Although I have taught a variety of courses with different objectives in mind, there are some general goals that may be found in every class that I teach. One of my main aims for my students is to have a foundational understanding of the substance of the religion in question. For example, by the end of the quarter of my class “Christians in the World,” I want my students to be able to articulate some of the main differences between Catholics and Protestants. However, I do not want my students simply to be able to know the “who, what, when, where, why and how.” I also want them also to be able to answer—what I like to call—the “so what” question. In this case: what is the significance of the differences between Catholics and Protestants?
Second, I want our discussions to prompt my students to think about the great questions of life: how do we know what we know? What is evil? Do we have free will? What are the limits of language?
I often hear students, in one way or another, call into question the importance of metaphysics. They do not see how such issues are important for everyday life. The third goal, then, is for my students to realize why theological questions are paramount. I tell them that “how you think about the world dictates how you act in the world.” Asking and answering metaphysical questions is fundamental to the development of good citizens and educated leaders of the next generation.
In addition to these primary goals, I have several secondary lessons that I want my students to learn. First, I want them to begin to think critically, which is a skill that they will use throughout their lives. In order to prompt this type of thinking, I ask them questions such as “why is this theologian saying x, y, and z,” or, “what is at stake?”
Second, I want my students to learn the skill of how to read a text. I tell them that reading a text does not mean simply that you know the definitions of all words the in a given sentence. Especially when dealing with a text that is over a thousand years old, it is imperative to understand its many levels. I ask them questions about audience, genre, the assumptions that the author has compared to assumptions we have in the 21st century, and how this text relates to ones we have previously read.
I also stress to my students the importance of being able to write clearly, succinctly, and professionally.
Finally, as they will be entering the professional workforce after graduation, I insist that they display professional behavior, such as punctuality, not sleeping in class, not texting during class, and submitting work on time.
I employ a variety of strategies to achieve these goals. Each class commences with a short period of review of the previous lesson. A lecture presenting the context of the new lesson is then given. As too much lecturing engenders passive learning, I keep this part of class to a minimum. From time to time, we will watch a short video, but I do not indulge in this medium often.
The majority of our class is spent reading a primary text. The text acts as a springboard for conversations about the important metaphysical questions of life. During every unit, we read two sides of every issue. Then, we analyze the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. On the first day of class, I tell the students that I will always play the role of the “devil’s advocate” and that if I disagree with them, they should not take it personally. I always ask the students for their opinions about the issues by the end of the unit.
The quizzes, study guides, exams, and paper are also tools that I use to achieve these goals. The students take several quizzes that cover both the primary and secondary readings. The study guides reinforce the material that they have learned, and the essay questions on the exams force them to articulate the material in an organized fashion. The paper project—an interview with a person of authority, an observation of a ritual, or a research project—allows the students to see the relationship between the metaphysical ideas discussed in class and how those ideas are experienced by worshipers.