Real Live Prof

Here is something I try to do every semester:

When I am thinking about the class before the semester, I wonder about how this particular class should impact my faith and the student’s faith as well. I then prayerfully pick a “Semester Verse” which tries to encompass this oncoming collision.  This semester I am teaching two sections of Introduction to Sociology. One of the things we try to do as sociologists is to look at problems and issues from other perspectives. (As a point of interest, I would suggest that this is one of the most difficult things for us to do. For example, it seems so right for me to look at all things from my perspective: white, male, middle class, employed, married, Baptist, father of three, educated, Texan, middle aged-professor at a Baptist university, person.) Romans 12 This semester I chose Romans 12:1-2 as a semester verse mainly for verse 2, which urges us to “no longer conform to the pattern of this world”.  Early in the semester I suggest that it is extremely hard to notice the pattern of this world and even harder to go against it. How many times have you walked into a store to buy one item and walked out with multiple bags of things of things you did not even know you needed? Partially this phenomenon can be blamed on your cell phone and your spouse and kids, but some of it is subtle but effective advertising that you never consciously hear. (Last year, Wal-Mart played the Old Spice whistle every few minutes as I shopped there. Before I realized it, I had tried all versions of their Body Wash. I settled on “Swagger”, but I am a little worried because new scents are coming out all of the time). Just like below-the-radar-advertising, the world’s pattern of thinking and acting are foisted upon us as normal and preferable at almost every turn. An example would be how society’s attitude about premarital sex has changed in the last several decades from taboo to celebrated and expected behavior that “youngsters” are supposed to go through on their way to finding true love. Even marriages are referred to as “starter” marriages where individuals learn to live with another on an intimate level, and then pull out when they have discovered what they really need and want in a committed relationship.  Hopefully, no kids, no harm, no foul and both are wiser and aware of what it takes to make themselves supremely happy.

As a way to keep the integration of faith and learning alive during the semester, you might ask the class again about the verse as you review for the exams. Next week, before the first exam I will ask the intro class, “How does Culture (Chapter 2), ‘conform us to the pattern of this world?'” A follow-up question will be, “Why is it so hard to ‘transform our minds’ in our American culture?”

The Chasm

bridge over chasm

I admit I am nervous every time a new semester starts and I get up in front of a room of college students (many of whom have been in church their whole lives), and proceed to teach them the Bible. To calm myself, I remember the advice that seasoned professors have given me over and over:

“Oh, don’t worry! Just remember that you know so much more than they do!”

This is true.  Sometimes I take great solace and even pleasure in that fact.

But should I really be pleased that college students living in the Bible belt, raised in the church, who have heard sermon after sermon and studied Scripture in Sunday school and in their quiet times and in their youth groups, still know so little about reading and interpreting the Bible?

No. I should be shocked and saddened.

I give a “what you know” quiz on the first day of Introduction to the New Testament. These questions only cover basic content, order, and historical background, nothing analytical or interpretive. My students fail miserably. Take the quiz yourself as see how you fare:

1. How many books are in the New Testament?

2. Who wrote the book of Acts?

3. Around what year was the first NT book probably written? If you don’t know a year, give a decade or even a century.

4. Which Gospel was probably written first?

5. What was Paul’s name when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus?

6. Who ruled Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth?

7. In the New Testament, which book comes after Jude?

Invariably, question number 5 yields the most right answers. Why? Saul/Paul is a popular topic in Sunday School literature, repeated at least every year if not more often. The next two questions that students tend to answer correctly are #1 and #7. These are both bits of information a child would learn in Bible Drill but have little to do with the interpretation and application of the Bible.

Only a handful of students ever answer the four remaining questions right, the ones that concern the background, context, and authors of the New Testament. Tragically, without the knowledge of issues such as these, right and responsible interpretation of the Bible remains difficult and out of our grasp.

After all, how would we know to read Acts as the second part of the Gospel of Luke if we did not know that Luke wrote it? We would not know to look for similar themes and emphases and patterns that unlock many important undercurrents. Such ignorance does a great disservice to our interpretation and application of the story of the early church.

What about being aware of the time and historical context during which the epistles and Gospels were written? The language, customs, religious practices, political structures, and societal norms of the biblical times are foreign to those of us living in 21st century America. If we did not know that the New Testament authors wrote in the first century, in a world ruled by the Romans but heavily influence by the Greeks, surrounded by Jewish and pagan religious traditions, how could we ever decipher its images and symbols, the turns of phrases or the metaphors employed? We couldn’t.

So when I grade my students’ quizzes on the first day of class, I am staring into a great, yawning chasm. It is a chasm that represents the great distance between what Christians should know about the Bible and what they actually know. It is a chasm that represents the insurmountable division between the academy (religion scholars who have the training to read the Bible well but do not pass that knowledge to the people in the pew) and the clergy (pastors and teachers in the church who have not been trained to interpret the Bible in its context but still pass on their interpretations as truth). It is a chasm that separates dangerous and irresponsible interpretations based on intuition (such as those that fuel Westboro Baptist Church or result in snake-bitten believers) from edifying and responsible interpretations based on solid hermeneutics.

It is a chasm I am working to bridge when I teach my students all the things they did not learn in church. It is a chasm I hope my students will help bridge when they go on to teach what they have learned in their churches. It is a chasm that I hope, one day, with many of us in the church and the academy working together, will be bridged once and for all.

Answers to the quiz: 1) 27; 2) Luke; 3) I would accept any date around 45-55 AD or just the first century AD; 4) Mark; 5) Saul; 6) The Roman Empire; 7) Revelation

First Day

He raised his hand.

I walked to the back of the classroom toward his desk.

It was the first day of class—my first day ever to teach.  And just ten minutes earlier, I had climbed the creaking staircase to the second floor of the science building.  As I walked down the narrow hallway that smelled of formaldehyde, I checked classroom numbers.  When I found mine, I stood outside the door and tried to catch my breath.

I leaned my back against the hall wall and wondered what I’d been thinking.   Me, a teacher?  I hadn’t even taken the required speech class in college because the idea of standing in front of a classroom paralyzed me with fear.  And now here I was, starting a career doing just that.

They began to arrive.  One by one.  I managed a smile for each student.  And when the bell rang, I asked God for a miracle and walked into the room.  My voice quavered as I introduced myself.  I passed out a bio sheet for my students to fill out.  Buying myself some time.

And then I saw his hand—near the back of the room.

“I don’t have a pen,” he said.  And so I gave him mine.

At the end of the semester, I got my first student thank you note.  He put it in my hand as he walked out of the classroom on the final day of the semester.  It read,

Dear Dr. C,

I will never forget the day we met.  Your class was my first-ever college course.  I was so nervous.  And when you gave us an assignment sheet to fill out at the beginning of class, I realized I didn’t have a pen.  So I raised my hand. 

I was scared.  But when I told you, you smiled and reached into your pocket and gave me yours. I couldn’t believe a college teacher would do that.  Thanks for being so kind to me. I will always remember that.

His first day.  My first day.  Both scared.  Both hoping to make a good impression.   A student and a teacher.  Both so different.  But with so much in common.

Now, after 25 years, I no longer hyperventilate when I walk into a classroom.  I’m no longer terrified.  No longer frozen with fear.

But they are.  Many of them anyway.  And I often forget that.  Some of them are first generation college students.  Some of them have never heard of a syllabus.  Some of them have no idea how to write an essay for an academic audience.  They don’t know what a fragment is.  Or how a writing process works.  Some of them are worried about money and about the girlfriend or boyfriend back home.  Some of them already dislike their roommate.  Some of them are homesick and wondering what they were thinking when they said yes to college.  They are scared, just like I was 25 years ago.

Easy for me to forget.  Easy for me to say, “If you don’t have a pen, then borrow one from someone else or go back to your room and get one.  This is college.  You have to be prepared.”

But I know that students can absolutely think they have things under control, and it can still go wrong.  The computer crashes.  The printer runs out of ink.  The power goes out.

And, as teachers we have a choice to make.  We can be harsh.  Or we can be kind.  Some might say that students have to learn accountability or else they’ll think they can get by with anything.  I get that.  But perhaps a little compassion and flexibility along the way might make an impact we could never imagine.

Funny thing.  I had a campus meeting this summer.  And I was scheduled to give a presentation.  I wanted to get to campus early.  But things didn’t go as planned.  Traffic was heavy.  Stop lights weren’t friendly.  And by the time I got to the campus, I was stressed.  I managed to get to the meeting on time.  But as the session began and the first speaker was introduced, I reached for my pen—and I realized, in my haste, I had forgotten mine.

And so I took a deep breath . . . and raised my hand. . . .

My Journey as a Professor

I did not set out to be a professor. I actually never considered the thought of being a professor… ever. I wanted to be a lawyer or a counselor because I thought that those professions actually helped people. However, as soon as my first semester in college, I realized that professors can change lives (for better or worse). A few professors influenced me in such a way that I wanted to be that person for other students.

I remember my first semester of teaching at the college level. I was in my first semester of graduate school and working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant at the University of North Texas. I was only teaching swimming, but it was the first time I got to see student success (and failure). I realized that I could help people achieve their dreams of learning how to swim. Although this was a small glimpse into the future… I found that I enjoyed helping people achieve their goal.

Looking back, those times were so much easier… and many times I wish being a professor was as easy as teaching someone to swim. Currently, I teach students how to be successful in their given profession and ultimately their life. If they are successful in their chosen profession, they can get a job that will not only allow them to build a comfortable life, but allow them to influence others in positive way (the worst part of this statement is that the opposite is also true…). So when I walk into the classroom, I seek to impact future generations through the process of learning in the classroom daily.

This is not an easy task or burden to carry. I am not successful every day with every interaction, but I strive to be. I am thankful for the professors that saw potential in me, and gave me the extra help when needed. Being a professor is not about being the easiest, the hardest, the meanest, or the nicest. It’s about expanding knowledge, building confidence, and increasing ability in students.

When I look to my mentors, I see qualities in each person I want adopt. My mentors are not perfect. Their journeys (highs and lows) have shaped each of them into who they are today. As I know I am not perfect, I pray that God will continue to teach me and mold me into the professor he desires me to be.

What is critical thinking?

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving thinking.

I know the definition states that critical thinking is an “art” but it utilizes scientific standards. Or did scientific standards come from critical thinking? Is critical thinking natural or cultivated? Both, I think. There are those who are by their very nature critical thinkers/problem solvers and others who are not. Critical thinking skills can be taught, learned and cultivated.

There are 8 elements to thought:

  • Purpose
  • Questions
  • Information
  • Interpretation and inference
  • Concepts
  • Assumptions
  • Implications and consequences
  • Point of view

Which when coupled with the universal intellectual standards …

  • Clarity
  • Accuracy
  • Relevance
  • Logicalness
  • Breadth
  • Precision
  • Significance
  • Completeness
  • Fairness
  • Depth

…Result in self-directed self improvement. To be a lifelong learner one must be able to evaluate and cultivate traits that promote intellectual humility, autonomy, integrity, courage, perseverance, confidence, reason, empathy, and fair-mindedness.

WAIT! Ummm… don’t those traits remind you of someone special? Someone who taught His pupils about loving God and loving others? Someone who bucked the system because it was leading people away from God? Someone who baffled the intellectual and religious leaders of his day when he was only 12 years old?

This week go through the gospels and read Christ’s teachings (you know the red writing) and look for the elements of thought the intellectual standards. Was Christ a critical thinker?

Real Live Prof

005I will accept the challenge of chronicling my take on the integration of faith and learning. The process begins with faith and living, and did for me as a teenager in Richardson, Texas. I had become a committed follower of Jesus and I had to learn what it meant to be a believer and student. The early stages for me were immersed in a legalistic regimen of “do’s” (go to church, have a quiet time, etc), and “don’ts” (don’t drink, don’t do drugs, and avoid all things sexual). A strength of legalism is that it does not require deep thinking. One simply refers to their list to see which category a particular behavior falls under. This phase lasted me through college. When I got to seminary, I made new friends who were more into license than legalism, and as such, were happy to drink and party and still manage to love Jesus with a clear conscience. My personal pendulum of living and learning swung their way, for a short while. Granted, it was fun, but not spiritually satisfying. I married two years after seminary, and even as we started dating, I could tell that I had left my new friends’ freedom, and had moved back toward a broader, central place between the two extremes.

After our marriage, Diana and I started going to the University of North Texas together. She finished a Master’s Degree, and I started a Ph.D. in sociology. I think of this short (11 year!!) period as the time that I got the “unintended consequences” education (a sociological theory by Merton). I was studying sociology, which was new to me, but I was also learning about technology (post punch card, pre- PC and email when I started). Suddenly, I was taking classes with “those” people (gays, Lesbians, feminists, liberals, atheists, Democrats, etc) that I had never been around and was taught to fear and avoid in my previously conservative education. Again, I was faced with the integration of faith and learning and being a Christian in front of people who were openly hostile towards all conservatives, but especially evangelicals. I now believe melding faith and learning is a lifelong pursuit. The scenery may change, but we are called to live our faith out loud.

For instance, I was teaching my Sociological Theory class last Spring about Mead’s theory of the generalized other. Simply stated, we base much of our decision-making on what other people think we should do. As an example, I showed a photo of my car, a 2004 Nissan Pathfinder with 224,000 miles on the odometer. The theory suggests that we buy cars based on what our peers think is appropriate for us to drive. Next, I showed a picture of a Toyota FJ Cruiser. I asked the class if I could buy this vehicle. They assured me it would be fine. I then showed them a picture of a VW Beetle Convertible, which was turquoise green. It is my dream car, but they said they would never “allow” me to buy such a car. (peer pressure at my age?) I then confessed that I was actually happy with the Pathfinder because it was the way God was blessing me right now…no payments, virtually trouble- free, and when things have gone wrong, I was able to fix it myself. I think our meta-story comes through to the students as we teach, so I try to be very deliberate and show God as the foundation of my story.

The Miracle of My Life

I never intended to be a teacher.  A doctor maybe.  Or an archeologist.  But never a teacher.

A funny thing happened though in third grade.  I met Mrs. Martinez.  She loved her students.   We loved her back.  And my favorite memory?  On rainy days when we had to stay inside during recess, she’d open her Edgar Allen Poe anthology and read aloud to us.  “The Raven.”  “The Tell-Tale Heart.”  “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Sometimes thunder would rumble at just the right moment, and we’d jump in our seats.  I was enthralled.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Mrs. Martinez was teaching me the magic of story—the power of words.  And she was teaching me how to read—to an audience, to a classroom of students.

Still—in high school, I hung onto my other life plans—practicing medicine in a foreign country or discovering Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat.

But in college, at a place much like etbu, I met professors who would change the direction of my life.  As I sat in their classrooms, I observed men and women who loved God, loved their students, and who lived out their faith in a powerful and meaningful way.  Teaching, for them, was an act of love—an act of worship.  Once again, I was enthralled.  Memories of Mrs. Martinez floated back from the past.

So—plans changed.  I graduated.  I married.  I enrolled in seminary.  I would be a youth minister. I would teach the Bible.  I would change lives.  But in the midst of all this rock-solid certainty, the unexpected crept in.  The marriage began to crumble.  And my dreams slipped through my fingers like sand.  Ashamed, embarrassed and bitter, I dropped out—out of seminary and out of church.   And I stopped believing—in God, in dreams, in love.

But here is a strange thing.

Even though I ran so far from God and lived a life soaked in rebellion— all this time, I was haunted by the memories of the teachers I had in college . . . teachers I admired—teachers who were scholars and brilliant thinkers—teachers who loved Jesus and who exhibited an abundant life that I certainly didn’t have.

And I kept thinking, “You know—Maybe I’m missing something here.  Maybe I should give my faith a second look.  Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.”

Make no mistake about this.  God used the memory of my teachers to bring me back to Him.  I doubt they remember me, but I still remember them:  Curtis Mitchell – Robert Morosco – Johnny Sailhamer – Clyde Cook – Ed Curtis – Nancy Bundy – Dave Black.

I recall one of my teachers telling us on the first day of class—“You’ll forget most of what I say in this classroom.  But there’s one thing you won’t forget—and that’s my attitude.  My attitude about my discipline—my attitude about you—and my attitude about God.”

And he was right. I still remember Dr. Hunter’s concern for students, his passion for the Bible, and his deep love for the Lord.

I have never forgotten that.

This is the miracle of my life—Even though I gave up on God, God never gave up on me.  And as I grew close to God again—over time—I realized the impact that Christian higher education had on my life.  College didn’t just give me a diploma—it introduced me to a new way of thinking about faith and hope and love through men and women who loved Jesus deeply.

I wanted to be part of that.  So, in 1987, I went back to school.  And I became a teacher.

This is what I tell my students—You never know what God may call you to do—or how He’ll call you to do it.  You have dreams and that’s good.  But be prepared for God to surprise you.  This is what happened to me, I tell them.  I’m not practicing medicine in an exotic land, but, in a way, I’m a physician, of sorts—touching hearts and minds and changing lives. I’m not an archaeologist, but each day I uncover something new and make discoveries that I hope will make the lives of my students richer.

I guarantee you—when I was sitting in Mrs. Martinez’s third grade class—I never thought I’d be standing in front of a classroom one day.  But today, I teach English.  And each class, for me, is recess time on a rainy day. I open a book, and I read to my students.  And I hope that they will experience the magic of story and the power of words.


Who I am: teacher, learner, pastor, mom

photo (2)The first thing you need to know about me is that I am not your typical Religion professor.

I do not scratch my beard thoughtfully as I discuss soteriology with my esteemed colleagues. In fact, I do not have a beard and I hope I never will.

I do not sport a tweed jacket, well-worn, with patches on the elbow and thick, tortoise-shell glasses. Usually, I rock (what I like to think are) trendy, youngish-looking dresses and contact lenses.

I do not spend hours in the library, pouring over dusty theology books, and meticulously planning my contribution to academia. I actually prefer to read vampire novels and Entertainment Weekly magazine (because, after all, knowing about pop culture helps me make a contribution to my student’s lives, right?)

In short, I have little in common with the stereotype of a Bible professor.

Who I am is a wife and mother of three young boys who sometimes has to clean up kid vomit on her way out the door to her 8:00 class (thankfully, this week my husband finished the clean-up so I would not be late!).

Who I am is an ordained, female Baptist pastor, which in this neck of the woods is an anomaly (anathema?) and some would even say an oxymoron. [sidenote: I may be oxymoronic in many ways but being a Baptist woman in ministry is not one of them! This subject will crop up in later blog posts, I assure you]

Who I am is an interpreter (and lover!) of the Bible who learns as much from her students as she teaches. I am the same kind of teacher as I am a learner—I prefer creative projects and group discussion instead of lecture soliloquies and structured outlines. I believe active and creative participation in the classroom implants seeds of knowledge into students (or maybe I should call them learners?) that will take root and grow rather than bounce off hard ground.

Who I am is a fledgling professor who wants to become better at teaching the Bible effectively and intentionally, with passion and grace.

Since I have been a student for four times (!!!) as long as I have been a teacher, much of what I know about teaching I learned from my amazing professors (shout out to Dr. Rosalie Beck and Dr. Roger Olson!). What these teachers have modeled for me is that the strength of a teacher’s character is as important as the strength of a teacher’s content.

With this in mind, I offer a prayer we teachers can pray as we begin a new year:

Lord, help me to be humble, so my teaching will be malleable;
Lord, help me to be creative, so my teaching will be memorable;
Lord, help me to be purposeful, so my teaching will be meaningful; and,
Lord, help me to be transparent, so my teaching will be a message. AMEN

In this blog, I will be recounting the ins and outs (and ups and downs!) of teaching the Bible to the millennial generation in this place God has placed me…East Texas. I hope you can learn from my troubles and my triumphs and I invite you to leave comments along the way so I can learn from yours.

Lighting the Torch …

Photo Credit: Johan Larsson via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Johan Larsson via Compfight cc

“We cannot hold a torch to light another’s path without brightening our own.” Ben Sweetland

I plan to use this blog to help me think critically about what goes on in my classroom. I will be evaluating how my behavior influences students, and searching for better ways to interact and teach my students.  I am curious to what I will discover. I acknowledge that I don’t necessarily do things wrong ( or RIGHT), but I am willing to evaluate what could be better.

I hope to gain confidence and reassurance in many ways, but I also hope this challenges me to try new teaching methods. Below I will explain my assumptions as a professor going into a new semester. I am excited to see if these they will change or stay the same over the next year of reflection.  

Assumptions pre-reflection:

Student expectations/assumptions: I believe students should have a natural curiosity and desire to learn. They should read their textbook to get the basic information, & interact in class to develop a deeper understanding. Students should think critically about topics and learn how to apply the information to their future profession. Students should look at academic struggle as a way to grow personally and professionally.

Professor expectations/assumptions: The professor should facilitate discussion to enhance the material they learn on their own. The professor should come prepared with current and accurate knowledge. They should lecture on topic, provide time for questions, and link the material to a future profession. Professors should also develop test and quizzes in such a way that students know they must study the material on a deeper surface than memorization.

I look forward to see where this journey takes me!

– Dr. McRee

Why Biology?

Why Biology?

By our very nature all humans are born scientists.  Most of us get so beaten down by the public school systems that we lose our love for learning and exploring.

I never lost that first love.

As a toddler I was forever bringing bugs, lizards, snakes and small mammals into the house to show Mom.  She was terrified of critters but being the great mother that she was she kept an assortment of jars nearby in which to keep my latest critter.  The rule was that all critters had to be loosed at sunset so they could go home for supper.

The Christmas I was 12 I received a microscope and biology kit.  My brother received a chemistry kit.  I traded him my baton (a fantastic sword) for his chemistry kit and thus began my whole-hearted love affair with the natural sciences.  I looked at everything I could under that microscope.  Finally I went to Mom and asked to look at human blood.  She pricked herself with a sewing needle and we made several blood slides.  I was forever hooked on the biology aspect of science.  Many years later I learned that Mom was terrified of needles and her own blood.  What a LOVE!  Mom encouraged me to pursue my dreams.  Dad cheered me on toward my goals.  They were phenomenal in their encouragement and support.  My path was fraught with many obstacles but perseverance is one of my spiritual gifts.  God has blessed me with ETBU and the ability to pursue teaching biology in a Christ-centered atmosphere.  I pray that I am a model for young, Christian scientists.  I pray I give them a safe place to ask questions without being ridiculed for their faith.

There are two ways to know God…through His word and through His works.  Both are equally important.  God expects us to be thoughtful, as Christ was thoughtful, about every aspect of our lives.  We need to think critically about our beliefs, spiritual and scientific, and be able to defend them.  I want to explore critical thinking and how it applies to the various aspects of our live in this blog.  Please feel free to send feedback.

HERE WE GO!                      — jcc