OPINION | Classrooms as a Space for Dialogue by John Oliff
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OPINION | Classrooms as a Space for Dialogue by John Oliff

By John Oliff  
Adjunct Professor, Department of Christian Studies at Eastern University, PA
(via The Sunday Sentinel, Strategic Knowledge Partner)

In my first essay Between Two Worlds, I wrote about my journey as a professor which led me to lose my first teaching post. In this installment, I am turning from that to discuss what it was in the classroom (and outside of it) that drove me to give up on the traditional lecture model of education. To put it simply, as Parker Palmer wrote in The Courage To Teach:

What I began to notice in my quest as an educator was that my focus was misplaced. Instead of my focus being on the search for truth within the various disciplines represented in the classroom and how all those disciplines were interconnected, the focus was on me as the educator – it was all about me! After all, I am the expert, right?

It was then I realized something was wrong – terribly wrong. It was then I realized I was simply going through the motions of dispensing information. Ironically it was a student in one of those classes who asked for a few minutes after a class that would change the direction of my understanding of education and the classroom environment. Her question still rings in my ears from time to time, she asked, “Why is it that professors in your department violate everything we are taught in the education department?” I knew I could not allow her question to go unaddressed. It took another 5 years after she asked that question for my paradigm shift to begin…or, should I say, my pedagogical world to collapse – and collapse it did! It was in the midst of this that I developed an unexplained anxiety. When I was in the classroom, I reverted to the ways I experienced my educational training and began to mimic them. Before I knew it, I was simply telling students what to believe, not way or how to reach their own conclusions. It was at this point I realized I needed to change, or leave education altogether…and the latter just wasn’t an option.
As a result of that conversation with that student, I turned to a couple of educational guru’s whom I either remembered from educational psychology in my undergraduate program or who were suggested by colleagues in other departments of the university I worked for. Little did I know that the journey I embarked on would forever change me not just as an educator but as a human being. I began to realize that what students needed was space.
To dialogue.
To disagree.
To grow.
To explore all their options.
In the end, I rejected the banking system of education as described by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed and decided that it was time to help my students “Walk on Water” as Derrick Jensen describes in Walking on Water: Reading, Writing, and Revolution. Sadly, for the first time in my teaching career I came to the realization I was growing, learning–learning all over again–and opening myself to doubt, discovery, and working through my anxiety, not simply explaining it away.
What happened next is hard to explain, hard to wrap my mind around. I decided that I would no longer lecture as I had previously; I would start each class with a portion of a text we were reading for the day and a question drawn from it. Awkward, yes, for there was a silence some days that I had not experienced nor did I want–at least I didn’t think so. About eight weeks into the Spring semester the students came alive–they began not only reading the assigned readings, but asking questions I had not considered–they were waking up, coming alive, and beginning to blossom into critical readers, thinkers, and beautiful persons. In the end, not all of them were on board, some were skeptical of my new approach, some doubted that what was taking place was education at all. Some even considered what I was attempting was robbery–after all, they were paying customers, right? They wanted the “goods”, not simply questions and dialogue about those questions. They were especially skeptical about learning from their peers. Again, I am the expert; I am the one with the degrees, the knowledge, and they believed it was my responsibility to give it to them. This was especially a problem for those who were more conservative and/ or fundamentalists. You see, I was teaching biblical studies and theology in a school where the theological and biblical heritage went back over 100 years. I taught at an institution where the questions about biblical texts and theology were long since settled by respected and revered men (yes, men, for women were not allowed [at least there and at that time] to teach bible or theology).
In the end, I committed myself to the task at hand not knowing it would end in my demise as a full-time professor. That was the spring of 2005, which was the beginning of a journey that would set my life on a new course. It was that Spring that I, too, began to walk on water. I was changing, growing, and blossoming into a better human being, friend, and professor – colleague to my students. As cliché as it might be, I guess you can say the rest is history. Today, in the midst of teaching as an adjunct professor at two institutions I continue to start each class with questions and allow the ideas to bounce around the room. We don’t always come to conclusions, for this is not the purpose – my goal now, as it was when the transformation began remains the same:
To create a space where ideas can blossom, the seeds of which are planted and hopefully one day, grow!