Faculty Notes: For the Love of Teaching

by Kim Johnson

April 10, 2008

When the search committee began looking for a new director for the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, they knew replacing Lucinda Huffaker would be difficult. The principal force behind the Center’s reputation for extraordinary hospitality and brave conversations, Huffaker had spent 10 years there before retiring, the final four as director of an institution that has become a model for helping faculty bring teaching back to the forefront of higher education.

Who the committee found was Dr. Nadine (Dena) Pence, a Bethany Theological Seminary professor for whom teaching is "the family business."

"My grandpa and grandma were teachers," says Pence. "My mom and her siblings, all six of them, were teachers—and most of them married teachers. That’s really where my passion has been through the years, and theology has been a wonderful place to do it. I really found my home when I was teaching."

Now her journey has come full circle. Named Director of the Wabash Center last winter, Pence is leading the way for college faculty in the field to become effective teachers and reigniting in them the passion for the classroom that often becomes second to research.

"I was ready in my own teaching and in my own career to be a part of something that worked more at the cross-school and cross-faculty level," she says. "When the position came open, I actually had three different e-mails in the first day saying, ‘Dena, you should really think about this.’ I found myself more and more excited about the job as the process of the search moved forward."

Wabash College Religion Professor Bill Placher ’70, chair of the Center’s Advisory Committee, explains, "It wasn’t one of those things where the predecessor had been sort of feeble and anybody would be better than that. It was going to be hard to be good. We needed somebody that could think creatively about where the Center ought to go. Dena has certainly not been a disappointment."

As Pence looks forward to the future direction of the Center, she thinks back to how the field began to change while she was in school.

"In the 60s and 70s there was the whole question of the construction of knowledge. People began to be aware of how contextually driven articulations of truth are and how constructed they are to the person articulating them.

"Teaching became less about teaching ‘this, this, and this, and then you’re done,’ and became more about transmitting to students that they are thinkers. That has meant more openness to the process of learning, to reflection about what we’re learning, to making sure the students are engaging with the classic texts but also with their own experiences and with the experiences of those who aren’t represented in the text or in the classroom."

As a result, Pence explains, the classroom is now largely unprogrammed, but still needs structure. Many new college and university faculty members find difficulty translating their research and scholarship to the classroom. Add to that the unprogrammed piece, and it just boggles some people.

"Some college faculty know how to teach— it’s just something they like working with and comes naturally enough," Pence says. "Others don’t care and so really force the students to do all of the translating—‘I’ll present to you my paper, I’m going to publish it next week, catch it if you can; the test is on Friday.’ And that’s it—to them, that’s teaching.

"Then there are others in that middle ground saying, ‘I know I don’t want to just present what I’m researching, but I don’t have a clue where to start. How do I make this something I teach others and they catch?’"

That’s where the Wabash Center comes in. The only center of its kind for religion and theology in North America, it strives to be a "clearing" or "safe space" for dialogue among faculty about classroom issues—what’s working, what’s not, how to engage students and create better learning environments.

Every summer it hosts eight weeks of workshops with 15 new faculty each week. (The Center receives about three applications for every one spot available.) Workshops are led by a team of four master teachers from all over the country. In addition, the Center provides grants, consultants, colloquies, and other conferences all with the aim of strengthening education and enabling environments for good teaching and learning.

The Center workshops and colloquies have become much like the theology and religion classroom today—unprogrammed but with structure.

"Our first role is to get them talking about teaching," Placher explains. "That is, to find ways to take very busy people whose career success is often primarily determined by their scholarly writing, and find ways to get them excited about thinking and talking with each other about their teaching. If we do that, they are smart people. Something good will come of it."

And much good has.

"It’s clear in the 10 years we’ve been up and running, teaching has moved on to the prominent place on the radar screen in our academic field," Placher says. "You go to the national convention and you don’t have to explain where Wabash is. People are coming from Harvard, Yale, Duke, and everywhere else to spend a couple weeks on our campus. We have really made an astonishing impact for an institution of our size. This really is the national center for thinking about teaching and learning in theology and religion."

Yet, even though the Center resides on campus, many within the Wabash community don’t realize the impact it has across the country.

"Faculty here are aware of it, but I don’t think they have a good appreciation of its significance in the field of religion and theological studies," says Dean of the College Gary Phillips. He sees the Center as a potential resource for Wabash faculty.

"There’s a decade of experience in teaching and learning at the Wabash Center. It relates to the field of theology and religion, but the pedagogies that have proven to be so valuable in the classroom in those courses are transferable to other courses, other disciplines, and other departments. I can imagine the resource impact of all of that accumulated experience on the teaching and learning that goes on at the College as a whole."

Eleven years, several hundred participants, and $27 million in grants later, the Wabash Center is ready to embark on another big move, and one that could be a catalyst for increased visibility on campus.

After severe weather destroyed Kingery Hall on the southeast corner of campus, the College decided to rebuild and move the Wabash Center from Hovey Cottage. Late this winter, the "clearing" created there will allow the Wabash Center to set up residence in its new home built with hospitality and openness foremost in mind.

As Pence explains, the Center’s hospitality continues as the vehicle that lays the groundwork for comfort and open discussion.

"We want them to feel like all of their daily needs are cared for—housing, food, and all are not things they have to think about," Pence states. "Which means they are set free to just talk with each other about teaching and the discipline."

Those conversations and experiences free each participant to build their own understanding of teaching.

"It’s fun to be a part of other people thinking about teaching." Pence beams. "They were excited about teaching before they got into the Ph.D. work. Often, that work has trained them to be good scholars and they do find enjoyment there. But then they find themselves in a teaching position and they have to ask themselves, ‘Now why am I here?’

"Why am I doing this? It’s really a reclaiming of a love they had but that they have not been able to look at closely through their training.

"I just like being a part of that."*

 


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