Professor Paul Marchbanks recently wrote a short article on the influence of his faith in his teaching and interaction with students. These short articles – called Missional Moments – are sent to approximately 1500 faculty each week around the country. If you’d like to receive them, you can do so here.
“Synchronous Teaching as Love Language”
Paul Marchbanks, English
Switching gears from psychology to literature in the mid-90s involved recalibrating my sights, but not my heart. Before I began taking my first graduate course, I visualized clearly the kind of academic community I hoped to nurture when I finished my degree, one born of psychological depth, spiritual honesty, and university-proximate housing.
Nine years later, Tracey and I moved into a faculty condo and, within months, had students plopping on our couch to share the challenges of walking with God in the 21st century.
Our first group sprang from the tears of a student searching for a radically transparent, faith-based community. For a couple of years she and a handful of other undergraduate and graduate students collected at our house on Thursday evenings to share everything from favorite poems and difficult Bible passages to painful family situations and deeply personal hardship—all covered by prayer at evening’s close.
The decision to include this activity as university service in my first annual Retention Tenure and Promotion report raised a few eyebrows. Pointed comments that spiritual camaraderie could compromise objectivity in the classroom made it clear that this particular form of ministry would not be celebrated by some in my department. We moved forward, however, and watched as house visits took various forms over the years. We’ve filled the living room to overflowing to screen films adapted from assigned novels, cut back our numbers to walk alongside students dealing with serious trauma, and even provided pre-marital counseling.
This past year in anticipation of becoming empty-nesters, we decided to open our front door even wider than before. Students were dropping by for monthly film screenings and game nights in the fall, and we were gearing up to jumpstart another prayer and discussion group . . . when the coronavirus hit.
Suddenly, to love students meant holding them at more than arm’s length, hiding beneath a mask those nonverbal facial cues so key to understanding, and trying to track a checkerboard of faces during online class discussion.
The temptation for faculty has been to pull back even further than necessary, minimizing facetime with students in order to prioritize childcare, self-care, and assorted, long-delayed projects. One graduating senior told me during spring quarter that my literature course was an outlier, the only class out of five to require regular, live conversation.
Maybe we should reconsider our slow gravitation towards asynchronous teaching—and not out of fear that our institutions will be sued by parents irate at being charged normal tuition for inferior instruction. The patience and kindness urged by Paul (I Cor. 13) requires considerable time and attentiveness in our new, virtual classrooms.
What if, instead of contracting our work hours, we expand them to accommodate dynamic, small group discussion sessions?
What if we recognize synchronous teaching as the new, pedagogical love language it has become?
Our students are starving for life-giving interaction—for not just words or speech but actions anchored in truth (I Jn. 3:18). You might prove to be the only one willing to give it to them.