Empathy and Autonomy

I am a Trekker.  Trekkies are pop culture fans.  Trekkers delve into the socio-political, philosophical and humanistic caveats of the various Star Trek series. We know the word “caveat” and use it correctly. As an adolescent I admired and tried to emulate the character Spock.  I was drawn to the ideal of logic without emotion. Spock and I learned together that emotions play an important role in human society and relationships.  Emotions are messy, undefined and illogical.  Logic is precise, neat, and understandable.   I still prefer logic to emotions.  It is interesting that we are talking about feelings when discussing intellectual traits.   One might assume that intellectual traits would incorporate logic only, yet someone who is truly adept at critical thinking understands that humans are emotional creatures and we are forever influenced by our own emotions as well as the emotions of others.

Today I want to discuss the essential intellectual traits of empathy and autonomy.  Empathy can be simply defined as the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions, the ability to share someone else’s feelings (http://www.merriam-webster.com/).  Autonomy is simply defined as: the state of existing or acting separately from others, the power or right of a country, group, etc., to govern itself, self-directing freedom and especially moral independence (http://www.merriam-webster.com/).  These two topics are far more complicated than the definitions given but we have to start somewhere.

Intellectual empathy vs. intellectual narrow-mindedness  (www.criticalthinking.org.)

To be empathic usually requires a shared experience.  Sympathy is the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune (http://www.merriam-webster.com/).  To be intellectually empathetic, we need to consciously put ourselves in someone else’ shoes that is “Walk a mile in their shoes.”   I remember many times that I just “KNEW” that I was right and then discovered that I was wrong…really, really wrong.  When we encounter someone who is adamant about their belief in something and it is really, really wrong, then we need to be empathetic and gently show them what is right.  To do this we need to reconstruct that person’s reasoning, assumptions and ideas in order to LOGICALLY show them the error.  We also need to be open to correction when we are incorrect.  Here the emotions come into play.  We must be gentle, kind, patient, considerate…Galatians 5:22-23

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.  (RSV)

Narrow-minded people are never wrong.  They refuse correction.  They are brusque, harsh, unkind, and the very antithesis of the Spirit.  Jesus exemplified the fruit of the Spirit.  Do I?  Do you?

Intellectual autonomy vs. intellectual conformity (www.criticalthinking.org.)

Autonomy is a self-governed state where we exist/act separately from others.  We are rarely ever separate from others.  Emotions tie us together.  Perhaps a better explanation of autonomy is the ability to think rationally for one’s self.  I have a master’s degree in biomedical ethics.  The most hotly debated subject is autonomy.  When is a patient old enough to make their own decisions…be autonomous?  When is a patient rational enough to be autonomous?  When is one in control of their beliefs and values in order to make rational decisions?  We want our patients to be able to analyze the evidence (e.g. test results) and make a rational, logical decision about their treatment.  Is a 12 year old capable of such decisions?  Is anyone capable of making such a decision when their life is threatened?  These are questions from bioethics, what kind of questions might we ask in other areas of life?

I often pray for “the wisdom and knowledge to know right from wrong and the strength and courage to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord.”  Is this autonomy or conformity?

I think conformity is when we follow blindly.  We should always be analyzing what we do and why we do it.  There is a difference between FAITH and conformity.  Faith is an assurance for things hoped for whereas conformity is a “whatever, as long as it doesn’t interfere with my life.”

(Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hebrews 11:1 RSV)

Faith is active.  Conformity is dormant, intellectually sedentary.

Think about Jesus.  Was He empathetic?  Was He narrow-minded?  Was He autonomous?  Was He a conformist?

Romans 12:2  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. RSV

Be autonomous.

Be empathetic.

Real Live Prof




I am oddly curious. I see this sign every day as I go to and from school. (It is on Highway 80, between Hallsville and Longview.) Not once have I ever been tempted to stop and ask why they put up the sign. To be honest, I was a little fearful about stopping and snapping the photo. Not once have I wanted to see if they would talk to me about the sign. It seems a harsh statement. I sometimes do wonder about how I shut people out of my life.

On the other hand, I do greet Dr. Bob Benefield every day. He is almost always the first one on campus in the morning. We always park in the same area, and if I get here early, I leave “his” spot open as a show of respect and deference. For years I would walk by his office on the way to the ‘fridge. I needed to drop my brown bag lunch and then turn on the computer and start rushing into the day. I would throw a, “Morning, Bob” his way. He would throw a cheery, “Morning” back at me. We rushed on. For years. My “keep out” sign was firmly in place.

And then, one day, we got to campus at about the same time. We walked into Marshall Hall together. About half way there, he asked me if I heard the mockingbird. Now the tricky thing about recognizing a mockingbird’s call is that it is known to not have a unique call. It simply mimics all of the other birds’ calls. So, to truly hear it, you have to listen to several calls, and then determine that they are all coming from the same bird. Bob then mentioned that this particular bird had been calling here for several weeks at about the same time every morning. Immediately I was convicted that I was very guilty of sprinting into my office to get the day going and that I was not even aware of God’s great creation testifying all around me.  

I love irony, (and puns) so at this point I’m guessing that God was taking out two birds with one stone that morning.  I soon realized that I was also missing out on another great benefit because of my “keep out” sign. Collegiality. I do not often think about, much less give thanks for, all of the smart people I work with. They richly bless my life. They help me solve so many of my problems and give good perspectives to my experiences. When I have electrical questions, I ask Randy; when I have financial questions, I ask Jimmy and when I have counseling questions, I ask Tom and JR (I’m sure it is wrong of me, but I secretly like that they often disagree with each other about their advice to me). All of my golf questions are referred to Dr. New. When I have questions about pop culture, I ask my classes. When I have questions about my generation, I ask my small group at church. (Again, I am oddly curious, and I am always asking questions.)

My life is sadly less when I tell people to keep out. Beside the “keep out” sign, on the business next door, there is a sign which proudly proclaims, “Open 7 Days”. This is the sign I want people to see on me. I want to be open to all of the wisdom around me, and I want to be a resource for those around me as well. (Just last week I caught Bob snapping photos of the sunrise; the same sunrise I squint into for miles and miles every morning. Maybe there is a beauty behind all of that harsh light that blinds me. Thanks again, Bob!)

What does your sign say?

Dinosaurs and the Bible

On one day every semester I allow my Introduction to New Testament and Introduction to Old Testament students to write down their most pressing questions about the Bible. I collect them and answer them to the best of my ability. Without fail, scribbled on at least a tenth of the torn, wadded-up papers I receive is the same question:

What does the Bible say about dinosaurs?

As adolescent as it sounds, it really is a good question. Behind the concern about where dinosaurs fit in the biblical thought-world are some deeper, more important questions. How do the Bible and the principles of science fit together? What is the nature of the Bible? And, perhaps the key question of all, How reliable is the Bible?”

For the last several centuries, the Protestant answer to these questions has involved the articulation of a very complicated doctrine…the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Wikipedia provides a lowest-common-denominator definition of Biblical Inerrancy when it describes the doctrine in this way:

The Bible, in its original manuscripts, is accurate and totally free from error of any kind; that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

The practical and applied meaning of biblical inerrancy actually involves a wide spectrum of definitions, depending on who is using it and for what purpose. Here is a general representation of the range of meanings for “inerrant.”

1)   On the extreme end, there are Christians who, when they say the Bible is inerrant, mean that there are no errors at all in its teaching about every area of life—from science and psychology to history and geography, and everything in between. The obvious problem with this claim is that there are proven errors in the historical and scientific details of the Bible, inconsistencies and contradictions that refute the claim that there are not biblical errors. However, to get around this problem, most strict inerrantists will qualify their definition with the claim that any apparent errors in the text must have been come by way of translation or scribal error. In the original manuscripts, or the autographs (which we do not have), they are correct.

2)   In the middle, we have limited inerrancy, which allows for factual errors in the biblical text because of the fallibility of the human authors. Many proponents of this position will maintain that Scripture is without error in what it intends to teach, which would not include matters such as science or geography

3)   Another position closely related to limited inerrancy involves another flexibly-defined term—infallibility. Although this word has as many different meanings as inerrancy, if not more, the main idea behind this claim is that the Bible’s teachings do not fail; they are infallible with regard to matters of faith, salvation, and Christian practice. According to the Presbyterian Church, “Infallibility affirms the entire truthfulness of scripture without depending on every exact detail.” (As affirmed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in June of 2001)

Even this cursory look at the doctrine of inerrancy reveals that there has been much disagreement about this term and thus, much debate about the nature of Scripture.

So, what does the Bible say about dinosaurs?

If you believe the Bible is inerrant in all it teaches, you must either go the way of creation museum people who explain that dinosaurs lived during the time of the patriarchs (perhaps the leviathan in Job was one?) and shun the archaeological discoveries of the last century. Or, you could claim that the days of creation in Genesis were not strict, 24-hour days but rather representations of longer periods.

But if you hold to limited inerrancy or infallibility, you could say that Genesis was not meant to be a scientific textbook or a literal history of the world; instead, it teaches us about having faith in the God of creation, who has made all that we see in the world.

So, what do you say? What do you think the Bible says about dinosaurs?

The Code

One of my favorite works of literature is the Middle English poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” 

Gawain is the nephew of King Arthur and the most valiant and noble knight of the Round Table.  He is a Christian and lives by a strict code.  In fact, the five points of his code are etched into his shield—kindness, brotherly love, a pure mind, courtesy, and piety.

One semester, not long ago, I was discussing this code with my students. 

So, what do you think? I ask.

“It’s too hard,” one of my students says.

“What do you mean—It’s too hard?  Shouldn’t these characteristics define our behavior?”

“You can’t be nice to everybody,” he says.  “I work in a shoe store and this old lady comes in and she asks me how much a pair of shoes is and I told her the price was right there on the sign and she asked me again so I said the price hadn’t changed—it was still 30 dollars just like on the sign.  Then she asked me if I was sure the sign was right because 30 dollars sounded like too much, and I said, ‘Lady I don’t set the price it’s 30 dollars’ and then I walked off.” 

“So you were mean to an elderly woman?”

“I wasn’t mean. I just got impatient with her.  She was being impossible and I lose my patience with people like that—You can’t be nice to everybody.  You can’t love everybody.”

“Jesus loved everybody,” I remind them.

The entire class groans.

“Jesus was God—He was perfect.  You can’t compare us to Him.  There’s no way we can be like Jesus.”

“We’re supposed to try,” I say.  They are quiet.

“What’s your own code?” I ask them.  They are still quiet.  I try a different approach.  “So is there a code here on campus?”  And one of them replies, “You shouldn’t get drunk.”

“Okay, so sobriety is the first part of the code.”

“And gambling—You shouldn’t gamble.” 

“No gambling.”

“You got to act like a Christian.”


“And you can’t curse.”

“No cursing.”

“You shouldn’t dress suggestively.”


“And you can’t dance.  Unless it’s a university approved event and then you can only dance twice a year.”

“This looks like a really good Southern Baptist code.”

Everyone laughs.

“So, how do these rules resemble your own personal code?”

This time a few of the students respond.

“I try to be open minded.”

“I try to do better and to be better every day.”

“I try to be tolerant.”

“I want to lead by example.”

“I try to do the right thing.”

“How do you define the right thing?” I ask.

“I just try to do what I think is best.”

“But what is your framework for that? I say. “How do you know what is right?”

“I just rely on myself, and if I think it’s right, I do it.”

“So you go on instinct.  You go with your gut.”

“Yes—I do what I think I should do and I don’t care what others think.”

“That could be dangerous, right?  Not to have a framework or a foundation for your code?”

No response.

“You want to know my code?” I ask.

“Love God—Love my wife.  And don’t do anything in private that I wouldn’t do in public.  Basically, stay out of trouble.” 

They all laugh.

“What—You can’t picture me getting in trouble?”

They can’t.

“You can’t picture me getting mad at the driver that cuts me off or is going too slow or the school bus that stops in front of me to let a kid off and I have to wait and I’m late for an appointment?”

“You gotta be careful with that Dr. C because you have an ETBU sticker on your car.”

“Yes.  That’s what my wife says—Be careful.” 

“So—How about Galatians 5:22-23?”

“The fruit of the Spirit,” they say.

“Yes. Do you know them?”

A lot of them do. 

“Are these too hard?  Because they aren’t that much different from Gawain’s code.” 

I can see they are thinking. 

The class ends.  I tell them goodbye.  And I remind them to keep the faith.    

And I pray that they keep thinking—about what it means to have a code.  And what the code looks like.  And where the code comes from.  And I pray for a miracle in my class—that my students will come to know Jesus and that they will love Him deeply and follow Him faithfully. 

I pray hard for the miracle of renewed minds and transformed lives.



When group activities Go RIGHT….

Today I planned a group activity for my 8am class. Mainly because I have struggled to this point to peak their interest and interaction to the level I prefer (it’s 8am so…. I have thought about providing coffee). HONESTLY….. In general, sometimes it seems students approach the educational experience like a five-course meal and they wait for you to bring them dish after dish. In an attempt to move away from serving up an educational experience, I am shifting to the POTLUCK dinner approach to my classroom. I believe this empowers the students to “bring their knowledge and experience” to the table & I rely on them to contribute to their educational experience. I don’t do interactive group activities every class, but I try to do some type of group activity at least every third class.

I “know” interactive group activities are supposed to enhance the learning experience. I know that it is a great strategy to help students apply knowledge. But what if they don’t bring anything to the table? What if it was a disaster? What if they didn’t work together, or what if they didn’t give a good effort? I was also nervous about letting go of the control I would normally have with directed discussion, lecture, and individual activities. I worried that if the activity is not successful, it will be a waste of time and devalue their experience in the classroom. This activity I planed was 60 minutes… so it was a large portion of class.

This experience taught me that my students (in this class) can cooperate and learn in this environment. Reflecting back on this activity, I wanted to share a few things that I think worked and will plan on doing again. I have learned from past experiences and have adapted my teaching strategies to better serve student’s behavior.

  1. I put them into groups based on their social strengths and weaknesses.
  2. I told them how long the activity would take (45-60 minutes).
  3. I played music & changed the genre every 10 minutes to remind them to stay on task.
  4. I told them that if they were efficient with their time they would get out of class early. They ended up getting out 15 minutes early( 90 min class).
  5. I let groups that finished prior to the allotted time an opportunity to step outside the classroom to socialize, go to the bathroom, or play on their phone. (this was only about 3 -5 minutes but they were over-joyed ….)
  6. I designated different people to complete different parts of the assignment so that everyone had an opportunity to write & present their section to the entire class.
  7. I also created a competition between the groups for the most creative idea. Although no prize is really awarded, I can tell the students give extra effort to impress their peers.

In summary, I gave these students guidelines and provided a favorable environment for them to work together. The students were able to apply the knowledge they had learned from the previous class period. I also believe that this group of students is more mature than some of my other classes. This particular class is a senior level course & their behavior indicates that they are ready for the workplace. I normally would not tell students that we will get out of class early if they cooperate. However, the class was motivated to work together, was efficient with their discussion, and had high interaction amongst the group members.

I don’t know if Potluck style learning a ‘scholarly term’ or if I should really even make that type of comparison. But … I do know that my students gave more interaction, and I could physically see them come alive with learning the material in ways this class has never done. I plan to continue with group activities and provide more opportunities for students to ‘bring knowledge & experience’ to the table.

The Seven

September 23, 2013

The Seven

Did you watch the horror movie “S7ven” with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt?  The serial killer justifies his murders by killing people who exemplify the “seven deadly sins.”  Come to find out, the seven deadly sins are not biblical!  Pope Gregory the Great compiled the Seven Deadly Sins sometime in the late 6th century.  God’s list of seven sins is found in Proverbs 6:16-19 which reads

” [16] There are six things which the LORD hates,
seven which are an abomination to him:
[17] haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
[18] a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
[19] a false witness who breathes out lies,
and a man who sows discord among brothers.” (Revised Standard Version, 1964)

The Catholic Church then came up with the seven virtues: wisdom, temperance, justice, courage, faith, hope and love.  I would counter that God’s list of virtues are summarized by Paul in his letter to the Galatians, chapter 5 verses 22-23.

“[22] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
[23] gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” (Revised Standard Version, 1964)

There are many more verses in God’s Word that give us insight to what God would consider to be virtues.

SO…what on Earth does this have to do with intellectual standards, traits and critical thinking?  Well, if you look at the essential intellectual traits put forth by www.criticalthinking.org as virtues and their counter parts as sins then

Essential traits/virtues   Intellectual sins
Intellectual humility vs. Intellectual arrogance
Intellectual courage vs. Intellectual cowardice
Intellectual empathy vs. Intellectual narrow-mindedness
Intellectual autonomy vs. Intellectual conformity
Intellectual Integrity vs. Intellectual hypocrisy
Intellectual perseverance vs. Intellectual laziness
Confidence in reason vs. Distrust of reason/evidence
Fair-mindedness vs Intellectual unfairness

Let’s define humility, courage, arrogance and cowardice in intellectual terms.

Intellectual humility vs. Intellectual arrogance

If we are humble then we know our limits and we are aware of our own ability to deceive ourselves.  On an intellectual basis we should not claim to know more than we do.  Intellectual arrogance is just the opposite in that we can deceive ourselves into thinking we know more than we do.  Those who are arrogant are boastful, conceited and pretentious, just like the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Think about Jesus, God incarnate, and how He was never boastful or pretentious or conceited.  Think about some of our Christian leaders who claim to know so much more than the Bible tells us.  They know when the second coming will happen (HA!).  God speaks to them and gives them a new interpretation of Jesus’ teachings. (I doubt that!)  A true intellect/scholar will openly admit that they don’t know everything.  How about you?  Are you humble?

Intellectual courage vs. Intellectual cowardice

John Wayne has been quoted saying “Courage is being scared to death and getting in the saddle anyway.”  This is a very popular quote among my buddies.  Have you ever thought about the kind of courage Jesus had?  He faced many, many challenging questions and He asked many, many challenging questions.  Remember when He wrote in the sand?  He was thinking, deeply, about what to say to the religious authorities.  These authorities were in the right according to the Law but their thinking was wrong-headed and counter to God’s Law of Love.  It took an enormous amount of courage to face those who were right in the letter of the Law but didn’t understand the spirit of the Law.  Intellectual courage means coming to see truth in thoughts, ideas, things that at first seem absurd and dangerous AND seeing the lies in thoughts, ideas, things that have been accepted as truth but simply are not truth.  Cowardice is going along with the crowd when the crowd is following a lie or untruth.  Often conformity is simply the easy way that leads to disaster.  Pursing the truth no matter what the social/religious authorities dictate is costly.  Just ask Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, Mother Teresa, Mary, Martha and many, many other Christians who gave their lives for the truth.  How courageous are you?

Real Live Prof

I don’t like being evaluated. I always get nervous, and when I am nervous, I sweat. Not pretty. Oh, I understand on every intellectual level why we need to be evaluated as teachers.A+

We can always improve something.

It keeps us honest and trying to do our best.

We need to be accountable to others.

It should keep us humble.

Really, I get it; but not on an emotional and reactionary level. Last Spring, my Dean sat through a class, evaluating me. He had asked which day was best, and so we were both prepared. I presented my very “best” lecture. He was complimentary, and made several really helpful suggestions. When I next met with the class they, too, had plenty of “helpful” critiques: They asked me what happened to the usual Prof, because he certainly was not there last time. They said I was a phony just putting on some show that day. Strangely, I appreciated these critiques as much as my Dean’s critiques.

My students may not have realized it, but they were agreeing with Erving Goffman, a sociologist who was very much interested in how we present ourselves (Presentation of self). He used theater language to describe people as mere actors, who present lines and images and use props to make points. We have a front stage which is public and a backstage that we guard from the public. (My wife, a second grade teacher, is always amused when she meets her students at Wal-mart because they are amazed that she too, has to shop for stuff. Shouldn’t she have “people” do that for her?) Ironically, a part of the Dean’s review of my teaching effort was that the students did not seem very concerned with taking notes or paying attention. He suggested that weekly quizzes might help motivate them to greater attention and general preparedness. (So the joke is on the students this year because we now have weekly quizzes.)

Another part of my reactance against evaluation is hubris. I want to believe that my “good enough” is great and that I cannot possibly have room for improvement. At this point I am reminded of my two older kids, who both loved sports in high school. However, they did not love practice. In fact, they hated it so much they would invent illnesses and injuries that would keep them home during practice. They wanted to believe, as I want to believe about my teaching, that they could just show up for the games, without practicing, and be awesome.  Maybe that is why they were so pleased to get participation trophies.

In the end, I want more than a participation trophy. Paul said it this way in 1 Corinthians 9:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize

Now I have reinforced my intellect, will someone please instruct my heart to relax and know that constructive criticism is, well, constructive? Maybe next time when I am evaluated in class, the Dean and the Students will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

The Baggage We Bring to the Classroom

In my biblical interpretation class, we often talk about what we bring to the text when we read the Bible. None of us interprets Scripture in an objective or neutral way; we have pre-understandings and biases, “baggage” from our culture, family history, religious background and experiences that shape the way we interpret.

I think that we carry similar baggage when we come to the lectern. We have a complex matrix of predispositions constantly affecting what we teach, which style we use, how we communicate, and who we connect with in the classroom. In order to become a better teacher each of us has to become aware of our baggage.  As the knowledge of our inclinations grows, so also will our ability to recognize areas for improvement. With this in mind, I want to take inventory of my baggage and explore how this baggage plays out in the classroom. This exploration may feel a bit like a confessional, so I apologize in advance for the unfettered transparency that follows:

  • The sexist suitcase—I realize that in our culture and in many cultures throughout history, sexism has mainly taken the form of a preference for males coupled with a bias against females. My sexism is completely the opposite. In my family growing up, girls seemed to be valued and favored over boys. My aunts and female cousins were dominant, successful, and smart. They garnered most of the attention while my uncles and male cousins were the ones who faded into the background. Although much of my extended family is Mexican, we have been a matriarchal family for many decades, because my grandma was the head of our family. For my whole childhood, then, my family dynamics unconsciously reinforced the idea that girls were more treasured and important not just in our clan but in society. That history, coupled with the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better attitude I have held towards boys since I was young, causes me to favor female students in the classroom. I have to be aware of this when I teach so that I can balance out my tendencies with purposeful efforts to view my students equally. It is a constant battle I face.
  • The Case of the Extrovert—As an extreme “E” extrovert (ENFP on Myers-Briggs), it is difficult for me to think like an introvert. I have a tendency to favor the students who will speak up in class, assuming that they understand the most and work the hardest. However, I have learned from experience that many of my introverts will never say a word in class but will ace tests and write eloquent, thought-provoking papers. I must not let my own personality and proclivities influence the way I interact with my students. In order to fight against my wrong-headed tendency, I try to vary my teaching style and provide activities in class that cater to both introverts and extroverts. If I assign a skit to be performed in class, I will make sure that a part of the process involves behind-the-scenes work that will favor an introvert’s strengths as well. It is one step in the long process toward overcoming the personality baggage I bring to the classroom.
  • The Chaos Carry-on—I function well in chaos. I don’t know if that has to do with my large and loud family, or my preference for high-energy environments, or my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants personality, or the fact that I am quite far from the type-A personality. Probably all of the above. Because of this, my classes tend to be disorganized flexibly arranged, open to changes, and less structured, and sometime even cacophonous. There are advantages to this kind of class. I love to be able to tailor a class to the personalities of its students. If I have assigned reading quizzes but realize that I have students who enjoy sharing and debating, I will change the format to discussion and play to their strengths. I also believe that having too much structure and too many rubrics discourages creative thinking and imaginative work. Now, I can appreciate organization, and I recognize the value of rubrics and strict scheduling, and I even understand how some people prefer to learn in quiet, solitary settings. But that is not me. However, my type-A students tend to be frustrated with my flexibility and they do not learn well in a chaotic class. For this reason, I must strive for more organization and structure, even when it goes against my style. This is difficult for me but I know practice will make perfect.

These are the pieces of my classroom baggage that I have come to recognize in the last couple of years and that I am working on. There are many more on the baggage claim carousal that I have not recognized as mine. But I will keep searching myself and my culture and my history because I owe it to my students to recognize that baggage so that I become the best teacher I can…for all of them.

My Reflection on Teaching

Honestly …. Sometimes I find teaching emotionally draining. I have worked hard at separating myself from my teaching standards. But teaching is personal… or at least it should be. I care about my students and their wellbeing. However, I encounter situations every day that challenge me as a teacher. In an attempt to relieve some of the stress from teaching, I will reflect about some of the major topics.

I realize that I teach upper level courses. Upper level courses by definition should require more thought, studying, and higher level thinking types of activities and test. Thus, the nature of my courses will be harder if you only compare them to lower level general-study courses. I have gradually become at peace about this reality. It is not me that makes the material hard… the material itself is harder. I have an incredible task to develop critical thinking skills, scholarly writing, and conceptualization. All of these task cannot be accomplished through straight lecture and memorizing material. Students have to apply the knowledge they have in ways they may have never done.

Because of this reality, some students think that my class is “so much harder” or “so much work”. In part, this is because this is true. Sometimes I feel as if I am asking students to walk in the snow barefoot up a hill… lol.. JK… but seriously… here are two stories to explain.

Photo Credit: Eric Kilby via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Eric Kilby via Compfight cc

Scenario #1: Recently, a student said to me in class… “That’s just a lot of work to have to print out a journal article and bring it to class for in class discussion credit. Can we just print out the abstract?”

I paused… more for composure than anything… This was not the first time this student had openly complained about assignment directions.  I replied “This is college. Do it or don’t do it. If you want credit, you will do it the way the directions read.”

I could tell this specific student was upset with my response, but I could tell that another student was pleasantly surprised. The other student added “It’s really not that hard to print off an article.”   (I was so glad to have support from another student at this point.)

I stand by my comment to the first student. This is college… Do it or don’t do it. I hate to simplify my teaching philosophy to this level. But I think it is important for students to take responsibility of their actions (or in-actions).

Scenario #2: For the first test I do an in-class study session for all my classes. The requirement to attend the review session is that you come to class with a ¾ of the way completed review. I told them that the purpose of the review day is for them to get answers to the ¼ they had not completed and to ask me any question about the test. I emailed and told students that they would be sent home and not allowed to participate in the review if they did not bring a review. It also counted as a 10 point quiz grade. The purpose of review day is to teach them that they must start studying before the night before the test. This is also a great opportunity to build up their confidence before the test.

I had about 10% from each class that didn’t do the review. Those students showed up thinking I would not send them home. It was a sad day for that 10%. Just about every one of them left my class shocked and amazed.  Did I want to send them away? No. I can only lead a student to a review day, I can’t make them fill out their review… So, 90% of all of my students got the benefit of review. In retrospect, that’s not a bad percentage.

Moral of the story:

Students may not always like you, but in the end they will understand and appreciate you for having high standards. I know why I have high teaching standards, and I know it will benefit students in the long run. I also know that it is not always pleasant to be the one enforcing high standards. I would not be the person I am today if it was not for all the teachers that set high standards for me.

Reflective Prayer

Dear God,

Guide me in the best teaching practices. I am thankful you have put me in this profession. I pray that I will honor you with every interaction. Help me to be sensitive to student needs while also maintaining high standards. Be with me and my students as we are on this journey together. Help me to learn the lessons you would have me learn so that I can be the teacher you desire me to be.


What’s Your Hurry?

I watched him in my side view mirror. He walked toward me, his motorcycle’s lights still flashing blue and red. I rolled down my car window and waited.

“What’s your hurry?” he asked.

The strange thing was—I wasn’t even in a hurry.

And the stranger thing?  I’m 57 years old and I’ve never been pulled over and given a ticket.

But, on this morning, I didn’t just get caught speeding, I got caught speeding in a school zone.

I can give you all kinds of excuses. I was driving on a street I never travel. This particular street runs along the back of the school which sits down low with a chain link fence that separates the school yard from the street. There was no cross walk. There were no flashing yellow lights. And the school zone sign was small and partially covered by the branches of a big oak tree. (I have pictures to prove this).

Nevertheless . . . Despite all of my excuses, there was still a speed limit and a school zone sign, and I was going way too fast for both.

My wife couldn’t believe it when I told her I got a ticket. And she really couldn’t believe it when I told her my speed.

I’ve thought about this a lot. In fact, that first night, I didn’t sleep. The second night I worried about going to jail. (I can be a bit dramatic sometimes).

It wasn’t so much my speed that concerned me. It was the fact that I had missed the warning signs along the side of the road. I was so distracted—so preoccupied.

As I mentioned last week, I live my life with a sense of urgency. I want to make the moments of my life count. But, there have to be times I slow down, despite all the distractions life throws my way.  And this creates tension.

But slowing down isn’t just an ideal to strive for—it’s something God wants for us. When the psalmist tells us in Psalm 46:8 to “come, behold the works of the Lord,” the question arises, how do we do that? The answer is in verse 10—“Cease striving and know that I am God.” How do we come to see the works of the Lord? How do we know that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (46:1)? We cease striving. We become still.  We have to slow down.

I think the curse of our age is busyness. We’re too busy to notice the people around us. Too busy to stop and talk. Too busy to invest in their lives. We’ve got things to do and places to go.

And the clock never stops ticking—its hands never stop moving.  And each day marches relentlessly into the next.


Without a doubt, God wants me to bear fruit—to work hard. But He also desires that I take time to be still—to consider His truth and His will and His majesty. I teach to reveal God’s truth. But how will I convey God’s truth unless I reach deep into scripture and allow God to speak to me?

Here’s what I’m learning.  I can live with a sense of urgency, without blowing by the warning signs.  I can live with a sense of urgency that drives me deep into relationships and not right past them.

Here’s a sobering thought—

Only two things will last forever—people and the Word of God.

So, it would make sense that I invest my time wisely getting to know both.

I walk this fine line—living with a sense of urgency and living with a clear sense of purpose.

Jesus is a good model.  His calendar was full—He was a man on the move.  But no matter what He was doing or where He was going, He always had time for people.  And He always made time for prayer.

I am amazed by this—the Son of God carved out time to pray—to be still.

So when a student drops by my office unannounced or stops me on campus while I’m trying to outrun the hands on my watch, I pray that I drop what I’m doing, stop where I’m going, and make an investment in their life.

After all, what’s my hurry?