Dordt College News

Integral, not integrated

January 19, 2011

Faculty members entering their fourth year at Dordt College are asked to write a concise paper discussing how a Reformed, biblical faith shapes and directs their work at Dordt College. Dr. Leah Zuidema’s paper, submitted this summer, explains what it means to her to teach out of a Christian perspective.

One of the key aspects of my work today is my firm belief that faith and biblical perspective are integral to my teaching, to my scholarship and research, to my service on campus and farther afield, and to all I do in my faculty role.

I choose the word integral carefully, in deliberate contrast with the word integrated, which was the term I favored when I first began teaching at Dordt. When I participated in the New Faculty Orientation program in 2007,  Dr. Calvin Jongsma led our cohort in a discussion about the differences between the two terms after we read Wolterstorff’s (1993) “The Grace that Shaped My Life.” At the time, I listened carefully to the distinctions, but I felt that perhaps the argument was one of semantics rather than anything that would make a practical difference in my teaching. Three years later, I understand that Jongsma was right: The differences between integral faith and integrated faith are real, and—as contrasting examples from my teaching in 2007 and 2009 will show—they matter on a practical level.

When I applied for a position in the spring of 2007, I saw faith and learning as integrated. Gradually I began to notice a problem with this view. I was approaching faith as something that one could bring to teaching and learning, as if teaching and learning could exist in some kind of neutral territory apart from the human response to God. I knew, on a conscious level, that this wasn’t true. Yet as I planned and taught my courses that fall, I kept looking for significant moments in which I could infuse our technical (and presumably neutral) studies with texts and talk that were explicitly Reformed.

One afternoon in the English grammar course, I rambled on about the creational structure and direction of language, two key tenets from Wolters’ (2005) Creation Regained that are closely related to the parameters for curricular organization from Dordt’s Educational Framework. When I finished the lecture, I was dissatisfied. I felt as though I had treated faith and my Reformed perspective as topics to address on a one-time basis, perhaps like something to be checked off of a to-do list. In an attempt to remedy the situation, I tried adding a few more lectures about biblical perspectives on language at other points later in the course, but I was left with the same hollow feeling, as if I’d put the Christian frosting on a stack of cardboard curricular boxes and declared it a cake. It may have looked good on the surface, but it wouldn’t pass the taste test. When my evaluations for the course were returned to me the following semester, I saw that some of the students were also dissatisfied with my attempts to integrate faith and learning in the grammar course. Consider this excerpt from one student’s comments on the anonymous course evaluation forms:

Q: How has this course and your instructor’s efforts shaped or deepened your understanding of this perspective from a biblical perspective?

A: I’m a bit confused about how grammar relates to a biblical perspective, but I can repeat answers I’ve been told: Language is a gift from God, and we should therefore use it well.

The student’s remark about “repeat[ing] answers” accurately summarized the problem. In thinking of biblical perspective as something to be integrated into the course, I had not only adapted an oversimplified view of faith, but I had also enacted an overly simplistic view of teaching and learning, one in which I tried to transmit knowledge to students in lecture form, as if learning were merely a matter of moving information from my mind into theirs. As a result, it seemed that the best this student could do was to repeat my words on the subject. In trying to integrate biblical perspective into the course, I had failed to help this student to truly understand how a biblical perspective was integral to our studies of English grammar.

I changed my approach to teaching grammar. However, the change didn’t happen in the heroic way that so often seems to occur in tales of teacher transformation.  I was not the teacher who single-handedly identified a problem, developed an ingenious solution, and then stormed into action to save the day. Instead, the shift happened slowly, in connection with other changes I was making to my teaching and my understanding of my discipline.

It is fair to say that the changes in my teaching were in part due to common grace. That is, the transformation in my grammar pedagogy was greatly influenced by other scholars—scholars who are not necessarily or explicitly Christian, but who have done good work in the field of English studies. In the time since my first semester of teaching English grammar, I have done a great deal of study toward improving my knowledge of how to teach this particular subject area effectively. I have read numerous books and articles on how best to teach grammar, and in the process, my design for the grammar course has been radically changed. I still hold students accountable for learning the same rules, conventions, skills, and strategies as before. However, rather than focusing on concepts transmitted through lectures, the curriculum now centers around inquiry projects in which teams of students conduct in-depth study of one author’s English grammar over the course of the semester.  In keeping with ideas from Benjamin’s Engaging Grammar (2007), the students are taught to  “notice” (analyze and evaluate) how their authors craft language, “name” these grammatical choices and their rhetorical effects in technical terms, and “apply” their grammar knowledge through practice in their own writing.

This inquiry-based approach is aligned with some of the most current scholarship on grammar pedagogy. It has also transformed how my students and I explore biblical perspectives on language. Instead of intermittent lectures in which I “bring in” the topic of biblical perspective, my students and I are immersed together in wondering about authentic, “real world” grammatical choices and their rhetorical effects (Kolln, 2007). As a result, we have frequent opportunities to discuss writers’ motivations, their views of their audience, their creative use of language, and other topics that are both integral to the discipline and ripe for discussion about biblical perspectives—about obedient communication and views of personhood,  biblical teaching about language diversity, and so on. Our disciplinary study is like a wellspring for discussions about how the English language demonstrates both creational structure and the dynamic unfolding of creation, about how our use of language, including the smallest grammatical choices, can be an opportunity for serviceable insight. In short, this approach to the English grammar course makes it plain that faith is integral to our learning.

Yes, there are still moments in English 336 in which I assign readings and plan ahead for extended discussions about biblical perspectives on our language; in fact, there are more of these moments each year. The difference is that instead of feeling tacked on, as they had previously, they are now obviously interconnected to the rest of our course of study.


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