Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution in 1856. From a lithograph by Alexander Blaikley (1816-1903).
The month to come will be a busy one for universities across the UK. Much attention will doubtless (and deservedly) be focussed on the numerous young people who are preparing to make what is often the most significant journey of their lives to date, leaving their family home and starting new lives as students, sometimes a long way from everything that is familiar to them. They won’t be the only ones facing the new term with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, though. Many lecturers around the country are right now busy getting ready to meet an entirely new group of students, thinking about ways to inspire and challenge them, perhaps even preparing to teach a module or course for the first time. I know, because I’m one of them!
This moment thus seemed like a good opportunity to reflect on the value of university teaching specifically within the wider vision of Christian scholarship. What does it mean for us as scholars to ‘teach for Christ’ at a university level? Here’s a few thoughts which have encouraged and challenged me recently:
Teaching is a powerful means of dissemination. Serving Christ in the academic sphere means seeking (like all scholars) a platform to pass on our ideas to others. Publication is an established way of communicating with peers, but it’s far from perfect: it can be slow, narrow in its reach and fraught with possibilities for misunderstanding. In teaching, by contrast, ideas can be tested out immediately, with instant feedback and the chance to rectify errors and misunderstandings, and the audience is (often) much more diverse, providing greater opportunities to have influence beyond our own immediate sphere. If our scholarship is rooted in the desire to honour Jesus, this can feed through powerfully into the ideas we communicate in our teaching.
Teaching challenges us to engage with new ideas, in new arenas. It is pleasing to feel like an expert, and research cultures tend to encourage scholars to pursue their own individual fields of expertise, alongside fellow-scholars who are largely sympathetic. Any lecturer, however, will sooner or later be faced with the prospect of teaching a subject they know next-to-nothing about, or communicating with students who are dismissive of or resistant to their course materials. Uncomfortable though these experiences may be, they are important opportunities to test out the value of the truths we affirm – about the value of scholarship to God, and the need to be willing to engage with even hostile audiences as we communicate it – in the crucible of real and challenging experience. In the process, we may see God’s power and Lordship all the more clearly.
Teaching is a chance to demonstrate God’s grace. I am delighted here to link to the best article I’ve ever read about university teaching, by the American mathematician Francis Su. Su presents a vision of teaching whereby students can learn not only information, but also a sense of identity which is built around grace, God’s free gift of acceptance and love. When we communicate to those around us that they are valued regardless of their intellectual standing, we are showing them grace. Su argues that this is evident in lecturing both in the way we approach material (with freedom to experiment, take risks and celebrate the joy of discovery), students (not giving more time or attention to higher-achievers), and even assessments (as judgements on the value of a piece of work, not of the student who produces it). It is a lifelong challenge to pursue this vision of grace in teaching, but I think it provides a powerful chance to witness to the grace shown to us through Jesus.