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We Need Time Together

My daughter has been texting all weekend.  She has respected my rule not to text during worship, meals, or late at night.  Even within these guidelines, I find myself talking like a Saturday Night Live character named the Grumpy Old Man. The Grumpy Old Man skit involved Dana Carvey describing the good old days, when children did not have confounded cell phones.  Throwing up my hands in frustration, I did what any modern mommy does.  I turned to the internet.  Watching the musical number “Telephone Hour” from the 1963 hit Bye Bye Birdie made me feel better.  What did we do before cell phones?  We tied up our household’s landline for hours, talking about vastly important teen crushes.  At least I did.  

I relate the story above, about telephones, in part to reassure readers that I am not against all technological communication.  Most of the time, I am not a caricature of the Grumpy Old Professor.  But, when a friend told me recently that the future of pedagogy is online education, I vowed to resist.  I am as opposed to this form of the future as I would be if a friend told me that the future of sex is online, or that the future of worship is online, or that the future of our friendship is online.  Learning – like friendship, worship, or sex – is a gift best shared with other human beings, face to face.  A song from the musician Red Grammar puts it well: “It’s as simple a thing as the air that we breathe; we need time together.”

A school can avoid paying teacher salaries and basic benefits if they move toward distance education.  This is the ostensible reason that children in Durham are “taking classes” online, with someone, somewhere, answering their typed-in questions.  Money is also the ostensible reason that Christians are working online for degrees through my own institution.  We sit in front of a computer, skyping, which means that we awkwardly see one another on a screen.  The display looks sort of like the television game show “Hollywood Squares.”  I submit that the loss is not worth the monetary gain.  What we lose in online learning is fundamental to the gift of teaching.

I have taught a seminar on a Danish philosopher named Søren Kierkegaard ten times during my sixteen years teaching at Duke.  We have read the same books* together, each iteration of this seminar, but every semester is different.  Classes are made up of people, and people are individuals, with snowflake-unique experiences and perspectives.  I learn something new that surprises me every time I teach, even when I am teaching a book for the umpteenth time.  A vital part of this gift is the trust that students build with one another over time.  The interactions in person matter, as we each let down our guard and risk showing confusion, or insight.  Body language matters for teaching.  If a student crosses his arms and scowls, I know I need to pause the conversation.  Has the conversation left him lost?  If he is lost, chances are someone else in the room is also lost, but trying to hide it.  This is one obvious example.  Good teachers learn to pick up subtle cues, to help each person in the class learn.   Even if the class is about information – about facts – the classroom matters.  A geometry teacher learns how to teach geometry well by answering questions from befuddled students.  She may stay up late thinking about how better to explain a difficult concept and, the next year, she has a new pedagogical trick.  I may be able to see consternation on a student’s face online, and some confused students will risk typing a question online.  But trust is best built minute by minute, session by session, in person.  

We may enjoy the polished perfection of a carefully constructed TED talk on screen, but polished perfection is not the same as teaching live people to whom you are accountable and from whom you are learning.  Which brings me back to a question I asked last month in my essay against superheroes.  How can online learning be the “future” of education in a democracy?  A flourishing democracy requires not only a people filled up with facts, but people who have been formed to learn from one another by listening to distinct voices and hearing particular stories.  Sharing the task of learning with people who are different than you are is a hedge against tyranny.  This is one reason why we finally desegregated public schools across the United States.  Placing each student in front of her own little computer, interacting on screen, is a form of re-segregation.  The gift of time together is worth public support in a vigorous democracy.

[*] Blog editor’s note for the philosophically curious: Fear and Trembling, Repetition, either Stages on Life’s Way or Philosophical Fragments, and Works of Love, in that order.

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I don’t need another hero

One upside to writing about masculinity is that going to the movies counts as research.  I have taught enough men ages 18-35 to know that I need to see every superhero movie.  Even if they do not themselves like superhero movies, blockbusters end up being an assumed topic of conversation with their friends and coworkers.  One very gracious student who loves superhero movies stayed in conversation with me as I watched hours and hours of backlogged movies.  After sorting through the nuances of each era’s Superman, the various Batmans, the Spiderman from Electric Company to the Spiderman crawling up buildings today – I realized I was not going to find a superhero franchise that I like.  I was on a fool’s errand, because I disagree with the whole shtick.   Read more


Professors are characters. This is a reason the Harry Potter fantasy rings true. Whether teachers in a haunted institution start out strange, many of us grow into characters. When I arrived at Yale Divinity School in 1990, the portraits on the wall might as well have been enchanted, for all the stories swirling around. One history professor had stepped into a trashcan while lecturing on Luther, and evidently did not miss a beat. A bible professor had read straight through the same lecture twice in a row. He did not pause to look up to see his room full of students looking back at him, pens down, amused. Read more

Loving Jimmy Carter


A picture from the days when all pictures looked like Instagram.

Two older friends at Trinity United Methodist told me a few weeks ago that they wish Barbara Jordan were still alive to run for president. They both would love to celebrate the first woman president before they go to God, but not the woman that many of us are being told to support at present. Barbara Jordan or Shirley Chisolm, yes. If you do not know who these women were, please look them up. Here are two places to start.  Growing up in Texas, I learned early who Barbara Jordan was. My parents wanted her to be president someday. My mother and I stop to pay our respects at her statue in the Austin airport when I fly there for holidays.

The first presidential election I followed was between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. I was eight years old, and my brother and I had dressed up in bicentennial costumes for the little parade in our small town the summer of 1976, the same month that Barbara Jordan delivered her televised keynote at the Democratic National Convention. This was all a huge, complicated deal in my little mind, as I watched my parents experience nostalgia, skepticism, and resilient hope for a different country. (See the Wikipedia page on the Bicentennial, and look online for more cheesy photos of children dressed in colonial costume.) Read more

A House Divided

I write a piece for the Durham Herald Sun every first Sunday of the month.  Please consider subscribing and support a local paper in Durham.  Whether you live in Durham, care about politics in the South, or are interested in ways a post-industrial city with a major university functions and flourishes, the Durham Herald Sun is worth a subscription.  Thank you for considering this.  Here is my opinion editorial for this month.

Jesus’ words about a divided household are so well known that a popular North Carolina bumper sticker refers to them in passing. Jesus talks about the ruin of a divided people in the middle of an argument about whether his healing miracles are miraculous or demonic. Jesus is, of course, clear that he is healing people with the power of the Holy Spirit, not through the power of Satan. This is also the passage where Jesus specifies that the only unforgivable sin is speaking against the Holy Spirit. It is a dense and scary passage, in part because the specific parameters of the one absolutely unforgivable sin are unclear. The concept of a divided house is easy to understand, however. That a divided household cannot hold itself together makes logical sense. Read more

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