Friday, December 23, 2011

Handel's Messiah: A (very amateur) Listening Guide

A week before Thanksgiving, my husband and I had a rare free evening. He was working on a computer project in the office and decided to listen to Handel's Messiah as he worked. I had planned to do the dishes and then play a game or do some reading, but when I heard the familiar opening chords, I sat down and listened, too.

I've always liked the Messiah, but it's usually playing in the background while I clean, write, or drive. The last time I actually sat down to listen to the entire piece was about 5 or 6 years ago, when the ladies from my Sunday School class all went to a live performance at the National Cathedral. The company was enjoyable that night, but the venue was so drafty that the instruments had to stop several times to retune, including right before the Hallelujah Chorus and. I'm not sure which would have been worse: allowing the instruments to play the pieces out of tune (and potentially confusing the chorus), or interrupting the flow of the piece. In any case, the choppy performance was highly distracting.

So this time, as I listened with my full attention, I noticed several interesting things about the piece that I hadn't before. I'm not sure how many of them were intentional on Handel's part, how many of them were the result of the conductor's interpretation (for reference, the version we have is the Neville Mariner/Academy of St. Martin in the Fields performance of the original 1748 score), and how many are simply the result of the soloists' diction. But I heard a number of "musical jokes" or references, and I therefore offer this amateur listening guide. I won't claim any profound level of insight into the piece, but I am curious if others hear the same things I do, or if there are other references I have missed along the way.

"Comfort Ye My People:" the first time the soloist sings the word "iniquity," the chord structure of the music changes as if to convey the dissonance of sin itself.

"The People That Walked in Darkness:" this piece starts off with heavy, almost plodding, chords, and "lightens" as the light "dawns" on the people ("have seen a great light").

"Glory to God:" the string technique used here (I'm not a string player and so don't know the technical name) gives the impression of the fluttering of the wings of the angel chorus. Steve pointed out that the contrasting quiet of "and peace on earth" in the men's sections could be the echo off the hills.

"His Yoke Is Easy:" compare the lightness of this piece to the heaviness of "The People That Walked in Darkness."

"All We Like Sheep:" there's a lot of "turning" in the music itself in this piece.

"He Trusted in God:" one of my favorites. I can just imagine this refrain spreading through the crowd watching the crucifixion. It has the feel of gossip spreading through a large group of people.

"Thou Shalt Break Them:" the soloist in this version sings "thou shalt dash them into pieces" in such a way that you can picture something being thrown violently toward the ground.

And finally, note the difference in harmonics between "Behold the Lamb of God" and the final piece, "Worthy Is the Lamb." The former quotes the announcement of John the Baptist in John 1:29 ("Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of world!") and is in a mournful minor key, as if to foreshadow the crucifixion for which the Messiah came into the world. The latter quotes Revelation 4:11 and is in a joyous major key, as if to celebrate the work accomplished by the Messiah who now sits at the Father's side in heaven and reigns as Lord of all.

Happy listening, and Happy Christmas!

Monday, November 7, 2011

On Board Games and Tenure

When we lived in Columbus, we were introduced to the wide world of what I'll refer to as non-traditional board games. These games--often but not always European in origin--aren't your typical "roll the dice and move around the board" games like Monopoly and Life. These games frequently involve more strategy than luck and usually have an original twist to the game mechanic that makes them interesting for more than their social value. "Games night" has never been the same for us since.

One of the more unusual games we played was a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the academic tenure process called "Survival of the Witless." It took hours to play, and we never successfully completed an entire game. This was partly due to complexity of the game--there were many components to keep of track of--but mainly it was because the objective was so difficult to attain.

I now believe that the impossibility of the game's goal was intentional on the part of the game designers. That goal was tenure, and I think the designers wanted to convey the impression that tenure was impossible to achieve through normal channels. More on that idea later; in the game, players tried to reach tenure status by publishing a book and earning the approval of each of the half-dozen diverse members of the tenure committee. Book publishing was the easier of the two tasks, and was accomplished by drawing a book contract card and a set number of chapter cards from the deck. There were a limited number of contract cards in the deck, though, so in larger games one or more players were unlikely to complete the publishing requirement. Influencing the tenure committee was also determined by card draws, and was tracked on a score board. Six committee members were randomly selected from the committee deck, and each committee member was biased in a different way. Other (non book-related) cards in the draw pile influenced the committee members favorably or unfavorably toward a player. For example, a player might draw the "hereditary academic" card, which meant that from that point in the game, the player represented a tenure candidate who came from a family tradition of university professors. Some committee members were favorably disposed toward hereditary academics and others were not. Other cards caused players to lose favor with all committee members through activities that made already-tenured professors look bad (for example, the "teacher of the year award" card, because no one on the committee wants to be upstaged by a mere associate professor) or to gain favor with one or more committee members (the popular "butt-kissing" card). Favor was tracked on the big score sheet on a scale of 1 to 10 and was constantly in flux, and only when a candidate had an approval rating of 10 with 4 or 5 (I can't remember) members of the committee AND had completed his or her book contract could s/he win the game.

We only played "Witless" twice. The first time I think we quit after about six hours of play. The second time was at a New Year's Eve party, and when it became clear that this game would also drag on interminably, my husband decided to try and win the game the other way. The rules stated that at any time, a player could choose to "go postal" and roll a die in an attempt to kill off, one at a time, the entire committee. If s/he succeeded, new members would be drawn from the deck, and the players would pick up where they were, hopeful that the new committee members would be more favorable. It almost worked. Steve rolled the die and successfully killed off four or five of the committee members. But the new committee wasn't any better, and we decided that we were more interested in popping the cork on the Ukranian red champagne as the new year approached.

In the real world of academia, if there is such a place, tenure is the ultimate goal for most graduate students and junior faculty. Tenure means a guaranteed job, a respected identity in the community, and--the holy grail for most of us--the freedom to teach what you wish, however you wish. It represents an arrival of sorts, because what the committee is saying is that you can now be trusted to teach your subject without having to submit your syllabus for approval and without having to submit to periodic evaluation. And although tenure isn't as impossible to attain as it is in "Witless," the process is lengthy and can sometimes be political.

But tenure is not the normal track for new hires anymore, for two reasons. First, the economic downturn has taken a toll on university budgets. To be sure, many tenured professors' salaries are funded by endowments, thus reducing the cost to the school, but it's more expensive to pay a new hire at associate or assistant professor rates for 10 or 20 years than it is to pay them as adjuncts, contractors who receive a flat fee for each course they teach. Adjuncts have to teach more classes than associate professors in order to earn the same money, and a heavier teaching load cuts into the research time needed to meet the publication requirement for tenure. The second reason for the decline of tenure is a shift in the general population's attitude toward it. In recent years, the concept of tenure--the idea that an institution can't fire a professor if s/he makes politically incorrect or unpopular statements--has come under fire, as a result of several widely-publicized cases of tenured faculty saying outrageous and objectionable things (e.g., the University of Colorado professor who compared the financiers in the World Trade Center to Adolf Eichmann). The notion of teachers who aren't accountable to anyone doesn't sit well with modern students or the parents who pay their tuition bills, either. A recent edition of "Inside Higher Ed" reported the case of Steven Maranville, who was denied tenure by Utah Valley University for using teaching methods that his students disliked. The case is troubling: the "objectionable" techniques--group projects and Socratic dialogue--had been observed and approved by Dr. Maranville's superiors, who described him as a "master teacher." Only the students, who apparently just wanted to be lectured and left alone, complained. Additionally, the university had all but promised Dr. Maranville, who had already earned tenure at another institution, tenure within a year of his hiring. After being fired by Utah Valley, Dr. Maranville took a considerable pay cut to start at the bottom at a third school.

The Maranville case illustrates perhaps the biggest difference between the way the designers of "Witless" portrayed the tenure process in the late 1990's and the new reality that today's tenure-track faculty face (excepting, of course, the existence of the "go postal" option in the game). In the board game, the receipt of an award for teaching excellence counted against you; in the real world, student evaluations are taken seriously--sometimes too seriously. On one level, the desires of teachers and students are perfectly compatible; students want to take interesting and relevant courses as much as teachers want to teach them. And no teacher enjoys failing a student, no matter how poor the student's work. Good teachers want their students to be engaged in the material and successful in the course. But we also don't to give easy A's. We want to challenge students to wrestle with difficult material, to think and solve problems, and to do their best. Sadly, many of today's college students are used to earning top grades with minimal effort, and they expect their university experience to be no different. They resist instructional methods that are new to them, and they think they know how to teach better than the teacher does. Saddest of all, some university officials and tenure committee members seem to agree with the students, forgetting that a teacher is, by definition, an expert. Dr. Maranville's case is, alas, not the only one of its kind.

I'm not saying that a Ph. D. in a non-education field bestows a professor with the ability to teach well. In my 20-plus years as a student, I've been taught by some obviously brilliant men and women whose lectures were boring, unorganized, and delivered too quickly to take notes from-professors who would probably never win a "teacher of the year" award. So although I note the current trend toward weighting student evaluations heavily in a tenure decision with alarm, I am also not advocating the do-as-poor-a-job-as-possible-in-the-classroom approach found in "Witless." But at the end of the day, teachers, not students, generally know best how to structure a course and guide students through its content and toward its goals, and that reality needs to be upheld by faculty supervisors, whether or not the institution of tenure survives into the next generation of academics.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

An A-Z of DC Traffic

This one's for my friends who have moved away and who may be feeling a bit nostalgic for DC life (you know who you are), and for those of you who have never lived in this area. Full disclosure: I had a lot of help from my husband on this one. The germ of the idea was mine, about one third of the alphabet was mine, and the annotations are mine, but the rest is his. This week, we present to you an A-Z of DC traffic.

A is for Accidents, which seem to be especially problematic on the north stretch of the Beltway, around Georgia, Connecticut and New Hampshire Aves. I can count on one hand the number of times I've driven that stretch and not encountered an accident along the way.

B is for Beltway Chaos. Ordinarily sane drivers can become quite aggressive once they merge onto the Beltway. I'm not sure why, unless they're trying to minimize the amount of time they have to spend on it. Or maybe its design was the work of demonic forces (read Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman if you don't get this one).

C is for Construction. Lots and lots of construction. Whole sections of roads and interchanges are unrecognizable now because of a massive "high occupancy toll lane" project that won't be finished until next December. It's a mess.

D is for Diplomats. They have immunity, and many of them drive like it. Fear the State Department license plate!

E is for Emergency Lights. Don't misunderstand me--I'm grateful for our first responders. But pulling over for an emergency vehicle is more difficult when the road is four lanes wide or more and being in the wrong lane after having to merge over means taking a detour or risking your life trying to get back to where you were.

F is for Frightened by Precipitation. I am terrified of winter driving now, not because I don't know what to do, but because most of the other drivers don't know what to do. I've seen cars spin out on half an inch of snow here.

G is for "Greenbeepers," my husband's term for those drivers who are second in line at a green light and honk at the car in front of them the instant it turns green.

H is for HOV, or High Occupancy Vehicle. During rush hour on certain major arteries, you must have at least 2 or 3 (depending on the road) people in your vehicle in order to drive on the road. Violators are fined, and the enforcement can seem predatory at times (like the easy-to-forget-about .10 mile shortcut that connects one of the roads to the beltway).

I is for Increased Blood Pressure. I know I've become much more irritable since we moved here, due in large part to the traffic.

J is for Jerks Everywhere. Seriously, people honk at student drivers here.

K is for Killer Bus Drivers. Think I'm making this one up? Check out this link.

L is for Long Lights. A recent traffic survey revealed that DC area drivers spend in excess of 70 hours each year idling their vehicles in gridlock and at traffic lights, some of which take 4 minutes or longer to cycle. The national "idling" average is 34 hours per year.

M is for Motorcades. When the President, Vice President, or visiting dignitary needs to travel between downtown locations, police cars block key intersections so that the motorcades can pass through. This can take a while, and can happen for any reason, including taking the Vice Presidential dog to the vet for a check-up (Sorry about the source; it was the only one I could find that referenced the original, and apparently unarchived, news article).

N is for Night Milling and Paving. Lots of road work gets done during the overnight hours here.

O is for One-way Streets. Every big city has them, but what makes DC's grid even more frustrating is how many two-way streets turn into one-way streets during rush hour.

P is for Parking Tickets. Steve got one for parking in space that was clearly marked as an acceptable location. The other side of the street was clearly marked as unacceptable. Now we're trying to navigate the contesting process. Fun!

Q is for Quirky, Inconsistent Signage. The signage where Steve parked was clear, but that's not the case everywhere. Check the picture in this article out as an example.

R is for Rush hours...and hours. Morning rush hour here starts around 6:00 and tapers off between 9 and 9:30, although you may still encounter heavy traffic as late as 11. Afternoon rush hour starts around 3 and tapers off around 7. Did I mention we spend 70+ hours a year idling?

S is for Sudden Slowdown. For any reason or sometimes no reason. It makes me appreciate having the sound system controls on the steering wheel, where I don't have to look at them.

T is for Towing. Towing is such a fact of life here that one of our friends actually factors several tows a year into his budget as part of the "cost of living." Towing companies can be predatory, too, hauling your car away within minutes.

U is for Unpredictable Traffic. One local radio station broadcasts traffic reports every 10 minutes. I thought that was ridiculous until we got stuck on I-66 at 11 PM behind an overturned semi. You just never know.

V is for Vans of Illegals. I'm not trying to be racist here, but we have a fair number of hit and run accidents on our roads. Sometimes the person is drunk or oblivious or just can't be bothered to stop, but frequently the offending vehicle is a an older model van with few windows, and the driver doesn't stop because most of those in the van are illegal immigrants who fear deportation if stopped.

W is for Weaving Across Multiple Lanes. Enough said.

X is for Xenomanic Drving Tendencies (we didn't want to resort to the standard X-tra cop-out). Very few people in the DC metro area are actually from this region. Most of us are transplants from other parts of the country, or from other countries, here for a few months or few years. Everyone--New Yorkers, New Englanders, Californians, etc.--drives according to their local road culture. And everyone thinks their way is best.

Y is for Yield! Yield! Look, I'm going to have merge onto this road. We can do this the easy way, with you slowing down just a bit to let me over, or we can do this the hard way, by forcing me to come to a complete stop and really messing up the traffic flow. Oh, I see that you prefer the hard way.

Z is for Zero Room for Error. I've always had quick reflexes, but now my flinch reflex is on permanent hyperdrive. Just ask Steve--I know it drives him crazy.

What are some of your own local traffic quirks? I'd enjoy reading about them. Stay safe out there!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Is Your Church "Missional?" Part II: An Evaluation of the Model as I Experienced It

In my last post, I outlined my understanding of a fairly recent movement in Christian theology called "the missional church." In this post, I'll give my evaluation of that movement. Once again, please note that I do not intend to criticize any specific people--I'm interested in the ideas behind the movement. Any apparent disrespect should be regarded as unintentional.

It took me a while to think through the many facets of the missional community church model, and then to puzzle out which belonged to missional theology as a whole and which belonged only to this particular expression. I may still be misunderstanding some of the finer points. But here's what I've concluded so far:

1. The basic missional principle of approaching local outreach in the same way as global missions (taking the gospel to the people rather than assuming that they will come to us) is sound. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20, and Mark 16:15) says "go," and it doesn't matter if the going is across the street or across the globe. Unlike the nation of Israel, the Church does not inhabit a fixed geopolitical location to which all nations can come to learn about God (the Promised Land was in the middle of the main trade route between Egypt and the other Mesopotamian states). The Church, the one people of God, is now by God's grand design scattered throughout the nations. We are to go to the people.

2. The basic missional principle of recalling all members of the Church to the Great Commission and to a renewed sense of urgency for reaching the people they already know is also sound. Complacency is always a temptation, and many of us in the evangelical churches are content to write a monthly check to a missions organization and call it "participation in the gospel." The megachurch movement has, to some degree, fostered the culture of Christian consumerism mentioned in the previous post. When your church can afford to staff all its ministries with paid professionals who will put on a well-polished show every week, parishioners get the idea that they don't need to do anything--so they don't. We would benefit from thinking of ourselves as missionaries as the people with whom we have contact, whether or not they eventually come to faith.

3. Focusing on building authentic community within the local church is a necessity. It's far too easy for Christians who are struggling with serious sins to fall through the cracks when all they do is show up for a Sunday service (and maybe even a mid-week Bible study) that is attended by other Christians who think that they, too, have to appear as though they have all their ducks in a row. The world calls this hypocrisy, and it's one of the primary factors that contributes to a disinterest in church among non-believers. On a similar note, in this same environment, it's far too easy for those of us who may not struggle with any of the "big" sins to sit back and ignore the progress that we could and should be making ourselves. Wouldn't it be better for everyone--believers and non-believers--if we dropped the masks and got down to the business of helping each other overcome our struggles and live as we ought to live? What happened to "Just As I Am?"

4. Having said the above, I find that the missional community model is too narrowly local in its focus. As stated in the previous post, most missional theologians and church leaders use the term "the church scattered" to refer to the sending out of their members into their local spheres of influence during the week. I, however, take a broader view of "the church scattered--" I believe it best refers to the fact that the people of God now live in many nations across the globe as opposed to one, poised to take the message to the people who need to hear it. Sure, that starts at the local level, but God's plan is bigger than my local community. The missional community view risks losing the bigger picture of God's plan to glorify Himself in all the world for the snapshot view of what God is doing in my neighborhood, as if these were the only people who mattered. It also has a tendency to create local congregations who think they are alone on the mission--that "the Church gathered" is just them and no one else, and that's a far cry from Pentecost, in my opinion. Furthermore, the Great Commission tells us to "go and make disciples of all nations," and Acts 1:8 reveals that God intends the gospel to spread outside of Jerusalem (our local neighborhoods and people who are like us) to "Judea and Samaria (those nearby with whom we have either no affinity or open hositility)" and "to the ends of the earth." Yet there's little to no talk about world missions among missional community churches. One leader in the movement explained that Acts 1:8 tells us that we are to take the gospel first to our local community, then to Judea and Samaria, and then (and only then) to the ends of the earth, and that the missional movement was designed to correct the "unnecessary and unhelpful divorce of Jesus' mission from our local context" by refocusing our efforts on this prioritized list. Furthermore, he said that we had no business doing international missions until the American Church starts reaching its own people again. He went on to say that if we were engaged in the local mission, it would spur us to get involved in missions beyond our own doorsteps, but he implied that the time for that was much further down the road. I have several issues with this explanation. First, I just can't see Acts 1:8 as a "list of priorities." Yes, the revelation was given to the Jews first, but God never intended for it to stop there, and the early church certainly didn't wait until they had reached everyone in Jerusalem before they took the message outside of the city. In fact, they had to be pushed to take the next step by the application of persecution (cf. Acts 8:1-4). And Jesus himself traveled between Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the surrounding Gentile territories simultaneously. Acts 1:8 could be taken in one of two ways: it could, I think, be interpreted as a promise (the "predictive future") to the still bewildered disciples hiding in Jerusalem after Jesus' ascension: something along the lines of, "You may not believe this now, but the Holy Spirit is coming, and when He does, you're going to be transformed into bold witnesses who won't just stay in this city--you're going to take the message to the ends of the known world! How about that?" Or it could be a command ("the imperatival future"), but nowhere does the text imply that the local mission takes priority over the global mission. Second, when I look at the global situation today, I see doors opening in countries that have been closed (the so-called "creative access countries") for centuries. Do we really want to tell God, "Sorry, we don't have our local act together just yet. Can you keep those doors open until we do?" Third, isn't an exclusive focus on local missions simply swapping one "unnecessary and unhelpful divorce" for another? Overcorrection is rarely the answer--we must find a way to call the Church to fulfilling all parts of the Great Commission simultaneously. As Bill Hamel, the president of the EFCA put it in Columbus in 2010, it's both/and, not either/or.

5. Finally, I have a problem with the missional community model's approach to discipleship. I will grant that most churches probably have more member-centered programming than is absolutely necessary for carrying out the mission of the Church, and that many modern Christians are more interested in what they can get out of church participation than in what they can contribute, but again, I see an overcorrection in the "bare bones" approach taken by missional community churches. The Great Commission tells us not just to preach the gospel to all nations, but to "make disciples" and to "teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you." The behavioral component of discipleship is important, and accountability really is best fostered in small groups of people who are completely honest with one another, as the movement points out, but there's a teaching component to discipleship, too--you can't "obey everything that [Jesus has] commanded" if you don't know what that entails. And you shouldn't rely on your leaders to unpack all the details for you--that's how cults get started. We need to be teaching church members, particularly new Christians, how to read, study, and apply the Bible for themselves (and I would note here that traditional churches fail on this point as often as missional churches do). As a teacher, I worry that new Christians and unbelievers who are exposed to the missional community model will see that the pastor does all the teaching (the community groups focus on application and what they got out of the sermon) and will think that you have to have a seminary degree in order to read and understand Scripture--and that is a tragedy. How do we expect to break the consumer mentality among churchgoers fully if we keep them dependent on the leadership for substantive teaching?

Is your church "missional?" I hope it is. All congregations need to keep the Great Commission fixed clearly in sight. I hope your members have a sense of their own role in God's mission, and that they don't just sit back and wait to be ministered to (although we all have times when we need that). But I also hope that they have a sense for just how big God's plan is, and how their local congregation fits into the one people of God. I hope that they "go" to their neighbors and look for ways to make the gospel known throughout the rest of the world. I hope that they desire to study the Bible for themselves and that the pastor is a faithful teacher. I hope your church is both/and, rather than either/or.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is Your Church "Missional?" Part I: An Introduction to Missional Theology

A little over a year ago, I was introduced to one of the trendiest words in contemporary theology. That word is "missional," and it is most often used to describe a "new" way of thinking about church life that emphasizes a conscious return to the mission of the Church to reach people with the gospel, instead of focusing too much attention on programs for those who are already part of the faith community.

At least, that's the broad definition of the term. I first encountered this concept while representing our local church at the 2010 EFCA annual meeting in Columbus, Ohio. Some of the presenters at the meeting--especially the younger guys who were working in youth and campus ministry--used the term while describing the success they had had when they shifted their ministry focus from trying to attract students to their programs to taking the gospel to young people wherever they were at. Many in the millennial generation, they said, would never set foot inside a church, but were interested in getting to know people who were clearly interested in them. The model made sense to me, but as the conference progressed, I noticed that other leaders in the denomination were suspicious of or openly hostile toward "missional" ministry. I didn't have room in my schedule to attend the information session on missional theology, so I left the conference more than a little confused as to the nature of the controversy.

A few months later, our congregation began the process of planting a church in downtown D.C. We teamed up with a young pastor who felt called to church planting, and who had a clear vision for the new community in the District. This vision was informed heavily by a particular outworking of missional theology called the "missional community" model. Over the past few months, I've had a chance to evaluate this model, to understand (finally) why the term "missional" sets some church leaders' teeth on edge, and to reach my own conclusions about the movement. Please note that I do not intend, in any way, to criticize the pastor of the church plant--planting a church requires a clear vision of who your target demographic is and how to reach them, and he has studied the neighborhood far more closely than I. My intent is to use this space to explore and analyze the ideas driving the movement. Also, note that the movement is still fairly young and has a fair amount of diversity--others may have had different experiences with missional community churches which would lead them to define the movement differently. In part I, I'll explain the model as I understand it, and in part II, I'll give my analysis.

The "missional community" model of organizing the church is based on two assumptions. The first is a belief that the modern evangelical church has become too inwardly focused (missional theologians often refer to this as a "culture of discipleship") and has neglected the basic command of the Great Commission, which is to reach unbelievers with the good news of Jesus Christ. We have developed a consumer mentality toward church membership and have focused so much on our own spiritual growth that we have forgotten that we are to be missionaries to those around us (our "spheres of influence"). The second is a belief that post-postmoderns (no one is quite sure how to refer to them yet) are more interested in forging authentic relationships than they are in subscribing to a set of religious beliefs. Many of them have either had negative experiences with organized religion and so are suspicious of creeds, or are relativists who don't see the need to profess allegiance to one religion over another. But in our media-saturated, frantic society, everyone wants to belong. If we can invite these people to our homes to see how Christians genuinely care for, invest in, and help each other out, some of them will be intrigued enough to consider the church's message. The catch phrase for this assumption is "belonging before belief."

Building off these assumptions, "missional community" churches pare their programming offerings down to the bare bones--childcare during the worship service, perhaps an impromptu women's gathering or men's prayer group--and focus instead on small community groups that meet throughout the week to share a meal, keep tabs on members' needs and encourage each other to "stay on mission" by looking for opportunities to reach out to unbelievers in their workplaces and by living lives of obedience. Community groups--often referred to as "the church scattered"--are also intended to serve as a gateway to church life for the unbelievers the members are witnessing to--they are supposed to be places where non-Christians can see (and be attracted to) the genuine community enjoyed amongst Christians, and where they can safely ask any questions they have. Community groups usually set aside some time for Bible discussion--frequently relating to the sermon heard earlier in the week at the corporate worship gathering--but the emphasis is on application rather than on in-depth exploration of the text. Members are encouraged to invite their non-Christian friends and contacts to community group meetings rather than to the Sunday services, because so many people have negative perceptions of church services, and because it's too easy to blend into the crowd and leave without really connecting to anyone.

Churches that employ the missional community model do have corporate worship gatherings (referred to as "the church gathered"), and these are where the in-depth teaching occurs. Worship styles vary from congregation to congregation, but sermon styles are (I think) fairly consistent: missional pastors prefer to preach expositionally ("verse-by-verse"), to take small chunks of text at a time (it was a rare week when the pastor of the church plant covered more than 6 verses at once), and to preach for longer lengths of time than most traditional church pastors (or at least, this was the case in the church plant). Teaching and worship take place in the corporate gathering; discipleship (application of the teaching) and evangelism take place in the community groups.

That's my version of "Missional Theology 101." Next time, I'll post my evaluation of its main tenets.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

College for All?

The time has come--in the life of this blog, at least--to address one of education's hottest current topics: "college for all." I've mentioned the concept in passing in a few previous posts, but my thoughts on the subject didn't really begin to gel until recently, when I read two new publications.

The first catalyst was Mike Schmoker's Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (Alexandria: ASCD, 2011). Although the book is targeted toward K-12 educators and policy makers, the author included some helpful ideas which could easily be applied to teaching at the undergraduate level, and his support for "college for all" is as enthusiastic as is his disdain for standardized testing. His basic premise was the absolute centrality of "authentic literacy" as the key to success in all subject areas. Teach students to read (or "decode," in the new jargon) in kindergarten and first grade, and then throw away the reading groups and basal readers (the graded reading textbooks that most of us probably used in elementary school, which mostly contain excerpts from short stories and/or pieces written specifically for the textbook). From second grade on, students should read entire works of varying lengths (novels, short stories, poems, newspaper articles) and genres as an entire class, with the teacher modeling a critical reading method and having students pair up and share thoughts, reactions, and answers to self-generated questions before completing written assignments related to the piece. If all teachers would follow this disarmingly simple plan, he argues, students would actually exceed the standards that have bloated our current system, and they might just retain a love of reading in the process.

Mike Schmoker--who has actual classroom experience, unlike many policy makers--makes his case for reforming language arts and social science instruction using this model well, but he lost me when he applied it to natural science and mathematics instruction, and it was in the context of doing just that that the nuances of his interpretation of "college for all" came through. Schmoker believes that all students could succeed in college if his model were used, because they would have mastered critical thinking and writing skills (in a usable form). Moreover, he states that the skills needed for success in college are the same skills needed for success in the work force and for responsible citizenship. In an ideal academic world, his assumption might be correct. Unfortunately, colleges have their share of instructors whose primary methodology is to do nothing more than lecture for 90 minutes at a time and then test students on what they can remember later. Listening and memorization are useful skills in college and in the workplace, too, and some students actually need more helping learning how to learn in these environments than they do in the critical thinking department. On the other side of the aisle are those students--and let's face it, they do exist--who just never seem to make the jump to independent, critical thinking no matter how much they are prodded. I admit to being something of a visionary myself, but Schmoker's world is a bit too perfect even for me. Furthermore, Schmoker divulges, in his chapter on mathematics instructional reform, that even he can't envision "college for all" as a reality unless schools abandon the new algebra II high school graduation requirement. Most colleges and universities require incoming students to have completed algebra II or its equivalent (whatever that is), yet the traditional high school curriculum has allowed students to graduate with no mathematics mastery beyond geometry. For the policy makers who initially envisioned "college for all," the solution was to require all high school students to complete algebra II. For Schmoker, the solution is to cater to the average student's ability and eliminate algebra II as a college entrance requirement.

I disagree with both proposals; the United States would be best served neither by dumbing down college standards nor by imposing unrealistic (and, as Schmoker repeatedly points out, untested) standards on all high school students, but by bringing back tracking.

Those of you who didn't run away screaming at the word "tracking" probably realize that not all jobs truly require a college-level education. A degree from CalTech or even from the local State U won't make me more likely to choose one auto mechanic or plumber over another, but good reviews and certifications will. I'm also unlikely to query the first responder to a house fire to see if s/he has completed the new BS in "Fire Service Administration" (no joke--click on the link) from UMUC before I let him or her put out the fire. And you might also realize that most European countries--countries who consistently outperform US students on standardized tests--have maintained tracking programs even after American educators declared them "discriminatory."

If you're still reading, and you still believe that "college for all" is a realistic and desirable goal, let me introduce you to the second publication that is responsible for this post. A headline in today's EdWeek Update proclaimed, "ACT Deems More Students College Ready." Apparently, data from the ACT (a competitor of the more famous SAT) results of the class of 2011 indicates that "...25 percent of those students produced scores in English, reading, math, and science that correlate with higher chances of earning B’s or C’s in entry-level college courses." This, the article goes on to reveal, is an improvement from 21 percent in 2005. ACT's senior vice president for educational services stopped short of gushing, calling it a "great sign," but cautioning that the pace of improvement is still too slow to meet the desired goals on the desired timetable.

In spite of ACT's optimism, the results of the study look grim. First, only 49 percent of the class of 2011 took the exam. Second, even though nearly 75 percent of the testing cohort reported taking the new standard "core curriculum" (4 units of English and 3 each of math, science, and social studies), 75 percent of test takers failed to meet ACT's "college ready" benchmarks in all four of its subjects. And while math and science performance saw modest gains, English scores flatlined or fell. Does this look like a cause for optimism?

I've been a fairly outspoken critic of US public educational policy for some time. With Mike Schmoker, I feel strongly that K-12 public education has been taken over by political agendas, to its detriment. The policies that were intended to ensure a consistent, quality education for all children in this country have actually obscured the teaching of basic skills, and those who make the policies often have no real teaching experience. Committee-generated lists of standards aren't helping anyone. The effort to bring real reform to our schools is entering its second decade, and we don't have much to show for it. The policies and procedures are deeply flawed.

But the "college for all" mentality hasn't helped, either. From my perspective in higher education, all it's really done is brought more underprepared students to our campuses, a phenomenon which has too frequently been followed by the dumbing down of our programs. Many students spend their entire first year in courses that have been completely redesigned to address their academic deficiencies, and part of their last year in special "workplace readiness" courses. I hope that they are really learning in their middle two years, but I'm skeptical. Let's stop kidding ourselves and admit that just maybe both the reform policies and the basic assumption--college for all--that has driven them are flawed. Real reform will begin when we relearn the art of seeing students as individuals with different interests, aspirations, and abilities, rather than as clones produced from the same material.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Johnny May Be Illiterate, But At Least He Can Recycle

I can hardly believe that it's been over a month since my last post. It's been busy around here--we (finally) moved out of our apartment and into a house (rental, but who cares as long as it's detached?), took a vacation, and flew to Colorado and back for my sister-in-law's wedding. Time has flown past. I could have chosen to write about any one of those events for this post. Instead, I'd like to comment on a news item from a couple of weeks ago.

Two weeks ago, Maryland became the first state in the nation to require every high school senior to fulfill an "environmental literacy requirement" in order to graduate. The proposal defines "environmental literacy" as follows: "...students that possess the knowledge, intellectual skills, attitudes, experiences and motivation to make and act upon responsible environmental decisions as individuals and as members of their community. Environmentally literate students understand environmental and physical processes and systems, including human systems. They are able to analyze global, social, cultural, political, physical, economic and environmental relationships, and weigh various sides of environmental issues to make responsible decisions as individuals and as members of their community and citizens of the world." The drafters claim that although the requirement is new, it is merely reinforcing what many Maryland schools are already doing. They claim that schools would not need to offer additional or separate courses, and that many school districts wouldn't even need to develop additional curricula: "The implementation of this graduation requirement will be within existing curriculum offerings (unless otherwise designed by a local school system) and implemented and taught interdisciplinary [sic] by existing highly-qualified teachers (Proposed Maryland Environmental Literacy Graduation Requirement: Key Questions and Answers)." The drafters also claim that no new testing will be required (or at least, not yet): "The MDNCLI Coalition is currently working with MSDE and the Governor’s Children in Nature Partnership to discuss how local school systems can best measure the success of the environmental literacy graduation requirement, but no additional testing is planned. The goal of this graduation requirement is to provide all students with comprehensive, multi-disciplinary environmental education infused within current curricular offerings and aligned with the Maryland Environmental Literacy Curriculum (ibid.)." All schools must do is prove to the state's satisfaction that they have implemented such an interdisciplinary program and that it is being taught to all students.

This all sounds fairly benign, and the drafters go on to cite three "key reasons" why this requirement ought to be implemented: it would get children out of doors (thus improving their health), it would (because of its interdisciplinary nature and because of increased student "engagement") have a positive impact on student interest and achievement in other, core, courses, and it would supply the "green workforce of the new economy" with environmentally literate workers (ibid).

But like so many of the recent attempts at educational reform, Maryland's latest initiative has serious flaws. For one thing, the language is incredibly vague, even by "core standards" standards. The most specific description I could find was this one: "Under the graduation requirement, public schools will be required to infuse core subjects with lessons about conservation, smart growth and the health of our natural world. Local school systems will have the ability to shape their programs to be relevant to their county, but all will align with standards set by the State. Every five years, the local school systems will report to the State to guarantee that students are meeting the requirements (Maryland Department of Natural Resources Press Release, June 21, 2011.)." There's a mention here of "standards," but no specifics. For all we know, requiring students to separate their recyclables from their trash at lunchtime could suffice. I have to presume that the "standards" will be set later, but this document doesn't give any indication of who might be responsible for setting them, or how extensive they will be.

Second, the interchange of the terms "standards" and "requirement" in the document is confusing, especially because "standards" so often imply the kind of testing the drafters claim won't be imposed. Why make a requirement if accountability is minimal? Why set standards if students don't have to demonstrate mastery? What is this thing, anyway?

Third, and most alarming to me, why are we even trying to increase the number of requirements and standards--not to mention adding curricular emphases--when so many students aren't meeting the ones already in place in the core content areas? Traditional areas of instruction like penmanship and the systematic treatment of grammar and spelling have already been axed to make way for areas of contemporary concern like diversity awareness, "family life education," and "values clarification." The drafters say that the requirement adds no new curriculum, but if I, as a teacher, were faced with implementing it, I would have to replace one or more of my current assignments or units to incorporate "lessons about conservation and smart growth" in my content area, and that makes covering all the standards I'm already supposed to be covering that much more difficult.

I'm all for teaching the next generation to be good stewards of our natural resources. My parents both grew up on dairy farms, and even though they didn't continue in the agricultural profession themselves, they passed quite a bit of their knowledge on to me. I can tell you which breed of cattle produces the richest milk for ice cream (Jersey), the difference between a steer and a bull (the former has been castrated), and how to tell when your corn isn't getting enough water (the leaves curl inward and get spiky). So I support sustainable agriculture practices and other initiatives that conserve natural resources. But I can't understand why we're so concerned with making sure that our students recycle their soda bottles and pizza boxes when so many of them don't know the name of the current Vice President and think that Qaeda is the last name of a guy named Al. Or why we would devote precious instructional time on a field trip to clean up a river bank--as noble a cause as that is--when they struggle with critical thinking skills and can't write a coherent essay. This mindset is the reason our educational reforms are getting nowhere--but that's a subject for another day.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Relics and Reliquaries in Baltimore, Part II

In honor of the feast day of St. Columba (which was actually yesterday)--the founder of an entire family of Irish monasteries and, along with Patrick and Brigid, one of Ireland's three main saints--I'd like to report on the lecture that capped off the "Relics and Reliquaries" exhibit at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore about a month ago.

The lecture was given by Dr. Ben Tilghman, a member of the Art History faculty at George Washington University, and focused on the way in which illuminated manuscripts such as the Book of Kells functioned as relics in early medieval Ireland. Dr. Tilghman argued that the legendary association of the Book of Kells with St. Columba is a clue to the unique perspective on relics found in the early Irish church.

For starters, the Irish seem to have regarded the Book itself as a relic. Many early Irish sacred books were encased in "book shrines," a type of relic that is unique to Ireland. Only eight have been found--the shrines are elaborately tooled silver boxes, which made them prime loot for the Viking raiders--and the manufacture of the shrines suggests that the books were not meant to be accessed once encased (this might explain why so many illuminated volumes are missing their outside covers and leaves--they were damaged when removed from the shrine), but were instead treated as sacred objects. Furthermore, the Book of Kells was found at the monastery from whence it derives its name, but according to the Annals of Ulster, it was found in the sacristy, rather than in the library. All the evidence suggests that the Irish treated these texts as more than collections of words on a page.

The Irish, however, didn't regard these manuscripts as relics for the reason we might suppose. The early Irish church appears to have enshrined books not because they recorded the word of God, but because they had come into contact with a saint and thus conveyed some of the saint's holiness. Dr. Tilghman noted that there is a distinct lack of "corporeal" relics--parts of saints' bodies, like the finger of St. Catherine that is on display in the cathedral in Sienna, Italy--in the medieval Irish church. Instead, the Irish seem to have preferred "associative" relics, like items of clothing worn by holy men and women (witness the number of "belt shrines" that have been found), books, and bells associated with esteemed abbots. There's even a tradition that links a kind of "flyswatter" used during Mass to keep flies from alighting on the host (called a flabellum) to Columbanus, and images of flabella can be seen throughout the Book of Kells. So far, no one has explained this preference for associative relics over corporeal relics, but it may have something to do with the lack of martyrs in early Christian Ireland. All this to say that the association of the Book of Kells with Saint Columba (however legendary) may have caused the Irish to regard it as a relic more than as a copy of the Gospels.

The lecture was fascinating. Dr. Tilghman showed several close-up slides that enabled the audience to see the manuscript in extremely fine detail and make his case, and it's always instructive as a historian to hear a lecture on something in my field given by a scholar in a different discipline. As surprising as it may seem, historians, archaeologists, art historians, and even church historians rarely interact with each other. But in a field like early Irish studies in which so little material or textual evidence exists, scholars need to cast a wide net, and the interdisciplinary approach can be quite helpful.

The trip itself was decent, too: the parking garage "chip coin" machine that I mentioned in part I worked on the first attempt, and I narrowly escaped the shut down of the north side of the beltway (the accident had just occurred, and emergency personnel hadn't arrived yet, so we were able to squeeze past). The only thing lacking was a cheese and wine reception afterwards (fairly standard at scholarly events), but I don't suppose many museums bring out refreshments for a free public lecture.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Book Review: Academically Adrift

Arum, Richard and Jospia Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College
. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Much has changed in American higher education in the last half-century. Fifty years ago, U. S. colleges and universities lead the world in undergraduate graduation rates. Students averaged 40 hours per week--the equivalent of a full-time job--attending classes and studying (Arum and Roska, 3). A majority of these students either paid their own way through school or relied on scholarships and grants (money that need not be paid back except in terms of the graduate's contribution to society) to cover costs, and a college degree was seen as one of several viable post-high school paths to career success.

Today, America has embraced the "college for all" mentality. As the U.S. looks to (re)gain its world leadership in the medical, scientific, and technological sectors, policy makers have introduced a variety of initiatives designed to improve the quality of education at all levels, to encourage young people to study math and science, and to raise the overall educational level of citizens. Moreover, in the wake of the recent recession, young people who might previously have gone straight from high school to the work force have decided that they need a college degree in order to remain competitive in the tightening job market. A college degree is now seen by many as a necessity.

Yet, despite an increase in access to higher education in this country, America no longer leads the world in college graduation rates (53). Figures vary by study, but a government study in 2005 found that only 54 percent of students who enrolled in 4-year colleges in 1997 had completed a bachelor's degree by 2005. In another dramatic shift, today's college student spends an average of just 27 hours per week attending classes and studying--less time than s/he probably spent attending classes in high school (3)--and most likely funds his/her education at least partially through student loans and on- or off-campus employment.

With so much on the line, parents, policymakers, and employers are beginning to ask just how much value students are getting for their dollar, and how effective the reform and accountability initiatives have been. What, exactly, should students be learning in college, and how well are they learning it?

These two questions are the subject of Academically Adrift. Sociologists Arum and Roksa surveyed educators and employers and compared courses of study across a wide range of disciplines. They concluded that the primary academic goal of a college education was the acquisition of critical thinking and writing skills. They then noted that most standardized tests of college-learning measure major content rather than skills. In order to find the answer to the second question, therefore, Arum and Roksa designed their own test of college learning--the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA)--which could be administered to students of any discipline and which focused on critical thinking and writing. The test is open-ended (rather than multiple choice) and consists of two "writing tasks" (make an argument and break an argument) and a "performance" task that asks students to read several different texts and respond to a writing prompt by analyzing the texts, synthesizing the information, and producing a written solution to a practical problem.

Arum and Roksa administered the CLA to approximately 1100 students at 24 institutions of higher education at the beginning of their freshman year and again at the end of their sophomore and compared the results. After controlling for several demographic variables, they concluded that the average student's CLA score only improves by 7 percent in his/her first two years of college. They also found that 45 percent of students who took the test saw no statistically significant gains in critical thinking and writing skills at all in the same two years (36).

Arum and Roksa next turned their attention to institutional and cultural factors that might explain the "limited learning" demonstrated by the CLA. They concluded that none of the many parties involved in higher education--students, faculty, administration--has really made student academic development the highest priority. For students and parents, social development and "credentialing" were the top priorities, and while the latter might sound like academic development, today's college students have become consumers of educational services, seeking the highest (GPA) return for the least possible (time) investment (16). True "learning" takes a back seat. Research and student retention are the top priorities for college faculty and administrators. The technological advances of the post-World War II era fueled a shift within the academy from teaching to research, and most faculty now know that research and publication (activities external to the university itself) weigh more heavily in promotion and tenure decisions than student course evaluations do--and that better course evaluations are often linked to lower expectations and lighter assignment loads (13). Additionally, although administrators are interested in increasing undergraduate student retention, their efforts in this department tend to focus more on developing a close-knit student body, offering attractive residence halls, and improving student services rather than on increasing academic standards (135-6).

Few people, it seems, are really interested in teaching and learning. Yet the authors' research suggests that helping students develop critical thinking skills and good study habits contributes at least as much to retention as creating a positive social environment (ibid.). Based on their research, Arum and Roksa offer several practical suggestions for restoring the culture of learning on college campuses. For example, they note that students whose teachers require them to read more than 40 pages per week and write at least 20 pages over the course of the semester see the biggest gains in their CLA scores (94-5). They also urge adminstrators to train future faculty (i.e., graduate students) in good teaching techniques as well as in research skills.

As thought-provoking as this book is, the research behind it is limited. Only 24 schools participated in the study, and the students at these schools self-recruited. Thus, the study group likely contained a higher than desirable percentage of well-organized and highly motivated students. Additionally, over half the sample reported a high school GPA of 3.7 or higher (Methodological Appendix). Perhaps these students saw such small gains on their CLA scores because they came to college already in possession of the skills that the test measures. If the sample had included a higher percentage of "underprepared" students (those with the potential for greater gains in critical thinking and writing skills), would the test results have been more encouraging? Would the authors' conclusions and suggestions have changed?

In spite of its limitations, Academically Adrift is an interesting read that offers some good advice for those who work in the field of higher education, and the CLA is an instrument that has the potential to change the way we educate our young adults for the better. As much as this reviewer dislikes standardized testing, she believes that administering the assessment to more first- and second-year college students would offer some meaningful and much-needed insight into the education reform process. This book is highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

End-of-Term Assessment: What I've Learned in the Last Two Years

School's out! My students have just finished their final exams, and I thought it would be appropriate to evaluate my own progress after two years of teaching, especially since I made some significant changes this year. Here's a review of what worked, what didn't, and what I've learned.

What worked:

1. Administering the reading quizzes as soon as the clock indicates that class time has begun seems to have eliminated tardiness, as I had hoped. Either that or this year's class was just more concerned with punctuality than last year's.

2. I have finally found a paper-grading rubric that yields grades I am (usually) happy with, but it works because it grades on a 4-point (i.e. GPA) scale, rather than on the 100-point (percentage) scale that students are used to. Explaining it to unhappy students has been difficult, but I can't figure out how to convert it.

3. This one's really basic: putting the desks in a circle went a long way to eliminating distracting side conversations. Last year, my classroom layout made circling desks impossible, and I had to resort to docking participation points for classroom distractions instead. Preventing the distractions in the first place was much more effective.

4. Providing students with a "creative option" on some assignments also worked out well. Not many students chose this option, but the assignments of those who did were exceptionally good. I'm not entirely sure why, but I know it's not because these students are the best ones in the class. I'd like to think it was because the creative option required them to think about the content on a deeper level in order to transform it into something new. I just hope it wasn't bias on my part (as in, "Oh boy--a break from the monotony! This is great work!").

5. Switching the focus of the final exam from course content to critical reading, thinking, and writing skills (with specific reference to texts read for class; basically, I gave them short passages from course texts and authors and a series of reading comprehension questions for each passage) worked out well, although there's still room for improvement. Last year I discovered how difficult it was to create a content-focused exam for a discussion course, especially when the discussion didn't always go the same direction in both sections. Sure, students were responsible for all the assigned reading, but for many of them, this was their first exposure to primary sources, and I didn't think it was fair to put something on the exam that I wasn't absolutely sure we talked about in class. This year I reasoned that since the main objectives of the course were to teach students to read a variety of genres of theological literature critically, to interact with them intelligently, and to write persuasively, the final exam should test those skills more than course content. The students will have to take additional theology courses at CUA, anyway, and those courses will focus on content mastery. The exam worked well, although since I didn't think to give a pretest at the beginning of the semester, I have no hard evidence to show how much progress the students made in acquiring these skills. Also, in hindsight, I think that I should have included an objective (matching or fill in the blank) section testing the students on their grasp of essential terms that they will run across later on.

What didn't work/needs improvement:

1. Reading quizzes didn't do enough to convince students to read in preparation for class. Many students were content to take their chances by guessing on the questions. I could eliminate guesswork by making the questions short answer or fill in the blank, but it was difficult to come up with questions that were easy enough to ensure that the students who really did the reading would be able to remember the answers but difficult enough to make blind guessing unprofitable. I could also weight the quizzes more heavily than I currently do.

2. Related to #1, reducing the length of reading passages also did not result in increased class participation. If anything, the number of students who read the texts actually declined (as the book Academically Adrift, which will be the subject of my next post, confirms).

3. The class session on speed reading was a bust this year. I had one student tell me "please don't assign speed reading ever again," even though I didn't have an assignment connected with the lesson and had no plans to grade anyone on their mastery of the techniques. I guess the latter didn't come across clearly in class. I think I will (mostly) take her advice, though. The "above-the-line" technique is easy to teach and master and has the potential to double reading speed instantly, so I think I will continue to teach it in class. But the full technique takes more than one session to learn and really needs to have homework attached to it for students to master. I may offer to teach it as a workshop series, but I don't think I'll attempt it again as a stand-alone lesson in a theology course, even if one of the major goals is to teach reading skills.

4. I need to improve my ability to rephrase the questions I ask in class discussions. I have this problem in Sunday School, too--I know what's in my head, but I can't seem to express it in a way that gets others there.

5. The rubric I used to grade the group presentations graded too highly. I'm pretty sure this is because I reverted to a percentage rubric (i.e. content is worth up to 55 points out of 100, observing time limits is worth up to 10 points, etc.) instead of using the GPA/"quality" system that worked so well for the written assignments. But GPA rubrics only work--I think--in cases where all grading criteria are weighted equally, and I don't think I want to weight observance of time limits equally with mastery of content. I'm not sure how to fix this.

6. The critical bibliographical essay assignment (honors section only) was a good idea, and the students seemed to appreciate the challenge. Most papers were good, and a few were excellent, but others had serious deficiencies relating either to poor or uninformed source selection or to an over-reliance on personal opinion instead of critical analysis. I'll definitely use this assignment again, but I need to provide more supervision of students' source choices (i.e., requiring them to submit abstracts for all three sources instead of only one) in order to make sure they don't paint themselves into a corner. Several students left my class still confused about the appropriateness of sources for academic papers, and that's unacceptable.

Other things I've learned:

1. Teaching is every bit as exhausting as being a student, although it's a different kind of tired. I was surprised at how much it took out of me last year. An experienced teacher explained that teaching is a kind of performance--inspiring and engaging students takes a fair amount of energy, both physical and mental. I have a new appreciation for elementary and preschool teachers--I can not imagine how much more tiring their jobs must be than mine.

2. Some students still see only what they wish the text says instead of what it actually says, no matter how you try to steer the discussion ("Is that really what Augustine is saying here?") or how many times you make this comment on their papers. I'm still trying to figure out how to get through to these students.

3. Some students just don't follow directions, even when they have an instruction sheet for an assignment in front of them. No one should have lost "format" points on papers, but about a third of one class consistently did, in spite of my repeated red inking and comments, both on papers and in class.

4. Related to #2 and #3, some students don't read the comments I make on papers and thus don't learn as much as they could from the experience. I was amazed at the number of "final" annotated bibliographies that I received that hadn't incorporated a single correction from the draft, although in hindsight (we all know this generation doesn't read much) I shouldn't have been so surprised.

5. Reducing student workload does not improve the quality of students' work. If anything, it has the opposite effect, as students either forget about or push to the side assignments that are less time-consuming. The old adage, "if you want a job done, give it to a busy person" applies here as well.

My faculty mentors have said that it takes two revisions of a course to get it exactly the way you want it, and this was only my second year (one revision). I tried several things differently this year, and for the most part, I would say that the overall experience was better. But there's still plenty of room for improvement, and I do think that one more revision would do the trick. So it was with some reluctance that I turned down the opportunity to return for a third year. The teacher part of me wants one more chance to get it right. The Ph.D. candidate part of me, however, knows that hiring committees consider how long it took an applicant to finish his/her degree, and that time is not on my side. I've been a student too long already, and teaching cuts heavily into writing time. I've recorded my ideas for next time here, and the sooner I finish the dissertation, the sooner "next time" will arrive.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tenebrae: the Service of Shadows

The older I get, the more I find myself drawn to worship services that have lots of liturgical or symbolic elements (it might also be because I've spent the past seven years studying monasticism at a Catholic school). So when the opportunity arose Wednesday night to attend a traditional tenebrae service at a local Episcopal church, I took it.

Tenebrae is Latin for "shadows," and a tenebrae service is a visual and auditory reflection on the events of Good Friday (Tenebrae services used to be held on Good Friday, but because the Catholic Church does not allow Mass to be said on this day, most Catholic churches hold their tenebrae services on Maundy Thursday instead--even though a tenebrae is not a Mass. I don't know if a similar protocol exists in the Episcopal Church, nor do I know why this particular congregation chose to hold theirs on Wednesday.). At the start of the service, all of the candles on the altar and the hearse (the triangular-shaped candelabrum--I had to look this term up when I got home) are lit, and the rest of the sanctuary is partially lit. As the service progresses through a series of readings and choral responses, the candles and lights are gradually extinguished, symbolizing the growing darkness of sin in the world and the midday darkness that "covered the land" for three hours leading up to Christ's death (cf. Mark 15:33).

The readings for the service consisted of the first 14 verses of the book of Lamentations and several Psalms of lament and judgment. Following each cycle of readings, the cantor responded with "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God." As the lights got dimmer and dimmer, the Psalmist's despair grew increasingly evident. I found the reading of Psalm 77 to be particularly evocative. In the middle of this psalm, we read: "Will the Lord spurn forever and never again be favorable? Has His steadfast love forever ceased? Are His promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has He in anger shut up His compassion (vv. 7-9; ESV)?" It was easy to imagine what Jesus' followers might have been thinking as they watched the events of the crucifixion unfold: "We thought this was the real deal. What happens now?"

When all the lights have been turned off and all the candles except for the "Christ candle" at the center of the hearse have been extinguished, there is a final reading, and the acolytes remove the Christ candle from the stand and hide it from view, symbolizing the moment of Jesus' death. In total darkness, the congregation recites the Lord's prayer and the cantor reads Psalm 51, the lament on the Psalmist's personal sin that has so often been set to music. After a final prayer, the acolytes drop or slam shut a heavy book or make some other "great noise" that represents the earthquake mentioned in Matthew 27:51 (I have no idea what produced the noise at the service I attended; even though I knew it was coming, it was still loud and sudden enough to startle me) and then return the Christ candle--still lit--to the hearse so that the congregation has just enough light to leave the sanctuary in silence.

A tenebrae service isn't all gloom and doom, however. The psalms that are read are psalms of judgment and lament, but they all--even Psalm 77--end on a note of hope and faith that God will keep His promises to redeem and restore. Moreover, the final reading before the church is plunged into total darkness is the Song of Zechariah from Luke 1, which ends with the line " give light unto those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace (Lk 1:79)." And the Christ candle's return to the stand at the end of the service is a reminder to all that the Light of the World could not be extinguished forever--Easter morning is coming.

I'm glad I finally got a chance to experience a tenebrae service, even if it wasn't actually on Good Friday. I could wish that the church had provided copies of the lyrics of some of the hymns that the choir song, since they were all in Latin and although I read the language, I don't have a very good ear for discerning words in songs (even in English). But the symbolism was every bit as rich as I had expected. I'd like to attend an Easter vigil service someday, too, but that one's going to be tricky since we have so many responsibilities at our own church on Easter Sunday and need to be reasonably awake and alert.

Have a blessed Easter, everyone.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Breaking News: Young Adults' Perceptions of High School and College

Today's EdWeek Update has a link to an interesting article about young adults' perceptions about the education and advice they received/are receiving in their high schools and colleges.

Some of their conclusions echo thoughts I've posted here before, especially in the area of how well high schools prepare students for careers and life in the real world. For example, the survey found that "a majority" felt that their high schools did not adequately assist them with choosing a major or a career field. Colleges fared better, however: a "strong majority...give their colleges high marks for preparing them for the workforce, helping them choose a field of study, exposing them to the latest technology and helping them get internships."

I do wish that a) the author of the article had posted a link to the actual survey questions and results (without this, readers are left to interpret the reported findings in a vacuum) and b) the sample size was lager (at just 1,104 students and recent grads, it's too small to be conclusive). It's an interesting read, nonetheless.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Spring Break: Relics and Reliquaries in Baltimore

Spring break was almost a month ago, and I took advantage of the time off to drive up to Baltimore to see a special exhibit on medieval relics and reliquaries at the Walters Art Museum. I invited a friend of mine who is an art conservator to go with me, because driving the I-95 corridor between DC and Baltimore is much more bearable with company, and I thought she would find the exhibit interesting.

The drive up actually wasn't bad--the only anomaly was the speeding truck with "infectious medical waste/chemotherapeutic waste" emblazoned on its side--and with the help of the GPS device, we found the museum without any trouble. The parking garage, however, was a different story. Instead of giving us a ticket at the entrance, the machine spat out a nickel-sized orange plastic disc called a "chip coin." Neither of us had ever seen anything like it before, and we weren't sure what we were supposed to do with it. Signs near the elevator informed us that we had two options: we could insert the "chip coin" into a machine on the ground floor of the garage upon our return, pay the required amount, and then insert the coin into the exit gate within 10 minutes, or we could proceed directly to the exit gate, insert the chip coin and pay by credit card. I put the device into a zippered compartment in my handbag (it was alarmingly small and I worried about losing it) and we went on our way.

The exhibit was very well done, and included Christian relics and reliquaries from Late Antiquity (roughly the 3rd through the 5th or 6th centuries, depending on which event you choose to mark its end) to the modern era. The curators did a good job of highlighting the transition from late Roman amulets and charms to early Christian relics, and I got a chance to try out my rusty inscription-deciphering skills (I did pretty well, which was a relief) on several of the displays.

For me, the highlights of the exhibit were a late Roman reliquary that had a hole in one side into which oil would be poured, and two seventh-century Irish bell-shaped reliquaries. The former was interesting because it answered a question I'd had since reading the Travels of Egeria in a class on Medieval Pilgrimage and Crusade several years ago. In her travelogue, Egeria mentions a particular type of reliquary into which pilgrims could pour oil and receive the same oil back after it had come into contact with the holy relics inside. The pilgrims would bottle up this oil and take it home with them as souvenirs. I always wondered what one of these reliquaries would have looked like, and now that I've seen this exhibit, I understand how the process worked. The bell reliquaries were interesting because they are from the time period that I am specializing in and because they are extremely rare. When the Vikings invaded Ireland in the 9th century, they scooped up all the decorative objects they could find--anything that looked like it could be melted down or stripped down to recover precious metals. Most of the objects that were produced have been lost, and it was exciting to see two that have been recovered.

I also learned a few surprising things--which is why I go to these exhibits in the first place. For example:

1. One of the relics on display portrayed Pope Gregory I's "vision of the transformation of the host [into the body of Christ]." Gregory I is one of the two seventh-century churchmen I'm researching for my dissertation, so I've read slogged through several of his major works, and read three biographical accounts. I haven't encountered this vision in any of them, and all I've been able to find online so far is a reference to a 17th-century depiction of the event by a Mexican artist. I've made myself a note to come back to this question after the semester ends in a few weeks.

2. Relics and reliquaries aren't exclusive to the religious sphere. The exhibit also displayed a couple of secular reliquaries that enshrined the court documents of popular French kings. When you think about it, we've done the same kind of thing by preserving the original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in the National Archives.

3. In the high middle ages, it was common for pilgrims to receive medallions or badges either at the beginning of their pilgrimage (thus certifying their status as a pilgrim and entitling them to special treatment along the way) or at the end, as a souvenir. These medallions were inscribed with symbols of the saint or shrine visited and became collector's items. When I saw them in the display case, I immediately thought of the colorful metal volksmarch badges on my father-in-law's walking stick. He participated in several volksmarches while he was stationed in Germany, and in a way, it's the same kind of idea--you sign up for a non-competitive walking event of a fixed distance (either for health or recreation), and you receive a commemorative medallion upon completion of the course. I'm now wondering if the origins of volksmarching can be traced to late medieval pilgrimage in some way. Think about it: by the late middle ages, unscrupulous travelers were casting a shadow of suspicion over the practice of pilgrimage, and large segments of Germany--the country in which the volksmarch originated--had embraced Protestantism, which denied the value of relics, shrines and pilgrimages. Did the civil authorities need an outlet for people who wished to travel? I suspect that this will be a dead-end (I think the origins of volksmarching are too late to fit into this thesis), but I may look into the question when I get a break from other projects.

To return to the saga of the "chip coin:" we walked back to the parking garage and decided to try the walk-up machine on the ground floor. We fed the coin into the machine, and my friend followed the on-screen instructions, only to get an error message; the machine had apparently decided that it didn't want to read credit cards that day. We called over to the attendant in the office across from the elevator to ask for help but couldn't understand his answer. The only option left was to try paying at the exit gate, so that's what we decided to do. We found the exit (one of the narrowest alleys I've ever seen--I had to do a three-point turn just to get out of the gate) and went through the drill again. The machine accepted the coin but wouldn't read the card. After two or three attempts, we finally figured out that the card reader was the other slot--the one that looked like the receipt printer--and we were on our way. I was glad there were no other cars behind me at the exit!

In spite of the cold weather, a bad sinus infection, and the wreck that added 40 minutes to the drive home, the excursion was enjoyable. I may just have to make a return trip for the closing day lecture (on the Book of Kells!) on May 15--it would be a fitting way to celebrate the end of the semester.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Breaking News: Students Who Cheat Overestimate Their Abilities

This new study by researchers at Harvard and Duke fits so well with the "preventing plagiarism" series that I felt the need to post it here.

The study found that:

1. Almost 60% of high school students admitted to cheating or plagiarizing at least once during the most recent academic year, even though most considered it unethical. Honors students cheat, too, and about the same rate (55%).

2. About 30% of students admitted to cheating more than once in the academic year.

3. Cheaters tend to lie to themselves about the way they earned the grade. The study (read the article for a description--it's an interesting scenario) found that those who cheated on a first test predicted that they would do much better on a second test than they actually did, and the inflation increased if the cheater received some kind of additional recognition for his/her performance on the first test.

4. The study also found, just as the comments on the previous post discussed, that cheating was reduced when students were encouraged to think about learning outcomes other than grades (in this case, the value of academic integrity).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Preventing Plagiarism, Part III: High Motivation

So far I've addressed two of the three components of the "plagiarism prevention plan" presented at last month's faculty workshop. This week I'll discuss the third component: high motivation.

The theory is simple: the more motivated your students are, the more interested they will be in the content of your course, and the more likely they will be to complete the assignments themselves. They will want to learn, and they will realize at some level that plagiarism shortcuts the learning process.

Motivating students comes down to making them want to attend your class, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish this, some of which take more planning and effort than others. For example, teachers can (I would say "should") look for ways to connect course content to current events and issues and to individual student's interests. They can also include opening questions or interactive exercises (I like small group discussions and learning "games") that get students thinking about issues raised by the text from different angles. Being flexible enough to adapt your lesson plans and syllabus to address questions that students raise in class goes a long way toward improving motivation, too; for example, I made room last week for us to read an early martyr story because the students were obviously interested in the topic and it related to issues that had been raised in previous classes. The discussion was exceptionally good that day, so the adjustment paid off.

The workshop presenter concluded that high motivation was the most important of the three factors, but I'm not so sure. I kept thinking back to the plagiarism case I had last year and wondering if implementing any of these strategies could have prevented the situation. The student in question was undeniably the most motivated and interested student in the class. He always arrived early, dominated class discussions, and asked questions that showed that he was really thinking about the material and connecting it to what he was learning in his other classes. He was older than my other students, and his education was being funded by an off-campus internship which required him to take a set number of courses per semester and maintain a minimum GPA. His very career was on the line, and he knew how high the cost of failure would be. It was clear from the conversations we had that he understood and feared the consequences. So--high motivation: check. High cost: check. The missing element, if there was one, was high supervision. As I mentioned in my last post in this series, implementing the whole high supervision strategy in a course like mine is impractical. But supervision wasn't entirely absent in this case: I had referred this student to the university writing center after his first paper for me earned him a generous C-. He indicated to me that he appreciated the referral and knew that his writing needed to improve. I also told the class that I would review drafts. In the end, the student chose to plagiarize because he feared that he wouldn't be able to write a paper for me that would earn him the kind of grade he needed to keep his internship. As it turned out, he would have finished the course with a B- had his second paper (which was only 10% of the final grade) earned the same grade as the first. Requiring a rough draft for the paper might have prevented this case, but there's only so much I can do with the time that I have and the course parameters I've been given.

In the final analysis, I conclude that high supervision is the most effective of the three factors. High cost is not enough of a deterrent these days, and even students who are highly motivated may succumb to the temptation to plagiarize if other circumstances are present. As a (protestant) theology teacher, I believe that one of those other circumstances is something called the "sin nature," and it's a powerful force. When combined with other factors like poor time management or fear of failure, some students will choose to plagiarize, no matter what steps we take to make it more difficult for them to do so (in this I differ from the workshop presenter). High supervision is the most effective of the three factors simply because it places the biggest obstacle to plagiarism in the student's path. Unfortunately, it's just not always practical. All I can do is do my best to motivate students, stay vigilant, and enforce the policy when a case arises. Here's hoping the next one is a long way off.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Don't Drink the Green Beer

Beannachtai na Feile Padraig obhair! [lit. "St. Patrick's Day blessings be upon you]

I'm interrupting my "preventing plagiarism" series to pass along my wishes for a happy St. Patrick's Day, and to offer some advice as to how you can best celebrate the holiday.

First, remember that our modern English word "holiday" is a compound that derives from "holy day," the designation given in the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar to days set aside for feasts (commemorations of the lives of saints or of important events in Christian history) or fasts. Celebrating the life of a saint with a feast is a carryover from the early Christian tradition of holding a community meal at the saint's tomb on the anniversary of his/her death, to hold up his/her life as an example and to remind the assembled company that Christians who have departed this world are still a part of the Church. It is, therefore, appropriate to enjoy a special meal on St. Patrick's Day, and to read accounts of his life and work. It is not, however, appropriate to drink to excess and behave in an immoral manner simply because the folks at Hallmark and other retailers are selling St. Patrick's Day merchandise. If you're not Christian, you probably aren't interested in the work that St. Patrick is remembered for, anyway, unless you're a history buff.

Second, although it is appropriate to enjoy a special meal, may I urge you not to choose corned beef and cabbage and (God help us all) green beer? The traditional Irish feast-day meal includes potatoes and cabbage (OK, so most Irish meals contain potatoes and cabbage...) and what I can only describe as a slab of unsliced bacon boiled in water and/or beer. Corned beef came to be associated with Irish cuisine only after Irish immigrants began arriving in this country. The bacon that they were accustomed to eating was nowhere to be found here, and corned beef brisket was the nearest equivalent. I suppose this fact itself makes corned beef and cabbage an acceptable St. Patrick's Day meal in America, but these days you can get almost any comestible anywhere in the world, and I'm a traditionalist. If you wish to add soda bread to your feast, choose a plain white or wheat loaf--NO RAISINS. Soda bread should contain flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk (and possibly baking powder, although this one is debatable) and nothing else. No eggs, butter (except that which the consumer spreads on the slices before eating), or sugar--these ingredients were considered too luxurious in the Old World for daily use and only became common additions when the Irish immigrants found themselves in a better economic position. Adding raisins or currants to breads does have precedent, but the resulting bread is properly styled a scone or tea cake. And, please, don't get me started on the subject of green beer. Just do yourself a favor and stick to the unadulterated kind.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, take some time to remember the life of St. Patrick himself. Scholars these days debate almost every facet of his life--including the question of whether or not he really existed (although it's a minority view)--but the person we think of on this day is remembered for bringing Christianity to the people of Ireland on a wide scale. Although a foreigner, he learned the Irish tongue (no easy task, I assure you) and explained the gospel to the people in terms that resonated with them (the story about the shamrock, is, alas, legend), and by appealing to their leaders to convert. He encouraged those who converted to enter into religious (i.e. monastic, although the early Irish version of this is different from what we think of as monasticism) life, and he went to great lengths to ransom Christians who had been taken captive in the slave trade. He also chastised the slavers themselves and urged them to find other ways of earning a living.

You may not be called to foreign missions, but on this feast day, I'll bet there is some aspect of St. Patrick's life and work that can spur you on to greater things. Is there a cross-cultural bridge that you can begin to build in your workplace, school, or community? Is there a work of social justice (yes, I know that's a loaded term) that you can get involved with? Is there someone who needs to hear the gospel in a way that you can explain? Think about it--and please, don't drink the green beer.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Preventing Plagiarism, Part II: High Supervision

In the last post, I began to describe one CUA faculty member's approach to preventing plagiarism. You'll recall that in a recent workshop on the topic, he argued that an effective approach involves both high cost and high supervision. The last post covered "high cost;" this time, I'll address "high supervision."

[N. B. In reviewing the presentation notes, I remembered a third component, "high motivation." I'll address that topic next time, and I've edited last week's post to correct the oversight.]

The cost of plagiarizing at CUA is high, but cost alone is not enough to prevent students from cheating. Students also need high supervision. In this case, "supervision" doesn't mean assigning proctors to watch students as they conduct research and write their essays. Treating college students like elementary school children won't solve anything. "Supervision" has two different meanings here. On the negative side, it means letting students know that you are aware that plagiarism occurs and that you are on the alert for it. Teachers can convey this message in any number of ways: they can set aside some class time to discuss the issue and how they plan to respond to suspected cases, or they can require students to submit papers through a plagiarism-detection service like Turnitin, to name just two.

On the positive side, "supervision" means checking in with students at multiple points in the paper-writing process, giving them an opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback (so that they don't feel like the only time they get feedback is when it's too late to act on it), and giving the teacher the opportunity to assess the student's motivation and progress, and to catch potential problems early. For example, the workshop presenter requires his students to submit a prospectus early in the semester stating the question or topic they wish to investigate, why they are interested in the project, and what they expect to learn from it. Later in the semester he meets with students to discuss the state of their research so far, and a few weeks before the final paper is due, he either has them turn in a rough draft or gives them an opportunity in class to pair off and evaluate each other's drafts.

High supervision helps prevent plagiarism by directly addressing some of its most common causes. Discussing school policies in class helps counter the perception that plagiarism is easy to get away with (although it doesn't eliminate the temptation). Breaking papers down into smaller assignments can ease the performance anxiety that many students feel when they perceive an assignment to be "high stakes" (many students perceive all written assignments--whether they're worth 10% or 50% of the final grade--as "high stakes"). It also encourages students to begin the writing and research processes early, reducing the number of cases that result from poor time management. Requiring students to meet with you in person reduces plagiarism because it helps students get to know you, and some students who wouldn't think twice about plargiarizing a paper in a class in which they are just another face will find it more difficult to do so if they feel they have some level of relationship with the teacher.

High cost and high supervision together have been shown to reduce plagiarism (Notice I didn't say "eliminate." I'm not as optimistic as the presenter--I think that some students will plagiarize no matter how I adapt my course and my teaching methods. We'll get to that one next time or in a fourth installment.), but there's a third component to the formula: high motivation. That will be the subject for the next post. In the meantime, I'll leave you with some thoughts about the pros and cons of the "high supervision" approach the presenter recommended:

Reasons I would adopt this strategy:

1. It would make me a better teacher/give me more opportunities to teach. For me, at least, teaching is more than a job. It's a calling, and therefore a large part of my identity. My desire is not just to impart content to my students--it's to cultivate in them the desire to learn, and to give them the skills they need to do so. Teaching them about the writing process, as opposed to focusing narrowly on the completion of the assignment, is appealing, because it's the kind of lesson that can be applied to all my students' courses, and I'm not one to assume that someone else will have covered it.

2. Building off the first point, it would give me more opportunities to get to know my students and their interests, and to steer them toward programs and resources that would help them achieve their academic and professional goals. I had one or two professors who invested in me in this way, and their mentoring played a large role in my decision to pursue graduate studies and teach.

3. Anything that reduces plagiarism reduces my own stress. An ounce of prevention...

Reasons I would not adopt this strategy:

1. It is completely impractical in my current situation. I have 33 students, each of whom is required to write 3 papers for this course--and since I didn't set that requirement, I can't change it (the only thing I can do is set the details of the assignments). That's 99 papers per semester. I am also part-time faculty, sharing an office with 6 other part-timers, which means I get the office for 3 hours a week. There's no time to meet with each of my students individually once, let alone multiple times per semester. And while I have made it clear to my students that I will happily review rough drafts, I don't have time for more than a quick assessment of those that I do receive. It seems ridiculous to double or triple my workload in the hopes of preventing one or two cases of plagiarism.

2. Other strategies--such as taking the time to create "plagiarism-resistant" assignments (e.g., assignments that are course-specific, require students to compare multiple texts, and/or interact with or build off of class discussion)--reduce plagiarism without creating extra work for me during the semester.

My overall assessment: this strategy is good for a course in which students write one big paper, but isn't really practical in my situation.