Statement on the Integration Faith and Teaching
Judy Vander Woude
This essay is based on my belief that my Christian faith must encompass all my scholarly and pedagogical endeavors. I believe that God’s teaching and His mandates as found in the Bible must influence every one of my actions and thoughts. Given this framework, I first discuss how I strive to integrate faith in my teaching and then describe how I work to integrate faith in my scholarly activities.
Faith and Learning in Teaching Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology
I believe there are explicit and implicit ways to integrate issues of Christian faith in teaching. Deliberate classroom exercises, readings and discussions challenge students to discern relationships among ethical practice, disability, knowledge and Christian faith. Meanwhile, I model faith in my relationship with students, serving as both mentor and teacher. I believe that both formal and informal pedagogy are crucial as a Christian educator.
Explicit Integration of Faith and Learning. I explicitly integrate faith and learning in my teaching by frequently discussing human understandings of and responses to disability and difference. My students not only learn the theoretical aspects of communicative disabilities, they also reflect on how to respond Christianly to these disabilities. These responses include reflection on suffering and disability, on the hope for relieving suffering and the longing for community in spite of communicative differences.
At the 1996 Christianity and Communication Conference at Calvin College, Nicholas Wolterstorff asked these questions:
- Isn’t it part of the calling of the Christian college, in addition to a liberal arts program…to equip it students to function as Christians in the major social formations of contemporary society?
- Can we just throw liberal arts at them and expect them to apply them, to function?
- Can’t we do better? Aren’t we obligated to go beyond?
- Isn’t it part of the Christian college to invite its students to engage in normative reflection about some of the fundamental social formations of contemporary society?
Given these questions, Wolterstorff suggested that we engage our students in a hierarchy of reflective actions. He outlined three types: hermeneutic reflection, defined as interpreting or understanding what is going on, normative reflection, defined as when to say “yes and when to say “no,” and strategic reflection, defined as what can be done about the “no” and the “yes.”As part of my calling to Calvin College, I have been working on applying these three types of reflection in the courses I teach. I first expect my students to understand and interpret how society has shaped disability. I begin by discussing how we all long for perfection––perfection in our work, our friendships, our love for another, our relationship with God, and our bodies. Although sometimes we come close, nothing will be perfect –– not our work, our friendships, our love, our relationship with God, and certainly not our bodies –– until Christ comes again. Although most of us can appear externally to function according to society’s standards, individuals with communicative disorders generally cannot. Their forms of brokenness brand them publicly as imperfect individuals. My hermeneutical goal is to encourage students to reflect on what it is like to live both publicly and privately with a communication disorder. I want them to seek, as Christians, to understand what it is like to have trouble communicating, to encounter odd responses from others, or even worse, to be ignored in everyday situations. I hope that they will understand how a person who stutters in class feels when he notices his professor and peers averting their eyes. I want them to know how frustratingly slow it can be to use a communication device to order a hamburger. I want them to understand how confusing dinner-table conversations or church services can be for a person with a hearing loss. I want them to see the longing of a woman who can no longer pray as she once did or read her devotions after suffering a stroke. This hermeneutic of empathy both breaks down the walls of human arrogance and opens the door to a kind of professional compassion that recognizes the persuasive impact of the Fall from grace. Most importantly, I want them to think about what perfection is in God’s eyes, not merely from a human perspective in a fallen world.
To help students engage in such hermeneutic reflection, I developed different ways of helping students to work on gaining their own understanding of the experiences of people with communicative disorders. First they learn the physiological facts about the disorders and then they apply that knowledge in practical assignments. For instance, after learning about stuttering, they are asked to stutter on purpose when ordering food in a restaurant and then reflect on their feelings and the clerk’s reaction; or they are asked to use a communication board instead of their voices to talk with friends at dinner. Although these assignments are artificial, they help students begin to understand the experiences of persons who have difficulty communicating.
Once students begin to understand how people may experience communicative disorders, we address normative reflection, to what we say “yes” and to what we say “no.” I ask students the following questions: How do we respond as individuals and as a community of believers to persons with communicative disabilities? Do we find ourselves giving well-intentioned advice like Job’s friends, presupposing that God sends suffering to punish sinners? When should we reject or affirm different approaches, theories or concepts of causes or assessment as Christians? Can any good be found in suffering? What about the role of compassion? What is a Christian standard of suffering? And how do society’s assumptions of disability compare to the Christian standard? The Christian worldview recontextualizes human communication brokenness as one reflection of our fallen condition. Yet, it sees beneath the brokenness the goodness of all humans created in the image of God.
Finally, we work on strategic reflection. We ask how we, as Christians should act redemptively on society’s view of the disabled. How can we hope for a better life for others? How can we design an end to or at least a relief from suffering? Cornelius Plantinga discusses hope in his recent draft of Hoping to Learn: Central Affirmations of a Reformed Christian Confession. He states that we need to work against seeing ourselves as “centers,” as “our own creators and providers.” He writes, “We…need to struggle in order to see the world through the eyes of others and to focus our consciousness upon their need of justice and kindness. This struggle will often begin in the simple attempt to imagine how life must be for others, and particularly how it must be for others whose situation in life differs sharply from our own. One who hopes is one who imagines” (p. 15). Plantinga suggests that we must hope for others and that hope must include both faith and love. I suggest to students that strategic reflection requires faith and love and perhaps above all, hope for others. Hope, in this case, also includes hope for a “fallen” profession in need of institutional reform. We discuss how the profession can be organized and structured to best serve society and the disabled. We work toward “reflecting” each other and society even though full reflection will take place only the return of Jesus Christ. In the meantime, every restoration of more complete human communication is a signpost for the Kingdom.
Clearly, developing Wolterstorff’s typology of reflection for Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology students will always be a work in progress. Fortunately, Calvin encourages and nurtures this kind of scholarship. Calvin is in a unique position to make a difference in the pre-professional preparation of speech-language pathologists or audiologists. We must equip our students with reflective and perspectival tools, in addition to providing excellent liberal arts education. We must prepare students to be Christian speech-language pathologists or audiologists who ask deep questions and subsequently strive to make a redemptive difference in both the profession and in our society.
Implicit Integration of Faith and Learning. Along with explicit means of integrating faith and learning in my teaching, I also feel that my attitude toward students is critical. Often in a role of power, it is tempting for a professor to teach through intimidation, to abuse the privileged position. In contrast, as a Christian educator, I work to display a genuine respect for the students by keeping an open door and an open heart. I have found that asking students how I can help them, listening in a manner that is conducive to Christian dialogue, and using a tone of voice, facial expression, eye contact, sense of humor, and vocabulary consistentwith mutual respect are all important.
Integration of Faith and Learning in Scholarship
Scholarship is an indispensable part of my Christian perspective. Scholarship usually advances knowledge, and increased knowledge encourages richer discussions and collaborative efforts with colleagues and students. Moreover, the pursuit of truth should relentlessly address how we can make a redemptive difference in society. I strive to do that in various ways. First, I do the best work I am capable of doing, using my gifts and talents fully for the glory of God.
Second, I believe God asks me to be a discerning believer. I must be open to divergent views and thinking within the scholarly community, yet always hold those views against a Christian standard. This is not an easy task, but God promises the gift of discernment:
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. James 1:5 (NIV)
Third, I believe that I should not only make a difference within the Christian community of scholars, but I should also speak to the broader academic community. Therefore, I must complete excellent research to establish credibility within my discipline outside of Calvin. My research examines communication from a perspective of ability, which assumes a God-given capacity for communication. Instead of identifying only how the interaction between communicatively disabled individuals and significant others is disabled, my research seeks to understand what is “able” in the interaction––the remarkable and often unique ways that people learn to overcome the communication brokenness in their lives. How do parents and children with language delays really communicate outside of the established protocols of normal linguistic interaction? Which research methods genuinely describe their everyday communication? How do people with communicative disorders and their loved ones learn alternative means of using their God-given symbolic ability? One pitfall of many communication research methods is that they “pull apart” the situation, ultimately distorting the forms of community and relationships that people have built into their interactions. I believe that a focus on people creatively co-construct communication is redemptive. It validates the gifts that God has given each person, regardless of one’s particular ability in a given medium.
One of my life goals is to influence how my discipline authentically researches and views communication differences in both the professional arena and the academy. I am particularly interested in exploring the relationship between co-construction of communication and the nurturing of others. As Quentin Schultze suggests, humans are constantly trying to overcome the effects of the Fall, to overcome the alienation between them and to build more meaningful relationships. Even though communicative disorders are evidence of the Fall, parents nonetheless can empower their special children’s communication by effectively becoming child-like themselves. The gifts of empathy and identification enable the strong to commune with the weak, and the weak to become stronger. Taken alone, the idea of co-constructed communication can be relativistic and self-defeating. Framed within a Christian perspective, however, it points backward to a creative God, and forward to God’s work through us in creating a heaven and a new earth. Communication reflects the power of redemption in daily activities. I hope that a Christian focus on co-construction will make a difference in the academy and in the lives of those living with communicative disorders.
Lastly, to exercise excellent Christian scholarship, I must collaborate with other colleagues. Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology is cross-disciplinary in nature. It brings together research from speech-language pathology, audiology, acoustics, psychology, biology, neurology, linguistics, physics, anthropology, instrumentation engineering and education. It is a perfect model for applied liberal arts. Fostering a sincere effort of cooperative scholarship among disciplines enriches my perspective and that of my students. God calls us to collaborate rather than protect, to share rather than hoard gifts, and to become one body rather than separate disciplinary enclaves. In my opinion, cross-disciplinary efforts fulfill this mandate. This is why I celebrate Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at a Christian liberal arts college.