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Those Who Can, Teach: Teaching as a Christian Vocation
Date Reviewed: January 9, 2015
Most doctoral programs recognize the need to provide pedagogical training for their students, and yet, as Stanley Porter notes, rigorous and well-coordinated pedagogical formation is often still lacking (2). Those Who Can, Teach addresses many of the challenges faced by new teachers – particularly, though not exclusively, in seminaries and theological schools.Originating from two colloquies held at McMaster Divinity College, this is a rich volume filled with useful advice, concrete and practical examples, and compelling accounts of what theological education can be.
The essays cover a wide range of topics, from developing a teaching philosophy to designing a lesson plan to teaching introductory Hebrew. As with most edited volumes, the distinctiveness of each author’s voice is heard without any attempt to offer a uniform message – and this is to the benefit to the book. Since the authors all teach at McMaster, the essays reflect the institution’s holistic emphasis on cognitive, formative, and practical learning goals.
The book is especially strong in three areas. First, many of the essays offer helpful discussions about how to design courses and effective learning experiences. Chapters 2 through 7 consider course and lesson plan design from different angles and specializations. The best of the group is Lee Beach’s chapter, “Sculpting a Lesson.” This essay addresses many of the most frequent pitfalls for new (and not so new!) teachers and provides clear, practical advice for structuring an effective and manageable class session. Although the chapters on teaching Greek and Hebrew from Lois K. Fuller Dow and Paul Evans are obviously more narrowly focused, they offer not only useful accounts of how to teach introductory language courses, but also exemplary models of how to design courses with the vocational aspirations of one’s students in mind.
The second strength of the volume is its concern for teachers. This concern runs through almost every essay, but it is the central topic of the concluding essays. As the subtitle of the book suggests, teaching here is seen as a vocation, as a task undertaken in response to God’s gracious love and for the sake of the Kingdom. The essays from Wendy Porter, Gordon Heath, and Phil Zylla propose strong visions for what conceiving of teaching as a vocation might look like, but in ways that open up a fruitful space of self-reflection for the reader.
The third strength builds on the second: although Those Who Can, Teach covers topics applicable to almost anyone teaching theology or religion, it would be particularly beneficial to those who are teaching or who plan to teach in the setting of a seminary or theological school. The holistic emphasis throughout the volume on “Knowing,” “Being,” and “Doing” is essential for those who train future pastors and ministers in the church. Most of the example courses and materials in appendices are from courses designed with this audience in mind.
I do have two reservations worth mentioning. First, several of the essays tend to over-emphasize the need to attend to different learning styles. The jury is still out on this, but recent research has questioned how decisive such differences are for student learning – even if adopting diverse instructional methods remains important. Second, in the opening essay Stanley Porter, after working through a number of teaching philosophies, ultimately strongly favors the model of the teacher as “colleague or collaborator” for almost any context (30-31). This choice is certainly defensible, but the essay fails to mention the risks of adopting this model for new (and younger) teachers (students may not immediately assume their expertise and competence). Many of the later essays prefer the model of the teacher as the creator of an effective learning environment (29, 58, 108, 181), which in my judgment offers a lower-risk and effective starting point for newer teachers.
Obviously not all the essays in a book like this will be equally relevant to all readers. Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who trains doctoral students in teaching – particularly doctoral students who may go on to teach in a seminary context. Individual essays would be very effective for teaching workshops for doctoral students as well.
Mapping the Range of Graduate Student Professional Development: Studies in Graduate and Professional Student Development, Number 14
Date Reviewed: December 25, 2014
Graduates from religion and theology programs cannot expect to be hired to teaching positions (tenure-track or adjunct) without prior teaching experience, as the current job market demands that candidates gain significant experience and training prior to graduation. Graduate programs must therefore augment their academic offerings to students with an education that prepares them for successful teaching careers. To that end, a number of universities across diverse fields have adopted intentional Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) programs to prepare future faculty for a profession of teaching.
The collection of essays in this volume examine multiple options for offering this kind of training, from institution-wide certification programs for teaching to single courses on pedagogy that can be embedded into existing degree requirements. Several chapters present case studies, providing a range of models for how an intentional GTA program might operate. Most of the programs reviewed are overseen by research universities with large student populations, such as the University of California-Berkeley. These programs are cross-curricular and focus exclusively on increasing teaching experience, and can be easily adapted for training teachers of theology and religion.
This volume is most useful for those who are at least generally familiar with the rationale for training graduate students for teaching vocations and the value of it, and who are familiar (in knowledge if not in fact) with formal GTA programs. Administrators of GTA programs will find this a helpful reference volume as it provides information about how GTA programs compare with one another – including data on the kinds of training being offered (programs, certificates, and courses). Those who have the beginnings of a program and want to improve it will find examples of success (and failure) in schools of comparable size and student population, and find lists pertaining to the components of robust programs. Administrators of programs in schools operating with limited resources will want to read Chapter 8, “Leveraging Existing PFF (Preparing Future Faculty) Resources to Create a Certificate of University Teaching” (125-146), which describes the steps Duquesne University followed to develop a Certificate of Teaching program from meager resources.
This is a data-rich volume, although the editors acknowledge the lack of discussion on teaching-related training regarding the ethics of teaching and professional behavior (170), as well as training to teach diversity (171). Also of note, the essays address professional development only insofar as it relates to teaching. They do not address training for supplementary skills needed to prepare future faculty of theology and religious studies, such as administration, community involvement, or advising/mentoring undergraduates.
In addition to preparing graduate students to teach, forward-thinking Professional Development Programs should consider careers for their graduates beyond teaching. To that end, programs should also include training in how to apply degree-related skills to the nonprofit sector, as well as education-based, non-teaching careers (such as administration and editing). Administrators will want to keep an eye on future publications of the series Studies in Graduate and Professional Student Development to supplement this otherwise comprehensive and detailed volume.