Help me plan an introduction to Augustine-and-essay-writing

I’ve inherited a first year course called ‘Great Christian Thinkers’, which has two parts: in one semester the idea is to help students understand what’s expected of them in the transition from school to university (high school to school, maybe, in US parlance?) by going through the process of writing an essay about Augustine together over the course of a semester. The idea is to do a mixture of practical and theoretical introductions both to academic work and to Augustine as a foundational figure for Western thought. The second half of the course will look at a range of important Christian thinkers, hopefully applying some of the lessons of semester 1 to the texts we’re reading; I need to work out at some point who I want to include in my canon, but have a little longer to make those decisions so am putting that on the back burner for now.

I’ll have a mixture of theology and philosophy students in my class, so need to try to pitch the classes in a way that will appeal to both. I’m hoping to find some fun exercises to make some basic study and essay-writing skills interesting, and to somehow balance giving the students an introduction to Augustine and some of the secondary literature on Augustine with trying to think about some of the fundamental questions they’ll want to bring to the texts they read over the course of their degree (what’s the role of gender in the text? What are the basic metaphors and how do they shape the argument? What key binaries are at work and where do they start to collapse? What’s the relationship between the social and historical context and the texts we’re reading?) So I’m looking for general advice and suggestions, but especially helpful would be:

  • any recommendations on books, activities or guides covering basic study and essay writing skills
  • your favourite Augustine texts (that are suitable for first year undergrads), both primary and secondary
  • any ideas about things you wish *your* students had learnt early on in their degree

11 thoughts on “Help me plan an introduction to Augustine-and-essay-writing

  1. My undergrads loved reading the ‘Confessions.’ I had a number of outstanding papers from from them- including a memorable comparison of Augustine’s vision of heaven in the ‘City of God’ and contemporary accounts of folks who claim visionary experiences of the world to come! John McNassor

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. I’d love to hear more about how you got them engaging with the text! Which bits did you teach? What kinds of questions did you get them asking? I’ve taught Books 1-2 and 10 but I struggled to get my students to enjoy it, let alone engage with it in interesting ways!

  3. I’m considering Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” for a class on Paul; I suspect it might work even better read with “Confessions,” especially in light of parental relationships.

    You might want to take a look at Connolly’s “The Augustinian Imperative.” He does his Foucaudtian work and writing so well its more challenging than students realize.

  4. I read Eric Hayot’s “Elements of Academic Style” near the end of Divinity School. It was so helpful. I wouldn’t recommend the whole book for the students, but the chapter and concept on the 5-4-3-2-1 structure of paragraphs and papers provides a nice way for students to think “Why am I writing this sentence here?” I adapted the concept for teaching high schoolers how to write really basic papers on texts, and it worked quite well.

  5. I graduated several years ago and currently work at a university as a writing tutor working with students at all levels, and across the board students have a hard time understanding how sources function. I think one of the most important skills you could teach is demonstrating what a resource/text can and should do in an essay.

    First, I think a lot of students get caught up in summarizing a primary text (like Augustine) and not enough time trying to advance an interpretation. Of course, this isn’t a high-level university course, but this is still a pitfall that can get students into some very bad habits. A paper that’s all “This text says this” is only able to do so much; try to instruct students how to appropriately summarize a text’s statements while also pivoting towards advancing an interpretation— usually I frame that to students as going from summary to “Explain why this matters and is relevant to the prompt/thesis/etc.” A lot of times students will think that summary accomplishes this, but emphasizing the need for clarity and “why it matters” helps them understand that interpretation connects a text to a meaning by expressing that meaning.

    Second, a lot of students don’t understand how to effectively use secondary literature. Two examples:

    I’ve had students who were meant to analyze a novel in terms of an essay about that novel. They end up letting quotes pulled from that essay do all the work without explaining how the essay is relevant to what’s being discussed or assessing the ideas of that essay. Of course, a shorter paper might only focus on what the essay is saying, but a longer paper *should* assess the strengths and weaknesses of a secondary text and identify what, to that student, is most compelling.

    Another relevant instance is situations where a source text is being interpreted through the lens of a not-overtly relevant essay— for instance, analyzing “100 Years of Solitude” through an essay on ‘postcolonial literature’ in general. The student should, of course, summarize “100 Years” and then briefly summarize the ideas of that secondary essay, but they also need to draw the connection about why the ideas are relevant to the source text. This can be as prosaic as a sentence or two stating “This qualifies as postcolonial literature in any working definition” or something with more shades of nuance, but the connection needs to be drawn. From there, the student needs to identify where the ideas of that essay relate to “100 Years” and how the ideas ‘function’ when they come into contact with that novel.

    I understand that a 3-page writing assignment is going to allow a lot less than an 8-page essay, especially with first year undergrads, but teaching your students that it’s appropriate for them to assess the strengths and weaknesses of their sources, to identify where something is more or less successful or expressive or thought-provoking (in the case of primary literature) or more or less relevant and capable of interpretation (in the case of secondary literature) is something that I find so crucial. In my undergraduate education, I was fortunate to have professors who gave me the freedom in my papers to explore ideas shrewdly but also wildly, and that is what taught me how to utilize primary and secondary literature.

    Sorry for the wall of text! Best of luck teaching this course.

  6. There are different translations of Confessions and the one that most affected me when I read it as a undergrad was FJ Sheed’s. I’d personally go for that one rather than the Chadwick one in Oxford World’s Classics.

    It also just occurs to me that Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine makes a lot of use of Confessions for reconstructing Aug’s early life. Brown is also a compelling writer, so you could use the same bit of text in multiple ways, showing how he uses Confessions, what the primary source says, how he interprets it, then showing how he structures the argument, and so on.

  7. Hi Marika, just giving a second thumbs up for “The Say, I Say” – I’ve found this really useful for new undergrads. The main idea is so simple and so easy to remember. As a bonus, I like the way it also helps students to think about the purpose and disciplines of class discussion.

    Regarding Augustine: I’ve had mixed success using Confessions in a first-year class. As you’d expect, the parts that tend to work well are the more narrative-driven books (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8). One of the biggest challenges is to help students to follow the main thread of Aug’s story, and not to descend into huge discussions around minor or obscure or lyrical passages. It’s especially challenging with Aug because he’s so digressive, and at times (for many readers) so sublime or so perverse. I think the book doesn’t really work unless the class can follow the main story and see how the big theological & philosophical ideas emerge. One of my solutions has been to set an essay topic on how Aug explores the problem of the goodness of creation. There are different ways a student can address this (e.g. looking at the specifics of the Manichaean debate; looking at the role of grief and trauma in his story; looking at the way he tries to depict his own sins without introducing essential evil) – but the main thing is to help the class to keep looking for the relevant things as they read the book. Another way of doing this might be to ask students to write about the various obstacles to Aug’s conversion, and how he deals with one of them – that might sound pretty basic, but you see what I mean – it’s just an aid to help them to look for the right things and not to lose the wood for the trees.

    Apart from those challenges, I think Confessions is ideal for introducing students to secondary literature, since it’s quite amazing how the class discussion will often polarise in ways that mirror the larger scholarly debates. The trick is to alert them to this after the fact, and if possible to direct them quite specifically (and quite minimally) to some relevant and accessible literature. Might be too demanding in a bigger class; though some kind of basic mapping of the secondary literature could be done in class, at least around a few key areas.

    Last thought – I once saw a syllabus for a class on Confessions, where instead of assigning entire books for weekly readings (as I’ve tended to do), the teacher had isolated a selection of scenes & identified some theological questions that arise from each scene: Augustine’s infancy; the pear tree; death of a friend; the drunken beggar, etc. While there are obvious limitations to this best-hits approach, I think there’s something to be said for it, and I’ve thought about trying this approach myself.

    Sorry to be so verbose! I always love it when teaching-related discussions crop up on this site.

  8. I don’t think I approached the Confessions very systematically- with Brown’s help- and others- I cherry picked some of my favorite passages and interspersed interesting biographical material. I think undergrads can appreciate Augustine’s struggles with identity, sexuality, “individuation”- even if they come to conclusions quite different from him. As to secondary lit- when I teach early Church/Christianity (if a distinction is to be made) I like to move students as soon as I can to the primary texts. There’s lots of ways to do this including the excellent compendiums of the early and later ‘fathers’ edited by Bettenson.
    For advanced students, Jean-Luc Marion has written a beautiful phenomenological approach to the text- maybe for the teacher!

  9. Thanks everyone, this is all super helpful. Does anyone have any experience teaching other Augustine texts? I was wondering about using some City of God material, partly just because I’ve not read it myself and would like to! And if anyone could point me to any good secondary texts and/or key debates about Augustine I’d be really grateful as I’ve mostly just read Augustine himself rather than the secondary stuff.

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