Susan VanZanten, Joining the Mission

I recently finished reading Susan VanZanten's, Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New Faculty (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), and I can guarantee that it will not be the last time I read it.  Joining the Mission is primarily directed toward faculty who are about to or have recently begun teaching at "one of the nine hundred religiously affiliated colleges or universities in the United States, which collectively enroll abour 1.5 million students annually" (vi). While providing the most advice for new faculty, there is plenty of career advice for those who have been teaching at one of these institutions for most of their careers.

VanZanten's title derives from one of her arguments: that faculty need to join the mission of the institution at which they teach. The chapter titles are as follows:

1. What is a Mission-Driven Institution?
2. A Very Brief History of Western Higher Education
3. Teaching: Call and Response
4. Teaching: Brick by Brick
5. The Faithful Professor: Multiple Paradigms for Faith and Learning
6. How Outrageous is Faithful Scholarship?
7. Beyond Professing Alone: Becoming an Academic Citizen
8. Composing a Life: Balance and Improvisation

The first part of the book sets mission-driven institutions in their historical context, and VanZanten's argues that many of the issues and disputes that we wrestle with today have been discussed and debated throughout history...including all the way back to Athens. Chapters 3 and 4 addresses teaching. First, VanZanten talks about how learning takes place listing neuroscience "brain rules" and her own implications of these for teaching. There is helpful information on the current generational particularities of the current generation of students. (Some of this was eye-opening to me and led to some "Ah-hah" moments.) She also provides a list of the "Seven Practices of Effective Teachers." This was another challenging and encouraging list for me as a teacher. (See the list below). Chapter 4 gets into some more practical aspects of accomplishing this teaching calling. Vanzanten walks through setting up a course, using small groups effectively, and lecturing. Her argument throughout is that students learn best through "active learning," so she provides examples and ways in which to promote active learning in students.

Chapter 5 covers the perennial topic of Faith and Learning. Vanzanten sets out the various opinions on the relationship between Faith and Learning. 1) We should start over and not acknowledge a separation between faith and learning. Faith is foundational to learning. 2) Faith and learning are separate but equally important. One model of this is the "two-realms approach." Faith is addressed in chapel, Bible studies and the like, but not in academic courses, and thus not by faculty. The "complementary or value-added" version of this view includes faculty involvement in raising awareness of faith and ethical issues related to their discipline. 3) The integration of Faith and Learning. This is the phrase more typically heard and echoed, but their are some different streams of thought on this topic: the additudinal approach, the ethical approach, the foundational approach, and the worldview approach (111). As a good Reformed scholar, VanZanten sides with the worldview approach. The helpfulness of this chapter is in its clarifying of the various positions and listing of the positives for each. It would be a great chapter for institutional and faculty discussions.

In chapter 6, VanZanten addresses how professors at mission-driven institutions who must focus on teaching can engage in research and scholarship. How does faith function within one's discipline? She contends that faculty should take part in "faithful scholarship" which she says "should emerge from the depths of our true selves out of a desire to glorify God and a willingness to utilize our strongest gifts" (142). She also addresses the tensions and benefits of grafting teaching and scholarship, again all in the interest of student learning.

Chapter 7 takes up the communal aspect of faculty and institutional relationships, from committees to curriculum. This chapter holds some nuggets of insight, especially some generational differences between Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. Chapter 8 concludes with VanZanten's argument for a balanced faculty life. She uses the metaphor of jazz and the need for improvisation as the academic life and the academic year moves and changes.

The book is an excellent introduction of new and old faculty to the reality of the mission-driven institution and teaching-scholarly life. I plan to be continually referring to it, especially with regard to teaching tips, research advice, and the need for taking a vocational inventory.

Seven Practices of Effective Teachers
(62, cited from Arthur Chickering and Zelda Gamson, "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education")

1. Respect students' differences, using a variety of teaching methods that take into account various ways of learning and knowing.
2. Focus on active rather than passive learning
3. Provide opportunities for cooperative learning and collaboration among students in the pursuit of clearly defined tasks.
4. Evince high academic expectations, clearly conveyed and periodically repeated.
5. Provide timely and frequent feedback on student performance.
5. Pay consistent attention to time on task.
7. Develop a rapport with students that encourages and facilitates student-faculty interaction, both during class and outside of it.

And a quote, 127:
"Faithful learning acknowledges that the educational process is not hermetically sealed in the classroom, laboratory, and library. Service-learning, travel abroad, civic engagement, residential life, student leadership positions--all contribute to one's unfolding understanding of God's story. The spiritual discipline of personal and communal practices such as Scripture reading, mediation, prayer, worship, participation in the sacraments, and acts of service help train our minds, bodies, and souls to perceive God and God's kingdom in all that we do."

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