Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Suggestions for Professors

I'm rounding out the third year of my seminary education. Tonight marked the beginning of my spring quarter classes. After my class tonight (and the last three years of seminary) I was motivated to come up with a list of suggestions for seminary professors as to how they should think and act regarding graduate level teaching. If you've been through some sort of higher education, you can probably identify with some of these. These suggestions come as a result of working with professors from both Sioux Falls Seminary and Bethel Seminary the last three years.

But before I get into the suggestions (which are mostly formed from negative experiences I've had in seminary) I have to say that I've had just as many outstanding professors as I have poor ones (see here and here). Unfortunately, however, it always seems the poor ones have the most influence. So kudos to you who teach fairly and honestly. Jeers to those of you who treat your position as trivial, and don't realize the monumental impact you have on the hearts and minds of the students you teach. So without further ado, here are my suggestions to seminary professors.

1. Don't ridicule someone (or a group of people) who doesn't hold your position. You probably don't realize it, but any student who finds themselves holding the position contrary to the one you espouse feels silently ridiculed by their association to those whom you find to be ignorant and uneducated. You can certainly think what you want, but to teach in such a way that undercuts the opposing viewpoint without providing a reasoned argument for your position is intellectually dishonest, arrogant, and logically fallacious. Point out strengths and weaknesses of the positions of those with whom you disagree, as well as your own position and let the student decide. And do so in a way that is respectful and edifying.

2. Don't act as though obvious things are significant revelations that only you have discovered. Most of the time, you do this in order to undercut those who disagree with you and to further your own agenda and ideas. It's not intellectually honest.

3. Don't cite yourself in your lectures. It sounds incredibly arrogant (because it is, most of the time) when you talk about how you've "explained all this in detail in my book." No one cares. Yeah, you're smart; yeah, you've written a book. Get over it. The rest of us have. Also, don't try to validate your position by citing yourself. It's fallacious.

4. Don't use your position as a professor simply to further your academic career. Teach because you want to teach. Don't teach so you can write a paper and get a promotion. Students pay good, hard-earned money to receive an education from you. Hold yourself accountable and do your job without always looking for the next step. This makes you a bad teacher, because you're more invested in your own interests than those of your students.

5. Do use class time wisely, and use all of it. When you break down the numbers, students pay an astronomical amount for each minute of class time. So make sure to use the available class time well. Don't let your classes out early. Don't slough off class time by assigning "small group time." I have a suspicion that you sometimes don't make the most of class time because you don't have enough material to fill the whole time. If this is the case, redesign the class, charge less, and hold yourself accountable. Again, students pay a lot for this time, so use it wisely.

6. Do value the level of your students' learning more than you value the idea of yourself holding a position within the academy. I have found that there are a lot of professors who love the idea of themselves as being a professor. Like number 4 above, this makes you a bad teacher, and for the same reasons.

7. Do realize that a lot of the students under your care will take everything you say as gospel truth. True, you are not responsible for students who do not discern the truth for themselves, but you are responsible for their intellectual growth at least to some extent. In their eyes, you are a very educated person who knows what he or she is talking about (and for the most part, you do). But many of the students in seminary are young and impressionable, and are more than willing to sacrifice what they've believed for the newest and trendiest academic opinion. Be careful.

8. Do realize that as trendy as your current position might be, someday it will be dated and out of fashion. Someday you will be the one that young seminary professors are taking shots and, and it will be your views and ideas that will be ridiculed and treated as uniformed and anti-intellectual. Be humble, because someday you're going to be the guy whose views everyone looks at and asks, "What was he thinking?"

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