Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Some Thoughts on Pedagogy--Benedictine Style

One of the goals I have for this sabbatical is to reflect a bit on pedagogy in the classroom. Of late, I have felt a growing distance between myself and my students--not just a "generation gap," but a distinct difference in orientation towards the learning process. I have wondered if this is a matter of individual orientation (something that our emphasis on strength-based education hints at), a result of family values, or even a distinct difference in the way communities engage or don't engage the larger culture.

To some extent, I think all of these are true. But, being here, in a Benedictine community, it has become clear to me that the values and practices of different communities plays a huge role in the way we teach and communicate. As I've been reading in the opening five chapters or so of Benedict's rule, it is clear that the values that community holds for obedience, humility, silence, contemplation, and reflection are born out in the praxis of the classroom. I have been somewhat astounded at the respect afforded faculty here by their students, as well as a decorum in the class that tends towards quietness and reflection. Part of this has to do with the "shaping" of the Benedictine rule, itself. Students sit before the professor, carefully taking notes (interestingly, unlike Greenville, mostly by hand) and tend to only raise questions when the instructor asks for them (and even then, it is a somewhat rare phenomenon). At first, I thought this was simply something of a passivity. But now, I'm beginning to see that it has to do with the very values held dear by the community.

I think that the students I teach are formed most by the popular American culture all around them. Their facility with technology and their complete absorption in the consumerist mentality belie the commitments of even the most dedicated Christian. Their response in the classroom at times, can either partake of a passive nature (a learned behavior from sitting in front of electronic media, I think), or, if provoked, they can burst forth into a kind of consumerist or ideological tirade in which the word, "respect," is usually not a part of the vocabulary.

The question becomes: What values do we want to instill in our students and what practices will we use to inculcate said values? The challenge here is always to try and ride the fence regarding how far we go in embracing the culture. For instance, the use of technology in the classroom can be a tool for engaging some students. But to what extent does the very use of that technology instill certain behaviors and attitudes towards the world? My gravest concern on this score has to do with what we do in chapel. I am very concerned that if we simply give students what they think they want, we will simply reinforce those consumerist values. But, swimming upstream is hard. I don't think most would sit still very long for a "Benedictine approach."

So, I am left with the necessity of using a "song-and-dance" approach--at least as an initial hook. But, I want to commit to a shaping for the long haul that comes back around to central philosophical values we as a community at the college have chosen to embrace of instilling a life-long quest for learning, a respect for one another and the world God has given to us, and a passion for the things of the Spirit. At our best, these are some of the values I find at the heart of a good Greenville College liberal arts education.

In yesterday's Morning Prayer we sang a wonderful hymn set to a tune by one of my favorite composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams (if you don't know him, be sure to ask my good friend, Jeff Wilson!). Perhaps it expresses in "spirit" language (after all, the Wesleyan message seems to always come back to a passion to be filled up with God's love) my greatest hope, in this respect:

"Come down, O Love Divine, seek thou, this soul of mine;
And visit with thy ardor glowing.
O, Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear;
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing