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Supporting Those Who Assist Us

On each of our campuses are many who have as their full-time vocation meeting with students to either share the Gospel with them or strengthen them in their faith. Many of us benefitted as students from such campus ministers and parachurch staffers.

They minister to our students in ways we wish to, but often can’t, because of our position, just as there are things we can do to minister to students in ways they can’t. Whether we know them individually or not, they partner with us in glorifying God on campus.

I would like to encourage my colleagues at campuses around the globe to get to know one or more of these co-labourers in the work of the Gospel, and to even support them financially. The economy has hit them hard as their supporters lose jobs and otherwise tighten their wallets.

If you are in a position where you do not feel safe identifying with Christ, this is a safe way to have that influence on campus, and it is a tremendous encouragement to these ministers when faculty actively support them.

It’s just a few dollars to you, but for them it is a meal, rent, and a huge encouragement.


Teaching All Kinds

For one of my lab courses, I have them write a one-page essay on “What I Want To Do With My Life.” Then, I meet with each of them individually to discuss it and offer some suggestions on getting to whatever their next step is. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with physical chemistry. But we do so little to help our students prepare for life post-graduation that I think it is important. Most of the students agree strongly. Many thank me saying none of their other instructors have shown personal interest in them like this. But that’s not what I want to talk about. (Though if it offers you any ideas, feel free to use them!)

It is interesting to see the variety of dreams and plans they have, and nice to be able to share in those with them. A number of them reveal they are Christians in various ways—some by writing their essay somewhat evangelistically, some by commenting somehow about their faith, or by a chance phrase they might say in the interview. Whenever I pick up on it, I enjoy sharing my faith with them as well, and it is a mutual encouragement.

But I also have students coming from the complete other end of the spectrum. One of the questions I ask most students is “What are you passionate about?” Today, one student grew emphatic about his antipathy towards incorrect thinking about science, “things like the Intelligent Design movement!” Though I did my best not to react, he must have picked up on something, because he instantly switched to some scientific inaccuracy in a “Doctor Who” episode he saw. (For my take on the topic, see here.)

The rest of our time continued as normal, and I helped him just as completely and enthusiastically as everyone else. Sure, that’s the ‘professional’ thing to do, but it is also what love does. Christ fed thousands of people, some of whom would later shout, “Crucify!” He healed ten lepers knowing nine wouldn’t thank Him. He did it because He loved them as His children, not because He would get anything from them. It is called grace.

He did it without a word of explanation, and most probably never realized who they had just encountered. It is the same with this student. I had the opportunity to show love to him and help equip him for a successful career, and I gave it to him, even if he chooses to use that career to attack my faith.

Ministering meets the need without asking anything in return, and even with risk of hurt. Jesus ministered and received crucifixion. Helping this student was a no brainer.

“Always share your faith. If necessary, use words.”         -St. Francis


Proselytizing versus Academic Freedom

Today, our faculty fellowship completed a discussion on the contrast between ‘proselytizing’ and the academic freedom to discuss our worldview in various aspects of the university setting.

Because ‘proselytizing’ has such a negative connotation, it has been used as an easy accusation to put Christians on the defensive. The Wikipedia entry seems to be a rather thorough and balanced treatment of the subject. I highly encourage you to read it before continuing here.

Key points include the Jewish origins of the concept of the ‘proselyte,’ the idea that today it isn’t limited to religion, but also atheism, agnosticism, or pretty much any idea that can be ‘followed,’ that there are both legitimate and illegitimate types of proselytizing, and that there are appropriate limits, but there is legitimate differences of opinion on what those limits are.

As faculty, there are legitimate concerns of which we must be aware. Primarily, we are in a position of influence and even power over students, and so whether we intend it or not, students can perceive pressure to assent to whatever we say. I would argue at this point that this is true not just for Christian faculty, but also atheists, naturalists, Marxist and any other faculty who passionately follow a political or religious worldview and proclaim it from the bully pulpit of our position as faculty.

To further complicate matters, in today’s culture, ‘author intent’ is almost irrelevant compared to how the reader perceives the message, known as ‘reader response.’ In the context of this discussion, this means that it pretty much doesn’t matter what your intent, context or style of communicating is, if someone takes it wrong (i.e. as proselytizing), you are guilty of offending them. It has become an issue of being guilty until proven innocent.

Because of this, charges of proselytization are particularly hard to refute, and it can become an easy way to marginalize people of faith, and Christians in particular. Furthermore, in the culture of some academic fields, there is a perception that faith has no place to be discussed at all, unless in completely derogatory terms, and some go so far as to say that if someone is a Christian, it is impossible for them to be competent in the field.

So, now that I’ve done pretty thorough and depressing job of describing the problem, what are the solutions?

First, God is bigger than our problems, and He also promised we would have problems of this sort, so we are not to be surprised, and even to rejoice when they occur. That said, He also warns against seeking out trouble where it isn’t offered, through Paul’s exhortation to “so long as it depends on you, live at peace with all.”

Secondly, we must remember and hold on to the idea that the university, by definition, is meant to be a place where diverse and controversial ideas can be explored, discussed, argued, tested and refined. The Christian voice is a genuine and relevant part of the diversity modern universities celebrate, and so we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be shelved. With inclusion should come a responsibility to be civil and respectful in all discourse, regardless of how we are received. This is also the heart of Biblical evangelism.

Third, we have the freedom (and in some cases, the responsibility) to inform our students of the nature of our worldview as one’s worldview can affect our perspective on topics, and in fairness to objectivity, announcing our bias is part of disclosure. It is helpful to teach/remind them of this—that all people have a worldview, and so all have a filter through with they interpret data. Students also tend to be a little curious about what manner of person their instructor is, so a passing autobiographical abstract is appropriate at the beginning of the semester, and our faith is legitimately part of that. That said, there are times, classes, situations, where such declarations can inhibit free discussion of ideas, so discernment is, as usual, necessary.

Fourth, when students bring up religious-based topics and ask for your opinion or background, you have nearly carte blanche to discuss it, again within reason and respect.

Fifth, you are free to drop hints as relevant in lectures discussions, and any interested students who pick up on them can follow up independently. Be sensitive to their interest level, like you would discussing any topic with anyone.

Sixth, when a student group invites you to speak to them, accept the invitation! They are explicitly asking for you to expound on the topic in an intramural rather than classroom environment. They are not a captive audience having paid tuition dollars to be in your class, they are voluntarily associating with others and you are the invited speaker.

Finally, if you are accused of proselytizing (and sure you have been completely appropriate and above legitimate reproach), don’t roll over. The Christian voice has a legitimate place at the diversity table. There are resources available to help you. They include your local faculty fellowship, the faculty ombuds, the academic freedom/grievance committee, and maybe others. Get informed, respond with grace, pray, don’t go on the attack. We are human and make mistakes, so if you do cross the line, determine objectively to what extent you did, own up to it, agree to be more careful, apologize and move on.

Unfortunately, academic freedom is neither absolute nor infallible. Like any freedom, it is easily lost when assumed, neglected and not nurtured or defended.

Be encouraged, be faithful, be without fear.


Two Words to Improve Student Evals

Today I met with one of the advisors in our “Center for Teaching and Learning” to see if there were some simple steps to improve my student evaluations. They aren’t terrible, especially considering my role is more of an administrator than teacher, and that I am in charge of some of the most difficult and hated courses on campus. In light of those factors, I’m actually doing well! But if there is a way to help bump them up that is simple, why not?
After discussing the course with the advisor, she said there are two simple things I can do (more of) that should boost the evals—transparency and care.

Transparency is letting students see the mechanics of the course policies—what are the reasons why we do what we do in the class. I agree wholeheartedly with this, as I discussed a few months ago. Now, there are some things it is appropriate not to publicize to maintain order, and as this is a public blog, I won’t reveal them here (sorry guys!). In general, people like to know that systems aren’t arbitrary. God even has some transparency with the Israelites when giving the Law—“do this because…”

To be more precise, ‘care’ means to demonstrate care. This is all the more important when you don’t have a daily hands-on role in the running of the course. For example, I periodically walk through the labs and visit with students, see how they are doing and offer assistance. Also, I meet with every one of them individually for personalized career counseling. This shows that I’m not some chemistry ‘shadow government.’

Other things I’ve found that matter are responding quickly to student emails, addressing concerns quickly, communicating when things are delayed or changed (grading is taking longer than expected, sign up lists are not ready when projected, etc.), and so on.

Unsurprisingly, it seems the key to good evals is not a brilliant teaching style, knowing the material cold, or any of that stuff. The key is the human touch. It’s also an effective way to minister to them.


The Joy of Teaching

Sometimes I tutor on the side for a little extra cash. Tonight, I was helping the third and last child in a family with her high school chemistry. It is times like tonight that refresh my enthusiasm for teaching. She commented near the end that when the teacher was covering the subject, she just sat there with no clue what was happening, but now she understood. That is a good feeling.

Does she have a bad teacher? I don’t know—there’s no way to tell based on that. It helps to have the individual attention that a private tutor offers. Also, often we need to hear things several times before they sink in and make sense. A postdoc in my advisor’s research group told me when I joined to do my thesis research, “Quantum chemistry takes about 10 years to understand, and then it just ‘clicks.’”

This need for repetition is why God instituted the Passover and other festivals, communion and similar rituals. We need to remember what God has done for us and we forget, so we need to have reminders.

The disappointing thing for me is that I’m very patient being the second person to explain something the first time (as in the case of my tutoree), but tend to be less so the more I have to explain it over and over again to the same person or class. It is simply because >I< forget that people forget.

Where is the ritual to remember that? Oh, yeah—every time I need to repeat myself. I guess I’d better find a better way.

We humans are strange creatures!