Essentials 3. Students

It really is all about students and our role is to be a player in the saga of their transformation. But what does this mean?

Many students are in a liminal situation at college or seminary. They have left behind something and are looking forward to a new future. This is an open, exciting, worrying situation, and above all, a time when change can occur. By the Word explained and applied, by setting down theology as a foundation for life, by the example of their teachers in developing an integrated life of academics, service and spirituality, by and in the community, students grow and change. But not all in the same way.

Each student is a unique individual. They have their own loves, hopes, fears, needs and expectations. And yet seminary sometimes operates like a factory. Students are accepted at one end as “goods inwards”, they are shaped by the machine and go out at the other end as “goods outwards”. The old moulding concept of student change (where students are squeezed into a standard mould of what the college considers to be a good student) is dying but the machine rumbles on. Moulds have become graduate profiles. Mass production is the cost-efficient way. Maybe we need to talk more about transfigurational rather than transformational colleges. At the transfiguration, Jesus was changed but the change was specific to himself, it was a revealing of who he really was. It was individual.

Students are sometimes treated literally as a number. For instance in many anonymous marking systems today, we read and mark essays identified only by a student number and give advice at the bottom of the essay not knowing who we are talking to – a big sacrifice for the sake of technical “fairness”.

Even the designation “student” can be seen as negative. It is a basket term into which we put all those who study with us. It assumes a secular type of learning, entry into a particular type of system, success as measured in a standard way for all. Readers will know of my indebtedness to the work of Nouwen, Palmer, Shaw and Soh who talk about theological education as hospitality, the creation of a free and fearless space in which students are welcome as they are and in which they grow as they need to.

Truth is, most of us are caught between the desire for this specific ministry to individual students on the one hand and the system processing a sheer weight of numbers on the other. We do our best to create that individual free space in lecture periods, we work individually with students when we can but we get tired. We breathe a sigh of relief at the end of semester and say with a jokey smile on our faces “now I can get on with my work without interruptions”

The Copernican revolution which asserted that the earth moves round the sun rather than the sun moves round the earth is the classical paradigm shift in history. How do we shift the prevailing theological education paradigm to make our work revolve around students as individuals? And while we are waiting for that, let us see our calling as engaging with each student as unique.

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One Comment on “Essentials 3. Students”

  1. Drew Gibson Says:

    Graham,
    I agree with all that you say although my situation here in UTC is somewhat different. A not insignificant number of my students are young people, Christian and not, who want a degree, full stop. There are a few aspects of this against which I have to struggle. First, they see themselves as consumers, to be satisfied that they are getting what they have paid for – a degree. They want the degree more than the learning of which a degree is a marker. Second, many do not see their study as part of their Christian formation and the university certainly does not see it like this (although the College that employs me does). It is a pleasure to work with those who want to be ‘formed’ and to relate to them as individuals; it is impossible to treat the others individually because contact with them is so very limited, by their choice and by my workload.

    Most of my work that enables me to treat students as individuals is with undergraduate dissertations and research projects and with postgraduate students. These are often a joy and I invest much more time in these than I probably should. Regularly they are formative experiences for students, even if some students do not initially engage in them with this in mind.

    Another ‘individualising’ aspect of my teaching is reflective journaling. Most students dislike it but acknowledge later that it was good for them to do. Even anonymous numbers cannot fully hide who is writing so that, by third year, I can identify individual students with a good degree of accuracy. This allows individual, formative feedback to be given (although with some caution, just in case I’ve identified wrongly!).


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