Friday, March 30, 2012

just teaching

This afternoon, I attended a Q & A session for graduates interested or involved in teaching university courses.  It featured a panel of 5 award-winning professors who taught everything from mechanical engineering to marketing.  Aside from a few questions from the floor which sounded more like lectures than queries (grad students can get long-winded and off topic...who knew?), it was an informative session.  The professors had a lot of common sense to offer as well as valuable experiences and numerous examples.  Near the end, I finally asserted myself and asked a question about special situations that arise with students:  when should one be firm and when is it right to show leniency? You know, the old mercy versus justice issue.

As I get to know my students, I recognize potential and abilities in all of them.  I want them all to do well.  But some of them neglect to hand in assignments, miss important classes, or have excuses for late or shoddy work.  I want to give them another chance.  Or acknowledge their potential in some way, but how can I do that without compromising the standards of the course?  In some ways, I guess I am tempted to take responsibility for their education, and I really can't do that.  I can only take responsibility for providing a great learning environment.  What they do with that is up to them.

The practical advice I got today gave me clarity, especially for a few sticky situations I am facing in my class.  Here is what the teachers on the panel offered to us:

1.  Pick your battles.  Select a few key elements that are vital and important to the course.  Inform the students that these MUST be present in order to do well and then stick to it.  Build a learning curve into the course in order to allow students to catch and comprehend these key concepts, but make sure the students know what they have to know in order to pass.  And then be firm! 

2.  You are the Keeper of the Degree!  This means that how you teach should uphold the high value of a university degree, not dilute it.  Grades should not be bumped up out of pity for personal problems or because you see potential or because of a winning personality.  Grades should reflect actual work done in a timely manner, otherwise it is not fair to those who have worked really hard to do well.  Give students resources to get help if they are struggling, offer to look over preliminary work to make sure they are on the right track, even give them a chance to redo an assignment if you feel the circumstances merit it.  But if the work is not being done, let the mark reflect that. Hopefully, it will be a lesson to the student.  On the other hand, if you sense that a student really has it in them to do well, but got lost in the semester for some reason, find some nugget in their work and acknowledge it, even if in a small way. It will hopefully motivate them to do better next time.

3. Have fun in class.  Whatever your personality is, bring it.  Let your students see your passion for the subject and your ability to engage with it in many ways.  If you are having fun and engaging with the material, the class will catch your energy.  Keep it appropriately professional (you are not the students' best friend) and focussed on the material, but don't be afraid to play!

4. Use your mistakes to provide teaching moments.  Letting students see that you are still learning models what  a learner looks like.  Be sure to model anything that you expect them to learn, especially methods specific to your discipline, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

Thanks, fellow teachers, for the good advice and for bringing cranberry chocolate to the session.

the photo:  a row of school desks and typewriters I saw sitting in the desert in California.  Artwork or junkyard?

Friday, March 23, 2012


Dean is away on a business trip. This time, I am feeling his absence more than usual.  Perhaps because I am not slammed with work like I was last year - I actually have some time to re-create.  The only problem is that there is no one to party with, except the cat.  Last night, I finished my reading by 8 pm and turned on the television.  American Idol was on.  Not having followed it ever, really, I decided to give it a watch.  Hmmm.  Having spent the day reading about the incredible, multi-dimensional, surprising, invitational drama in which God lavishes his love on creation, it seemed trite and inconsequential.  The popcorn was good, though.

Another reason that I feel the solitude weighing on me this week is because I have neglected to nurture it lately.  I recently watched The Big Silence, a BBC series about a Dominican father who asks 5 people to embrace silence in their lives and see what effect it has.  One of the challenges these busy, 21st century multi-taskers have to face is 8 days of silence at a Jesuit retreat centre. After the first day there, tempers are short, complaints run high, and grumpiness abounds - reactions that show how averse we are to facing ourselves, the lack of peace we have in our circumstances, and how we view the presence of God as either boring or instrusive. 

Silence is not easy.  There is no entertaining music, no movies, no pubs to go to with friends, no phones, no stressful work, nothing but our thoughts...and the presence of God.  Perhaps it is not surprising that all 5 of the volunteers, after a few days of silence, began to face some of their inner fears, wrestle with inner traumas, and acknowledge inner questions that they had been too busy to pay attention to before.  The followers of Jesus who first fled to the mountain caves in Egypt to live in solitude (starting the monastic movement) knew the value of getting away from distractions.  Too often, they mask our inner turmoil and cause us to substitute activity for real, lasting peace.

So this week, I am trying to embrace the silence more.  To make space in my studying, in my rising up and going to sleep, in my relaxation, and most of all, in my thoughts, turning them more often to God.  I want to recognize the places I need healing and wholeness, to face hidden fears and places of unrest, and to walk quietly with Jesus, letting him talk instead of pestering him with constant chatter and questions.  It is not an easy discipline, but it is food for one's soul.

"Be still and know that I am God."  - from Psalm 46:10

the photo:  a lone tree in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Friday, March 16, 2012

oh good

Last week, I was reading some lectures given by Bernard Lonergan in 1959 and quite enjoying them. It was like taking a nice, leisurely walk.  One of the reasons it reminded me of a pleasant saunter in the forest on a spring day was because it gave me a break from reading Ricoeur.  Monsieur Ricoeur's brilliant philosophical mind likes to dive into craterous valleys and leap atop spiky mountains while balancing plates on his head.  At least that's what it feels like to simple, old me.

Anyway, I was enjoying my walk in the park with Lonergan as he discussed the subject of human good when I came upon the following paragraphs.  Abruptly, the walk in the park ended as a huge crevice opened up before me regarding the concept of "good."  Here is the quote:

"...the good is not apart from evil in this life.  In his Enchiridion (Handbook), St Augustine made perhaps one of the most profound remarks in all his writings, and for that matter in the whole of theology, when he said that God could have created a world without any evil whatever, but thought it better to permit evil and draw good out of the evil. 

We must not forget that what God wants, the world God foreknew from all eternity in all its details and freely chose according to his infinite wisdom and infinite goodness, is precisely the world in which we live, with all its details and all its aspects. This is what gives meaning to a phrase that might at times be considered trite: resignation to the will of God.  God does not will any sin, either directly or indirectly.  He wills only indirectly any privation or punishment.  What he wills directly is the good, and only the good.  Yet the good that God wills and freely chooses with infinite wisdom and infinite goodness is this world.  It is a good, then, that is not apart from evil.  It is a good that comes out of evil, that triumphs over evil." [1]

Dagnabit, Lonergan.  Why'd you have to go and say that?  Those are unsettling words!  Don't you know that "good" is squeaky clean?  Bright and shiny and oh so pure?  Never been touched or soiled by dirty, filthy evil?  It has never even looked at anything remotely un-good or for that matter thought about it?  It has never acknowledged the existence of anything less than good, so glorious is its glory?  Ah yes, the romantic idealist was popping up again.  My concept of "good"was something so totally divorced from evil that it would never get its hands dirty.  And fortunately, that is the same separatist image that Jesus shattered when he embraced full humanity.

"Good" deserves more credit than I had been giving it. It is much grander, much more gracious, and much more powerful than my sterile version of it.  I had been thinking of a one-dimensional, fenced-in "good."  Something that keeps itself apart from yuckiness and bad people, unsullied by evil and suffering.  In fact, the "good" that Jesus showed us is a "good" that embraces all the yuckiness and suffering and evil and still remains good. How does it do that?  I don't know.  But I need it!

However, embracing this concept of "good" is troublesome.  Lonergan introduces that bothersome phrase, "resignation to the will of God."  I really, really want to stay in my spring forest, walking along with birds chirping and a soft breeze blowing, everything in a state of heavenly goodness.  But once I acknowledge that this good God, in choosing to make a good world, chose this broken, imperfect mess around me, I become disillusioned.  Where is my utopia?  I want more than this!  I want sweet candy goodness!

This meaty, sinewy, raw idea of goodness is difficult to take in.  This earthy goodness bleeds and cries and dies, but somehow,this goodness remains undefeated.  This goodness embraces suffering, opens its arms to death and injustice, pain and sorrow, and swallows it all. Digests it. Turns it from poison into food -food that strengthens it.  In that case, evil can no longer be seen as the equal opposite of good.  Instead, evil becomes part of the tapestry of a bigger good: a red thread of spilled blood, a scarred circle of healing, a blue string tied to a green string in a reconciliation knot.  This tapestry of "good" is so much bigger than I had imagined.  So much more colourful than my eyes are able to see.  So much less fearful (shouldn't good run away from evil) than I made it out to be; in fact, good knows no fear.  It is deep and wide and broad, searching out the low and yucky, muddy places, just like the love of God.

Open your mouth and taste, open your eyes and see - how good God is. Psalm 34:8 (The Message)

1. Bernard Lonergan. Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan: Topics in Education: the Cincinnati Lectures of 1959 on the Philosophy of Education.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, p. 29-30.

the photo:  the back of a woven rug - a gift from my sister and bro-in-law in Afghanistan

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

humility (oh yeah)

In the process of teaching a course on Christian Spirituality, I came across some writings on humility from Jeremy Taylor, 17th century writer and cleric in the Church of England.  This happened to be in the Social Justice section of the textbook and it made me ask: what does humility have to do with social justice?  Turns out that the two have quite a lot to say to each other.

First, let me offer a few definitions of humility.  A contemporary dictionary provides us with these helpful descriptions:  not proud or arrogant, modest, having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.; low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc.; lowly, courteously respectful; low in height or level, small in size.  The Old Testament word for humility contains these ideas:  to be depressed in mind or circumstance, afflicted, humble, needy, poor, looking down, to prostrate, to submit, sink, abase, be low, to bend the knee.  In case you weren't feeling quite enough lowliness, here is what the Greek word for humility in the New Testament means:  to level a mountain, to bow down beneath the hand of God, limitations placed on the worth or wealth of a person.

Perhaps addressing a few more basic questions will be helpful when talking about humility.  1.  What is it?  2.  Why do I need it?  3.  How do I know if I have it? and 4. How do I get it?

First, what is humility?  For me, the heart of the matter has to do with "source." Romans 12:3 says: Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it's important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God.  No, God brings it all to you.  The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. (The Message).  Humility means that I am not my own source.  Whatever good I have, whatever good I can produce, it is not something that I have been able to conjure up within myself.  Humility is living in grace.  Humility is a gift.

Second, why do I need humility?  1 Peter 5:5-6 in the Good News Translation tells us this:  And all of you must put on the apron of humility, to serve one another; for the scripture says, God resists the proud, but shows favor to the humble.  Humble yourselves, then, under God's mighty hand, so that he will lift you up in his own good time. We need humility because without it, we are in opposition to God.  Jeremy Taylor puts it this way:  Humility teaches us to submit ourselves and all our facilities to  God, to 'believe all things, hope all things, endure all things' to which His will directs us, to be content in every situation or change; to adore His goodness, to fear His greatness, to worship His eternal and infinite excellence, and to submit ourselves to all our superiors in all things according to godliness, and to be humble and gentle in our conduct towards others.  Humility is necessary if I want to follow Jesus.  Without it, I am following myself.

Third, how do I know if I have humility?  1 Peter 3:8-12 tells us:  Summing up: be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble.  That goes for all of you, no exceptions.  No retaliation.  No sharp-tongued sarcasm.  Instead, bless - that's your job, to bless.  You'll be a blessing and also get a blessing.  Whoever wants to embrace life and see the day fill up with good, here's what you do:  say nothing evil or hurtful; snub evil and cultivate good; run after peace for all you're worth.  God looks on all this with approval, listening and responding well to what he's asked; but he turns his back on those who do evil things. (The Message).  If I have humility, I will be a person focused on blessing others instead of climbing the ladder to success.  My job will be to bless, not to garner praise or be valued by others.  My value comes from God, not from how highly others esteem me.  If I have humility, I will be indifferent to lowliness or greatness.

Fourth, how do I get or develop humility in my life?  In reading through the Bible, I found several situations that went hand in hand with humility.  It appears that when we practice the following acts, humility is never far away.  a) Worship is not possible without humility, because in worship we choose to place the highest value and worth on God instead of on ourselves. See Numbers 29:7. b) Confessing our evil intentions and repenting requires great humility.  It is easy to excuse and defend our mistakes or failings, but humility acknowledges our shortcomings and intentionally turns away from self-serving actions.  See 2 Kings 22:18-20.  c) Asking for guidance and directions is another way that we embrace humility.  Not only are we inviting others (especially God) to help us, we are inserting ourselves into a communal situation where we depend on each other.  See Ezra 8:21-22.  d) Recognizing that we don't know everything and saying 'I don't know' does not always come naturally.  We want to be looked up to, admired, commended.  Instead, Jeremy Taylor insists:  Never say anything that would directly lead to your praise or glory, whose only purpose is to commend yourself.  He also notes that it is unhelpful to compare ourselves with others, for this leads to distorted valuations of ourselves and others.

How does all of this relate to social justice?  Humility, first of all, is a gift of grace, an acknowledgement that we are not our own source.  Humility is meant to be a foundational force guiding our lives into agreement with God's valuation of all things.  Humility necessarily leads to actions that reflect courageous and compassionate service because we value what God values.  Social justice, which concerns itself with equity and responsibility within community, is thus only possible through the grace of humility.  Cool, isn't it?

One final note from Jeremy Taylor: Humility begins as a gift from God, but it is increased as a habit we develop.

The quotes used here and other thoughts from Jeremy Taylor on humility can be found at:

This was taken from a talk I gave in our faith community on Sunday.

the photo:  taken in Idyllwild, California, high up in the mountains.  Not low.

Friday, March 02, 2012

enforced holy-days

We went on a holiday at the end of February, spending a week in Indian Wells, California.  It was a warm, welcome break for both of us, but especially for me.  For the first time in awhile, I really unplugged from my responsibilities at church and school (and blogging).  Part of this unplugging was possible because I worked ahead and completed all my reading, assignments, and tasks.  The other reason that I was able to let go much of what I usually try to stay on top of was because I was sick for the first 3 days.  Yep.  Not throwing-up-everything-I-eat sick (thank goodness), but fever-and-cough-and-sinus-infection-no-energy sick.  I learned that sitting upright on a plane to LA can be a bit of a stretch for a feverish person, so I flopped down sideways on the empty seat beside me instead of reading a book like I had planned.  The fresh air and sun revived me a bit when we landed, and the 2 hour drive into the desert was bright and beautiful, filled with many amazing sights.  But when we arrived at our destination, I began to wilt.  We went for a short walk in the sun (which I had been looking forward to for weeks), and my pace was slower than an aging tortoise.  How could it require so much effort to put one foot in front of the other? 

I spent a few hours in bed each afternoon during the next few days and slowly regained my strength.  During my brief and inconvenient illness, I realized that my thoughts and energies were no longer on my responsibilities at school or church.  What filled my mind were much more basic thoughts.  I concentrated on breathing in the life around me and living in thankfulness.  I got out of bed in the mornings, went outside in the back yard and stood in the sun for a few moments.  I picked a grapefruit off the tree and stood there some more.  These were moments just to take in simple things like breathing, standing, sunshine, looking at the pond, and feeling green grass between my toes.  A shower became an occasion for much rejoicing.  Water, warmth, clean smells, cool tile, and the energy to stand for 10 minutes.  Astounding!  The highlight of my mornings became eating a fresh grapefruit and savouring each flavourful pod.

Because I tend to be a very responsible person (and slightly perfectionist as graduate students are prone to be), my mind is usually not at rest.  I am always thinking of the next weeks and what I need to accomplish.  I always have lesson plans, teaching ideas, and writing thoughts running through my head.  Being sick took the focus off of my incredibly important responsibilities (that's a bit of sarcasm in case you missed it) and put it back on the basics that I take for granted:  eating fresh food, walking, breathing, sitting still in the presence of God and others and just enjoying the richness of the moment. 

I think this is perhaps what prayer and fasting are supposed to be about.  If we embrace these disciplines and learn to do them well, we begin to drop our self-importance and get back to the basics of breathing and being thankful.  We start to train our minds to be still and know that God is God.  We listen and look instead of planning and performing.  We begin to know that being a faithful person is not about taking on responsibility but learning to lean on someone much more capable than we are.  We see more clearly that we are weak and inadequate, and instead of scaring us, this realization relieves us.  We exchange our responsibilities and burdens for the peace of God.

I must confess that I don't pray well.  I don't fast well, either.  My mind seldom stops running on its self-devised treadmill.  Sickness forced me to relinquish control of my responsible self for a few days and instead enjoy the hallowedness of the moment and see again the sacredness of this life.  I want this peace and freedom to become a regular discipline instead of the result of an occasional, incapacitating illness.  I want to choose stillness and rest as a regular holy habit and not require a physical collapse from infection to enter into that peace.

Jesus, teach me to pray.  Teach me to fast.

the photo:  the landscape near Yucca Valley, California.