Friday, March 29, 2013

grading blues

On campus in summer
Last week I finished grading research essays written by my first year university students.  It is not one of my favourite tasks, I have to admit.  Oh, it starts out well enough.  As I read the first few papers I am filled with hope, eager to discover what the students have unearthed in their excavation of facts, texts, and philosophies.  However, by the end I am usually deflated, discouraged, and never want to see another essay.  After hours of grading, the mere misuse of a comma, an improper citation of a source, or a paragraph that extends longer than a page makes me grind my teeth, emit a primitive groan, and reach for another square of chocolate.  I get so tired of trying to decipher what students are trying to say and having to hack my way through a jungle of incoherent words (is there a point somewhere in it all?), that I want to put a big X on the page and tell them to start over.  In English this time, please.  But I don't.

Of course, there are always a few eloquent, well-structured, and thoughtfully researched essays which prevent me from losing my sanity, but they are few and far between.  I try to grade with mercy, remembering that a research essay is one of the most difficult assignments students will ever be asked to complete, but after awhile, even pity can't hold back the frustration that I feel building inside me when student after student seems to lack the ability to write a clear thesis or compose a topic sentence or follow a simple style guide.

The only thing worse than grading substandard papers is seeing the disappointment, shock, sadness, and demoralization on students' faces when they receive a low mark.  The last thing I want to do is demotivate students, but I can't give marks away for free.  I want them all to do well, I really do (what teacher doesn't?), so there is nothing quite so depressing as seeing a demotivated and deflated student, crestfallen and doubting their abilities.  But the fact remains that writing a research essay is demanding.  It requires a lot of diligence, attention to detail, clear thinking, hard work, extensive reading, careful editing, and most of all, practice.  And not everyone in a first year university course has had that practice.

Evaluating student's work against a static rubric is not ideal, I know.  But neither is being dishonest about the students' abilities to follow directions nor inflating their self-confidence when they have underdeveloped, superficial self-learning skills (good research is the foundation of self-learning).  I realise that part of the problem with the grading process is that it makes me feel like a bad teacher.  I am not perfect, but I am not a bad teacher.  I care about my students, I try to give them all the tools they need to learn, I try to make the study of theology accessible while preserving its mysterious and ineffable nature, and I use a lot of different teaching techniques that allow the students to come at the material from a number of angles (and keeps us from getting bored in class). 

Sometimes I (and probably my students) need a few reminders about the nature of learning. 
1.  Learning is not about getting a good grade, but about knowing more than I did at the beginning of the process.
2.  Learning takes time and never ends, so be patient. 
3.  Never compare myself (or a student) to others; this never ends well.  Either one gets inflated by a high standing (overconfident, proud, perhaps an increased pressure to perform well) or one is discouraged by a low standing (which is demotivating and can make one want to give up). 
4.  If I do something, do it to the best of my ability at the time.  Next time or the time after that, I will undoubtedly do it better.
5.  Appreciate lessons learned by correction (or error).  These are hard, but I won't forget them.
6.  Learning is a privileged journey.  Not everyone has ready access to resources like we do.  Not everyone has a positive and supportive learning environment like I do. Be thankful.
7.  Learning goes hand in hand with discernment, so make sure wisdom is part of any learning process; it's more than just getting an assignment right or doing well on a test.
8.  Be kind to your fellow learners (students).  At times one has to be firm, but one never has to be unkind.

Here are a few wise words from Proverbs 15:
Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.  Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding.  Wisdom's instruction is to fear the Lord, and humility comes before honor.


Friday, March 22, 2013


As part of my comprehensive exams,  I am reading through Augustine's Confessions.  I have studied parts of it before, but never read it all the way through from beginning to end.  Scholars have remarked on this classic autobiography for hundreds of years, so I am probably not embarking on any new territory here, but let me offer a few observations anyway.

Tahquitz Canyon, California.
One of the places I have confessed my shortcomings.

1.  Life never has to be done alone.  Augustine begins with these words:  "Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise, your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning."  Despite this book being about his own life, Augustine writes in a way that draws the reader to another person, the ever-present God and Creator.  Page after page, he inserts prayers and bursts of praise into his story, as if this were the most natural way to recount the details of his life.  Augustine continues:  "You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you."

Like any human being, I like to talk about myself and my world (witness this blog and my status updates on facebook), but reading Augustine's Confessions reminds me that deep down inside, I long for my talking, my writing, my thinking, and my life to be a conversation instead of a monologue.  We long to connect.  For Augustine, God is that faithful conversation partner: always present, always listening, always active and loving, always near. When he looks back on his life, he is confident that he was never alone, never lost, never wandering because Love was always nearby.

2.  It's okay not to be perfect.  Part of loving someone and being loved is letting them into our world; that includes not hiding our flaws and imperfections and coming clean about our mistakes and bad decisions.  Exposing our foolishness to the outside world is a tricky business. People have been fired, become the object of public scorn, and suffered humiliation when their dirty secrets have been aired.  All of us have moments of failure, but what are we to do with them?  Stuff them way down, bury them so that no one ever finds out?  No.

Augustine demonstrates a way to be free from past mistakes by bringing them before God in the presence of witnesses.  He takes ownership of all his foolish decisions, never hiding his selfishness, lust, stubbornness, and pride.  But the reason he puts all this down for others to read is not to shock anyone, nor gain fame (or infamy) nor to ease his guilty conscience.  He writes about his life with all its ups and downs in order to showcase the greatness of God and the transformative power of love.  Within this context, the reader takes no guilty pleasure in hearing about all of the bishop's dirty secrets.  Instead, they are revealed as insipid and tawdry when compared to the beauty and shining purity of Divine love which we see on nearly every page, broadcast in eloquent and enthusiastic language.  Confession in the context of love makes true love glow brighter.

Reading Augustine is humbling and encouraging.  I am humbled by the man's deep love for his God and his awareness of that constant, burning presence.  I am humbled by his courage in bravely baring his soul without feeling the need to safeguard his reputation.  I am humbled by his great mind which probes deep within and without, always searching for the truth which will finally satisfy.  I am encouraged by a love story which shows us the transformation of one who is mired in deceit, trapped in self-centred lust, and drawn into self-promotion, all the while being drawn surely and steadily toward the greatest love he will ever know.  I am encouraged that someone has thought the same troubling thoughts as I have and found solace in the ever-present and wise Spirit of God.  I am encouraged that writing about one's own life is not a waste of time and need not be an exercise in self-indulgence.  And above all, I am encouraged that Love will find me, no matter where I go or what I do, he will always find me.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

get closer

Ocean Beach, California.  I love being close to the beach.
Quite a few characters there that I found hard to love, though.
I was preparing a lecture on Catherine of Genoa this afternoon and came across the following disturbing sentences:  "She was greatly zealous in ... bringing help to the sick and the poor to the best of her ability.  She would clean the most nauseating filth, and if she felt her stomach heaving, she would put some of it in her mouth to overcome her squeamishness."  I felt a bit sick just reading that, to be honest.  I don't understand how putting something disgusting in your mouth can help you overcome nausea.  To me, it makes more sense to drop the offensive article and get as far away as possible!  But the principle behind Catherine's action is simple:  if you find it hard to love, get closer. 

The same kind of attitude could be seen in Mother Teresa.  She cared for the sick and the dying, touching them, feeding them, bathing them, and she never found them repulsive.  Why?  Because there was something greater at work than the filth or the smell.  She said:  "No, I wouldn't touch a leper for a thousand pounds; yet I willingly cure him for the love of God."  Love overcomes any bad or repugnant smell, any awful disease or repulsive behaviour.  Mother Teresa also said: "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."  We forget that we belong to each other because we have put distance between ourselves and others.  Distance makes it easy to see people in terms of us and them: men and women, poor and rich, liberals and conservatives, different races, countries, and religions.  And the more we can keep people at a distance, the easier it is to judge them, condemn them, ignore them.  I believe this is one of the reasons why gossip is such a dreadful and deadly activity.  Because it involves talking about people instead of to them, it allows us to objectify them and their situations instead of acknowledging that they are human beings just like us.  There is no love and no call to compassionate action in gossip; there is only distance and disdain.

Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, tells the story of a gang member who was trying to get his life straight.  Father Greg offered the young man a job but told him that he would have to work beside someone from a rival gang.  The young man reluctantly agreed, insisting that he would work beside him, but he wouldn't talk to him.  The first day on the job, it was obvious that the two young men were enemies.  Six months later, one of the them was viciously attacked and ended up in a hospital, unresponsive.  The first young man called Father Greg and said, "Is there anything I can do?  Can I give him my blood?"  There was a pause and the young man continued, "He was not my enemy; he was my friend.  We worked together."  Proximity erodes indifference and hatred. 

If we don't love someone, we need to get closer, work with them, learn who they are, find out their story, have a meal together.  We may not become best friends or even find much in common, but we will begin to care.  We will begin to see them as a person who craves love and acceptance, a person who is broken in some ways and generous in others.  Just like us.

People often ask Father Greg, "Does this sort of change of heart happen all the time between enemies who work together?"  "Yes," he replies.  And he would know.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

why beauty matters

The Cholla cactus in Joshua Tree Park.  Beautiful in its own way.

I have begun reading the sixty plus titles that are required for my upcoming comprehensive exams.  I decided to tackle the weightiest works first (don't know if that is wisdom or craziness), so in the past days I have been reading Balthasar's thoughts on theological aesthetics.  It is fascinating, inspiring, and due to the density of the material, pretty challenging.  Balthasar starts his theological writings with one word: beauty.  And I must say, I think he's onto something.  Why is beauty so important?

First, a few definitions of beauty.  At you can find the following descriptors of the word:  a combination of qualities such as shape, color or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight; a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense.  Balthasar gives a more theological definition of beauty:  the intersection of form and splendour.  He indicates what he means by these two aspects:  form is an actual presence that can be seen, heard, experienced, not just an abstract concept, and splendour is that which makes something love-worthy.

Basically, beauty is something which attracts and captivates us.  It is different from lust (which seeks to take from or devour).  It is not based on mere appearance.  It is not tied to worldly, superficial, and temporary ideas of what constitutes beauty.  Balthasar suggests that beauty is something which bestows nobility on a person's every day life.  So what is nobility?  Being noble means to be grand, stately, magnificent, of high moral character, having courage, generosity, honour, dignity, eminence (being important and distinguished), and excellence.  Beauty has the ability to bestow this wonderful nobility because when we encounter real beauty (not the temporary, superficial kind), we are lifted up.  Beauty enlarges us, it makes us more beautiful ourselves, and it helps us to embody goodness.  Beauty changes us.

A few biblical examples of beauty might be helpful to illustrate the point.  First, the story of Esther in the Old Testament.  Here was a beautiful woman who was so attractive and captivating that the king of the time made her his queen.  Esther was more than just a pretty face, though; she was a woman of high moral character and courage, insisting on justice even when doing so endangered her life.  She was a generous and noble person, exercising hospitality, restraint, and kindness while navigating the tricky process of protecting the lives of a persecuted people.  She raised the moral standards of the palace by her actions and in turn, circumvented the destruction of a nation.  In her story, we can see that beauty is intricately linked to goodness.  Balthasar observes that "in a world without beauty... the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out."  If we forget what real beauty is, we forget what goodness is.

A second example is perhaps more obvious in its theological implications.  In Isaiah 52 we have the prophet calling out to a city that is under the harsh rule of Assyria.  He cries out for Zion to "Awake, awake" and "clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor."  It is a call to the city to rise up and beautify herself.  Why?  And how can such a downtrodden people muster strength and exhibit splendour?  Let's read on:  Isaiah declares that lust and captivity, oppression and abuse are coming to an end.  Then he writes these familiar words: 
     How beautiful on the mountains
     are the feet of those who bring good news
     who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings,
     who proclaim salvation,
     who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'
Here, beauty is found in feet (not the usual object of admiring stares) that bring news of freedom, that announce peace, that run in the name of salvation, that proclaim the coming of God's good reign again.  Zion can beautify herself because beauty (in the form of good news and salvation) has come her way.  An encounter with beauty changes everything. 

In contrast to many of the messages we receive through the media these days, beauty is much more than mere appearance.  Beauty brings goodness.  Beauty lifts people up.  Beauty restores hope and joy and purity.  Beauty comforts.  Beauty brings healing.  A later verse in Isaiah 52 contains these phrases: "his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness" (verse 14).  These words are thought to allude to the leprosy of a former king, Uzziah.  In the following sentence we encounter the idea of "sprinkling" which can also be translated "cleansed" ("so he will sprinkle the nations"). This relates to the practice of priests sprinkling water on the sick for their healing (see Ezekiel 36:25).  In this case, we see that beauty can even co-exist with physical disfigurement because it is not equal to outward appearance.  "Who would have thought God's saving power would look like this?" (Isaiah 53:1, The Message).   

This chapter has profound messianic implications and it (as well as the following chapter) are quoted several times by New Testament writers in order to tie the ancient cries of the prophets to the life and works of Jesus. In Jesus we see the perfect combination of form and splendour.  He took on human form: people could see him, touch him, hear him.  He carried the splendour of the Divine in his being: this is what captivated people and made him love-worthy.  The one sent from God to bring healing to the world, to bring peace on earth, and to bring good news of comfort and salvation did not attract people by his outward appearance, but by his love, his insistence on justice, and his mercy and compassionate healing.  His beauty lifted people up, it changed them.  People who have a profound encounter with beauty become carriers of beauty themselves.  They radiate with goodness and there is an inexplicable desire to be near them.  Beauty is one of those mysterious things that defies precise description and scientific calculation.  There is no formula for beauty.  It cannot be dissected; it must be beheld.

And this beauty, Balthasar insists, is the first word in theology.  The attractiveness of a good and generous God whose splendour changes us as we encounter it in concrete form is the beginning of a beautiful life.  A life that lifts others up and bestows nobility on the ordinary.  If you have ever gazed out over an ocean, or stood in awe at the base of a mountain, or witnessed a baby in peaceful sleep or seen children in gleeful play, or watched the northern lights dance and heard them crackle across the sky, or smelled the first flowers blooming in spring, or stood at the front of a church looking into the eyes of your beloved as you say vows that join you for a lifetime... then you have experienced a bit of the mysterious, transformational power of beauty.  And that is why beauty matters.

Quotes from Hans Urs von Balthasar.  The Glory of the Lord, Volume I: Seeing the Form.  Translated by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis.  Edited by Joseph Fessio S.J. and John Riches.  Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1982.