24 September 2003

Teaching undergraduate students

In my seventeen years of teaching undergraduates I've learnt that there is more than one kind of university student. As especially my introductory-level classes tend to be populated by all types, I have to try to reach out and grab as many as I can. That's not always easy to do. Among the varieties of students are numbered the following:

(1) Some students are at university simply to kill time. They have no real intellectual interests and lack even a rudimentary sense of personal direction. They are basically wasting their parents' (less likely their own) hard-earned money. They generally do not last beyond the first (or, at the very latest, second) year.

(2) Some students attend university for the social whirl. They get involved in everything, from sport to student government, while their studies take second place. They do not do badly on the academic side, but time spent with friends is definitely their priority.

(3) There are some students who go to university with all their opinions fully formed from, say, age 14 and intend to graduate with them completely intact. They may or may not do adequately in their studies, but clearly they would prefer not to learn anything that might challenge their pre-existing assumptions. They hear what they wish to hear and ignore the rest.

(4) Then there are the students who attend their classes, do well on their assignments, learn a lot of discrete pieces of information about a lot of things, and make it to graduation, ready to enter the job market. They have good reason to be satisfied with their performance, will get good recommendations from their instructors and will likely achieve a measure of success in whatever they put their minds to.

(5) Finally, there are those students whose undergraduate education turns out to be a watershed experience. They do not simply absorb a lot of information; rather their entire worldview is shaken up by the things they are learning inside and outside the classroom. They are seeing things they hadn't seen before and thinking in ways they had never imagined possible beforehand. Their lives are never quite the same afterwards.

This shaking up experience can, of course, be either good or bad. Some weeks ago, I wrote of Philip Wentworth, who lost his faith at Harvard in the 1920s, due to a similar shaking of his spiritual foundations. Professors have a lot of power at their disposal, and this undergirds the huge responsibility they have to use it wisely, and perhaps even with a measure of healthy fear. (Read James 3:1.)

This is one of the reasons why I've come to believe so strongly in christian education in general and christian university education in particular. I myself was one of the category five students nearly three decades ago. My worldview was shaken up when I became aware of the cosmic implications of redemption in Jesus Christ, something that was not really emphasized in the church where I had spent my youth. After this nothing was ever quite the same.

Because my own undergraduate experience was such a seminal and profoundly unsettling one, I quickly discovered a rather clear call to teach undergraduate students. This call has been confirmed time and again over the years, by circumstances, by peers and, yes, by my students themselves. Indeed, now it's difficult for me to imagine doing anything else.

1 comment:

Felix said...

this is reminiscent of the parable of the seed that was sown in varying conditions and brought forth varying harvests


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