Teaching as vocation

I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching the last year and a half. The Lilly Fellows Program, here at Valparaiso, is a teaching fellowship, and it has provided me the space to explore, and push myself, and reflect critically on what I do and want to do in the classroom.

Students at work in one of my Valpo classes.

Students at work in one of my Valpo classes.

I’ve worked on ways to creatively engage non-history majors in the practice of historical thinking. I thought about writing, and how to teach it. I’ve worked a lot on teaching survey classes that draw students in.

I’ve also been thinking about college teaching a Christian calling, or vocation. About teaching, as Max Weber might say, als beruf.

Every week, during the semester, the five Lilly Fellows and some senior scholars gather to talk about this question of vocation and what is it is we’re doing, when we’re doing this job of teacher-scholar. We’ve read a wide variety of texts on the topic.

These are the seven readings that have most pushed my thinking, and the questions I’ve taken away from them:

Max Weber -- "Science as Vocation." I think this is mainly read out of concerns about "secularization," but I really value it for questions about whether or not professors should be "petty prophets."

Mark Schwehn -- "Academic Vocation" and "Communities of Learning," in Exiles from Eden. Schwehn doesn't quite put it in these Marxist terms, but why are academics so alienated from their own labor?

Daniel Mendelsohn -- An Odyssey. A book about teaching which is also about identity, family, and the tension in the liberal arts between "discovering yourself" and connecting with other people. 

Stephanie Paulsell -- "The Unknowable More." How to teach in awareness of our human limitations, in view of what we can't know (but need to know we can't know).

Cassandra Nelson -- "Bracing for Impact." How to teach into trauma, or at least more seriously consider the stakes of our reading practices.

Kevin Gary -- "Boredom, Contemplation, and Liberation." What if the best thing you can do for students is bore them?

Flannery O'Connor -- "Enduring Chill." There are lots of good short stories about teaching, and discussing fiction has lead to the most fruitful conversations. I especially like this one, from O'Connor. What is the relationship, the story asks, between pedagogy and the salvation of a human soul?

I’ll go on thinking about these things, in and out of the classroom, and in and out of the Lilly Fellows colloquium. This is, though, a good start.