Thursday, February 2, 2012


I commented about Michael-John DePalma's  "Re-envisioning Religious Discourses as Rhetorical Resources in Composition Teaching: A Pragmatic Response to the Challenge of Belief," which appeared in the December 2011 CCC.  In a Jungian synchronicity (about which term I am sure better information can be found, but I am not going to do it at the moment), not long after I made the blog post, I started teaching a class in which a student is enrolled who is quite a bit like the focus of DePalma's case study; the student is firmly rooted in a faith tradition and appears to filter experience through the lens of Scripture.  I thought that I would be able to try out some of what DePalma discusses and maybe have some productive engagement with the student about faith and use it as a springboard to stimulate further thought and inquiry.

For several reasons, this is not working out.  Some of the difficulty comes from behavior issues; the student has a mouth, and while I am hardly in a position to condemn a student who gives voice to opinions that differ from and even challenge my own, I do take issue with the student turning to another who asked "How do you know all that stuff?" and saying "He doesn't."  And that the student does not believe that I know what I am talking about, that the student gives every evidence of believing the exact opposite--not just that I do not know, but that I know wrong, is worse.

I suppose that I do have it coming.  There were a few (a whole damned lot of) times in my earlier education when I made similar comments at my own teachers, and so the idea that I am paying my penance now--or that I am being given a lesson in sympathy, for a more positive spin that is more in line with my avowed Christianity--did arise.  But while I am learning my lesson, I am not sure I am able to teach this student those he needs to learn--and they are many, not just in terms of the overt materials of the class.

Those who know me know that I am willing to accept correction in the face of superior evidence and reasoning.  Even in matters of faith, I am willing to do so, and it is easy for me to find superior knowledge of theology, given that I go to church with a great many current and former seminarians and seminary professors.  Also, my dissertation has forced me to acquire a lot of information about how texts change over time--a significant portion of my core argument bases itself on that very point.

I try to foster the same attitude in my students, and I am self-aware enough to know that I am sufficiently vain to think that I in many cases have superior knowledge and am more adept at reasoning than they.  I should be, else why am I the one at the front of the classroom?  But I do not know how to get to this student; it is obvious to me that he spouts off things that are flatly and demonstrably wrong, yet there is no persuading him of that wrongness--even from the evidence of the very text he claims to prize as the root of knowledge and understanding of the world and what is beyond it.  And when I have done as my inclination and the models of leadership I grew up with would indicate to curtail a situation growing out of control, one in which the surrounding students are being cheated of their opportunities to learn and so one that I  have an ethical obligation to rein in (before people begin to accuse me of being oppressive merely and only for the sake of my ego, although I will confess that there is some influence of that), the student acts as though he is being martyred; the very fact that I call him down justifies him as correct in his beliefs.

I do not want to write off the student, at least not yet.  I have done so too hastily in the past, and it nags at me.  And I do think that DePalma is right, that students' faith traditions can prove illuminating and means of progress into critical thought such as is valued in coursework and in the processes of investigation and discovery that have supplied the technical college at which I teach with the materials upon which its curriculum centers (I do not privilege that knowledge above that of my humanistic training, but neither do I condemn it, since I benefit from it severally).  Indeed, the traditions of scholarship in which I work are derived from those of faith, and expressions of faith loom large in what I study.  But I do not know how to reach the student, even so.

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