At the end of Spring quarter, each of us wrote a short reflection on what we gained from our Theories in the Study of Religion course and posted that to our course discussion board. The idea was to get students to synthesize—or to begin synthesizing—what they had learned throughout the quarter, to ask themselves what they were walking away with that they didn’t have when they walked into the course.
In the spirit of facilitating a learning community, I also wrote my own reflection on the course. In reading over that reflection, and final thoughts for my students, I don’t think it would be a breach of any trust to share this here. I’ve been thinking about what I wrote in that final discussion board post and what we discussed on the last day of class.
For me, I learned an important lesson (among many) as a teacher. Specifically, that a dynamic course does not depend on course content, but rather on course interaction. For me the course was dry in content; I’d taught this course so many times now that I was bored with the material. It was all old hat for me (even though I love the subject). But I looked forward to each session because of the energy, the connection, the challenge that we all brought to that material. We went way off syllabus simply because the students kept wanting to explore a theoretical point or debate a position even further than we had planned. It was an amazing experience.
It can be hard to establish a learning environment, but I think that a key principle is to create a space within which each participant feels safe to explore the ideas that emerge. They should feel that within these four walls, they can say whatever they want, chase any challenge, play devil’s advocate, push against their own comfort zones. The key to such an environment, of course, is respect: respect for the content, the teacher, and their fellow students (and even respect for themselves). Respect does not mean agreement. Rather, it means a willingness to listen, to share, and to collaborate in exploring ideas for the mutual benefit of all members of a learning community.
Most of my philosophy of learning is derived from attachment theory, a theory from social psychology originally applied to child development, but since the 1960s widely applied to adult relationships, work relationships, personal relationship, and even conceptualization of God or divinities (and I’ve applied this theory to analyzing religious experience in my work on ancient Gnosticism).
Anyway, here are my final, farewell thoughts to my students.
So as my contribution to this set of course reflections, most of what I have to say I said in our last class session. I’ve loved this course, mostly because of you guys. The material is fascinating, but I’ve been through it so many times now that, to be honest, I’m not learning much anymore–and I really love to learn when I teach. But the group dynamic has been wonderful. At one point I was worried that we were going down a rabbit hole and not covering material because of our long and engaging discussions, which is why I put some stress on pushing through lectures for a while, but I think the discussions were the best part of the course. This is where you learned, where you fought with your own ideas, assumptions and even my assumptions and ideas. And that’s all that really matters.
My philosophy of education is very much encapsulated by a quote I love from the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell: “The prevention of free inquiry is unavoidable so long as the purpose of education is to produce belief rather than thought, to compel the young to hold positive opinions on doubtful matters rather than to let them see the doubtfulness and be encouraged to independence of mind” (Principles of Social Reconstruction). I hope that through the confusion, lack of definitive answers, conflicting theoretical perspectives, and tangents in discussions, that each of you will be walking away less with “positive opinions on doubtful matters” and more “independence of mind”. In the end, the goal of a teacher is not to reproduce herself or himself, but rather to unleash a student’s passion and potential. I hope that this was your experience in our course; that I left you with a love of doubt rather than the comfort of belief. And I hope you have such experiences in all of your courses here at UW.
You have been a delight to work with. Thank you.
Keep learning about “religion” (it’s such an important part of our social fabric); keep challenging everything you are told; and always be independent in your thinking. And never forget that an education is not about learning skills or collecting information, let alone about job training, but rather it is a process of becoming learned. Being learned is a state of being, not a skill set. It’s a lifestyle, not task. And a large part of being learned is to learn about yourself and the world around you. It’s a journey that continues far beyond a degree program. I envy the journey that all of you are on.
Take care, everyone. And thanks for a making my job so much fun. I hope to have a chance to work with many of you in the future.