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Engaged Teaching in Theology and Religion
Date Reviewed: August 3, 2016
There is wide agreement that student-centered pedagogies yield deeper student engagement and stronger learning outcomes than more traditional “sage-on-the-stage” teaching does. Learning shines when students are invited and equipped to integrate course content with their own experiences, insights, and prior knowledge. In this volume Renee K. Harrison and Jennie S. Knight reflect on personal experiences in the classroom, explore pedagogical theory, and provide examples of applied practices to create a map of the key elements of engaged pedagogy. The map, divided into four sections, moves from the selfhood of the teacher to teaching methods and course content to community context and engagement.
Harrison and Knight begin with a premise: that the enterprise of teaching involves the very personhood of the teacher. Either we can acknowledge this and cultivate an awareness of our strengths, blind spots, and biases, or we can ignore it. That deep learning involves the very personhood of students is another key premise. Nurturing this two-pronged awareness – that teachers and students do not leave their wider selves at the door of the classroom – is the necessary ground of engaged teaching. Whole persons are welcomed into the classroom and empowered to reflectively integrate course content with who they are.
Sections two and three explore how form and content can either undermine or buttress one another and how, even when teachers aim for the latter, they may unwittingly miss the mark. For example, in classrooms in which more democratic teaching practices are employed, course content may still hew closely to a traditional textual canon, with marginalized voices tacked on at the end. Or content may offer a wide range of perspectives while teaching methods minimize student voices. Ideally, democratic pedagogies and a widened canon reiterate one another.
If the goal of learning is not just knowledge acquisition but transformation and if we are inviting students’ whole lives into the process, attending to communal context is likewise crucial. The authors thus cap the volume with strong advocacy for community-based learning (CBL). They discuss the logistical and pedagogical challenges of incorporating community work into courses and illustrate why it is well worth the effort. They offer tools for implementing such work, while acknowledging that sustained success in CBL requires significant institutional buy-in that some teachers may not enjoy.
In fact, a particular strength of this volume is its honesty about engaged teaching practices, which while considered innovative in pedagogical circles, are still perceived in many academic circles as less rigorous and less respectable than more classic methods. Harrison and Knight lament that this should be so especially in theological-religious education, where the integration of curricular and worldly knowledge is paramount. Should engaged teaching not be the norm? Recognizing that teachers will need to calculate risks depending on institutional context, they counsel courage for the sake of students’ whole-person integrity – and of the credibility of theological-religious education.
The wisdom conveyed in these pages is clearly hard won, over the course of many years across varied institutions. In distilling their experiences, Harrison and Knight offer their readers a real gift. However, while teachers can benefit from the ideas, strategies, and examples laid out in the book, they should not expect to change their own teaching methods and courses overnight. Rather, this volume invites teachers to an ongoing practice of engaged pedagogy that requires continual self-reflection, awareness of institutional and classroom contexts, a willingness to take creative risks, and a commitment to engaging one’s students as whole persons. It is a compelling invitation indeed. For those who prize transformative pedagogy, this volume weaves the best of theory and practice in teaching theology and religion – accessibly, comprehensively, and indeed engagingly. Highly recommended for undergraduate, seminary, and graduate teachers alike.
Learning Through Serving: A Student Guidebook for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Across Academic Disciplines and Cultural Communities, 2nd Edition
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
First published in 2005, Learning through Serving is a collection of critical thought on the nature of service-learning, as well as a practical field guide for educators looking to expand their skills in this arena. Cress, Collier, Reitenauer, and their colleagues at Portland State University seek to respond to the organic growth of service programs in contemporary higher education – both curricular and extracurricular. Fundamentally, the authors consider service-learning as a liberatory pedagogical tool that induces students to take control of their own learning, and deconstructs the banking model of schooling (famously attacked by Paolo Freire) that remains dominant in much contemporary education. Learning through Serving is intentionally transdisciplinary, and will certainly be helpful for religious studies or theology educators who employ community-based learning or service-learning models. The wealth of experience the authors share, their diverse voices, and lucid consideration of socially-engaged pedagogy yield great value for those seeking to deepen their practice of service-learning.
The authors’ goals are to assist educators and students in thinking through their community service experiences, in the interest of holistic conscientious formation: “In sum, the book is about how to make academic sense of civic service in preparing for students’ roles as future citizen leaders” (xix). Although some readers might balk at the emphasis on “leadership” – and even the use of the term “service” itself – the authors consider a variety of leadership styles suited for different contexts, and make considerable effort to attend to questions of privilege and social justice. This is interspersed throughout the text, but the authors also dedicate a full chapter (“Creating Cultural Connections”) to addressing these issues explicitly.
This guide was constructed with the intention that it would be read in the context of an academic class – thus the chapters are arranged to build on one another throughout the course of a semester. Learning through Serving is composed as a textbook, placing great emphasis on clarity and structure, without sacrificing substance for the sake of readability. The different chapters oscillate between hands-on course planning and more theoretical treatments of civic engagement and democratic philosophy. The new edition makes a particular effort to attend to the global interconnectedness that increasingly defines contemporary digital realities. Service-learning courses have traditionally cultivated porous boundaries between “town” and “gown,” but in an academic climate that increasingly embraces remote student enrollment, service-learning benefits from critically considering how it might adjust to accommodate – and even take advantage of – new developments in university structure, while empowering students to be responsible citizens.
Cress and her colleagues are experienced enough to know that, in practice, service-learning courses rarely go as planned, and that for a variety of reasons, instructors may have to adjust their approach mid-semester. Ultimately, the service component of a class aspires to be interwoven into the fabric of the more formal coursework, integrating the two elements into a mutually-enhancing, symbiotic whole. Learning through Serving offers a wealth of pedagogical advice for service-learning courses, but also situates service-learning within a larger commitment to civic engagement and building a more just society. It contains invaluable nuts-and-bolts course planning assistance, and gives wise counsel on how to develop enduring, reciprocal community partnerships that build capacity for the long haul.
Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide
Date Reviewed: March 14, 2016
Some academic disciplines such as law and medicine have a long history of using case teaching as a pedagogical approach while other disciplines seldom employ case teaching. Espen Andersen, associate professor in the department of strategy and logistics at the Norwegian Business School, and Bill Schiano, professor of computer information systems at Bentley University, drawing from their experience of using case teaching in business schools, demonstrate the positive impacts case teaching can bring and provide a practical guide for instructors who would like to adopt this pedagogical approach. As readers move through the content, they will discover that the book covers topics broader than case teaching and offers rich insight into how classroom discussions can be effective toward student participatory learning development.
As indicated in the title, Teaching with Cases is a practical guide. It is not only a practical guide for teaching with cases, but also covers basic teaching skills and techniques. These include: how to develop content; writing a syllabus; planning a class session; using guest speakers; employing role play; designing group discussions, assignments, and grading rubrics; debriefing a course and using feedback; handling small details such as seating arrangement; using technology; managing breaks and classroom behaviours; and using the white/blackboard effectively. The book is a comprehensive manual for teachers, new or experienced.
While the comprehensiveness of the book is to be commended, more in-depth insights about case teaching are lacking as the book wanders around discussion-based teaching techniques rather than focusing on how to use cases effectively. The most helpful piece on actual case teaching is chapter 6, “Quantitative and Technical Material,” where the important value of case teaching is spelled out: “to foster an intuitive understanding of a situation and to learn to think and make decisions like a manager” (174).The best illustration on a teaching case (Dell computer’s build-to-order) is also found in this chapter. More guidance on how to craft out an effective teaching case to be used in both classroom and online discussions would be helpful.
While I appreciate the authors’ sensitivity to language and culture as an issue in case teaching and an entire chapter devoted to addressing content and classroom dynamics such as gesture, custom, vocabularies, and so forth, the authors seem to generalize language and culture by national identities or geographical boundaries and fail to recognize the particularities and diversity with a culture. For example, Chinese students from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China have different cultural values and educational systems. Hence, their understanding of what connotes sound educational practices will vary as well. Even within those three localities, diverse expressions of customs and norms can be observed. To assume all Asian students think and behave the same way is problematic.
The lack of a strong conclusion that ties it all together is a disappointment, especially since the book covers such a broad range of teaching skills and techniques. Overall, Teaching with Cases is a helpful guide for instructors, particularly those who are interested in engaging students in participatory learning. Readers may also find additional supplementary materials for this book online at http://academic.hbsp.harvard.edu/teachingwithcases.
Engaging with Living Religion: A Guide to Fieldwork in the Study of Religion
Date Reviewed: March 3, 2016
What is “religion”? Many would argue that religion is the single most important element of a person’s existence: “I am [Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, et cetera] and my understanding of reality is predicated by my religious affiliation.” Others would argue that it is nothing more than a sociological aspect of a person’s existence. “I am [Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, et cetera], and it is important to me in the same way that my Irish, Indian, or Russian heritage predicates my social interactions.” On one hand, we have persons who understand themselves within the context of their religion. On the other hand, we have persons who understand their religion within the context of themselves.
Yet, how does one define religion? One definition that I have found helpful for many years is from Winfried Corduan’s tome Neighboring Faiths: “A religion is a system of beliefs and practices that provides values to give life meaning and coherence by directing a person toward transcendence” (InterVarsity, 1998, 21). This definition provides a simple construct for understanding what religion is and what it does without taking sides. Whether one is on the devout or the affiliated end of the spectrum, people might generally agree that the purpose of religion is to teach people values that will give life meaning.
The next question, then, is how should students in higher educational classroom contexts study religion? Talk about a tricky wicket! Any student of religion is going to have shelves of books that all make the same claim – this one has the answer! Some offer tremendous analysis on the all-encompassing and captivating nature of religion. Others provide summative studies of various religions that may stir the reader’s appetite for meaning and transcendence. Still others provide a sociological approach to the study of religion, a field manual for understanding why persons cling to religious belief and practice that belief as they do.
Authored by religious studies professors Stephen E. Gregg (University of Wolverhampton) and Lynne Scholfield (St. Mary’s University, Twickenham), Engaging with Living Religion offers a practical introduction to the field study of religion. The intention of the book is not to develop religious ideation or affiliation in its readers, but to provide a professionally-appropriate way for researchers to analyze and comprehend why Christians pray with their eyes closed, why Muslims pilgrimage to Mecca, and why Jews light a menorah. While this last statement may sound simplistic, it is anything but – each of these actions are essential expressions of that religion and, as the authors argue, one cannot understand Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other religion without understanding the liturgy and locations that provide structure to the world’s religions.
Designed as a guide for the fieldwork student (or as a study companion in a lecture course on religious sociology), Gregg and Scholefield create not only a keen eye for studying religion but also a deep respect for religious adherence. Although the volume does take more of a sociological stance – religion is more akin to a social activity or organizational membership than a guiding force for one’s life – the authors keep the idea that religion is living ever before the reader/researcher. Each chapter is bursting with sidebars, such as passages from foundational readings or case studies, discussion questions, recommended bibliographies, and websites for further research. Although this is a book about the study of religion, one thought comes through subversively on every page – Religion, however it is defined, is living and active, and it provides meaning and direction to individuals seeking transcendence. Therefore, treat it with care and respect.
Overall, I found this volume to be both intriguing and engaging. In addition to a chapter that advocates why studying religion is important, there are chapters on where to study religion, how to study religion through class field trips or study-abroad programs, how to use case studies and social media to understand religion practically, and how to develop an ongoing appreciation for the sociological study of religion.
My recommendation would be that this volume be read alongside a more extensive volume on ethnography. Van Maanen’s Tales of the Field (University of Chicago, 2011) or Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw’s Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (University of Chicago, 2011) would constitute good choices.
Getting Started With Team-Based Learning
Date Reviewed: October 15, 2015
Team-based learning (TBL) was developed over thirty years ago in response to challenges posed by students coming to class unprepared as well as the need for students to apply their knowledge to authentic and complex real-world problems. In this book, Sibley, Ostafichuk, and their contributing authors offer an overview and introduction to TBL for faculty who want to get started with this model of teaching and learning. Filled with vignettes of successes and failures by faculty who have used TBL, the book concludes with appendices of resources, a variety of options to use in the classroom for implementing TBL activities, and reflections on the challenges of implementing TBL in teaching. The book is helpfully divided into three sections.
Section one begins with an overview of TBL by introducing its four essential elements: (1) creating properly formed and managed permanent teams; (2) developing a readiness assurance process (RAP) to ensure motivated and prepared students; (3) using application activities which require students to use course concepts and skills; and (4) holding students accountable for their own learning. With this model of instruction the focus is shifted away from the professor to students who actively use what they have learned to solve problems. The next two chapters focus on ways to design and implement a TBL course. Roberson and Franchini’s approach to design is to begin in the middle by designing the team application activities and tasks that allow students to practice using the disciplinary concepts of the course and thus demonstrate their learning. The final chapter in the opening section (by Kubitz) provides a literature review of studies which documents the effectiveness of TBL and connects the model to a variety of learning theories (Vygotsky, Brunner, Perry, and Zull).
The heart of the book is found in section two with chapters which elaborate on the four essential elements of TBL introduced earlier. Each chapter is full of practical advice and vignettes from faculty who have utilized TBL. The authors discuss, for example, the different stages of the RAP - selecting appropriate quality readings (they recommend shorter rather longer assignments), developing individual readiness assessment and team assessment tests, offering practical advice about writing good multiple choice questions and developing reading guides to assist student preparation. The key to a successful TBL course is found in the application activities which engage students’ interests. When it works, the authors argue that student focus shifts from “what is the right answer?” to discussions about “why?” and the supporting evidence. They offer a number of ways in which students may simultaneously report on the decisions made about the same problem they are working on. Courses should be designed in such a way that students are accountable and rewarded not only for their individual performances, but also for contributions to the team and overall team performance.
The authors argue that for TBL to be effective, it is best to use it for an entire course rather than use it piecemeal. The book is full of practical advice, however, which is well-grounded in literature about teaching and learning so that faculty members who are hesitant to transform a course to TBL can still benefit from reading (advice such as how to write effective multiple choice questions and how to facilitate discussions). I should note that the vignettes and examples in the book from faculty who have used TBL include no one from Religious Studies. But after reviewing the book, I am motivated to try this model in my teaching.