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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
(more on the Journal)

Summer 2009
Vol. 36 No. 2

Re-Engineering the Teaching Machine:
Big Questions from the Inside Out and the Outside In*

Elizabeth Drescher

With characteristic bluntness, the late philosopher Paul Piccone once described the academy in general and the development of the intellectual class from which we may presume future faculty are drawn in precisely the sort of bleak terms that ground many of the worries over postsecondary education that are in the background of the Graduate Theological Union’s Teagle-Wabash Preparing Future Faculty Project:

Unless one fudges the definition of intellectuals in terms of purely formal and statistical educational criteria, it is fairly clear that what modern society produces is an army of alienated, privatized, and uncultured experts who are knowledgeable only within very narrowly defined areas. This technical intelligentsia, rather than intellectuals in the traditional sense of thinkers concerned with the totality is growing by leaps and bounds to run the increasingly complex bureaucratic and industrial apparatus. Its rationality, however, is only instrumental in character, and thus suitable mainly to performing partial tasks rather than tackling substantial questions of social organization and political direction.1

Given Piccone’s dire depiction of just one of the many problems we may rightly identify in postsecondary education today—the drive toward ever-increasing specialization across the disciplines in the service of the intellectual, capital, and productivity needs of the global economy—we should perhaps begin today by pausing for a brief prayer of gratitude for the blessing of a gathering which honors people who are very much “concerned with the totality” and with “tackling substantial questions” not only of social organization and political direction but also of spiritual meaning and its implications within and beyond postsecondary education. More than this, we have the luxury of counting ourselves as among those whose “concern with the totality” plays out in the particularity of the classroom, where our scholarship and pedagogy enable us to play an important role in students’ understanding of and engagement with their own “big questions of meaning and value,” as well as with what Marty Stortz has called the “culturally derived questions” that enter into the classroom and present themselves far outside its walls. Today we have the opportunity to learn from two of the real masters in the conversation on the relationship between postsecondary education and broader questions of meaning and value, Alexander Astin and Helen Astin.4 The Astins’ extensive work on this subject work has been important to the GTU’s Preparing Future Faculty Project not so much in its particulars—we have not, that is, been looking at spirituality in postsecondary education per se and our focus has not been on the experience of students and faculty in themselves—but because the Astins’ have wagered their considerable professional capital on a set of questions that on its face is challenging to the normative culture of the academy. Their work with Jennifer Lindholm and other researchers on the Spirituality in Higher Education project attempts, to adapt the phrase from Gayatri Spivak’s Outside in the Teaching Machine that is behind the title of this paper, to “reengineer the teaching machine” by feeding it new and challenging information on the spiritual lives of undergraduates and college and university faculty members as they intersect or conflict with the life of the academy.5

The Astins’ presentation research on the role of personal exploration, nurturance, and growth related to questions of existential meaning—concerns that they group under the familiar, and therefore practical, but not entirely uncontroversial category “spirituality”—has highlighted the degree to which students and faculty alike find academic culture as generally uncongenial and often outright hostile to pedagogical linkages between academic content and personal or existential meaning. Such issues are a considerable challenge to faculty, students, and institutions with an interest in developing academically credible approaches to learning that also take seriously the human meaning-making impulse, including its ethical, spiritual, and even religious dimensions. Thus, on the one hand, our project seeks to “[tackle] substantial questions of social organization and political direction” as well as questions of personal and existential meaning in the development of future faculty in belief that entering such concerns into the foundational training of faculty will challenge the narrowly instrumentalist character of so much postsecondary education. On the other, we have an obligation to prepare doctoral students for the reality of the academic cultures they hope to enter as teaching scholars. One way we attempted to balance these concerns in our project was by linking pedagogical training to experiential learning. Another was by shaping the project within the “culture of assessment” that exists at the GTU and which doctoral students are likely to find wherever they find themselves teaching as new faculty members.

Beyond this, our project attempted to link a “big questions” pedagogical orientation to the wider demands of the diverse institutional contexts in which our Fellows hope to teach. We tried to do this by shifting the key questions toward the developing professional identity of the future faculty member: Who am I when I enter the classroom? How does that self, its history, its questions, and commitments inform my teaching? Who am I in relation to who students are when they enter the classroom? What is my claim to an authoritative, relevant perspective on what happens in the classroom? And, perhaps most significantly and provocatively through the course of the project, Who am I in relation to my colleagues? How can I be a part of that professional community and retain the particularity of my own personal identity?

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