Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Teaching Our Research

It’s a classic question of job interviews, isn’t it? How do you combine your teaching and your research? Next week brings my Religion and American Politics course up to the foreign mission movement, and I will find myself talking to my students about a subject that has been the focus of most of my scholarly attention for around seven years now.  So here’s the challenge: how do I put everything I think they should know about this all important topic into two hours and forty minutes worth of lecture and discussion? 

In some ways, what we research should be the easiest thing to teach.  We know this stuff, inside and out.  We can talk about our research for hours, especially if given a captive audience.  Heck, we can probably do it without notes.  But this is also exactly what makes it one of the hardest things to teach.  

Putting together my outline for class, I'm reminded of the thing that happens when I've been revising some writing and every word starts to seem boring.  I am sure that everything I am saying has already been said before and is completely obvious. (I’m not the only one who goes through that stage in writing, am I?)  But of course, it’s only obvious to me because I’ve been working on it for so long.  A reader will need to have that background I'm finding hopelessly dull.  For a reader who hasn’t lived with the materials day in and day out, this could be an exciting and new story, but only if I tell it right.  So too with our students.  This is new stuff for them, and they get to learn it from someone who is enthusiastic and engaged with it.  That’s an ideal situation for the classroom.

Teaching my research is hard, though, because I want them to know everything that I do.  There are countless stories that I could tell them about missionaries and their experiences around the world in the nineteenth century, and to me, they’re all important and fascinating.  I want to be able to share this enthusiasm with my students without them feeling overwhelmed about the amount of information I’m giving them.  When I’ve taught these materials in the past, I’ve had to think very hard—perhaps more than for other lectures—about what the major points I’d like them to get out of the class are.  It’s easier to do this with topics we’re less invested in.  One of my colleagues once joked about how lecturing on subjects outside of her expertise was great, because she knew exactly an hour’s worth of material on those topics.  Teaching about our research gives us the opposite problem: how do we fit it all in?  And the answer of course is, you don’t.  Because they don’t need to know it all.  Figuring out what they do need to know becomes very important. 

One of the major benefits to teaching our research comes out not in the classroom, but on the page.  As I think about how to go about teaching what I research, I’m finding it a very useful way of thinking about writing.  Ben wrote a wonderful post a while back on [teaching like we write], but maybe it’s useful to think also about writing like we teach.  Standing in front of a classroom makes the imaginary audience of a book or article feel very real, and makes it easier to think about how to draw them into the story and what points you really want to get across.

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