The Professor's Puzzle - A Review

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.

Summary

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.

Critique

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.

Can We Go Too Far with the Big Picture?

Used in unaltered form by Creative Commons. http://ow.ly/WelOE

Used in unaltered form by Creative Commons. http://ow.ly/WelOE

As a parent of young children, I’m thrilled with the work that people like Sally Lloyd-Jones has done with her Jesus Storybook Bible. Also, LifeWay has done great things with The Gospel Project. And Desiring God has also developed curriculum that walks through the Bible as redemption history.

All of these resources are exceedingly helpful. They explain the big picture narrative of Scripture in a way that I was unable to do until much later in life. They train young people to look beyond the bare facts of the stories to ask why the story is included in the Bible.

A recent article in Christianity Today provides a number of perspectives and reasons why the Big Picture approach to Scripture is important.

This approach is a vast improvement over the approach that many people still use and that was the sort of bread and butter of my childhood. However, I’ve recently begun to recognize the need for a hybrid approach to teaching Scripture.

The Story Model

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the story of David and Goliath. And the story of Daniel and the lions. And the story of Zacchaeus, the wee little man who climbed up in the sycamore tree. Or Jonah and whatever the large sea creature was that swallowed him.

These stories, with their details, we told and retold. Often the details were embellished with theological interpretations about how the individuals might have felt or what they might have thought.

Other times, the facts were actually misrepresented. For example, I grew up thinking that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. That may be, since there was probably no clear distinction between whale and fish as sea critters in the (human) biblical author’s worldview. However, the text actually says fish. Also, I was much older when I put together the fact that when Daniel got thrown into the den of lions he was probably pretty old. Daniel was cemented in my mind (often with the help of flannel graphs) at the tender age where he experienced the robust benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Despite the mistaken details, which may have been my fault as the hearer, the connections between these accounts were clearly missing. Clearly they were connected by being in the Bible. They all had something to do with God. However, there was often no cohesion to the tales, even after I had “heard them all” dozens of times.

The Big Picture

The approach that is popular in contemporary circles is more helpful in building an integral understanding of Scripture.

Over and over again Sally Lloyd-Jones emphasizes the redemptive themes that are woven through Scripture. Christ is in the text, often imperfectly represented by types.

For example, David is like Christ when he, the improbable hero, redeems the people of Israel from probable slavery to the Philistines by slaying the giant with the stone. The boy-shepherd-who-would-be-king is a picture of Christ, despite his later plummet from grace.

This is vastly improved over the “hero story” approach that finds moral examples in particular scenes of Scripture and bids the children to do likewise.

However, it’s a little difficult to be brave like David facing Goliath when a) you aren’t God’s anointed one and b) your childish ability to reason from literary types is limited such that you find yourself preparing to fight a literal giant, in case you ever encounter one. (Harvey Cox cites this as one of the reasons he drifted from a conservative understanding of Scripture.)

Also, there is the fact that sooner or later the children find out that David had some problems later in life. He didn’t just commandeer someone’s rubber ducky (as in the Veggie Tales version), but committed adultery (perhaps even rape) and killed a man for his wife. This is a good lesson in grace, but a difficult one for children to sort through when they’ve been presented the “moral example” method of reading Scripture.

The big picture approach is much better than that. And yet, it causes me to think.

The Pitfall

The most likely pitfall of the big picture approach is that, when it is taken too far, it can inadvertently reinforce the notions that a) every detail has to be tied to the big picture and b) if the details don’t fit, they probably don’t matter.

Let me be clear that I do not believe that Lloyd-Jones, LifeWay, Desiring God or any of the other proponents of the big picture approach commit, foment, or accept any of these errors; they are writing curriculum and books that meet a vital need and use a particular approach. Similarly, I do not believe that the authors of the moral example lessons necessarily missed the big picture. I am talking about implementation and receipt of information rather than authorial intent.

The big picture approach is wonderful for getting the main idea across, but it can allow the casual student (or teacher) to miss the vivid detail that is included in the text.

For example, Ehud was a deliverer of the people; a foreshadowing of what Jesus would be. He was also born left-handed, the king was fat, and he apparently liked privacy when he was relieving himself. These are providential pieces of the story; they are details that enliven it and undergird the historicity of it. All the details don’t fit into the big picture, but they allow the big picture to be what it ought to be—they help us know the stories are true.

Conclusion

This warning, then, is as much to me as to anyone else. As I teach my children, I do not want to lose the big picture or the details.

In other words, it is as bad to miss the forest for the trees as it is to see only the forest without distinguishing the beauty of the trees.

In order to understand the beauty of God’s redemptive plan, we need to teach our children the big picture. It will help them make sense of the various genres and accounts in Scripture.

In order to recognize the truthfulness of God’s Word, we need to emphasize the details as we teach the stories. It helps them to trust the documents written by both divine and human authors.

This is not an either/or but a both/and. We need to balance the approaches so that we have biblically literate students of the Word when all things are done.