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It is an irony of our profession that holding a doctorate is one of the main criteria for landing a teaching position, when the vast majority of us have no formal training in how to teach. Inevitably, most people have chosen a default position, which is to teach the way they were taught. After all, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. Personally, I have found such an approach inadequate, but more recently I have been motivated to find a forum for a few thoughts on this important matter. Perhaps I have become more desirous to write down something about teaching because two of my own children have reached the undergraduate level and have given mixed to negative reviews of the quality of teaching they have experienced. In many ways, it reminded me too much of some of the teaching that I experienced and have witnessed. I think that I was fortunate enough to have had a few good teachers, who provided some crucial elements for being an effective teacher, and I have come to some conclusions of my own. Since The SBL Forum has become a primary means to engage in issues concerning our discipline, this seemed like the appropriate place to offer a small contribution.

As simplistic as it may seem, I would suggest that we need to begin by answering one question: What is the purpose of an undergraduate education? [1] Since we teach in biblical and religious studies and our discipline is normally part of a liberal arts degree, I would suggest that the answer to this first question can offer guidance as to what we do in the classroom. I believe that the answer to this question is that the purpose of an undergraduate education is to learn to think critically and to articulate one's ideas better in oral and written form.[2] Above everything else, that is the one objective of a liberal arts education. Most teachers are willing to agree or acknowledge at the very least that critical thinking is an important goal. However, there is usually some resistance to the corollary that follows: the content of teaching is irrelevant. There is a certain shock value to this statement in its bare form, and people often respond at the surface level, How can you say that? If students are not learning or assimilating content, how can they be learning? How could you measure results and how would you test them if not on the basis of content?

The statement that the content of teaching is irrelevant is not harnessed to a post-modernist bandwagon, nor am I suggesting that teaching does not involve content. However, there is an important distinction involved. Recognizing that teaching is not about the delivery of specific content is fundamental to the whole teaching-learning process. Too many teachers at every level assume that teaching is about the delivery of specific content by the instructor and the acquisition of said content by the learner. The degree to which that content has been successfully acquired is then measured through tests using multiple choice, true-false, definitions, short answers, or essay questions. Students dutifully comply in lesser and greater degrees to this system by memorizing the content and regurgitating it as required. I suspect that most of us who are members of our guild worked very well under that system, but it does not mean that it helped to educate us. The ability to memorize need not have any relationship to the ability to think critically. Presumably, we have all heard statistics about how quickly memorized content dissipates in the days that follow the exam. We do not need to hear the statistics because we know it from our own experience. Yes, we remember some of the names, dates, and people that we studied in various classes, but the material that we really understand is that which we continued to work with in our graduate studies and beyond.

Instead of belaboring the previous point, it is more productive to offer a different argument that the specific content of teaching is irrelevant. I do not intend to belittle the issue with the following questions, but would any of us agree that an undergraduate major or honor signifies that the student has mastered the content of that particular discipline? Is an honors student in religious studies a specialist in the field? Presumably, we could say that they have taken the first step, but there is still much to learn. Most of us devote our lives to learning a great deal about a very limited range of subject matter. The point to be gleaned from this observation is that the specific courses that comprise the major or honors program are relatively random. We may reach the same conclusion that the specific courses are random via an alternative route. There are survey courses in first year and more specialized courses at the upper level, but many of the courses are chosen to fulfill a variety of obligatory categories that constitute the major and other courses are chosen out of interest or where they appear on the timetable. The requirements and courses vary from university to university. It is all rather arbitrary.

If we grant that the students who graduate from a particular discipline like religious studies each year have undertaken classes in a wide variety of subjects (let alone the other courses in their degree), it follows that attaining an undergraduate degree is not equivalent to mastering a discipline. Hopefully, those who finish their four years have some competence in their area and are familiar with some of the issues and questions that are important to the discipline, but there is more to learn. The specific content from the courses is irrelevant in relation to what could be learned in the discipline.[3] Lest anyone draw an incorrect conclusion, I am not saying that there is no content involved. However, it is more important to be able to understand the significance of material than it is merely to regurgitate.

The point that content is irrelevant may also be applied to the level of specific courses. For example, the content of the introductory survey courses that are the foundation of many programs rests on the whims of each and every teacher. Different texts, different lectures, and different emphases. When a department collaborates to provide a uniform delivery of material, this is laudable in some respects, but primarily it testifies to the collegiality of the professors. The content they deliver differs from other universities. If mastering the content of a particular subject is the goal of any course, then we all recognize that one or two semesters is not nearly enough. There is always more that could be done. Each teacher chooses to focus on the aspects of the subject that she or he believes to be the most important. The acquisition of particular content is a very limited measure of learning. If it is only about acquiring content, anyone can read a book. If we think that our role as a teacher is to hammer the right content into students and test how successfully we have achieved that, then we are indoctrinating, not educating students to think for themselves.[4]

Most readers would probably give at least partial assent to the observations above, but do we apply them to the way that we teach? How often are we concerned to finish our lecture rather than entertain a question? Do we prepare lectures in order to deliver particular content? Rather than being ruled by the notion that we have to package and deliver specific content, which is completely arbitrary, the focus should be on providing ways to think critically about some content. I have found that strict adherence to the principle that specific content is irrelevant informs teaching at every level. How do we find ways to engage students and encourage them to think through and about whatever issues are being raised by the content that we have arbitrarily selected? It will not do to promote a dichotomy between thinking and content by arguing that we first have to provide students with the content before they can begin to think about it. There are many ways to integrate the delivery of content with thinking critically.

We do not always get to teach courses in our own specialty, but presumably we have significant expertise in the area. Can we not engage the content with students and act as a guide to ask questions, provoke thought, and question assumptions? As we do so, we can relate the critical issues, problems, and important ideas that are encountered to some of the content that is part of mastering the material.[5] For example, I might supply a handout for students at the beginning of a class. However, my goal is not to make certain that I lecture or even talk about all of those details. I might begin with a question such as, "What is the goal of New Testament theology?" or "Do the stories in Genesis 1-11 have to be understood literally as historical events in order to be true?" If students believe that their ideas and what they think are important (this part is crucial), then they will offer answers to the questions and entertain a dialogue. The responses and opinions will differ in quality, but they provide the basis for discussion and further analysis. Students will supplement or critique the views of others, and I can add to the discussion by probing some of the responses. Occasionally, I might summarize what has been discussed and relate it to a particular position, which may involve adding some specific content as well. More often than not, I even have notes about it on the handout! In some instances, someone will raise a point that is not so directly related to the issue that was the initial focus, but for any number of reasons it might spark intense interest among the students. As long as the issue is related to the course at hand, I have no problem for the class to explore the area because the agenda is not determined by specific content. If the initial subject is that important, it can wait for the next class.

The approach that I am advocating requires flexibility on the part of the instructor to balance competing needs in the course of a class, but it has a great payoff for learning. A more egalitarian style also speaks volumes to students about the role of the professor in the learning process. It might be suggested that allowing the class to pursue a different direction is the same as being sidetracked, but that conclusion assumes there is a necessity to cover particular material rather than learning to think critically about any content in any class. Even students need time to adjust because they have been trained to expect a more authoritative approach to teaching. Some readers may also wonder about testing. Rather than arbitrary content questions on tests and exams (especially ones that focus on nitpicky details!), I ask questions that are designed for the student to critically analyze and work with the content of the course. Regardless of the level, the readings, interactions, content, and papers they have written are the tools at their disposal to answer the questions. If we can teach students to think critically, it will not matter what content they encounter. After all, content is irrelevant.

R. Timothy McLay, St. Stephens University

[1] See the extensive review of the role of curriculum in Jerry G. Gaff, James L. Ratcliff, and Associates, Handbook of the Undergraduate Curriculum: A Comprehensive Guide to Purposes, Structures, Practices, and Change (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education Series; Hoboken, N.J.: JosseyBass, 1996).

[2] Gaff, Ratcliff, and Associates, Undergraduate Curriculum, 170, cite the National Education Goals Panel in 1992, which named "advanced ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and solve problems" as "skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship."

[3] For a discussion of content and its role in the learning process, see Maryellen Weimer, Learner Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice (Hoboken, N.J.: JosseyBass, 2002), 10-14.

[4] Through the secondary school system students have been conditioned to deliver what they believe the teacher wants them to write rather than articulate their own views. See Robert Innes, Reconstructing Undergraduate Education: Using Learning Science To Design Effective Courses (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004), 175-77.

[5] In addition to the sources already mentioned, there are many available resources for developing teaching strategies.

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Citation: R. Timothy McLay, " The Goal of Teaching Biblical and Religious Studies in the Context of an Undergraduate Education," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Aug 2006]. Online:


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