There are very few jobs where someone recently from their training does not feel inadequate and somewhat unprepared. This occurs even in training nuclear operators, where we spent thousands of hours practicing in a simulator, studying the facts behind systems, and performing tasks under the supervision of qualified operators. Despite all of the practice, operators consistently reported that on the first day on the job on their own they felt nervous.
In the case of college professors, unlike many other professionals, the complaint is much more valid. This is because PhD programs focus on expertise in the field instead of pedagogy. In other words, the prospective professor learns the subject matter and not the means to explain it well. This is a benefit when it comes to doing scholarly research and writing, but it does not prepare PhD candidates for one of the most important tasks in their academic careers: teaching students.
Michael Lawson’s recent book from B&H Academic aims to fix that problem, specifically for professors teaching in a Christian context. The book he’s written, The Professor’s Puzzle, is a gift to the church because it fills in significant gaps that PhD programs leave out. He’s written a book that will help recent graduates, whether they come from a seminary or a university.
In ten chapters, Lawson manages to at on the major skills that are neglected by most doctoral programs. In Chapter One he builds a philosophy of education, which is frequently skipped. Then, in the next chapter he outlines the basics of the integration of faith and learning. Lawson’s version of faith and learning integration goes well beyond slapping a Bible verse onto the syllabus but shining the light of the gospel on the whole educational experience.
Chapter Three gives an overview of several significant learning theories. Given the diversity of opinions on this topic, Lawson’s chapter is obviously not the final word, but he is balanced and informative. In the fourth chapter, Lawson outlines a method for outlining a syllabus, which is a skill that many new faculty lack. Lawson lays out the basics of course design in a single chapter; I’ve taken and witnessed many professors late in their careers who could benefit from reading and applying that chapter.
The fifth chapter continues the pedagogical theme, discussing degrees of mastery of content and introducing Bloom’s taxonomy. In Chapter Six Lawson discusses managing a classroom, which includes the layout of the classroom, the volume of content in the course, and the flow of the class time. This chapter is, perhaps, a concentration of the most important aspects of teaching that many new professors may have never encountered before receiving their hood and guild card. In the seventh chapter, the assessment process is discussed. This includes assessment of the students, assignment of grades, and assessment of the course.
Chapter Eight touches on basic instructional techniques. Lawson does not call for killing the lecture, but he does recommend doing something besides merely lecturing. The ninth chapter deals with the relational skills that are particularly important for the Christian professor. As fellow believers or as witnesses to unbelieving students, Christian professors have the responsibility to engage their students on a personal and spiritual level. In the final chapter, Lawson presents some of the realities of university life to the young professor. These include budget concerns, enrollment, advising, tenure, etc. All of the things that keep the administrators up and sometimes bleed into faculty life more than they’d like. The book then closes with three appendices with examples and additional information to augment the earlier discussions.
I have been a professional instructor (in commercial nuclear power, not academia), a longtime student, and an administrator in higher education. This book is a condensation of much that I wish all faculty knew. It does not provide the definitive word on any topic, but it does touch on most of the major topics.
The two weaknesses of the volume are that it has limited advice for online instruction and it does not cover academic assessment of student learning. Lawson does address online some, but it feels like the discussions of online are tacked on the end of the chapters. There is room for more development here. Additionally, Lawson talks some about assessing learning, but given the pervasiveness of assessing Student Learning Outcomes, it would have been beneficial to discuss that more in detail here. In this regard, however, I may be overly biased as I am a Director of Assessment.
These weaknesses are minor in comparison to the extraordinary breadth of information that Lawson covers. This is a one-stop shop for the new Christian professor. It should become part of PhD curricula across the country, particularly at seminaries. Lawson’s vision for teaching the whole student and integrating knowledge with a distinctly Christian worldview are more important today than they ever have been.
This is the sort of book that should be included in courses at Christian seminaries and universities that deal with pedagogy. I am recommending it for my university’s new faculty orientation next year. Faculty who are early in their career should pick it up and read it this summer; it may provide the solution to various problems both inside and outside the classroom. The Professor’s Puzzle is not a volume that will lead to high volume sales to the general Christian population, but it should be a keystone in the library of most young Christian academics.
Note: A gratis copy of this book was granted by the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.