Through teaching New Testament, Early Christianity, and Christian theology courses over the years, I have identified four main classroom objectives: to create a trusting and accessible relationship with students, to model a sympathetic yet critical reading of religious texts, to encourage thoughtful and productive engagement with views outside of their own, and to communicate the contemporary relevance of the study of historical texts. Studying religious texts, especially premodern Christian texts in twenty-first century America, presents a unique set of challenges as they are often enmeshed in a student’s experience or in the larger cultural discourse of the day; focusing on close reading, constructing a space where dialogue can flourish, and making those connections between the texts and today are key to such study.
I see my role of instructor as akin to a tour guide. A tour guide needs to be trustworthy and approachable while appreciating the whole person as they are guiding and bringing a sense of adventure and energy to the group. Digging into these texts is indeed an adventure, and I aim to make that adventurous spirit infectious.
Trust and Accessibility
Creating a respectful learning environment where such conversations can exist begins with the instructor herself and extends also to the readings, activities, and assignments of the course. As a student, I was drawn to faculty who were approachable and trustworthy, and I aim to be so as well. Confessional Christian students learn best from someone who approaches important texts with respect and understanding, even if the material challenges their beliefs. Other students often appreciate instructors who display respect for their perspective and do not concede to the sacred text at every turn. While most of my teaching experience has involved confessional settings, the diversity of beliefs within those settings has helped me see the benefit of balancing these approaches. For both, a willingness to talk through difficult topics and questions in front of the class and in office hours allows for students to trust the instructor’s intention, which is important in classes that surround ancient texts that still have import to so many people and structures in contemporary culture. This has appeared in my classroom as a brief comment highlighting problematic reception of certain passages or as a dedicated lecture to interpretative concerns. For example, I included a lecture in a course on the New Testament (Acts, Epistles, and Revelation) for Methodist pastors that discussed questions of slavery (Philemon), women (1 Timothy 2), and those who identify as LGBTQ+ (Romans 1). The explicit goal of the lecture was not to give students the definitive interpretation of these passages but to give them interpretative resources so that they could engage wider conversations around these topics, especially in light of the current and ongoing schism in the United Methodist Church.
Trust extends to accessibility and honesty as well. In all of my teaching, availability within limits has been my goal. For introductory church history and New Testament courses at Duke Divinity School, I have found that having office hours during the week allowed students to discuss the hard texts privately, to work together on their writing, and to process the link between the material, their own religious beliefs, and their communities. This established time gives anxious first-year students space and connection within a transitional time in their studies; this was especially the case when instruction went online during the pandemic. Often, students come with questions that get to the root of theological education, and we wrestle together over these questions. Students should understand that even as teachers, we do not have all of the answers and are continuing in our own seeking of knowledge and understanding. As a preceptor of an introductory Greek course at Princeton Theological Seminary, I taught a group of eleven students twice a week for the whole academic year, going through their homework together, clearing up misunderstandings and confusions, and administering and grading all assessments. My own willingness to make mistakes and acknowledge them helped the class trust that I would not shame them for their own mistakes. Students then were more willing to participate in answering questions in front of the class and volunteer translations between Greek and English.
Sympathetic and Critical Reading
Modeling a sympathetic yet critical reading of religious texts requires such wrestling with the text. Often, students come to class with preconceived notions and assumptions about what the text should or does say, and the challenge of any course that I teach is to see past what we think is there and see what might be there, for good or for ill. This requires placing texts in their historical context (cultural, philosophical, religious, and social) and, depending on the level of student, looking at them in their original language. In class and in assignments, students are asked to point to specific parts of the text and articulate the author’s argument. The classroom allows me to put the question to them in real time, and depending on timing and topic, I ask them to draw out specific passages within a text or explain the argument of a specific passage that speak to the subject at hand.
In New Testament class, students are asked to analyze the text through exegetical tools and inquiries, which requires them both to look at the details of the text as well as see beyond their assumptions and what a commentator might say to ask more questions about a text’s interpretation. In historical theology classes, where texts tend to be less known to students, students are asked to explain the argument, reasons for such an argument, and larger implications of such arguments.
One student remarked: “She brings a wise and humble approach to her teaching which invites attentive looks at difficult texts, yet Jillian is particularly gifted at leading students through these topics critically while also being very empathetic with the difficulties, e.g., reading difficult texts about views of women with a critical eye that was not ignorant of the way such topics have traumatized people.”
Thoughtful and Productive Engagement
Thoughtful and productive engagement with views outside of their own is a twofold task in the classroom. Reading ancient historical texts is, in itself, a cross-cultural enterprise, but it is important to choose texts from a variety of cultures and traditions, depending on the subject matter. In New Testament classes, the diversity of sources appears in the secondary literature and readings of the biblical text. In other courses, this also appears in the choice of historical texts. This is often quite natural for me, a white American Protestant Christian who primarily studies texts from other traditions, including Greek and Syriac sources. I have also brought art into the classroom as a way to think about and meditate on theological concepts, and that provides students the space to connect the textual learning with sensory experiences from across the world. In an introductory course for theological education at Duke Divinity School called Cultivating Christian Imagination, I begin the weekly class session with a piece of art that both relates to the themes of the week and takes many students outside of their own culture and tradition. Many of the students are adult learners who have full-time work in the medical field or other professions, and they have greatly appreciated the incorporation of art and beauty. Examples have included the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia, a painting by the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and a poetic prayer by Pseudo-Dionysius. The diversity of source material broadens and nuances an understanding of Christianity.
The diversity of source material is complemented with the activities and environment of the classroom itself. At the beginning of a course, I have found it helpful to come up with community-building ice breaker questions that are fun, interest-based, and connected to the theme of the day. Carefully selected, they can set the tone of the classroom as one of conversation, collaboration, and acknowledgement that each of us are whole people. This also extends to the emphasis in the course on hermeneutical lenses that each bring with them to a text and the use of small group discussions around interpretative questions and skills during class time. After small group conversations, students often must report on something that they most appreciated learning from another classmate. I have found that this practice creates a more collegial atmosphere and lifts up students who may not typically feel led to speak. In conversations around religion, hearing from one another and learning from another perspective is invaluable. Culture today seems to be losing this ability, and the classroom should not become yet another echo chamber.
While studying such texts and ideas is a good in and of itself, contemporary relevance has always ignited my own passion for the topic and allows students to find a larger purpose for their study. Often, the texts on the syllabus have either built up or challenged portions of modern society, and as Christian texts, they can shape the understanding of their tradition, for confessional students, or broader society, for others. For students who are or will be pastors, these studies have near immediate impact, and thinking through how interpretations (past or present) of biblical or sacred texts may affect their congregations is often my highest goal for them. Discussion classes naturally allow for questions to arise regarding the contemporary relevance or connection to a student’s context. Forum posts or other short reflection assignments throughout the semester can also help students make these connections. In some of my courses, students have found completing case study assignments, where they have to connect historical and religious texts to present situations, to be of great value. Skeptic students have been won over by the practicality of such assignments, pushing their learning beyond the classroom into real-world situations.
In my classes, I hope that my students gain the skills of close reading and thoughtful engagement across time, space, and belief as I guide them through Christian texts and traditions, so that they might start to make helpful connections between these texts and their contexts today.
Though most of my teaching experience has been as a preceptor, this has been an invaluable space to grow and develop. Often, at Princeton Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, I have been given my own class, a group of 11–16 students, that is part of the larger professor’s introductory course as well as my responsibility. Classroom and time management, discussion question development, and grading experience have each been major parts of my experience as a preceptor. We also worked as a team, faculty and peers, to develop assessments and to share ideas for lesson planning. Certainly, growing in these areas will not end. Precepting for the year-long hybrid course, Cultivating Christian Imagination, allowed me more direct mentorship and teamwork with a faculty member as well as teaching and leading the whole class of 28 students. As an instructor of record for Duke Divinity School’s Course of Study program for Methodist pastors, I gained experience with syllabus and assignment creation, reading selection, lecturing, and online course management systems as well. Those skills and more are needed as I currently teach undergraduates in Duke's Department of Religious Studies. The course, Christian Orthodoxy and Heresy, traces the development of Christian belief and practice. While it mainly focuses on the debates of the early church, it also addresses more modern discussion on the relationships between Christians and the state, money, and church authority.
Duke University has afforded me other wonderful professional development opportunities, including Teaching and Learning workshops (T&L), the Certificate in College Teaching (CCT), Preparing Future Faculty (PFF), and the Certificate of Accomplishment in Teaching Writing in the Disciplines through the Thompson Writing Program. T&L is an annual series of lunchtime workshops for students in the Graduate Program in Religion and the Doctor of Theology program that explore various aspects of life as a faculty member in the field of religious or theological education. Faculty members from the field speak about the practicalities of various aspects of teaching, from resources for students with accommodations to final assignments that go beyond the typical final paper. The CCT offered by Duke Graduate School has a similar vision with a broader audience across fields. PFF is a nation-wide fellowship program that seeks to help academics better understand faculty positions at a variety of institutions, especially those distinct from the R1 atmosphere of Duke University. We visit and talk with administration and faculty from six regional institutions, including a community college, HBCU, and SLAC, discussing life as faculty in each environment. We are also paired with a mentor from one of those institutions, from whom we can learn more specifically about a certain career path. The Thompson Writing Program and WID Certificate helps instructors think clearly about teaching students how to write and writing assignments more generally. Each program and experience has been formative for me, alongside my ongoing teaching responsibilities. I look forward to the next opportunity where I can grow further as a teacher and resource for my students.