When research leavens teaching

Lately I’ve had occasion to think about how my research connects with my teaching. At first glance, they may seem to have very little to do with each other. I am part of a Great Books program where I actually teach very little that is squarely in my area of expertise. (The only time I taught the “Philosophy and Theology” course was literally my first semester at the independent Shimer College.) Most of our courses have pretty prescribed reading lists, and the courses I teach outside of Shimer are gen ed offerings with few opportunities to introduce cutting-edge research to my largely indifferent pupils. I have learned a huge amount from all the teaching I’ve been pushed to do — about art, classical music, Islam, and even the natural sciences — but I have not published on those areas, for obvious reasons. So my writing and teaching may seem to be two separate “tracks.”

In reality, though, the two mutually reinforce each other, though not in the obvious one-to-one fashion of an R1 researcher who gets to teach seminars directly on their research. My Great Books pedagogy reinforces my habits as an interdisciplinary generalist, my research continually provides fresh perspectives to bring into discussion, and my students’ responses help to shape the way I present those ideas moving forward. People have often praised the clarity of my writing, and that stems largely from the fact that I have to test my ideas in the cauldron of live conversation with students. Even more than in a lecture setting, I am directly accountable to them and get immediate feedback if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense to them.

The best example of this phenomenon actually comes from the one time I was able to teach a graduate seminar directly on my research — a course on the politics of the devil at Chicago Theological Seminary. I pitched the syllabus in terms of political theology, complete with the requisite readings of Schmitt, Agamben, etc., and it just was not landing. When I introduced the problem of evil, however, they seemed to have something to latch onto — in fact, they said that every seminarian should take a course centered on the problem of evil, since that’s the kind of thing people actually worry about. The result was that I integrated political theology and the problem of evil, first in an article and then in The Prince of This World. In other words, my distinctive approach to political theology, which has determined the course of my research through three major books, came directly out of testing ideas with students.

Now you may be saying, “Sure, it may be great that you actually learn more from your students, etc., etc., but what are they getting out of it?” What they gain is that I have a couple different frameworks for helping them to integrate the many and varied materials we encounter in Shimer’s Great Books curriculum. The first is my own integration of political theology and the problem of evil, which provides a helpful through-line for many courses. This is especially true for our year-long senior capstone curriculum, which is a historical survey that reaches from Gilgamesh to the present day. The very first paragraph of Gilgamesh has the citizens of Uruk asking a political-theological question that is also a question of divine justice — they have ideas about how kings should behave, and they wonder why the gods are allowing their king to behave in the exact opposite fashion. We can see variations on that theme throughout the Western tradition.

The second is the thought of Giorgio Agamben, who is a scholar of the Western intellectual and literary traditions in the broadest possible sense, including the fine arts and natural sciences. In other words, his reach is as wide as the Shimer curriculum, and he has definite ideas about how it all fits together, as well as about the importance of individual thinkers and works. Though his actual books are not suitable for the undergraduate classroom, I do drop his ideas into discussion — not as the authoritative word of the master, but as another possible perspective that is not even necessarily my own. There’s no necessity that students accept either Agamben’s approach or mine, but at least in my experience, giving them some specific perspective to bounce off of helps them to integrate the material more effectively.

There are other more specific cases of a research-to-teaching pipeline. One of my most successful courses at North Central, “Deals With the Devil,” builds on my existing research and extends it to engage with variations on the Faust legend. What I initially thought was a course about the history of Christianity and the transition to modernity seemed to the students to be more about the adaptation of existing narratives — something that is obviously pervasive in contemporary pop culture. My research on neoliberalism and my interest in science fiction converged in the senior seminar on utopia and dystopia that I regularly offer in North Central’s general education program. Both teaching experiences have converged on my latest research project, a book on recent installments in the Star Trek franchise, exploring the ways they try to adapt existing “canon” while maintaining contemporary relevance — a project that also resonates with the habits of thought that come from engaging with cultural traditions on longer time-scales in the Great Books program.

Overall, I don’t think I would have done the same kind of research and writing if I hadn’t had the teaching experience I have had, and I think my classes would be a lot less interesting if I wasn’t continually pushing myself through my research work.

One thought on “When research leavens teaching

  1. Great post! I’m neither a teacher nor a researcher, but my husband is. And I’ve seen how this kind of cross fertilisation works for him, and also for me in my interests in farming, coming, crafts and writing. I love it when something you read informs something else seemingly unconnected!

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