The Art of Teaching
Part of the John Wesley Tercentennial Conference
Welcome to the beginning of our conference honoring the 300th anniversary of John Wesley’s birth. The conference has been organized around teaching, preaching and service because these three aspects of John Wesley’s life were so important, so integrally connected to his faith and because these same three aspects define our ongoing sense of mission—to Teach, to Shape and to Send.
We have called today’s focus the Art of Teaching with the explicit understanding that teaching is indeed an art, elaborated slowly over time, growing as the teacher him or herself grows and develops in comprehension not just of the subject matter but even more of the learning process and the minds of students.
Since I am primarily a professor of literature, when I considered what few thoughts I might want to share at the start of this day, my mind immediately went to a story, specifically one of the riches embedded in Greek mythology, the story of Sisyphus. Found guilty of excessive love of life and shirking the inevitability of death, Sisyphus was condemned to hell where he was required to push a huge boulder up a hill. Just when the boulder was almost at the top, on a solid foundation so that Sisyphus could finally have his well-deserved rest, the boulder would fall all the way back down the hill. Poor Sisyphus would have to resign himself to trudging back down the hill and starting all over.
Albert Camus, in a short philosophical essay, selects this myth as the symbol of modern man’s fruitless search for meaning in a world deprived of any overarching sense. Nothing symbolizes the meaningless of life as well as this endless, unremitting repetition of a task never done. The repetition is a torture because it has no end and no ultimate purpose.
We could, I suppose, also see the myth as an image of teaching. Certainly I have my moments when Sisyphus seems to echo my own classroom experiences. I can think of specific students whom I have pushed and cajoled up the hill of some academic task, despite the insurmountable weight of their own mental inertia, only to have them slide back to their original ignorance just when I thought we had accomplished something. And there is the often repeated experience of leading a whole class from initial ignorance to eventual knowledge over a semester only to find yourself, 15 weeks later, faced with beginning the process over again. And of course, there is the experience of meeting a former student whose memory of work done in your class is so minimal and tangential that you feel as though the eventual erosion of your work is inevitable.
But our spiritual life as Christians, especially as Wesleyans, offers us other paradigms in which to understand repetition. Most particularly, communion and the Wesleyan means of grace suggest a very different way in which to view repetitive actions. Communion is a repetitive act with a clearly defined purpose—to remember what is central to our identity, literally to remember, to bring Christ’s presence into our midst, into the very core of our selves. This is an act of faith, an act of community, an act we need a time and a space to do together. Wesley’s means of grace were similarly repetitive, similarly lived out in community, similarly designed to re-member, to re-awaken and nurture a spark within. Some days, on my best teaching days, I enter my class as a member of that particular learning community, ready to feast with my students on the intellectual, emotional and spiritual riches put before us, ready to re-member the great ideas we have gathered together to study.
These days are celebrations of life, of its infinite complexity and ultimately of God, the creator and ground of that life. On these days repetition is renewal, re-membering, communion, the quintessentially Christian celebration of life’s ultimate triumph over death, of faith over despair, of redemption over error, of grace over loss.
Other days, I am Sisyphus, condemned to push one more hulking, lumpish rock up another hill only to see my work inevitably undone, eroded by time, laziness and MTV.
What makes the difference? Often it is moments like this day—those precious moments when I have a time and a space in which to share with like-minded colleagues the joys and challenges and triumphs and failures of this great enterprise in which we are all engaged, a time to re-member my calling, to reconnect it to Him who called me. I hope you will leave today’s events refreshed and renewed, with the meaning of your own calling fully and joyously re-membered.