Looking For Sunday

I’ll be preaching this coming Sunday at St. Barnabas, Glen Ellyn, and as I sit in the seminars at CBA I am mulling over the readings for that service. The Old Testament lesson will be Deuteronomy 8:1-20, Moses reminding Israel that they must not depart from obedience to the God who gives life; Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2, adjuring the community to lives of harmonious self-giving that bespeak their allegiance to God; and John 6:35-51, the culmination of the Bread of Life discourse. So far, I don’t have a hook — but I’ll blog about it as soon as I do.

Random Thoughts From CBA

Fleshing out one-verse characters — how does Gina do it? Social sciences, resisting the narrator (picking up clues that the narrator doesn’t want us to notice), literary-critical cues (Claudia notes that here, she isn’t resisting). If anything, it manifests a resistance to conventional readings, but doing so in the name of sound insights.

David notes that the minor character whom Gina picked is a very rich one. The servant of Naaman “brought him to the prophet” — in many respects not a minor character at all. What if she chose a really minor character? Sandra points out that anonymity plays a large role in Gina’s definition, but John’s Gospel uses anonymity deliberately to highlight people.

David P. proposes that biblical interpretations should meet the criterion of justice. Can “concern for justice” be a corrupting influence? Classical theologians would affirm the priority of “love,” which then necessarily motivates unwavering commitment to justice, but more recent generations might argue that “love” has been sentimentalized, privatized, rendered abstract, so that “love” can no longer provide a criterion of truthful interpretation. Might “justice” some day lose its critical edge? How would we know? Wouldn’t that time come when our invocations of “justice” no longer engaged us in action-for-justice (and who determines what is just?), but simply serve as wallpaper that authenticates our credentials as the right kind of people (people who value “justice,” as though people who don’t invoke “justice” with great regularity instead necessarily favor injustice)? I don’t so much disagree with David’s proposal as I take great interest in the cultural signification of David’s alteration of the criterion Augustine advances.

Mary Margaret said, “It’s in our genes as Dominicans” — which delights me since the last mens by which Dominican identity can be transmitted is genetic. . . .

Went Well, Home

The talk with the anarchists went well this afternoon. I got to Champaign about when I expected — a little later due to a late start and traffic outside Chicago — but had a hard time finding the venue of the conferenec. I telephone the organizer to apologize, and when I was through leaving a message on her cell phone, I turned the car around in a parking from which was clearly visible a banner that read, “Welcome to the Fourth Annual Anarchism & Christianity Conference.” Oh.

The anarchists indulged my pitiably compromised position as a tenured full professor, and attentively listened to me give a talk based generally on the notes I posted yesterday. At the end, they had some terrific, hard questions for me. I did the best I could at answering them, but some just leave me flummoxed. For instance, even at a conference specifically designed for anarchists, some attendees have so committed themselves to state-run public education that they gave me a hard time for suggesting anything else, or for not giving more concrete suggestions about how Christian radicals could help out the work of state-run public educational institutions.

They gave me a very enthusiastic welcome, though, and thanked me generously; and I asked their prayers, and yours, for all of us who presume to teach, and all of us who commit ourselves not to stop learning.

Learning, Anarchism, and Faith

The blurb for my talk tomorrow runs this way:

Education: An Anarchist Approach
Cultural assumptions try to enforce understandings about education relative to age segregation, instruction vs inquiry, grading, the learning environment, seasonal attendance and separation of religion from the rest of the learning process. Radical allegiance to Jesus’ way obliges us to reckon with a richer, more complicated and demanding perspective on education than simple alternatives of “public or private.” A.K.M. Adam (AKMA) will discuss the education system from the perspective of his work in both church and seminary institutions, and as a home-schooling parent. He looks forward to a lively discussion on ways anarchic Christians might envision and practice education in a setting where participants can learn from one another.

What I actually plan to say involves connections among several of my familiar themes and some observations I don’t repeat quite as frequently. I’ll be wobbling between first-person singular and plural throughout, since Margaret and I share ideas and practices relative to formal and informal education (not that she’d agree with everything I say, but that the things I say aren’t neatly extricable from our collaborative teaching).

Who we are: My (our) approach to teaching derives from a wide variety of experiences, our own and our families’. My grandfather taught at a prep school and a college; my father, private school and college; my father-in-law has taught high school, and is always in demand for teaching adult learners about his areas of interest; I’ve taught in a private elementary school, college, and graduate programs. Margaret and I are public school grads, with heaps of years of study in college and graduates programs. We’ve TA’ed for others, and I’ve supervised TAs. We have pursued topics in which we were interested on our own, without institutional guidance. And we home-schooled our three children, each in a different way.

So we bring a lot of experience to the topic, but relatively little expertise (in the sense of “things we learned about teaching from academic experts”). That engenders blind spots in our approaches, but it permits some strengths as well; we try to pay respectful attention to what we can learn from the experts, while we also grant considerable authority to our first-hand observations as learners and teachers.

My own reasoning about education is powerfully colored by the situations and experiences from which I’ve learned the most. I learned a lot about comedy, for instance, from watching movies with my father and talking through the details of what makes them funny (or not), and from reading about W. C. Fields. I learned a lot about probability theory because I was intrigued by baseball statistics and, in an era that did not yet know the term “sabermetrics” I spent hours calculating, theorizing, comparing, in order to ascertain more precisely what constituted sound strategy, at the same time that I teetered on the verge of failing high-school math courses. (That familiarity with probability theory has influenced practically everything I’ve thought since those days lying behind the sofa with Earnshaw Cook’s Percentage Baseball. I’ve learned from famous and relatively-little-known professors in lectures, and I’ve had the privilege of sitting in seminars with several of the outstanding theologians of the 20th century, arguing with them as though we were equals.

Autodidact, Pupil, and Learner: Ways of learning differ in their qualities and effects, and differ in how different people take to them. An autodidact — as I was, when it comes to baseball statistics — has the freedom to follow leads and construct arguments that haven’t been pre-digested by the institutional parents who instruct us what follows from what, what counts and what’s just ridiculous. On the other hand, the autodidact risks falling prey to misapprehensions that no teacher has had the opportunity to explain and correct. The pupil — the docile consumer of an instructor’s structured knowledge — can often progress further in settings that rely on institutional knowledge, but they relatively easily succumb to the temptation to regard their institutional experience as an absolute horizon of fact and wisdom. Much as I learned about probability theory on my own, or about the Old Testament from Brevard Childs, I think I have learned best from intense deliberative argument with my friends; the communal setting, with the mutual obligations of respect and politeness but also of demanding the best of one’s colleagues, nurtures thinking (not “free” thinking exactly, but not thinking under the manipulative control of a Teacher) and seeks the greatest strengths and most dangerous weaknesses of ideas. That atmosphere provides a nearly ideal setting for learning, so far as I can tell.

Learning Ecology: We take cues from our environments about how we should respond to others; the setting of education can support or militate against rich learning. Sometimes we couch this in terms of “expectations”; we hear that students of whom teachers ask much often demonstrate more impressive achievements than those whom their teachers assume not to be capable of outstanding work (witness a score of movies from Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets’ Society back to To Sir, With Love and numerous others). At the same time, some contextual signals can frustrate teaching and learning, while others facilitate teaching and learning. The obvious class-based differences in test performance (and the idea of “test performance” itself) provide one example; at a more subtle level, though, the effects of gender on students’ work in science and engineering studies illustrates a far-reaching phenomenon of which particular, more local instances can affect learning even more strongly (and less subject to amelioration, since they don’t lend themselves to Major Grants). Where is the classroom located, and what does it suggest about how the school, the teacher, and the wider culture regard the value of what gets done there?

Signifying Practices: My concern about learning ecology impels me to press the question of “What do we want to say with the ways we teach?” When we assign our children to institutional structures that divide them into manageable divisions of age and, sometimes, alleged “ability,” of differentiated fields of knowledge, and then tell them that nine months of this experience are compulsory, but that three months constitute a libeation from learning — what are we teaching them? When we determine in advance that every normal eleven-year-old will attain proficiency in these areas in this sequence taught according to that curriculum, what effects can we reasonably anticipate? When we constitute for our children a primary social group of other children mostly their own age, what behavior and inclinations can we suppose that they will reflect? And what do all of these characterizations suggest that the culture we inhabit thinks about education?

I’ll follow up all that with some discussion of how we ended up home-schooling Nate, Si, and Pippa. We didn’t so much intend to be home-schooling pioneers in our communities as we fell into it. Each child responded (responds) to our efforts in a particular way, and we try to respond to each. At the same time, not every parent will take up home schooling, and not every teacher has the opportunity to teach just three students (or the obligation to take responsibility for their learning in so vast a range of fields). What, then, shall we do?

That’s pretty much the skeleton of what I expect to say. It’s none of it original; I’m a dreadful magpie of other people’s ideas, which I then assimilate and reconfigure to suit my own reflective purposes. But it’s how I anticipate beginning my conversation with anarchist Christians tomorrow, anyway.

She’s OK

One of my good friends in online gaming plays a character whose headgear generates luminous streaks that extend upward from the back of his skull. “It’s my brains leaking out,” he says. That’s the way I feel as I turn the last corner of summer into the stretch before school starts, and I’m vexed at myself for not having been more productive.

Yesterday I devoted a lot of time to an email message. I’m known for agonizing over the words I choose and the syntax I adopt in emails and memos; yesterday was just another example. The pains I took over casual correspondence in the morning, though, drained me of energy on into the afternoon, and soon I noticed that it was time to get ready to go to the memorial service for my friend Richard Kieckhefer’s father.

Meanwhile, as I was at church and Si was away visiting Laura, Beatrice got into Si’s backpack, extracting and eating two packages of McDonald’s animal-cracker style cookies and — unbeknownst to me — a chunk of Mexican chocolate (the kind for drinking).

The chocolate part wasn’t obvious because she didn’t start upchucking until late in the evening. Once it became clear that she had in fact gotten into some chocolate, but had thrown up twice, Josiah and I figured that she had cleared her system and went off to bed. At about three in the morning, though, young Si awoke to the sounds of a very agitated dog. He went downstairs, walked her around the yard to comfort her, but nothing seemed to settle her down. He then looked online for symptoms of chocolate poisoning, and when he read about the relative proportions of chocolate and dog-weight, he called Animal 911 and, in short order, we were rolling down to Skokie to have the vets handle the rest of Bea’s night.

Bedraggled and concerned, we were instructed to pick her up at 8:00 to receive further instructions (since the overnight clinic closes during the day). When we returned, they indicated that Bea was doing better after treatment with Valium and activated charcoal, and they instrucgted us to take her to her regular vets at Bramer Animal Hospital for observation for the rest of the day. She seemed closer to normal when we picked her up at the overnight clinic — that is, apart from wooziness from the Valium, and messiness from throwing up charcoal slurry on my feet and the vet’s floor — but after I spent most of the day restlessly waiting for the phone to ring, at the end of the day she’s mostly all right. She’s home to sleep here, and we’ll take her in for continued observation tomorrow, but the vets don’t seem apprehensive about her recovery. And with some sleep and the re-centering that my conferences this weekend will entail, I expect I’ll be all right too.