My Ten Years at Sterling College:
What I Have Learned
Reflecting Backwards (2010–2016)
When I began teaching at Sterling College ten years ago, I took for granted that students would arrive here eager to begin their four-year journey through the liberal arts. I thought that they would huddle around a Great Book with me and cry out: “My own eyes not enough! I want to see through other eyes!” And some did. But most had a greater desire to huddle around a Great Ball than around a Great Book. And their coaches had the voices of lions — -while mine had an irritating academic squeak.
It was Great Book vs Great Ball. And this impasse has been my greatest challenge. Which is strange. Because I had previously taught for six years at an inner-city high school in downtown LA, and was well acquainted with students who would not even want to be seen carrying a big book, let alone reading one. But whereas in LA I gladly took on this type of student as a challenge, here I found myself perplexed and annoyed at meeting these very same students. I expected them in the inner-city — not at a private liberal arts college in rural Kansas!
And so for my first eight years I set the bar to “college level” and simply insisted that they jump. “None shall pass!” I declared in each of my Freshman Comp classes, unless you write me a college-level essay. And the very first essay I would assign them was to justify their decision to spend four years and $80 000 getting a liberal art’s degree — -with no guarantee that they would even find a job in their major at completion. And furthermore, I continued, “less than 45% of you will even make it that far.” I saw it as tough love. And for some, it worked. But for just as many, it seemed to either switch them off or totally discourage them. But I could not, in good conscience, lower the bar. And I justified my approach by arguing that this was college, not a remedial school. But two years ago I sensed that God was nudging me to do something really strange: write a confession of the ways in which I may have ill-served my students. So this is what I wrote:
A Professorial Confession (2014)
1. I have ill-served many of my students by expecting of them what they are not yet capable, or willing, to produce. I have therefore geared my teaching around the students I want to have, rather than the students I do have.
2. I have refused to adopt a “missional mindset” with my Sterling College students, expecting them to arrive here fully committed to growing spiritually and academically, and “setting my face” against them when they appeared unwilling or incapable of doing so. But then I remembered Professor Frank Leoni’s insightful talk with me on the importance of being missional as a faculty. He reminded me that many of the students we recruit are a mission field — intellectually and spiritually — and need to be “won over” to the life of the mind and the soul.
3. I have expected all my students to look at the world as I do: philosophically, theologically, and aesthetically — -and judged them when they would or could not do so.
4. Rather than guiding my students, patiently and with grace, I at times placed the heavy burden of my expectations upon them, and judged them in many subtle ways when they could not learn or think or feel as I thought they should.
5. I am quick to criticize the college for not more adequately accommodating the under-performing students we recruit (by hiring more tutors and offering more remedial courses for example). Yet I have been even less willing to adapt my own teaching to these students. (A blind spot my wife kindly pointed out).
6. I have often discouraged students by being slow to recognize this reality: they may have arrived here simply to play ball, but they are here, and I am obligated to reach them. (When I was a missionary in Turkey, I would scarcely expect a Turk to be ready to follow Christ, but would slowly and patiently persuade them to consider the claims of Christ, and then simply wait upon the Holy Spirit to do his thing). I should do no less with my students.
So, without lowering the academic bar, I began re-orienting myself to becoming a missional professor. And with a missional mindset, my expectations began to shift: I started teaching the students I had — -rather than those I wanted to have. I mellowed. But I also made the following practical changes to College Composition LL 101:
1. I dropped the complex philosophical essays and switched to Models for Writers, a text with 76 short and easily reproducible essays which students could use as models for writing their own.
2. I focused specific attention on key students who would never pass without some serious intervention. But my investment in them had to be reciprocated. (I could not afford to focus on students who did not show due effort). I would require them to meet with a tutor regularly, as well as myself, before turning in an essay. I may also give them opportunities to re-write certain essays for a higher grade (opportunities I would not extend to the entire class).
3. I began scheduling one-on-one appointments with students throughout the semester — covering each student at least once.
4. I became very intentional in creating a writing community within each class: everything they wrote was to be posted onto MySterling, and they were required to post regular comments on each other’s work.
Reflecting Forwards (2016–2024)
If the purpose of the liberal arts is to renew the mind and “baptize the imagination” as CS Lewis puts it, then I as a professor must create intentional community within each class I teach. I cannot just assign a book and then test them on it. That type of reading leads primarily to mastery of information — but seldom to transformation. And I, as their professor, need to somehow model this — less I myself grow cold.
Some (and I use the pronoun “some” with a missional focus) will not fall in love with a book unless they see what falling in love with a book looks like. Some will never write with passion and integrity until they see what this passion and integrity looks like. And some will never fall in love with Lady Wisdom (Proverbs) until they see what this Lady looks like.
And so, this year, I have begun to write again — purposefully and methodically (I had stopped after my 248-page dissertation ten years ago). This past summer I finally wrote the story of my father’s slow death from Alzheimer’s four years ago — a story that had been growing larger within me every year of his passing. (I had to stop at 30 pages because the summer had ended, but I had so much more to say). I have also begun re-furbishing old essays I have written years ago, tweaking them for a millennial audience, and incorporating a few into my courses. I have begun to do what I have always required of my students: the discipline of writing a weekly blog or essay reflecting on what they have read and discussed that week — and responding to each other’s posts. This has always been the seed for transforming a class into a community. Except now, I am writing with them.
The Transformation of 16 Scholars:
CS Lewis LL 178(Inter-term 2015):
The intense structure of a 2015 January Inter-term (3 hour-class in 3 weeks)gave me the first chance I’d had as a professor to transform a group of undergraduates into an intense learning community of 16 scholars facing off around a giant table “devouring” the works of C. S. Lewis. It was a culture I had always yearned for as an educator, yet rarely experienced within the fragmented structure of a semester-long class.
I arrange the desks into one giant table at which the 16 of us will gather for 3+ hours every morning for 3 weeks. Scattered around this table are Lewis’ complete works — all 38+ volumes of theology, fantasy, science-fiction, philosophy, literary criticism, poetry, sermons, and letters. And then, facing each other, we begin to tackle a book every two days.
We begin with Surprised by Joy, one of the most acclaimed autobiographies of the 20th century. Our tools are a hi-lighter, a pen, and a journal. We begin on page one, and, with pens in hand, begin to annotate the text. Reading aloud, we exegete Lewis’ prose, underlining and making notes in the margins — just as he himself did with every book he read. We enter into his syntax, his words, his imagination, his world — as if opening a wardrobe door and stepping right into the gritty city of pre-WWI Belfast. We are at the beginning of a relationship, and the first lesson I am teaching is to listen. And this takes humility. So I give them the words of a little French monk named Thomas a Kempis — -words which were inscribed over the entrance of my first college library:
“If you wish to draw profit, read with humility, simplicity, and faith, and never with the design of gaining a reputation for learning.” –The Imitation of Christ
With these words as our entry point, we continue to read, and discuss, and journal, sharing our thoughts, asking probing questions, and making connections between Ireland, England, Narnia, and rural Kansas. And in this way, my 15 students and I begin to forge a unique relationship with each other, and with one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. There is no better way to give you a taste of the kind of community we created in those three weeks, than to share some reflections posted by students:
Four Elements of an Academic Community
- The Venue: A Big Round Table
“Very intimate and friendly — round-table, if you will. Thank you, Lord Watney! I am your loyal vassal for eternity!”
“I find classes far more engaging when they are discussion-centered, and I absolutely believe that sitting in a circle sparks this discussion atmosphere.”
2. The Time: Three Intense Weeks
“I always wanted to read Lewis stuff and I liked being able to do it intensively for three weeks…and the community we built in the mornings. It was a blast.”
“I love how the class bonded over the course of the period, like fellow adventurers on a grand conquest/adventure.”
3. The Pedagogy: The Socratic Method:
“Our discussions were always impassioned. I love how Watney would throw out random questions to knock (ha!) us off balance and make us think harder — and I love that together we were able to dig so deep — discovering — oh, treasures and buried princes and things — I love all of it.”
“It took a lot of time and patience, especially when everything you read makes you feel dumb. I am glad that I pushed through the hardest class I have ever taken.”
“I was blown away time after time with the conversations we had in class. The days when we started to show parts of ourselves to each other; the moments we opened our hearts to a group of people we didn’t know before (or maybe did). I loved it. I loved getting to go through life with you all for a short time.”
4.The Bonding: The Transformation of 15 Scholars:
“I just remember how funny it was to watch Sarah’s expressions when she was deep in thought (they were very cute!) or when Rachel was teaching in a way that made my mind clear and my heart happy. I loved when Michelle spoke her opinions without fear (you go girl!), and when Athalee would say something so profound it would silence the class for a good time. I listened closely when Summer poured her sweet heart into her arguments, always making the class sunny. I was happy when Dominique shared her real-world experience and when Taylor always kept Christ the center of his arguments. Thank you Austen for always being respectful and kind when expressing your views and thank you Tyler for providing the comic relief. And let’s not forget Joey’s way of stirring the pot. Jared, whenever you spoke I listened. I don’t know if it was your voice or what, but you really helped me look at situations in entirely different ways. Alyson I was always grateful for your contrasting opinions, they made me think the most! Abby thank you for keeping the conversation on track and Heather for smiling so big and always providing understandable summaries. Ashley thank you all your work that went into doing the presentation; we could not have done it without you. And to Professor Whatney, if 5% of the time was spent being a bit perturbed, the other 95% was spent being thoroughly happy to just sit and listen to your wisdom (and not just because of the accent either). I am grateful to everyone, thank you for making this three-week period thoroughly enjoyable.”