My pedagogical approach grows out of my research and practice in culturally diverse parishes and my experience as an educator at both the college level and in a U.S.-Mexico borderlands context. Not unlike the parishes I study, the classroom is a space of diverse individuals who become a community through practice. I draw on creative, aesthetic, and embodied teaching practices to help my students grow in three primary ways:
- To approach religious traditions as living, breathing, and evolving.
- To do practical theology from their own lived contexts.
- To find and refine their voices through rigorous attention to academic writing and argumentation.
My understanding of theological education is strongly influenced by the writing of German political theologian Johann Baptist Metz. Confronted by the apparent meaninglessness of the theological task in the wake of the Shoah, Metz contends that the purpose of theology in a world of suffering and desolation must be to provide a justification for hope. It is not the task of theology, Metz argues, to provide tidy answers to life’s unanswerable questions. Students, I find, enter the classroom with this same skepticism for easy answers and decontextualized learning. They are searching for a community within which to engage deeply the messiness of reality and of their lives. They are seeking a moral vision that propels them to justice and holds them accountable to those on the margins of society. To the extent that theology can offer them a language, method, and community for such engagement, it is a discipline within which students of all backgrounds and majors can find a home. As a theological educator, I understand my role as modeling critical engagement in the Christian theological tradition in a way that invites students to do practical theology from the context of their own lived questions.
Methodologically, I am inspired by the approach of Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori, who recognized that people learn by doing, through practice and play. In my ethnographic research, I discovered that members of one diverse Catholic parish frequently drew on rituals of movement – liturgical processions, neighborhood marches, a public Way of the Cross, lengthy exchanges of peace during mass – as a way of fostering intercultural community. The act of walking together helped to cultivate among parishioners a sense of accompaniment and mutuality. Intrigued by the pedagogical potential of shared journeying, I taught one undergraduate class on theological aesthetics by leading students on a small pilgrimage across campus to the university’s large Gothic-style church, where we held class in the pews. At the end of class, students were invited to select one piece of art or architecture in the church to silently contemplate for ten minutes. They then composed short papers on the experience in conversation with assigned texts for the day. In course evaluations, several students mentioned the exercise as among the most memorable moments of the semester. In every class I plan, I consider how I can draw students in an embodied, sensory way into an understanding of the Christian tradition not as something abstract or intangible but rather as living, complex, and beautiful, at once mysterious and material.
Much of my experience as an educator has been in working with first-generation, English-Language Learning, and international students, particularly in the area of theological writing. I structure syllabi and assignments in a way that empowers students to recognize their own contexts, cultures, and social locations as loci of theological insight. For example, one graduate student with whom I worked as a research advisor came to Boston College from a career in Hispanic Ministry at her Idaho parish. As a Latina Catholic working in a largely white, Euro-American context, she expressed to me the isolation, marginalization, and condescension she often endured in her ministry. Consequently, she felt intimidated by the prospect of participating actively in her courses and by the task of writing theologically. I worked with her to recognize the theological richness in her experience and to articulate her insights with clarity and confidence. She finished her courses more equipped to bring her vast personal and pastoral experience into conversation with her learning in a robust and mutually critical way and, in turn, more prepared for leadership in a diverse Church.
One of my primary commitments as an educator is to form students as academic writers. My goal is to support students in finding and refining their voices within a larger community of scholars and practitioners. At the introductory undergraduate level, theology can become a vehicle for forming students to become thoughtful and engaged scholars across disciplines – to wrestle with difficult questions in a systematic way, to support an argument with clarity and precision, to interrogate the blind spots and biases of an intellectual tradition, and to negotiate the role of context in their analyses. To support this goal, I provide students detailed feedback that helps them to grow in the process of academic thinking, research, writing, and argumentation. As a thesis advisor to Master of Arts in Theology and Ministry Students at Boston College, I supported graduate students in the process of composing their capstone papers, from research to defense, taught seminars in theological and Biblical research. My students learn to view themselves as participants in a larger community of conversation with their classmates and the scholars whose work they engage.
Ultimately, my teaching is grounded in the goal of forming students to wrestle with the fundamental questions that undergird their educations and lives, drawing on the traditions and wisdom of those who, for generations, have wrestled with these same questions in word and deed. Through a rigorous focus on writing and argumentation, I teach so that students leave my class having found and refined their voices in a way that enriches their learning across disciplines and majors. Utilizing creative practices and focused reflection papers which serve as the jumping off point for classroom discussions that invite students to consider the relationship between texts, traditions, and their lived experiences, I educate with the goal of forming students to become passionate and critical participants in the Church, their communities, and the world around them.