Thoughts on beginning my second year of teaching

I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, but it’s clear in retrospect that I was in a state of constant panic all last year. I was still figuring out what exactly I was doing on so many levels that I had trouble prepping for class on a longer time horizon than one session at time — so that every time I finished teaching for the day, my first thought was, “Oh crap, what am I going to do next time?!”

This time I’m repeating a class from last year and doing another class that I spent all summer developing, so things are qualitatively different. I’m planning out everything a couple weeks in advance (in more detail than just the reading and general topic), which has the benefit of allowing me greater flexibility if something winds up taking significantly more or less time than I anticipated. And my greater confidence and composure seems to be improving discussion times more or less automatically — I feel more in control generally, so that I don’t feel like a horrible failure if the kids aren’t talking and can think more about questions that might help.

It’s a bit awkward that I’m only here for two out of three quarters, but I feel like I have the perfect mix of classes. I get to do a philosophy course (Philosophy of Religion), which I haven’t had the opportunity to do yet, and develop a course that’s very much in demand (Global Christianity). I also get to repeat two courses: the one I was most satisfied with (Medieval Christian Thought) and the one I had some of the most problems with (Feminist Theologies). The way I’ve structured Global Christianity also allows me to revisit Liberation Theology, and the demoralizing slog of trial and error of trying to get my mostly secular and (weirdly!) anti-religious students to understand the concept of liberation theology has clearly paid off — this group of students seems to be more or less on board, in terms of understanding what’s at stake, after just a couple sessions. (My struggles with getting them to understand dialectical thought have also borne fruit.)

The only thing I’d add to make the second year of teaching seem really “perfect” is a chance to repeat either my New Testament or Classical Christian Thought course, because in both of them I wanted to make some major structural changes. But the four courses I have now feed remarkably well into my development as an instructor, I think. I complain about the job market as much as anyone, but for these past couple years I’ve been incredibly lucky in finding a place where I could start my teaching career relatively free of distractions, in a very supportive environment — in a lot of ways, it serves as a perfect capstone to my training, coming right after a PhD program where I had a kind of “apprenticeship” in teaching but hadn’t yet done my own courses.

Now I just need to cross my fingers and hope that the third year of teaching will immediately follow the second. I’d hate to lose momentum.

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on beginning my second year of teaching

  1. Yes, of course. What puzzled me, though, is that they thought “liberation theology” was basically a contradiction in terms — for instance, no matter how much I repeated it, they had a really hard time realizing that liberation theology had actually been practiced. They’d just keep saying, “This is too much of a stretch; it’s not Christianity anymore; it’ll never work!” Why would you take a class in something you thought was totally absurd on its face?

    In the end, I do think I got to some of them. But it was really an uphill battle — probably not helped by my lack of confidence since it was my first quarter teaching.

  2. Irrespective of content, which I obviously can’t speak to, but as someone who’s been teaching his own courses for… we’ll just say way too long, the advantage of repeating a successful course is that you know it works in more than theory; however, sometimes that success blinds you to the bumps in an otherwise successful course.

    I’m not saying to undermine your confidence, as students absolutely pick up on and feed off of that; I’m only trying to say that there’s real value to “Oh crap, what am I going to do next time?!” reaction, because it forces you to reevaluate the material to figure out whether how you’re teaching it now suits the needs of this new group of students.

    I am trying to be helpful, not an asshole, here … but fully recognize that telling someone to value an “Oh crap” feeling strongly suggests otherwise.

  3. My position is a bit similar to yours; repeating classes that I taught for the first time last year. It sure was terrifying last year. The second time around, planning ahead is far more helpful since I have a general idea where I am going, and have some notes from last year to help sketch things out.
    On a different front: the job market in my little subfield has started to expand in the last couple of weeks, and I have heard confirmation that several more jobs will be posted in early October. For three of these positions, the advertising budget was cut, and so ads that would have run August-November are now restricted to October. I assume similar cuts have happened all over. There’s reason to keep a bit of hope alive.

  4. I’d like to think that my generalized panic, which has now been reversed into a generalized confidence, will lead dialectically to an “oh crap these kids aren’t responding like I thought” reaction — i.e., one that’s responsive to specific circumstances rather than being all-consuming.

  5. BB, that would be great if that was the case — already I have about as many job listings to apply for as the last couple years (and fewer that seem like a “stretch”), and if more are on the way, that would be a definite glimmer of hope.

  6. Adam, I think it’s probably just a matter of them coming in a Global Christianity course expecting all bad – and then being wrongfooted by this one thing that probably hits their good buttons.

    Isn’t that why you focus on it?

    Anyway, once they find the story of cardinal Romero I guess they will find why it never really did work.

  7. I’m talking about a previous course I offered solely about Liberation Theology. And you’re right that the reason it didn’t work is because of the psychotic rulers that the US helped to put in power.

  8. Sorry, that wasn’t clear. But it was not mainly the US that is to carry all of the blame for it not working. The church did all it could to stop it from working and I do not think they did it because of the US but because of the fact that liberation as a thought was (and is) a threat to the church.

    I associate liberation theology with catholicism – and I think to some extent it needs that kind of structure to work – but is this correct? Are there non-catholic but christian liberation theologists? Sorry, I’m ashamed but I really don’t know – I’d have followed your class; there is something about it that is really worth understanding better.

  9. Well, even without support of the church, the movement would’ve had a lot better chances if their people weren’t constantly getting murdered. I’m not trying to reduce it to one cause, but I think Romero shows that even when the church is trying its best to move in that direction — he was after all the archbishop, even if not all his clergy supported what he wanted to do — there’s only so much you can do when your opponents have no hesitation about using violence. Even if the pope theoretically became a strong liberation theologian, I can picture the crazies running our country in the 80s putting out a hit on him and convincing themselves it was for the greater good of Christianity.

    To me, that’s what’s most discouraging about the fate of liberation theology — it was one of the first signs that when governments are sufficiently indifferent to human life, the strategy of non-violent resistence just doesn’t work anymore.

    There are liberation theologians of all denominations — most notably in black liberation theology, where the leading figures belong to the historic African-American denominations. Even in Latin America, there are Protestant liberation theologians.

  10. Thanks, I kind of agree, I think. But there is something in it that makes the focus on emancipation of people weak from the outstart (& a weakness certainly not limited to religious matters) whereas a mass movement requires strength and some element of ruthlessness.

    There’s a tension there between liberation & organization – a tension that somehow makes the first one win despite it loosing all of the concrete battles to the last one.

    There was no hope in hell that there would ever be a pope of that denomination; the church will always be dominated by those making a priority of obedience.

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