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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Summer 2009
Vol. 36 No. 2

Where Religion Faculty Meet Students’ Worlds:
Lessons from the GTU Preparing Future Faculty Project

James A. Donahue

I am pleased to provide an introduction to a very special project of the Graduate Theological Union that explores two important issues that go to the heart of the mission of the GTU.  These issues are engagement with the “Big Questions” of meaning and purpose in the context of teaching theology and religious studies, and the preparation of future faculty in developing the pedagogical skills and insights that enable them to become effective teachers in higher education.

With the generous support of the Teagle Foundation and the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, the GTU has been able to create what I consider to be a most remarkable program in graduate education that cultivates the skills to make GTU future faculty well positioned to be leaders in their academic fields. 

The seeds of this project were first generated through my participation in “listening” conversations on the “Big Questions” sponsored by Robert Conner, President of the Teagle Foundation, in 2005. Bob’s description of the nature of the focus of these conversations frames the issues very nicely:
The Teagle Foundation has recently been probing into the big question of “Big Questions” in liberal education. We wanted to know whether a more direct engagement with the “Big Questions” would help invigorate students’ liberal education. One of our Listenings on the Blue Ridge, a Virtual Listening over the Internet, and various conversations and other exchanges has brought some complicated issues to the fore. We haven’t tried to define those “Big Questions,” but we gave, as examples, such questions as “Who am I? What am I going to do with my life? What are my values? Is there such a thing as evil? What does it mean to be human? How can I understand suffering and death? What obligations do I have to others? What makes work, or a life, meaningful and satisfying?” We were also curious about shifting student attitudes (including their interest in religion and spirituality), about issues of value and meaning, and power and morality, and their place in undergraduate experience today—in the curriculum and beyond. We wanted to know if such questions might be in eclipse in liberal education today. The conversations have not led to firm answers; in fact our questions about the “Big Questions” seem to get bigger and bigger. The following components are a personal reaction to this inquiry, but they point to some actions that would help—some requiring philanthropic help, others within reach of individual teachers, departments, of central administrators.

The decision to couple our interest at the GTU in “Big Questions” with our commitment to preparing future faculty for their roles as teachers and educators with pedagogical skills and experience pointed to the need to develop an initiative that would invite our doctoral students into a process that would give them the opportunity to explore a myriad of these issues from their own perspective and to gain actual experience in teaching and learning about these critical matters.  The components of this project are described in four essays that follow.    

The range of perspectives contained here is remarkable.  We discovered early in the process that the idea of the integration of and interrelationships among ideas is central for understanding this project.  Reflected in these essays therefore, you will find a focus on a wide span of issues-- spirituality, vocation, the liberal arts, assessment and learning, essays on the scope of theology and religious studies, as well as a range of aspects about what it means to be a good and effective teacher for undergraduates.  Perhaps the centerpiece of this project was the doctoral seminar, “Vocation, the Liberal Arts, Theology, and Teaching the Big Questions,” that I co-taught with Dr. Maureen Maloney.  This and many other dimensions of this project are described in the pages that follow.
In 2007, the Graduate Theological Union undertook a two-part project to mentor doctoral students as future faculty who could practice pedagogies which would engage “big questions,” questions of meaning and value provoked by the content of their courses, which students bring to the undergraduate classroom, and which they face in the world outside the university. Our research interest was to determine how faculty charged with developing future faculty can best mentor toward vocations of teaching scholarship in which “big questions” are central in practical approaches to classroom teaching. In the first part of this issue, project team members present findings and conclusions, while a project Mentor and two project Fellows offer inside perspectives on the mentoring process and on collegial relationships as they developed in the project.

The first essay is Maureen Maloney’s “Engaging the Institution: Mentoring Future Faculty, Big Questions of Vocation, and the Reality of Assessment.”“Engaging the institution” within the Preparing Future Faculty Project raised a number of interesting challenges with regard to the element of the project involving course design and delivery as well as with assessment. This paper explores these issues as they unfolded through the course of the project and identifies key learning for the development of future faculty that emerged from the process of working through them. Preliminary recommendations are provided for creating structured, intentional programs for the mentoring of future faculty in religion and theology whose teaching is anchored to pedagogies which encourage engagement with big questions of meaning and value generated by students, faculty members, course content, and wider cultural concerns.
Elizabeth Drescher presents the second essay, “Reengineering the Teaching Machine: Big Questions from the Inside Out and the Outside In.”  The title of this paper is a play on Gayatri Spivak’s Outside in the Teaching Machine, a work that assumes that “as the margin or ‘outside’ enters an institution or teaching machine, what kind of teaching machine it enters will determine its contours” (Spivak, 1993: ix). For the Fellows participating in the Preparing Future Faculty Project, questions of “insider” and “outsider” status and the effect of various disciplinary and institutional “teaching machines” on the vocational identities and authority of developing teaching scholars were central. This paper considers the Fellows’ discursive practice over the course of the project by way of discerning a developing vocational and pedagogical habitus and the kernels of a transformational “pedagogy of educated hope” (Giroux, 2003) that participates in the “re-engineering” of the liberal arts “teaching machine” by emphasizing the interfacing of its ethical, political, and social functioning with its personal and existential role.

Third is Martha Ellen Stortz’s essay, “The Stakes Involved in “Going Spiritual”: Mentoring Future Faculty toward Meaning and Value.”  One of the biggest questions is belonging: we are the company we keep. How do we belong to the world, the academy, the institution, the faculty? In a sense, this is a question of citizenship, understood as concretely as what it means to “join a faculty” and understood as spiritually as what it means to be a citizen of the universe. As new faculty wrestle with these questions, they model right--and wrong!--ways of belonging for their students. This presentation explores the big question of belonging by way of considering what happens in the postsecondary classroom in any discipline when faculty elect to “go spiritual,” in the potent words of one colleague. What is at stake for students, faculty, and institution when questions of meaning and value are central to the exploration of academic content?
Concluding Part One of this issue is an essay by Melissa James and Steven C. Bauman entitled “Big Questions of Vocation, Professional Identity, and Classroom Practice: A Conversation between Colleagues.”  Using words like “anguish,” “struggle,” and “isolation,” René Arcilla suggests that for today’s students “disorientation is a central feature” of their postmodern education (Arcilla, 2007: 19). As I have noted previously, such “confusion and alienation” instigate “an intense search for security and definition” (Donahue, 1988: 326), which both writers observe ends in premature resolution of the “big questions.” This is highly problematic, as the premature closing off of possible futures restricts the scope of a student’s world, and consequently, inhibits engagement with bigger questions. In this paper, two Preparing Future Faculty Project Fellows draw from work in their respective disciplines, their shared participation in this two-year project, and subsequent combined interdisciplinary efforts, to offer their own unique insights into this problem and provide suggestions for possible remedies which take seriously the Astins’ challenge that “there is much more faculty and colleges can do to facilitate students’ spiritual development” (HERI, 2005).

It is an honor to have Sandy and Lena Astin engage the content of this project. This response follows later in this volume. Their work in collecting the data on the values of college students for the past twenty years, and the spiritual beliefs and values dimension of this data, has provided a way of articulating and framing our work. It helps to put our insights into a much larger context and helps to outline the next steps of our work.    

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