Out of the Zoo: Trying Our Best

IMG_20180904_195550199Annie Thorn is a junior history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie reflects on the challenges of teaching and learning in a pandemic.  —JF

I remember how excited I was to work out at Messiah’s Falcon Fitness Center for the first time. Brand new, nearly 15,000 square feet, and decked out with state-of-the-art equipment, Messiah’s gym was a serious upgrade from my high school weight room. Plus, I heard on a campus tour that you could use the screens on the treadmills to play Netflix or Hulu while you exercise. As a freshman and a sophomore I remember going to the gym nearly every day–sometimes twice, if my fitness class was meeting–to lift weights and run. Needless to say, I finished several seasons of The Office, Brooklyn 99, and New Amsterdam over the past two years, all while getting my steps in. 

Due to recent circumstances, I don’t go to the fitness center as much this year. In fact, I haven’t been there at all since I moved in a week and a half ago.  Don’t get me wrong, the fitness center staff has implemented and enforced strict social distancing guidelines to keep Messiah’s community safe from COVID-19. Many students are comfortable going to the gym right now, but I’m just not there yet. So for now I’m getting up early to run a couple miles around the block before everyone is out and about on campus–with a mask hanging around my neck just in case. It looks like I might need to find another time to watch Netflix this year. 

It’s hard to be a college student during a pandemic. Classes, internships, volunteer opportunities, even exercise routines have been hastily interrupted, altered, or cancelled altogether. Names are more difficult to remember, friends harder to connect with. Every additional rule and extra responsibility feels like another weight added to an already-heavy backpack. The fear of an impromptu fourteen-day quarantine is ever-looming. We’re encouraged to have a suitcase of essentials packed to take with us if we start showing symptoms or have been exposed to someone with the virus. 

I’m sure it’s hard to be a professor during a pandemic, too. Technological difficulties arise. Masks muffle students questions and make conversations challenging to facilitate. At Messiah, classes are often held in two different rooms and professors are expected to teach students in both classrooms simultaneously. Even the most experienced teachers are thrown for a loop, apologizing to students when they feel they have not been able to deliver their usual caliber of education.

There are plenty of angry voices out there claiming they know what’s best for students and teachers alike during this season. “OPEN THE SCHOOLS!” a typical Facebook post reads. “CLOSE DOWN CAMPUS!” someone else writes on Twitter. They don’t ask. They don’t empathize. They just shout. They don’t listen or show compassion. They just politicize the millions of students trying to learn and teachers trying to teach in the midst of a world turned upside-down. 

Before you post,  before you reprimand a student or teacher or school board for the decisions they’ve made, please keep the following in mind. This year we are juggling what feels like a thousand things at once. It is a hard time to be a student, and it is a hard time to be a teacher. We are trying our best, and our educators are doing the same. We are all doing what we can. Instead of criticism, instead of hatred, some of us could really benefit from an encouraging word or two right now. And like always, we could all use a little bit of grace.

GOP Convention: Night 3

pence and trump at ft mchenry

Yesterday was my first day of face-to-face teaching since March. I am not yet in “classroom shape,” so I was exhausted by the end of the day. Mentally, I was still reeling from multiple technology failures (mostly due to my ignorance) and the panic (and sweat) that ensues when half of the class is watching you desperately trying to get the other half of the class connected via ZOOM.

This morning my youngest daughter headed-off to Michigan for her sophomore year of college, so we spent most of last night packing the car and spending a few hours together before the empty nest syndrome returns later today.

Needless to say, I did not get much time to watch the third night of the 2020 GOP Convention, but I did manage to see a few speeches and catch-up with the rest via news and videos.

Let’s start with American history:

  • In her speech, Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law (Eric Trump’s spouse), tried to quote Abraham Lincoln: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedom,” she said, “it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” These are strong words. Lincoln never said them.
  • In his speech, Madison Cawthorn, a GOP congressional candidate from North Carolina’s 11th district, said that James Madison signed the Declaration of Independence. Here is the exact line: “James Madison was 25 years-old when he signed the Declaration of Independence.” Madison was indeed 25 in July of 1776, but he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. (He did serve in the Second Continental Congress from 1777 to 1779).
  • Clarence Henderson, who was part of the 1960 lunch counter sit-ins at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths, deserves the appreciation of every American. (Just to be clear, Henderson was not one of the famed “Greensboro Four“). He is free to vote for anyone he wants in November. But it is sad to see this civil rights activist buy into the idea that African-Americans should vote for Trump (or the GOP in general) because Lincoln freed the slaves and the Democrats (in the South) were the party of segregation. While this is true, it fails to acknowledge an important principle of historical thinking: change over time.
  • Finally,  Burgess Owens, a GOP congressional candidate from Utah (and former NFL player), talked about his father and World War II. He said, “mobs torch our cities, while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism that my father fought against in World War II.” Owens is confused. The socialists (communists) were actually on the side of the United States during World War II. The Nazi’s were opponents of Soviet-style socialism. This can get a little tricky because “Nazi” is short for “National Socialist.” Sort it all out here.

OK, let’s move on.

Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany repeated the popular mantra about liberals “removing God” from public schools and “erasing God from history.” A few quick thoughts on this:

  • From the perspective of Christian theology, I don’t think it is possible to remove God from public schools or anywhere else.
  • Ironically, McEnany’s statement about erasing God comes at a moment when American religious history is one of the hottest fields in the historical profession. We know more about Christianity’s role in America’s past today than at any other point in the history of the nation.

I want to spend the rest of this post on Mike Pence’s speech last night. Watch it:

I did not recognize much of the America that Pence described in this speech. He began with an attack on Joe Biden: “Democrats spent four days attacking America. Joe Biden said we were living through a ‘season of darkness.'”

In January 2017, Donald Trump used the word “carnage” to describe the United States. Is America any better four years later? 180, 000 are dead from COVID-19. Colleges and schools are closed. There is racial unrest in the streets. We are a laughing stock in the global community. Millions are out work. Less than half of Americans have any confidence in the president. And Pence has the audacity to say “we made America great again.”

Pence continues to peddle the narrative that the coronavirus derailed the accomplishments of Trump’s first term. This is partly true. But when historians write about this presidency, the administration’s handling of COVID-19 will be at the center of the story.  COVID-19 is not just an unfortunate parenthesis in an otherwise successful presidency. COVID-19, and Trump’s failure to act swiftly, will be this president’s defining legacy.

Like Kayleigh McEnany earlier in the night, Pence also made reference to the current conversation about monuments and their relationship to our understanding of the American past. “If you want a president who falls silent when our heritage is demeaned or insulted,” Pence said, “then he’s [Trump’s] not your man.”

It is important to remember that “heritage” is not history. Those who sing the praises of “heritage” today are really talking more about the present the past. The purpose of heritage, writes the late historian David Lowenthal, is to “domesticate the past” so that it can be enlisted “for present causes.” History explores and explains the past in all its fullness, while heritage calls attention to the past to make a political point. Since the purpose of heritage is to cultivate a sense of collective national identity, it is rarely concerned with nuance, paradox, or complexity. As Lowenthal writes, devotion to heritage is a “spiritual calling”–it answers needs for ritual devotion.

When Trump and Pence talk about defending an American “heritage,” they are selectively invoking the past to serve their purposes. Such an approach, in this case, ignores the dark moments of our shared American experience. This administration is not interested in history.  They reject theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s call to “waken the dead and piece together what has been broken.”

Pence’s speech was filled with misleading statements, half-truths, and blatant lies. He claimed that Joe Biden wants to defund the police. He said that Biden “opposed the operation” that killed Osama bin Laden.” He said that Donald Trump has “achieved energy independence for the United States.” He said Joe Biden wants to “end school choice.” He said Joe Biden wants to scrap tariffs on Chinese goods. He said that “no one who required a ventilator was ever denied a ventilator in the United States.” He said that Trump suspended “all travel from China” before the coronavirus spread. He said that Biden did not condemn the violence in American cities. He said that Biden supports open borders. All of these statements are either false or misleading.

Trump is a liar. So is Pence. But Pence is an evangelical Christian. How can anyone reconcile the peddling of such deception with Christian faith? It doesn’t matter if the Bible-believing vice president lies about his political opponent, as long as his lies are effective in scaring Americans to vote for Trump. Pence claimed that “you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.” Of course this kind of fear-mongering has a long history in American politics. But when people claim the mantle of Christian faith and engage in such political rhetoric, we must always call it out.

Finally, Pence has proven to be a master at fusing the Bible with American ideals. Again, this is not new. The patriotic ministers of the American Revolution did this all the time. It was heretical then. It is heretical now. Such a rhetorical strategy manipulates the Bible for political gain.

For example, Pence said, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and that means freedom always wins.” Pence is referencing 2 Corinthians 3:17: “now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” This passage has NOTHING to do with the political or “American” freedom Pence was touting in his speech. St. Paul spoke these words to encourage the Corinthian church to live Spirit-filled lives that would free them from the bondage sin, death, and guilt. Pence has taken a deeply spiritual message and bastardized it to serve partisan politics and this corrupt president.

In the same paragraph, Pence says, “So let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents, fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. Let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom.”
Here Pence is referencing Hebrews 12: 1-2. That passage says: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Again, see what Pence is doing here. Instead of fixing our eyes on Jesus, we should fix our eyes on “Old Glory,” a symbol of American nationalism. The “heroes” he speaks of are not the men and women of faith discussed in the previous chapter of Hebrews (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets), they are the “heroes” (as he interprets them) of American history. Jesus is the “author and perfecter” of our faith and [American] freedom.”

The use of the Bible in this way is a form of idolatry. My friend and history teacher Matt Lakemacher gets it right:

On to day 4!

GOP Convention: Night 2

NBC News

NBC News graphic

I didn’t get to listen very carefully to many of the speeches on night 2 of the GOP convention. I was preparing for my return to the classroom today.  At least my nightmares were different last night. Instead of dreaming about what Trump is doing to the nation and the church, I dreamed of microphones, ZOOM, Canvas, student rotation, the Cloud, and sweating through my mask as I tried to lecture to 170 students in a 500-person recital hall with people staring down at me from the third floor balconies. (Yes, this will happen today).

So this post will just focus on the things that caught my attention enough to pull me away from creating Canvas modules.

Last night Cissie Graham, the daughter of court evangelical Franklin Graham and the granddaughter of Billy Graham, spoke at the Republican National Convention. Watch:

A few quick thoughts:

  1. I will take Cissie Graham and the rest of the court evangelicals more seriously when they start talking about religious liberty for all Americans.
  2.  As a fellow evangelical, I would hardly call prohibitions against indoor worship during a pandemic “religious persecution.”

Not all of Billy Graham’s grandchildren are in the Trump camp. Yesterday Jerushah Duford, who describes herself as “the proud granddaughter” of Billy Graham, published an op-ed in USA Today claiming that evangelical support for Donald Trump “spits” on the “legacy” of her grandfather. Read it here.

During the convention Trump pardoned Jon Ponder, an African-American man convicted of robbing a Nevada bank. Ponder now runs Hope for Prisoners, a Christian ministry the helps prisoners re-enter society after their period of incarceration. Ponder’s story brings positive attention to criminal justice reform. It is a story of God changing a man’s heart. I am glad Trump pardoned him.

What bothered me about the segment featuring Ponder was the way the Christian faith was manipulated for political purposes. At times during this segment I wondered if Ponder was there to talk about criminal justice reform or help Trump make his appeal to the evangelicals. Ponder’s faith plays an essential part in his story. This should be celebrated. But faith should never be politicized.

Watch the segment and let me know if any of this belongs at a political convention:

Later in the evening, Abby Johnson spoke about Planned Parenthood and abortion:

I was nodding my head as Johnson spoke until she used the words “Trump” and “two Supreme Court justices” in the same sentence. We can reduce abortions in America without getting into bed with this president, but it will require breaking from the 40-year-old Christian Right playbook.

Then came Georgetown Law School graduate Tiffany Trump. I wasn’t really listening to Tiffany until she said “God has blessed us with an unstoppable spirit, His spirit, the American spirit.” The worst part about this is that most evangelicals didn’t blink an eye when Trump’s daughter conflated the Holy Spirit and the American Dream.

I perked-up again when Tiffany started lamenting–yes lamenting–the fact that the promotion of “division and controversy breeds profit.”

There was a small kernel of truth in some of Tiffany Trump’s words last night. She called for open discourse and the free exchange of ideas in the public sphere. I am on board with this, but I think the real issue at stake here is where one draws the boundary line between open discourse and anti-intellectualism. I am thinking here about both the Left and the Right. The far Right is prone to making public arguments that are not based on truth, science, or evidence. The far Left does better with truth, science, and evidence, but its defenders draw the boundaries of acceptable discourse so narrowly that they often sound like intolerant fundamentalists. And both sides need to stop the ad hominem attacks.

I am not going to say much about the speeches by Eric Trump, Mike Pompeo, or Melania Trump. Pompeo, of course, spoke from Jerusalem to keep the evangelical base happy. Melania’s speech is getting good reviews. I guess it was OK, but I tuned-out when she described her husband as an honest man.

As noted above, there was a lot of faith talk last night. The Democrats were portrayed as godless threats to true religion. This suggests that the millions of American Christians, and especially African-American Christians, who vote Democrat are not real Christians.

This tweet sums-up how I felt last night:

How the Pietist Schoolman is preparing for his history classes this fall

Parmer

I will be teaching my U.S. survey in this room 

Like Chris Gehrz, I am starting to stress about the Fall semester.

I am teaching the U.S. Survey course to 180 students in a 790 seat recital hall. (We will have ten smaller weekly seminars in other socially distanced classrooms). I am also teaching my Pennsylvania History course to 25 students. I have not started thinking about anything yet, although I do have a meeting to “attend” next week to learn more about the university guidelines.

So how is the Pietist Schoolman doing it? He offers five basic principles that are guiding his preparation:

  1. “Start with Face-to-Face, then think about how to make it available online.
  2. “Lean into my skill as a lecturer”
  3. “Move most ‘active’ learning online”
  4. “Emphasize research”
  5. “Overcommunicate”

See how Chris unpacks these points here.

“Students will be seated one fallen statue of a historical figure apart. As statues are the only way we learn history, this will also remove the need for students to buy books.”

College classroom 3

McSweeney’s strikes again! Check out Bethany Keenan’s “Discipline-Specific Guidelines For Classroom Social Distancing.” Here are a few:

History

Students will be seated one fallen statue of a historical figure apart. As statues are the only way we learn history, this will also remove the need for students to buy books.

Political Science

Students will explore the intersection of personal sentiment and American political life by spending the semester ten paces apart and in the same positions taken during the Hamilton-Burr duel.

Religion

Have students map out the genealogical trees of the Old Testament until they are all stationed fifteen begots apart.

Read the others here.

Coronavirus Diary: May 16, 2020

Fea with MaskWhen I published my last diary entry on April 23, 2020, my Pennsylvania county had 229 cases and 7 deaths. Twenty-two days later, we have 515 cases and 48 deaths.

I went to my Messiah College office yesterday for the first time since March 13, 2020. I didn’t really need anything, but when the administration gave faculty the opportunity to get on campus for a two-hour slot this week, I signed-up. I needed to get out of the house and reconnect with the my workplace. I brought a box and filled-it with some books I want to read, a few pieces of mail, and some notes for a Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History seminar I will be teaching in July.  I am not sure when I will be back.

At home, our little quarantine community is breaking up. My oldest daughter Ally is heading back to Grand Rapids in a few days. She is finishing-up her final papers and will start work at a new job later this month. We will miss her. I think I speak for Joy when I say that having her home was an unexpected gift. After she left for college and stopped coming home for the summer, we were unsure we would ever spend so much extended time with her again. Caroline, who just finished her first-year of college, will be with us all summer. She half-jokes that her life just reverted back to her last three years of high school–stuck at home with Mom and Dad. We are glad she will be around.

For the next couple days I will be immersed in final grading, but next week I hope to transition to summer research. I need to make some substantial headway on my American Revolution in New Jersey book. On the podcast front, we just recorded our first episode since March and have several more episodes lined-up for the summer. Stay tuned. If you want to support our work–either the podcast or the blog–feel free to make a contribution at our Patreon page. Every little bit helps.

Everything is still up-in-the-air for the Fall. Will I be back on campus? Will I be teaching on-line? I will not be delivering the presidential address at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, but I do have speaking engagements that are still scheduled. I am trying to take things one day at a time. I think that’s the best all of us can do right now.

The pandemic has partially lifted the veil on some of our deepest convictions about faith, politics, the meaning of liberty and community, self-sacrifice, citizenship, and how much time in quarantine we are willing to tolerate. It has been fascinating to watch via social media. I have been surprised, disappointed, and inspired.

Coronavirus Diary: April 23, 2020

Fam Pic

When I published my last diary entry on April 8, 2020, my Pennsylvania county had 88 coronavirus cases and two deaths. Fifteen days later, we have 229 cases and 7 deaths.

The quarantine continues. Both daughters are still home. They are working on papers as I type this. Ally has had a few job interviews and is starting to think about when she will return to Grand Rapids. Caroline is applying for work delivering groceries.

Part of the Messiah College Career and Professional Development Center is now operating out of my kitchen. After overhearing multiple webinars about job searching, and listening to bits and pieces of Joy’s career advice to students, I think I might be able to land a job if this history teaching thing doesn’t work out.  🙂

It’s been chilly here in central Pennsylvania, but I still have had a few opportunities to sit on the garage couch. I got up early the other morning, made a cup of coffee in our new Kuerig, bundled-up, and went outside. After five minutes of staring off into the sky, a high school girl in the neighborhood, who was out walking her dog, saw me sitting in the garage and struck-up a conversation. We talked about what her family was watching on Netflix and she shared some stuff about her classes at the local high school. This girl has lived three doors away from us her entire life, but this was the longest conversation I ever had with her. When I told Joy about the conversation she informed me that the girl is headed to Messiah College in the Fall.  I wish I would have known this during our morning chat!

In local political news, pro-Trumpers converged on Harrisburg the other day and demanded that Governor Tom Wolf “open” the economy.  I wrote about it here.  And yes, I did see people I know at the rally.  This pandemic is revealing things about people that were previously hidden behind the veil of neighborliness and civility.

We in the Fea household are all getting on each other nerves. But I think I speak for the whole family when I say we are enjoying our time together. I am not sure when we will all be under the same roof for such an extended period of time again. I have noticed that everyone lingers a bit longer at the dinner table these days. My oldest daughter, Allyson, is helping me write a young reader’s edition of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. (We are still looking for an editor, publisher or literary agent–e-mail me!). Last night we sat around the table and thought about which actors might play Philip and Betsy in the movie version of the book. (We decided on Timothee Chalamet for Philip and Emma Watson for Betsy).

I continue teaching Created and Called for Community online. We are in the “vocation” unit right now.  Texts like the parable of the good Samaritan, 2 Corinthians 5: 17-21 (on reconciliation), Jerry Sittser’s The Will of God as a Way of Life, and Dorothy Sayers’s “Why Work?” have taken on new meaning in this pandemic.

The future still seems uncertain. Will I be teaching face-to-face in the Fall? What will Messiah College look like after this pandemic is over? I am thankful to the college leadership who seem to be making wise decisions, but some of the changes have been painful for many colleagues. I have already heard about faculty at smaller, tuition-driven colleges who are wondering if their institutions will survive if residential campus life does not return in late August.

Today I was talking to Joy about residential college students–our own daughters and the students we work with at Messiah. What will happen to them if they can’t return to campus in 2020-2021? How do we deal with the depression, anxiety, uncertainty, loss of face-to-face friendships, and confusion about the future that will come if school is cancelled in the Fall?  If a gap year is necessary, what type of programs or opportunities do we need to create in order to keep them engaged in public life during a time of social distancing? How do we encourage them to use this time to grow–intellectually, morally, spiritually? These are huge challenges. I am sure that college students who do not live on campus have some of their own concerns on this front.

In the end, I hope that my role as a teacher and writer is doing something small to serve the common good during this pandemic. But I still feel like I am dealing with something akin to survivors guilt because I still have a job, my family is healthy, and I don’t work in a “front line” profession. Writing these journal entries certainly help. Thanks for reading.

 

How Will Coronavirus Redefine College?

540b2-mmw-liberal-arts-college

The following piece is by University of Georgia history professor Stephen Mihm. Warning: What you are about to read is not pretty.  A taste:

Imagine, for a moment, if August rolls around and the pandemic has abated but colleges and universities remain shuttered. This doesn’t mean, though, that they can’t operate: After all, professors across the country have spent the past few weeks putting classes online, teaching via Zoom, and otherwise adapting to the new normal. In theory, the nation’s institutions of higher education can simply do the same come fall. And therein lies a problem.

When students shell out $50,000 a year to attend a school that admits a majority of applicants, they’re paying for a lot more than professors. They’re paying for the experience of college: dating, dorm life, fraternities and sororities, Frisbee on the quad — all the stuff that has come to define college for the past century or so. This is one reason, perhaps, that colleges and universities have spent so much money on amenities and extracurricular diversions, rather than actual education, in recent years.

But when education moves online, all of that disappears. Instead, you’re left with a haggard-looking professor on Zoom. That’s worth something, sure, but it isn’t worth paying anything close to full freight. Parents who confront this reality come fall semester are going to quickly conclude that their children will need to settle for something more practical, like some online courses offered by a local branch of the state university.

This may be true even if schools reopen. As parents of high-school-age children recover from the pandemic and the job losses that have attended it, the logical choice for many — perhaps the only choice, given their financial circumstances — will be to hold off on the pricey residential college experience until things return to normal.

Brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, though, can’t wait. They’ve got fixed costs: buildings and laboratories to maintain; faculty and staff to pay; debts to service; and many other expenses. Yes, some have endowments, but outside a handful of elite universities, these are rarely large, and they have already sustained significant damage over the past month. This will leave the hundreds of schools who have bet their futures on residential education in a serious bind.

Unlike so much of the workforce today, employees at these colleges and universities often spend their entire lives working for the same institution. They are the living embodiment of these institutions, participating fully in all the rituals that make college an experience. Get rid of them, and you have effectively destroyed investments in human capital built up over many decades.

Read the entire piece at Bloomberg.

Created and Called for Community: “Making Meaning” on the First Day of Class

College-classroom

I am pretty old school when it comes to the first day of class.  As some of you remember from my post last week, this semester I am teaching Messiah College’s first-year course Created and Called for Community (CCC).  Yesterday I met with all three of my sections  and introduced them to the course.  CCC has a common syllabus.  This means that every first-year student taking this course reads the same texts.  It is the only course of this nature at Messiah College.

The first day is always about logistics–required textbooks, assignments, grading scale, office hours, etc…  But sometimes the syllabus offers opportunities to talk about the importance of such a course.  I tried to do that today.

The syllabus begins this way:

The Created and Called for Community (CCC) course comprises the second half of Messiah College’s curriculum for first-year students, as well as transfer students. Together, First Year Seminar and CCC are designed to equip you with the intellectual skills needed to succeed during the rest of your education at Messiah College. In particular, both “W” courses focus on the ability to write accurately, clearly, and convincingly that will serve you well in your college career (whatever your major), as well as the vocation and profession you enter following your college career.

This is a writing course.  I will be spending a lot of time this semester reading drafts and commenting on papers.  Today, I tried to convince these students–who represent every major at Messiah College, from Engineering and Nursing to History and Sociology–that one does not always fully understand what they believe about a particular issue until they start to write.

The syllabus continues:

CCC also introduces you to the particular kind of community and institution that is Messiah College. Messiah’s history and identity are rooted in three strands of the Christian church known as Anabaptism, Pietism and Wesleyanism. We hope that this course helps you become familiar with basic elements of Messiah’s identity, mission, and foundation. The course will encourage you to cultivate a climate in which there can be better, deeper, and richer conversations about important issues precisely because they’re informed by some common understandings and curriculum. Some of the common readings assigned are classic texts which have been read by generations of college students. Others are more recent and speak to various contemporary issues and concerns.

In tell the students that it is important to understand the identity of the college where they have chosen to study.  They do not have to agree with the mission of Messiah College, but they must understand that when the college administration makes decisions about campus life they do so out of a particular understanding of Christian higher education.  If students are unhappy with the way the administration handles a controversial issue on campus, their criticism of the administration should be based on whether or not the leadership is consistently applying the religious principles that inform the identity of the college.

Finally, CCC is an introduction to liberal arts learning at Messiah College:

CCC, then, is an inter-disciplinary and common-learning course, a course in “meaning-making.” It’s hoped that over the course of this semester, you’ll receive helpful resources to address the experiences, questions, and challenges that you’ll face in the future in an informed and thoughtful fashion. And it’s also a discussion-oriented course. One way to become equipped for this task is to meet and engage with people and ideas worthy of shaping you and your thinking. This semester, you’ll have the opportunity to develop your thoughts alongside other people–the authors whose works we read, your instructor, and your classmates.

Again, you can see the reading list here.  Today I told the students that there are 27 voices that show up to class every day.  25 of those voices are the Messiah College undergraduates who are asked to come to class prepared to discuss the daily reading.  As the instructor, I am an additional voice (#26).  My goal is to facilitate conversation and to raise important questions about the texts.  And one of the voices (#27) in the room is the author of the text we are reading on that day.  Those voices include John Henry Newman, Ernest Boyer, James Weldon Johnson, J.R.R Tolkien, Alice Walker, Martin Luther King, Augustine, Plato, and Dorothy Sayers.  I urged the students to show hospitality to these voices.  I want the students to listen to these voices before critiquing them.  I want my students to approach these texts with humility, assuming that these authors are smarter than them and thus have something to teach them about the world.

The readings for this course fit into three units. They are: Creation, Community, and Calling (Vocation)

Here is how the syllabus describes each unit:

Creation: The first words of Scripture in some translations say that “in the beginning God created…” And so it seems fitting that you’ll begin exploring the theme of creation and creativity by studying the account of God’s creation in Genesis 1 and 2. You’ll examine both the natural and human creation, including the moral and ethical implications that flow from the understanding that every person is made in God’s image (or, in Latin, the imago Dei) and so possesses dignity and status. You’ll also consider how to be faithful stewards of creation and ways in which you can express the creative impulse God has implanted in you.

Community: All human beings throughout history, each of them made in God’s image, have lived within various types of groups or communities: families, groups of friends, churches, college campuses, neighborhoods, nations, and the worldwide or global community. The process of community-building brings with it both great rewards as well as challenges. Communities are inescapable, yet they place demands on us. In exploring this theme, you’ll examine the factors that strengthen and weaken community, and the challenges of community-building in a variety of settings. Along the way, you’ll consider both inspiring exemplars of community-building, as well as times and places where communities have fallen short and succumbed to the practices of segregation or racism or isolation or violence.

Calling or Vocation: Christian vocation requires us to consider not only what we do but also who we are. We’re called to personal transformation by practicing spiritual disciplines and called to social transformation by addressing injustice in the world. Exploring this theme in CCC, you’ll view some of the ways in which various people have served, look at where and how they’ve found their place in the world, look at vocation in various settings, continue the process of discerning your own vocation and place in the world, and look at some of the characteristics of Christian vocation—especially service, work, leadership, and reconciliation.

Stay tuned.  We are discussing Stanley Hauerwas’s “God With God” on Wednesday.

Follow along here.

Any College Professor Can Relate to What Happened in Iowa Last Night

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You spent hours preparing.   You get to class early so you can project your PowerPoint and queue your videos.  You are going to utilize that digital pedagogical tool you learned about in the required professional development workshop you took last May.

But when the time comes to execute, the technology doesn’t work.

Here is The New York Times:

The app that the Iowa Democratic Party commissioned to tabulate and report results from the caucuses on Monday was not properly tested at a statewide scale, said people who were briefed on the app by the state party.

It was quickly put together in just the past two months, said the people, some of whom asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

And the party decided to use the app only after another proposal for reporting votes — which entailed having caucus participants call in their votes over the phone — was abandoned, on the advice of Democratic National Committee officials, according to David Jefferson, a board member of Verified Voting, a nonpartisan election integrity organization.

Late Monday night, that chain of events came to a head when results from the Iowa caucuses were significantly delayed. While vote counts in the past have typically been reported earlier in the evening, the Iowa Democratic Party held a conference call with representatives from each campaign at around 10:30 p.m. Eastern time to tell them that roughly 35 percent of precincts had reported, but that it would provide no other details about the results.

Read the rest here.

Teaching this Semester

Created and Called

This semester, for the first time in my eighteen-year career at Messiah College, I will not be teaching any history courses.  Instead, I will be teaching three sections of a required first-year seminar titled “Created and Called for Community.”  This course, which uses a common syllabus, is designed to introduce a Messiah College liberal arts education to first-year students.  It focuses on the writing, close reading of texts, biblical and theological reflection on human dignity and community, and the meaning of Christian vocation.

I will be teaching these texts:

Stanley Hauerwas, “Go With God

John Henry Newman, “What is a University?

Ernest L. Boyer, “Retaining the Legacy of Messiah College

Genesis 1-2

James Weldon Johnson, “The Creation

Bruce Birch, “The Image of God

J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle

Alice Walker, “In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens

Exodus 19-20

Matthew 5-7

 Acts 1-4

Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed

Harold Bender, The Anabaptist Vision (excerpt)

Alabama Clergyman, “A Call for Unity” and Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Robert Putnam, “Bowling Alone

Augustine, Confessions (excerpts)

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall

Luke 10:25-37

2 Corinthians 5:17-21

Desmond Tutu, “God Believes in Us

Plato, “The Allegory of the Cave” (excerpt)

Albert Schweitzer, “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor

Henri Nouwen, “Adam’s Peace

Jerry Sittser, “Distinguishing Between Calling and Career

Jerry Sittser, “What We’re Supposed to Do”

Dorothy Sayers, “Why Work?

I will probably blog about these texts as the semester moves forward.  Feel free to read or follow along.

Every Humanities Faculty Member at a Christian College Should Read This Piece

Crown

Call it “Quit Lit” or something else, but this is a powerful and moving piece by former Crown University English professor Michial Farmer.  A friend who sent the essay to me called it “uncomfortably honest.”  I would agree.  Farmer bares his soul and, as my friend says, we are like the priest behind the curtain.  But I think we in the humanities, especially those of us at Christian colleges, can relate to some his story.

Here is a taste of “Two Forms of Despair“:

There is real freedom in resignation: For the last several years of my teaching career, I suffered a variety of annoying and humiliating medical symptoms: phantom gallbladder pain, heart palpitations, strange twitches of the nerves in my big toe, several months of constipation. When I took them to my physician, he inevitably told me that I was doing it to myself, that these were physical manifestations of my anxiety that my classes wouldn’t have enough students to run, that my college would close, that no other college would ever hire me. But symptoms of anxiety form a kind of feedback loop, and I’d lie in bed panicking that I had gallstones, a heart attack, multiple sclerosis, colon cancer—anything to avoid facing the truth that I was trying to live in a world that didn’t exist, a world in which it was possible for a person like me to be a great success teaching English, of all things, at an evangelical college, of all places. Every year, I stared out over the abyss, and hope sprung eternal as I sent out dozens of applications to state schools, overseas universities, and more prestigious Christian colleges; every year, the abyss stared back at me in the guise of form letters or, more often, a cold and mechanical silence.

I remember the last straw. I’d applied for a job at a noteworthy religious college in the Pacific Northwest, a job I was quite qualified for in a department where I knew someone. She wasn’t on the search committee, so she helped me with my application, which I spent weeks perfecting. The school rejected me during the first round; they didn’t even interview me over the phone. They sent the rejection email on a Friday night at midnight. Something broke off inside of me, and I needed two sleeping pills to fight through the jungle of catatonic anxiety and fall asleep. A few months later, my provost called me into his office and told me that I was “banging my head against the wall” by trying to turn my college into the sort of place I’d want to teach. There was no way out, and no way to improve the inside. My final physical symptom appeared: a lump in my throat so large and solid that I couldn’t wear a tie anymore. Magically, it went away after I resigned myself to the fact that a career in education was not in my future.

I don’t think cynical people go into humanities education—or if they do, their cynicism is a screen to protect them from the low financial and social rewards their thirteen years of higher education require. They—we—do it because we believe in the power of art and thought to transform lives and the world. And yet it’s a cliché at this point to talk about the failure of universities to support the noble goals of humanists, religious and secular alike.

When I went into graduate school, I believed that the Christian college could be a useful, vital counterweight to the forces of professionalization and politics that have rent the humanities at secular universities. I imagined the Christian college as a sort of monastery wherein all areas of study, but especially the humanities, find meaning and context in the shared beliefs and practices of the community. I hope I won’t sound petulant if I point out that most Christian colleges, perhaps all of them, have failed to live up to that vision—which may have only been another of my fantasies in the first place. I don’t blame them; the armies threatening the Christian liberal arts are led by Republicans and Democrats, atheists and evangelicals. Administrators have to be practical if they want to save the jobs of their faculty members and the real good their institutions are doing in the world. When my provost told me I was beating my head against the wall, I think he meant that I was trying to live in a world that can no longer exist, if it ever could have. He wanted me to resign—not resign from my job, I think, but resign myself to the idea that I could not get what I wanted from my job. He was seeking my good.

Read the entire piece at The Front Porch Republic.

“My Folly makes me ashamd and I beg you’ll Conceal it”

st croix harbor

I love teaching this letter.  In his first extant piece of writing, Alexander Hamilton writes from St. Croix to his childhood friend Edward Stevens in New York City.  He reveals his ambitions, but is ashamed that he has them.  There is a lot to unpack here.  It also works very well when paired with Hamilton’s reflection on the 1771 St. Croix hurricane.

Dear Edward,

 

This just serves to acknowledge receipt of yours per Cap Lowndes which was delivered me Yesterday. The truth of Cap Lightbourn & Lowndes information is now verifyd by the Presence of your Father and Sister for whose safe arrival I Pray, and that they may convey that Satisfaction to your Soul that must naturally flow from the sight of Absent Friends in health, and shall for news this way refer you to them. As to what you say respecting your having soon the happiness of seeing us all, I wish, for an accomplishment of your hopes provided they are Concomitant with your welfare, otherwise not, tho doubt whether I shall be Present or not for to confess my weakness, Ned, my Ambition is prevalent that I contemn the grov’ling and condition of a Clerk or the like, to which my Fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life tho’ not my Character to exalt my Station. Im confident, Ned that my Youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate Preferment nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. Im no Philosopher you see and may be jusly said to Build Castles in the Air. My Folly makes me ashamd and beg youll Conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such Schemes successfull when the Projector is Constant I shall Conclude saying I wish there was a War.

Yours

Alex Hamilton

Day 1 of “Age of Hamilton” or Fea Enters His “Absent-Minded Professor” Phase

Frey

Frey Hall, Messiah College

Yesterday was the first day of my “Age of Hamilton” course at Messiah College.  I have nineteen students enrolled in this 300-level history course.  History majors get credit toward their major, but about half of the students are non-majors taking this course as a free elective because they are obsessed in one way or another with the Broadway musical and its cast album.  I also had one student who knew nothing about the “Hamilton” phenomenon sweeping the United States.  He decided to take the course because he liked some of the Hamilton songs I played last Spring when he was a student in my U.S. History survey course.

I have spent about nine months thinking about and preparing for this course.  I thought I was ready.  Yesterday morning I  woke-up, did some reading, went for a walk with the dog, wrote a blog post, ate breakfast, stopped at Turkey Hill for my coffee (McDonald’s is closed for renovations), and headed off to campus.  Joy, my wife, sent me a text that read: “Good luck on your first day of teaching.  Glad you are going to take your shot!”  My daughter, a college freshman who I have been torturing with Hamilton songs for the last nine months, texted from Grand Rapids to wish me luck.

I got to campus at around 10:00am–plenty of time to collect my thoughts in preparation for the 12:00pm start time.  But I had left out one small mental detail: the course was actually SCHEDULED FOR 11:00AM!!

So there I was at 11:15, sitting in my office goofing around online and drinking a cup of coffee when my department chairperson walked in.  “John,” he said, “I just got a call from a student.  You apparently have a class waiting for you in Frey Hall 241.”  I was so convinced that the class started at noon that I argued with him.  “That can’t be my Hamilton class,” I said, “it doesn’t start for another forty-five minutes.”  I looked at the syllabus, which was sitting in front of me on my desk.  It said that class started a noon.  It did not occur to me that I had put the wrong time on the syllabus.

Finally reality set in and I realized, embarrassingly, that my department chair and students were right about the start time and I was wrong.  I jumped-up and ran across campus to Frey 241.  It was a humid day in central Pennsylvania so by the time I arrived I was sweating-up a storm.  When I walked into the classroom I yelled “I AM HERE!”  The class started clapping and cheering.  They were just as eager as I was to start engaging with Hamilton and Hamilton.

I guess this means that we are off to a good start.  It also means that I may have entered the absent-minded professor phase of my career.  🙂

Teaching on the First Day of Class

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James Lang, an English professor at Assumption College, offers some good advice on how to engage students during the first day of class.  Any good teacher, he argues, will get four things accomplished on day one:

  1. Spark curiosity
  2. Cultivate community
  3. Get started with learning
  4. Set expectations

Lang develops these points in the context of different disciplinary courses.  Check out the piece at The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is definitely worth your time.

A Gun Studies Syllabus

Gun Show

The history website Bunk recently directed me to Caroline Light and Lindsay Livingston‘s “Gun Studies” syllabus at Public Books.

Here is a taste:

WEEK 1

“To Keep and Bear”: An Introduction to Gun Culture in the United States

This week’s readings seek to demystify and question what is meant by “gun culture” and to introduce some popular databases by which gun ownership and gun violence have been tracked and studied in the contemporary US.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

WEEK 2

“A Well-Regulated Militia”: Legal Foundations of “Gun Rights”

The week’s readings address the nation’s unique legal foundations, particularly the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, in which a right to “have and bear arms” was articulated, while exploring some of the transitions and exclusionary frames through which “Second Amendment Rights” have taken shape over time.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

WEEK 3

“To Secure These Freedoms”: Colonization, Slave Patrols, and Early Police Forces

How has firearm ownership and use been protected—or not—via the Second Amendment? Which populations have been excluded from the right to have and bear arms, and in the interest of which power structures?

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

Read the entire syllabus here.

Doug Winiarski on Teaching the Jerks

VirginiaArgus

Image accessed at douglaswiniarski.com

Doug Winiarski, the Bancroft Prize-winning historian and author of Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England, teaches the jerks.

He explains at the Uncommon Sense: The Blog:

Most of these texts eventually found their way into my January 2019 WMQ essay, “Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival.” But when the project was finished, I felt as if there was more to be said, more to be researched. My students agreed. At one point while working on “Seized by the Jerks,” I taught the Great Revival in a first-year seminar at the University of Richmond. I provided the class with excerpts from Youngs’s journal andedited transcriptions of important manuscript descriptions of the jerks; they pored over Early American Newspapers, Early American Imprints, the American Periodical Series, and other print sources looking for published accounts. The results were astonishing. Students uncovered dozens of new reports of the jerks, some dating from the years of the American Civil War. Over the course of the nineteenth century, no revival phenomena elicited more commentary—positive or (mostly) negative. Today, the strange convulsive fits are remembered as a curiosity, a backwater eddy in the main current of American Protestantism, the road not taken in the development of the southern Bible belt. But a century ago, the jerks and other bodily exercises dominated conversations about the Great Revival. 

If my students’ fascination with the jerks is any indication, historians of religion in early America might benefit from spending a little more time in this peculiar world of twitching bodies, signs and wonders, and continuing revelation. Focusing on the jerks reorients our understanding of the Great Revival away from older debates over the decline of Calvinism and toward what really mattered to its participants: the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in taking direct possession of lay men and women during the process of conversion. It’s an ideal laboratory for exploring popular religion, religious practice, and the history of the body. 

Recently, I’ve been working with digital humanities colleagues at the University of Richmond to create a digital sandbox for students and scholars. “History of the Jerks: Bodily Exercises and the Great Revival (1803–1967)” contains more than 200 tagged, searchable primary texts and images. The digital archive includes excerpts from published accounts of the jerks by familiar figures, such as Peter Cartwright and Barton W. Stone, alongside rare manuscript letters and journals, newspaper articles, sermons, medical treatises, and autobiographies. Visitors can explore the items chronologically or browse by author, religious denomination, genre, type of bodily exercise, state, or territory. The site features an introductory StoryMap based on “Seized by the Jerks,” an interactive map, seminar discussion questions, and a bibliography of secondary literature. 

Read the entire post here.

Are You Using the Mueller Report in the Classroom?


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Over at The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss writes about how scholars and teachers are using the Mueller Report in classrooms across the country and across disciplines.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Daniel Lynch is a history and social sciences instructor at the private Marlborough School in California, for grades seven through 12. In an Advanced Placement U.S. History course he was teaching, Lynch said he created a lesson on the Mueller report on the day it was released publicly in April.

“Since there was very little time between the release and our class (about an hour),” he wrote in an email, “I decided to make the lesson a review of impeachment and historic impeachment controversies and then transition to the current controversy.”

First, he said, they reviewed the impeachment process and looked at impeachment controversies involving presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. (Nixon resigned before he could be impeached; the other two were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate). Then students began to look for sources on the Internet about the release of the Mueller report and later drew Venn diagrams comparing and contrasting the three presidents’ experiences with impeachment.

“We talked about bias and point-of-view of various news outlets and decided as a class to focus on the BBC’s live blogging about the report as the best source for our purposes,” he said. “For homework, students had already found and read an article from what they thought was a reputable source on obstruction of justice allegations against Trump based on information already in the public record. As a class, we listed the allegations already out there and added details coming out from the Mueller report.”

The students “loved” the lesson, he said.

Read the entire piece here.

Have you used the Mueller Report in your classroom?  Do you plan to use it this Fall?