A response to a review

/ 2 July 2007

Many of you have made encouraging comments (either here, or via email) after my earlier post about trying to write a review response. Given my limit of 500 words, it’s proven to be a much harder exercise than I first thought. I have finally concluded (or, at least, met the immutable deadline and had to send the thing off). I’ll include it here in the extended section. I very much appreciate the help, while assuming all responsibility for how lacking it is!

Dr. Shoemaker is correct in recognizing that two fundamental convictions shape my work. First, that learning is a collaborative process that must involve student engagement; and second, that media culture might be a context in which God is revealing Godself.

Perhaps the heart of our disagreement lies in differing definitions of collaborative learning. Dr. Shoemaker describes collaborative processes as privileging the affective over the cognitive, and minimizing engagement with content. Indeed, he notes that I support the involvement of students in the learning process over the “traditionally esteemed role of transferring content.” I believe this misunderstands collaborative learning and my description of it. I rather wish he had quoted my own sentence there, because what I wrote was that “It is far more important for us to help them develop information-accessing abilities, information- critiquing abilities, and information-integrating abilities than it is that we transfer content to them.” (48) That is not to say that content is not important, but rather to give it full importance by requiring our students not only to be able to receive it, but also to search actively for it, judge its authority, and to be clear about any decisions they might come to in using it.

As to Dr. Shoemaker’s concerns about catering to student perceptions at the expense of the content of a course, the award-winning Harvard University film A Private Universe is a rich example of what happens when teachers fail to engage the underlying misperceptions of their students. I argue in the book that a variety of digital tools provide ways in which teachers not only can surface misperceptions, but engage their students in more accurate and adequate meaning construction. The rubric I use, borrowed from the work of Wiggins and McTighe, is a particularly helpful tool for professors who wish to see their students achieve not only the ability to explain, interpret or apply a given chunk of content, but also to recognize the limitations of their own perspectives, gain empathy with quite different viewpoints, and hone an integrity growing out of the awareness of their own prejudices and individual projections. These goals are, I argue, more effectively realized through collaborative learning than through instrumental approaches. Scholars from disciplines as disparate as the medical sciences, philosophy, mathematics, and the humanities agree.

As to Dr. Shoemaker’s despair for the future of theology, and whether theologians ought to be engaging the meanings being made in, with, and through mass mediated popular culture, I can only wonder as to his definition of theology. I tend to hold with Kathryn Tanner’s suggestion that:

“from the very start, then, academic theology has to be engaged in negotiations with popular theologies. In its primary tasks of articulating and making a coherent system of Christian matters, it must attend to what people already think, meeting at least some of their theological concerns, talking in much the same terms, correcting popular theological opinion where necessary and in ways that will seem defensible to this broader audience.”*

I do not know how else to help students engage in such a theological enterprise – other than by taking very seriously the concerns they bring with them into their studies.

I am grateful that Dr. Shoemaker took my own concerns seriously enough to review the book, and I have tried to respect his in this response.

*Note: Kathryn Tanner. Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997) 85-86.