Monday, May 7, 2012

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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Best Courses Always Include...(Part One)

By Steve Huerd

It’s the most wonderful feeling as a speaker or teacher when someone comes up to you after you’ve finished speaking and says, “I felt like God was directly speaking to me through what you said.  It’s like you were just talking to me.”  These affirmations provide the speaker with assurance that God is using them in people’s lives through their teaching.

If our purpose as Christian educators is to teach to change lives so that we might present everyone mature in Christ (Col. 1:28), then this dynamic interaction must occur somewhere in the teaching process.  When it occurs and the light bulb comes on, a glorious thing transpires in the student’s mind and life as the Holy Spirit uses our words and life to create change in the learner.

Having sat under many Godly men and women educators during my twelve years of graduate school, I’ve noticed that the best courses always included professors making the material especially applicable to my life.

For example, while I was taking a course called Human Growth and Development at Talbot School of Theology, party of Biola University’s graduate school, I had no idea there was a scholarly area entitled “Faith Development.”  At that time, I had spent roughly twenty years investing in people to help them in their faith development as a practitioner and I was shocked to learn that scholars had been researching my life’s work!  I was so thrilled at this discovery, and grateful to my professor, Dr. Jonathan Kim, of Talbot School of Theology, for his teaching, that I devoted my dissertation to the subject of spiritual development in youth.

It was Dr. David Clark, now provost of Bethel University, whose unique and simple way of presenting his arguments in the apologetics course I took from him years ago enabled me to share these arguments with hundreds of students over the years.  Or Dr. Walter Kaiser, Old Testament Scholar and former president of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, whose love and passion for the Old Testament inspired me to read and love the Old Testament every year in my devotions.  It can even be as simple as sharing from your own life as Dr. Klaus Issler, professor of Christian Education and Theology at Talbot School of Theology, often did in our Philosophical Issues class causing me to rethink my own presuppositions and see Jesus in new ways.

While there is certainly not just one way to make material applicable to student’s lives, it seems all the best courses include professors who somehow have figured out how to make that happen.  Whether through their teaching methods, their insights, personal examples, relationships, etc., they always find a way to connect their subject matter to their students’ lives.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Relationships and Influence (Part 3 - Online Teaching)

by Steve Huerd

Last year I began teaching an online master’s level course.  At first I admit to being overcome and even intimidated by all the technology and the speed at which I had to learn it all.  Being that I was located a thousand miles away from the university where I was teaching, the only real instruction I received was watching online videos dealing with how to use blackboard.  And, of course, I had problems!  However, with patient email interaction with the university, I was finally able to communicate with my students.

I somehow obtained pictures of my students’ faces and immediately printed them out in color along with other vital information so that I could put a name with a face.  At the outset, it seemed like there was no one out there, only dark blackness!  I was posting all of this information, syllabus, pictures, etc. without seeing anyone or hearing anything back.

Then one by one, they started to respond with, “Hey, is this such and such a class?  I just found out that I was taking this course and …”  The first assignment I gave them was to pick out who the prof was in a group picture I had put on the main page.  I wanted them to put my name with my face.

A couple of students “forced” me to initiate with them individually since they hadn’t initially responded to my online stimulus package.  During our first “discussion thread interaction,” there was hardly any interaction at all.  So, I decided to apply my old coaching philosophy of coming down hard the first week of practice and laying down my expectations.  I told them, “I can’t give you full credit here since you didn’t interact with at least two other people in here.”  They responded well to that and I began to see much more traffic the following week.

In an effort to further establish relationships, I offered times for them to Skype with me but no one responded.  Then I knew that the “relationship” I had with them was just going to be different and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it.  So, I threw caution to the wind and just kept encouraging and constantly sending them relevant materials right up to the end of the course.

The result?  I received good instructor ratings with one student commenting to another professor that this course was in the top two he had taken during the whole master’s program!  The next semester another student from that initial cohort signed up for another online course I taught.  To this day, I’ve never met any of these students in person, but at least I know I made a small difference in their lives!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Line of Research

by Sharon Warkentin Short
            In the course of my doctoral studies, I observed a variety of attitudes toward their dissertations among professors, authors, and colleagues. One of my instructors, for example, commented that after she finally finished her dissertation she wanted to take it outside and bury it. The author of a book I read remarked that she wished the library copy of her dissertation could have been bound on all four sides. Some—perhaps many—doctoral graduates set their finished manuscripts on a shelf with a grateful sigh of relief and move on with their lives.
            For others, however, dissertation studies produce a more profitable outcome: for these scholars, the monumental amount of work that they poured into literature reviews, investigations, and analyses endures in an ongoing journey of learning, writing, and teaching about their area of research. Another professor I know, for example, regularly uses data from her research in the master’s courses that she teaches, and she involves her students in collecting new data using the interview protocol that she designed for her investigation. Similarly, the instructor of my qualitative research methods class described how she continued to build on the research that began with her dissertation. This professor encouraged us to establish a “line of research” based on our dissertation work to which we intended to continue contributing all our lives.
            A great deal depends, of course, upon what subject one chooses to research. I am blessed to still be fascinated by the topic of my research, and to still enjoy working with this subject matter. My dissertation has already provided me with meaningful content to present in the form of papers at two different conferences, in addition to a research report already published in a journal and a chapter in a newly-published book. I look forward to developing and extending my findings into a book that will benefit a larger audience than the small sphere of scholars who currently have access to it.
            Not that the journey so far has been completely straightforward and linear! The dissertation topic that I finally investigated was my third attempt. I entered my Ph.D. program with one research issue in mind, which I continued to pursue for most of the first year. In my second year I jettisoned that idea completely and took off in another direction, for which I wrote a 75-page dissertation proposal before concluding that that topic was not tenable either. The third try, finally, had that proverbial “charm” that has kept me engaged and intrigued ever since.
            In short, dear doctoral student, follow your heart, keep looking for something that excites you for the long haul, and don’t be afraid to change direction if necessary. Certainly it is important to get that dissertation done, but it is even better if its completion inaugurates a lifetime of fruitful scholarship.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Relationships and Influence (Part 2)

By Steve Huerd
One of the criteria by which college ranking organizations classify different institutions is class size.  The thinking behind this is the smaller the class size, the more personal interaction the student will receive with the professor.  Thus, personal access and instruction from a knowledgeable professor becomes premium when considerations are being made.

Yet, even within these smaller classrooms, having good relationships between the professor and the student is naturally implied.  There’s an old adage that says, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much care.”  This truth definitely applies to mentoring relationships as the perceived quality of the relationship between the mentor and mentee is possibly the single most important factor to mentoring effectiveness.

I believe the same is true in teaching.  If a student intuitively knows that his or her professor not only is an expert in their field, but that he/she also cares about them individually as a person, then they tend to allow the professor greater access to their inner thinking.

We all intuitively determine who we can trust and who we can’t, sometimes without even saying a word to that person.  People’s actions publically display certain levels of trust; either inviting us to be real, to use caution, or even to be fearful.

When a teacher has shown signs of being a trustworthy person, then those around them begin to allow them access to their thinking.  This relational trust, then, enables the professor to have more influence in their students’ lives and thinking.

Granted, no one can have close, personal relationships with all their students in every class, but by simply being aware of the relational factors present within the classroom, our effectiveness as instructors is greatly increased.  Our teaching then becomes better leveraged through relational influence resulting in greater impact upon the minds we seek to sway.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Promoting Self or Sharing Knowledge?

 by Sharon Warkentin Short        
Most people would agree that individuals who brag about themselves are obnoxious. “Showing off,” “tooting your own horn,” even “calling undue attention to yourself” are generally deemed unacceptable social behaviors. Descriptors such as “blowhard,” “loudmouth,” and “windbag” come to mind, and none of them are complimentary. This negative sentiment about “putting oneself forward” can create considerable dissonance for someone who is seeking employment and is suddenly expected to become an aggressive self-promoter.
            In his book Become a Recognized Authority in your Field in 60 Days or Less, author Robert Bly (2002) describes the marketing of oneself as establishing one’s “guru status,” and in his book he outlines a strategy for positioning oneself as a “guru” in a particular field. In Bly’s words, “Gurus are not born, they are ‘manufactured’ through self-marketing and promotion.” (p. 21).
            Many job seekers might find such strategies odious. We do not want to be the kind of people who boast about themselves! Fortunately, in this situation a subtle shift in perspective can make a world of difference. Bly explains that what he means by a “guru” is someone who has gained significant mastery over a specific discipline, and is able to communicate this knowledge “in a clear, understandable, and useful manner to a well-defined target audience” (p. 9). Bly goes on, “You build your reputation as an expert in your field by giving your knowledge away [emphasis added] in a variety of forums—articles, books, seminars, speeches, newsletters, e-zines, Web sites, and information products” (p. 41). If building a professional reputation in order to gain a desirable position can be redefined as sharing one’s useful knowledge with others, then the odium of “marketing oneself” is greatly diminished.
            I can enthusiastically endorse the premise of becoming an expert in a well-defined niche and then sharing that knowledge in many different ways. If that is what a guru is, then bring it on! What I can not get excited about “selling,” “marketing,” or “promoting” myself. I am not a commodity to be bought and sold, nor do I want to be regarded and treated as such. Sharing my knowledge, though, is an altogether different and more positive mission. That sounds like something I would be glad to do.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Relationships and Teaching (Part 1)

by Steve Huerd
Everyone wants to influence someone’s life when they teach.  Teaching is, after all, the passing of knowledge from one mind to another with the intent to help and improve another life.  But, what makes for effective teaching?  While there are many writings dealing with pedagogical techniques and tips out there, there is comparatively few dealing with how relationships affect teaching efficacy.

In my recently published dissertation, I argued that spiritual development occurs through personal, trusted relationships.  In other words, most people choose what to believe religiously through being influenced by those with whom they have personal trusted relationships.  These people could be their parents, extended family, key nonparental adults, friends, etc.  Thus effective transmission of faith and religious values, which most definitely includes knowledge, is passed along relationally from one person to another. 

This makes sense because we are all created in the image of God to be relational beings connecting with one another.  Even within the universe as a whole, truth is personal, found in the person of Jesus Christ.  This is in contrast to the notion that truth is merely a collection of facts or knowledge that fit reality that must be drilled into every young mind. Even Jesus noted that, “this is eternal life that they might KNOW you” (John 17:3 emphasis mine) implying relational knowledge as being the highest form of knowledge for eternity.

Thus there appears to be an inseparable link between knowledge and relationship as God created them.  Knowledge can exist outside of relationships, but it gains its full meaning and significance through relationships.  Indeed, even the entire universe has a relational connection to Jesus being created “by Him…through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:17).

This truth has profound implications for how we teach in Christian education.  For if knowledge is best communicated via relationships, then the types of relationships we have with our students will affect how they interpret the knowledge we are attempting to teach them.   In fact, I would argue, that the healthier and stronger our relationships with students are, the better they will receive and hear what we have to say.  This has been true in my experience in ministry all these years of working with students and I believe it is core principle essential to pedagogical efficacy at every level.