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Enabling Interreligious Understanding

Faith in the Neighborhod Blog

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The Deep Delight of Sharing What I Have Learned

Lucinda Mosher

In January 2010, I was asked to draft a statement of my philosophy of teaching. This is what I wrote.

Perhaps it stems from being assigned, as a young specialist, to teach music to a group of hearing-impaired four-and five-years. My overarching philosophy of teaching is this: a way can be found to engage the group of students assigned to my care with the material I am expected to present to them. I now teach in the field of Religious Studies—which includes aspects of theology, history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and textual criticism. When I enter a classroom, I have three goals in mind: I want my students to increase their command of the subject’s particular content; I want them to depart with enhanced learning skills which will serve them well in the future—whatever the subject matter or the learning venue; and I want to sharpen my own skills as an educator. I work toward these goals with creativity, flexibility, and enthusiasm.

I am known for detailed syllabi. This enables my students to be thoroughly aware of my expectations and the pace of the course; it also ensures that I will manage class time with care. However, I remain willing to revise that program of study as I become acquainted with a particular group of students—their abilities, their needs, their own goals for taking this course. In choosing reading assignments, I assemble a variety of voices: women as well as men; various ethnicities or nationalities; classic and cutting edge material. Every course of study comes with its core vocabulary. I help my students understand the difference between the casual use of key words and technical working definitions as I help them move from basic concepts and background information to ways in which this material connects to our present concerns, or to issues raised in the popular press or by local events, or to other disciplines in the curriculum.

In recent years, I have done much teaching of second-career students. A respectful, accepting learning environment takes account of the fact that adults learn through various modes. Carolyn Henninger Oehler (in an article included in Reber and Roberts’ A Lifelong Call to Learning) identifies four: the experiential, personal involvement; the watching-and-listening; that of logical analysis and systematic planning; and, the hands-on. To the extent that the material and the schedule allow, I provide for all four. Where formal lectures must predominate, I make extensive use of visual aids. In reading courses with large enrollments, I often create teams of students and structure assignments in a manner which guarantees that I will hear from each in an efficient manner. I have a preference for experiential learning, thus include site-visits whenever possible. For a recent course which necessarily had much to do with literary theory, close reading, and analysis of sacred texts, an early session was given over to a field trip to a well-known landmark in order to consider architecture as critical interpretation of space and purpose, as well as to engage in some preliminary “close reading” of this structure and its relation to the city in which it stands. Thus fresh energy was given to the task of interrogating various writings. For a classroom full of generally weak readers, a trip to an off-campus panel discussion may embed complex ideas in these students’ awareness much more so than will reading one of the featured presenters’ essays. I watch for opportunities such as these; where they are not readily available, I find other ways to vary the mode of presentation. I have used dedicated course websites for years. This allows me to provide supplementary material with ease as needed, to communicate with the whole class daily if desirable, to require blogging and other online interaction between sessions—thus the collaborating and polishing of ideas in between our meetings, which enhances our conversation when we are together.

I am aware that many students (and particularly, adult learners) may feel vastly more comfortable with one learning mode than another. I recognize and provide for this, yet encourage them to try the less comfortable. To encourage even the most reticent to find her voice, I use a number of conversation-provoking techniques. The goal is always that everyone be involved in the discussion at some level, even if reluctant to speak to the class as a whole. To encourage active, careful, close reading, I provide them with several outlines of “questions to ask of a text”—any text—and urge them to put these questions to use. I interrogate my students regarding their methods of note-taking and their strategies of studying for mastery of details; where these methods seem not to be serving them well, I recommend and demonstrate alternatives. My point here: I want my students to develop and enhance transferrable learning skills; even if students should lose their grip on the minutiæ of a course, I want them to leave it with tools by which to engage more deeply whatever material they study in the future.

My assessment of student progress has taken many forms, depending on the nature of the program and the course: oral presentations; participation in discussions; ability to comment on assigned reading when asked; written work (single-paragraph responses to a question or statement; reflection essays; analytical or research essays) submitted for critique. Where quizzes and exams are necessary, my preference is for formats which will unlock what a student does know; and, when students do poorly, for employment of various strategies whereby they can “climb out of the gutter” without penalizing classmates who got things right in the first place. Where mastery of details is crucial, I encourage retakes, but for a declining rate of return. When my teaching venue requires narrative evaluations rather than traditional grades or percentages for each student, a summary interview may be an important ingredient of overall assessment.

To sharpen my own skills as an educator, I appreciate discussions with my colleagues. Each term, I try new teaching strategies. Even for a course I have taught many times, the syllabus always receives fresh thought. In deciding what to leave and what to change, I draw upon feedback from my students. I encourage and value their comments on what they found delightful or deeply disliked about a book or a unit we have just completed. When staffing needs have called for it, I have been willing to accept course assignments on the fringes of my expertise. The result: tremendous growth on my part, and a renewed appreciation of the labors of my students. I come to teaching about teaching with a plethora of teaching experience, and with willingness, indeed eagerness, to refresh my command of educational and cognitive theory. This is why I teach: I have an abiding and ever-evolving commitment to learning, and a deep delight in sharing what I have learned.

Lucinda Mosher, Th.D.
Winter 2010