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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.
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Community Partner Guide to Campus Collaborations: Enhancing Your Community by Becoming a Co-Educator With Colleges and Universities
Date Reviewed: March 14, 2016
Growing up with a father who served as the director of the service-learning experiences at a faith-based college, I heard many stories of the joys and challenges of academic and non-profit agencies trying to work together. Later in my own teaching career, similar stories emerged as I witnessed the power and problems of out-of-the-classroom learning experiences. With a clearly stated goal (12), the authors of Community Partner Guide to Campus Collaboration effectively present an orderly guide for non-academic organizations to begin to develop mutually beneficial partnerships with post-secondary institutions.
Building on the premise that “effective community-campus relationships educate students and enhance communities” (4), the authors provide multiple ideas and strategies for a community group to function in partnership with a post-secondary institution. After a brief introductory chapter, the book lays out in subsequent chapters particular ways for non-profit leaders to explore and establish potential relationships with colleges and instructors. Within the opening chapters, the authors provide a useful definition of reciprocity that notes the differences between charity and solidarity (41) in community-campus relationships. The authors set a foundation on which a mutually beneficial relationship for both organizational and individual involvement in such partnerships can be constructed. The book also presents a variety of examples to explain the concepts of community-campus relationships.
Building on the opening chapters, the authors outline specific steps to assist an agency coordinator in both engaging faculty and empowering students for engaged learning. Again, a variety of practical examples and creative ideas are suggested. The final chapter on evaluation helps community partners, academic instructors, and students evaluate both the impact of their work with the organization and their own personal involvement and learning through such engaged learning experiences.
There is little to criticize about this book since it speaks clearly to both academic and non-academic organizations. The authors’ illustrations demonstrate a breadth of experience working within both types of organizations and their writing style is welcoming to readers who may be unacquainted with how community group and college partnerships work together to produce significant student learning outcomes. Some checklists may have provided a helpful summary, but there are other visual clues in the book to emphasize their key points and demonstrate the benefits of this educational approach.
The authors are clearly convinced that “communities are stronger when campuses and community agencies collaborate because it creates knowledgeable and engaged students who give back to their communities as committed citizens long after they graduate” (108). Their manual, written specifically for helping non-academic people navigate the post-secondary world, also benefits academics interested in connecting their students to experiential learning opportunities.