- conversations about serving students and their vocations are held more often, and
- schools are intentionally working to address faculty dynamics, including concerns of institutional racism.
The Wabash Center has made a difference.
Yet, while my interviewees praised the networks of accountability and service that have been developed, they pointed to issues facing higher education – many of which are clearly outside the bounds of teaching. They continue to look to the Wabash Center to guide them.
College and university leaders wondered about the continuing role of religion within the liberal arts curriculum. Moreso, they asked about the future of higher education itself and the role of religion in the curriculum, even in faith-based institutions. They spoke of fewer and fewer students majoring in religious studies and the shifts in the mission of higher education to vocational forms of education. Even several religiously affiliated schools have dropped religion majors in efforts to address budget and enrollment concerns. Seminary leaders also have wondered about the shifts in the patterns of religious life in North America. They too worried about budgets and enrollment. They knew their work had to expand beyond educating clergy. The very role of religion in shaping public dialogue is unclear. Moreover, significant political divisions across the North America have elicited fundamental questions of the role of education itself in public life.
Without a doubt, higher education is in transition – transitions that affect teaching. One example, schools are hiring more part-time and adjunct faculty. The possibilities of a lifelong career in research and teaching may no longer be the case.
My informants thank the Wabash Center for its expanded efforts since 2020 to examine through podcasts, blogs, and conversations the future of theological education and higher education. They know that the environment of crisis many schools face significantly affects teaching. They look forward to additional conversations and resources that the Wabash Center will sponsor on the role of religiously affiliated institutions, religion in higher education, and theological education.
These broader questions connect to the work the Wabash Center has been doing from the beginning. It has transformed the conversation about teaching across theological education and higher education. It has created networks of collaboration and advocacy. The practices and goals of teaching have been enhanced. The contexts of teaching and learning have been engaged. Truths about institutional dynamics and struggles are being told. Faculty have been empowered to make a difference in the mission and service of their institutions.
The Wabash Center is in a unique place to continue to resource, support, and nurture teachers. It is also in a unique place to offer grants and consultants to assist schools to examine their education and impact. It is also in a key place to focus attention on the fundamental questions of the impact of higher education and religion on public life.
In the founding of the Wabash Center, the Lilly Endowment defined it as a key partner in its theological education initiative – to impact teaching so that teaching could impact religious leadership, and thus to impact the religious institutions and public life. That concern continues as a goal, challenge, and next step for guided conversations. As the Wabash Center continues to strengthen teaching across theological schools and department of religion, it continues to gather colleagues to reflect on the contexts of the schools and on the missions and realities within those schools.
 This essay is a partner to the “Timeline of Programs” prepared for the Wabash Center website. While some events and dates will be used in the narrative, a full accounting of the work of the Wabash Center can be found in the “Timeline of Programs: Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion,” https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/about. The research for this history used grant proposals and project reports from 25 years of the Wabash Center, interviews with directors and participants over the years of the Wabash Center events, and focus groups with Wabash Center consultants. All interviews were conducted by phone or on Zoom. Participants gave permission for the interviews and for sharing insights. I thank those who participated in interviews. They were rich and rewarding experiences.
 While many other names could also be mentioned, key early partners included the president of Wabash College, Dr. Andrew Ford, and faculty members Peter Frederick and William Placher of Wabash College; and consultants Barbara DeConcini of AAR, Cheryl Tupper of ATS, Charles Foster of Emory University, and Richard Dickinson of Christian Theological Seminary.
 Each of the sections of this history begins with a story or comment drawn from those I interviewed. Each section demonstrates the practices and contributions of the Wabash Center. The stories are used with permission.
 See for example, Gregory L. Jones, ed., The Scope of our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher (Eerdmans, 2001) & Richard Devine, Joseph Favazza, and F. Michael McLain, eds., From Cloister to Commons: Concepts and Models of Service-Learning in Religious Studies (American Association of Higher Education, 2002).
 Charles Foster, Linda Dahill, Larry Goleman, & Barbara Wang Tolentino, Educating Clergy: Teaching Practices and Pastoral Imagination (Jossey-Bass, 2005); & Barbara Walvrood, Teaching and Learning in College Introductory Religion Courses (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).
 Wabash Center partnered with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, online teaching certificate,
 See for example, Mary Hess, Engaging Technology in Theological Education: All That We Can’t Leave Behind (Sheed and Ward, 2005).
 One result of this gathering was an edited book, Nancy Lynne Westfield, Being Black, Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies (Abingdon Press, 2008).
 Mobilization pedagogy, named by Nancy Lynne Westfield, combines focused action projects at local sites with excellent content shared through podcasts and conversations. The Wabash Center has provided schools and faculty leaders with grants and resources mobilizing learning, advocacy, and action.
 See the description and goals of the consultation program at https://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/programs/consultants/.