Faith and Scholarship
During my appointment at Calvin College, I have taught six courses for the department of communication arts and sciences: oral rhetoric, advanced oral rhetoric, communication and culture, persuasion and propaganda, American politics and mass media, and the rhetoric of Malcolm X. Each of these courses is taught at most secular colleges and universities, and my own graduate training equipped me to teach each effectively from a secular perspective. But one of the challenges that drew me to Calvin was that of adapting my pedagogy to the mission of a Christian institution of higher learning. I believe that I have succeeded in making each of the courses I teach peculiarly Christian and that I still need to work to make the Christian perspective of every course sustained, deep, and vibrant.
I have found it easiest to enrich the courses that analyze public and/or political discourse with a robust Christian perspective. I believe that our public life is a gift from God for our mutual benefit and that communication is a central gift from God that allows us to live in a community and carry our public life. If people use rhetoric and communication in an ethical way, we can help each other become fully human and grow closer to God. At our more fallen moments, people pervert the gift of communication by treating others as means to our own ends, which leads to corrupt forms of communication like fascist propaganda, false political advertising, race-baiting rhetoric, and advertising that promotes materialism. This central theory of communication informs the way I have taught the courses in communication and culture, persuasion and propaganda, American politics and mass media, and the rhetoric of Malcolm X. A challenge for me (and for students, I think) is to keep this perspective stirring throughout the course rather than exploring it in depth at the start of the semester and then abandoning it unwittingly as the course moves into the topical divisions of each subjectespecially since most books in communication are written from a secular perspective. Another challenge for me stems from my philosophy of teaching: I believe students should be encouraged develop their own Christian understanding of the course material rather than merely absorbing the perspective of their didactic professor. Many students are able to develop and deepen their own Christian perspectives, but I think I need to discover ways to provide better direction and touchstones for the significant number of students who need more steady guidance. In preparing for teaching this fall, I am attempting adapt my pedagogy to these two challenges in the theoretical and analytical communication courses I teach.
I have found it more difficult to enrich the more practical courses I teachoral rhetoric and advanced oral rhetoricwith a sustained Christian perspective. Some topics of the course, most notably public speaking ethics, clearly benefit from Christian thinking. But what is a Christian perspective on gestures, extemporaneous delivery, and outlining? So far, the Christian orientation toward oral rhetoric courses that seems to help the most is encouraging students to be respectful listeners and speakers and providing Christian love and guidance as they attempt to overcome their anxieties and difficulties with public speaking. I take my faith and my profession very seriously and push students hard to do good work, but I am not naturally an extremely nurturing person in teaching settings. Since one of the more important faith-based aspects of the oral rhetoric courses may be a kind of Christian charity in coaching students, I think I need to continue to improve this aspect of my teaching.
Despite the challenges of integrating faith in teaching, I often feel more confident about this aspect of my professional life than I do about the Christian character of my scholarship. Although I believe my research reflects my Christian perspective, it is not explicitly Christian. I hope that participating the Kuiper Seminar this winter will help me develop new approaches to Christian scholarship and increase my confidence about integrating faith and scholarship. As it stands now, most of my scholarship has been published in academic journals and books. Still, I believe that my research on civil rights reflects a Reformed Christian perspective since it understands racism as not just a structural and institutional problem but rather as an inherent aspect of our depravity. Thus my research rejects aspects of the traditional liberal humanist orientation toward improving race relations: only through grappling with our natural inclination to alienate the othernot just by improving social structures and institutionscan we move more fully toward solving the problems of race. My scholarship on American political discourse also reflects my faith: I regularly examine how political leaders use a religious, often Christian vocabulary, in their oratory. I often explore whether politicians' religious language constitutes a genuine attempt to integrate faith into public life or mere manipulation of the commonplaces of Christian rhetoric. In addition to examining religious rhetoric and being guided by Christian perspectives, I also hope to make my scholarship accessible to the broader Christian community through publication in nonacademic periodicals. For example, I hope to write an article this fall arguing that Christians have a public responsibility to watch the presidential debates and discuss them with their fellow believers.
Integrating faith in teaching and scholarship has been rewarding in spite ofor perhaps because ofoccasional frustrations. In addition to providing the opportunity to help students integrate a Christian worldview into their understanding of academic subjects and their vocations, teaching at Calvin College has encouraged me to enact my personal responsibility to conscientiously integrate my faith into all that I do, including teaching and researching.