The art of textbook choosing

I’ve learned over the years, there’s an art in choosing just the right texts for a class.

I wonder if this is one of those problems that are new to our era, like having a dynamic classroom experience. It used to be, a professor could have multiple pages of notes, or even a book they’ve written, read those notes in front of a gathered collection of variously engaged students, and that was called teaching a class. To add a dynamic element, they’d reserve some time at the end of the class for questions. Anything else could be saved for office hours, every other Tuesday from 3-4:30.

For books, there were standard tomes, that covered all the assumed ground.

For a theology class, the assumed ground was, to be sure, rather limited in scope and perspective, generally reflecting a narrow theological tradition and almost certainly a narrow gender and geographic distribution.

That’s not a critique, that’s just how it was done, for generations upon generations.

Times have changed and they’ve changed within short amount of time.

I have to teach in ways I was only rarely taught, and choose books in light of a diversity I was very rarely exposed to during my undergraduate and much of my masters degree.

This is a good. By all means, it’s a good. Better pedagogical possibilities. Just more work.

The challenge isn’t finding good books. There’s a lot of good books out. Too many. I can assign about 1200 pages of reading for a class, and that reading needs to maximize both content and perspective. Really, it’s an impossible task. Something has to give.

The goal then is to find the balance of representational books that help orient students in continued study. Basically, to make them aware of what exists.

One solution is to get a lot of reserve reading, to basically find 20 pages here and 20 pages there, from chapters, articles, etc. and so on. That’s a good but complicated solution, both in the compiling and in the processing (every chapter/article has to be requested with a separate form). It has the upside of wide-ranging, often historically important, sources. The downside is that it doesn’t provide students with a lasting resource. I go in assuming students won’t sell books back after the end of the quarter.  Intentionally naive. But, I do like to think about books that provide them continuing resources for their growing theological library.

I’m teaching two classes this quarter. One is HT501, which is formally titled “The Church’s Understanding of God and Christ in its Theological Reflection,” but I informally call it “Theological Reflections on the Trinity” because the themes of the class are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, focusing on the theology relevant to the particular Persons and as Trinity.  I wrote a long description of my books and approach to the class as part of the proposal process.  Here’s what I had to say.

The other one is IS502, Practices of Community, which is part of the Integrated Studies set of classes offered at Fuller. These are a blend of spiritual disciplines and pastoral/spiritual theology.

We go through 8 disciplines that help contribute to a thriving and growing community experience: Hospitality, Truth-telling, Promise-keeping, Forgiveness, Christian Formation, Gratitude, Testimony, and Group Spiritual Direction.  In teaching, there are those that begin with specifics and hope to translate that into broad principles and there are those that begin with broad principles/examples and hope that translates into specific expressions.

I’m definitely more of the latter. I want to awaken student’s imaginations about their own spirituality and context, not give a bullet-point list of tasks to carry out. This reflects, I know, my own approach to learning. I hate lists of rules, but thrive on being provided depth of discussion and can easily see how this applies to me.  Not everyone learns like this, so I’ve learned to add texts that provide a diversity of learning styles, with the goal that everyone will find at least one text that really matches their own approach, while being challenged and stretched by other texts.

This class was especially interesting for me as it reflects discovery of books from throughout my own theological journey.

So, for this class I picked:

  1. a book that discussed community from a Biblical perspective, Paul’s Idea of Community by Robert Banks which radically affected me in my junior year at Wheaton.
  2. A book that discusses community in a rich historical Christian tradition, The Conferences by John Cassian, which radically affected me during my first year of MDiv studies, and may have changed much of my trajectory and outlook on Christian life and ministyr more than any other single book besides the Bible.
  3. A book that discusses an active missional community, Thin Places by Jon Huckins. My good friend who introduced me to the Channel Islands during my first quarter of seminary, and continued to be a vitally important friend, spiritual compatriot, and camping buddy, during my 20s, moved to be part of this community. I also used this book as a key resource for my dissertation.
  4. A book that discusses a deep theology of community in light of a very practical expression of it, Community and Growth by Jean Vanier. Vanier’s work is one of the more enlightening and inspiring theologies I’ve read in recent years. I’m using this one and others of his for my current book project.
  5. To add to these more general overviews of theology and expression I have a couple books that provide specific discussion of our chosen disciplines,Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, which I discovered when I worked for Field Education during my PhD studies.
  6. Living into Community by Christine Pohl is the book required for all sections of IS502 taught at Fuller. This was a new text for me, I read it because I was teaching on it, and I’m happy to say it’s a wonderful book I can highly recommend.

A quarter length class isn’t enough to provide all the content on any topic, so my goal is more to provide substantive introductions and help orient a trajectory of continued learning.  That’s why I say every class students take at Fuller is a beginning to continued study. My goal, is they take these tools and discussions with them as they continue learning and leading after they graduate.  That makes my task much more achievable.

Being achievable makes teaching more gratifying, taking a lot of the weight off trying to cover far too much material in far too short amount of time.

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