I’ve been thinking about burdens again. Often my own, I must confess, but also the kind that I place on others’ shoulders. The question about whether I lift a finger to carry them myself. The times when the others are my students.
Creating burdens for students, sometimes difficult ones, is part of the faculty’s role. We create an array of tasks that reach beyond the classroom. Our students shoulder these, as they should. In a healthy institution, they do so with various kinds of support. That doesn’t quite remove the question about how my task design affects students’ ability to thrive, and how that might relate to finger lifting.
I think this unease first crystallized for me more than a decade ago when I was redesigning a survey class in twentieth-century German literature. I had begun to realize that what was bothering me was not so much what we read and discussed as how we read the assigned texts. Many of the texts we read were freighted with moral and existential weight. A quick read before class to avoid embarrassment if the professor asks a question is not the right mode of engagement. Hasty plot summaries are not the right mode of response. Often, my students did better than those last sentences might imply, but their lives, like mine, were subject to the kind of pressures that lead to shortcuts, and my main worry was about how my design of learning tasks might actually encourage the shortcuts.
I began to delve into the history of Christian reflection on what it means to engage in the act of reading if reading, like all our practices, is to be grounded in the love of God and neighbor. As I read, I noticed a recurring focus on reading with charity, patience, humility, and love, and on reading in community with others while seeking transformation and truth. I ended up connecting this tradition of reflection with my course design in a range of ways.1 One basic realization was that it is hard to read charitably if you read everything only once. It was unavoidably a survey course, bursting at the seams with worthy content protesting its need to be covered, yet I was able to create enough space in the syllabus for us to take a few short stories and engage with each one twice.
For the first, I chose a short story by Heinrich Böll called Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa…, a text with more than enough layers to sustain repeated engagements.2 It was here that I started thinking about burdens and fingers.
When Jesus spoke of burdens and fingers, he was speaking of those who embrace the role of teaching others how to live and yet do not themselves practice the things they recommend. “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others, but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4). The focus is on a willingness to watch others struggle to meet standards of righteousness that we can’t be bothered to meet ourselves. Yet the way Jesus expresses the point invites not just introspection about our own behavior, but also reflection on solidarity and the flourishing of our neighbor. The focus is not just on teachers’ own failings, but on how they impact others. Elsewhere Jesus voiced an alternative: a yoke and a burden still present yet made light and offered in gentleness and humility (Matthew 11:28-30).
The trouble with my class was that I wanted more. I was already asking my students to read difficult texts in a language not their own, to be willing to risk voicing thoughts about them in that language, to write reflections, to keep up with a brisk course schedule alongside the demands of their other professors, the job funding their studies, the place on the swim team, the volunteering at church, the need to have a social life. Now I also wanted them to reflect more deeply on their reading process, to read the same text carefully more than once, to investigate whether words such as charity, justice, and humility could plausibly describe their acts of reading, to think of reading as an arena for virtue and vice. I could sense the jaws of the trap, a desire for my students to be more righteous than I ever was as a student, an itch to point a finger to a grand horizon of bracing virtues and to stir my students to their ardent pursuit. The yoke seemed valid, but…
We read Böll’s story for the second meeting of the semester and discussed it in detail for an hour. We explored its historical context, its cultural references, its symbolism, its themes of suffering and death under the crushing weight of self-righteous educational ideology in the waning years of World War II. At the end of class, I announced that the assignment for the next class was to read the same story again, slowly and carefully, and look for what we missed. We had already begun to talk about reading with justice, with charity. I wondered how to make it more feasible for us to shoulder that burden.
I adopted two strategies for nudging students away from falling back on notes from the first time through the text. The first was shameless pleading. You already know, I reminded them, that one of our goals this semester is to figure out what it might look like to read with charity, with patience, with justice and humility—to read in a way framed by the call to love. We will not get far if we only engage in fly-by reading, if we rely on memory from last time, or if we read things once and check them off our task list. If our time is to be invested well, I need you to find a quiet place and read this story again. I know that you are going to be tempted to skip a task that is not new ground, that tugs against the push to productivity and the lure of leisure. But if we don’t do this, the whole project leaves the rails. Will you commit to this, at least this once? Please?
My students are thoughtful people, and many would have responded to the request alone. But I feared that exhortation unsupported by structure could lead mostly to increased guilt. If other pressures won out, “I didn’t get to the homework” had now been escalated to “I will be trampling upon virtue.” So, I added a second strategy, based on structured tasks: as you read the story a second time, find all of the places where Böll uses a color adjective. Look for the patterns and be ready to share your map of them with others in the next class. What is he saying with colors? This is a task that cannot be completed from memory. I had also assigned a weekly journal in which students reflected on their reading practices. I hoped that the combination of a detailed (but manageable) task, the social support of expecting to share the results with others, and an explicit element of reflection and reporting on the process would significantly increase the likelihood of a close second reading.
The combination of strategies seemed important. The first alone is mere exhortation without support. The second alone could be just busy work and behavioral conformity. But if we could share a practical strategy for focusing ourselves on the details at the same time as remaining aware of a bigger story about why this might matter, perhaps the language of virtue would invite growth and not just impose burdens.
In the next class session, I clustered the chairs close together in the middle of the room to signal a gathering around the text for close reading. I was ready to signal grace to those whose week had been derailed, but in fact, students were well prepared. We traced the color symbolism in detail. Then I told students how I had read the story multiple times, surveyed much of the secondary literature, and taught the text several times before one day—as I was reading it again in preparation for class—it occurred to me to count the clusters of images and sculptures mentioned in the story. I found fourteen. It dawned on me that there was a structured series of allusions to the stations of the cross, that this might in fact be close to the heart of the story’s purpose, and that with all the expertise I had gleaned up to that point, I had completely missed this. We had discussed the story together for an hour in the previous class without it coming up. What might that tell us about reading? We turned back to the text to see if I might be right.
I was after several things in this sequence. I wanted to translate some significant themes in Christian reflection on reading into task design—at the simplest level, reading with charity might require reading together and reading more than once. I wanted to avoid the kind of exhortation that calls upon students to aim higher without providing structures that might support their aim and place the burdens within the realm of what can be carried. I wanted it to be clear that I was not preaching patient reading while teaching from last year’s notes. I wanted to avoid preaching humility while modeling confident mastery. I wanted to avoid waving an inspiring finger in the air without exposing the fingers still scrabbling for purchase on the same burdens. I wanted to communicate a shared journey, not a handing down of table crumbs. I tried to sustain this pattern across the semester, combining vision with concrete ways to live into it together. I doubt that I succeeded in all of this. I did take courage from the degree to which students’ journals across the semester suggested that they found the struggle constructive, fruitful, and even transformative.
Now I am bracing myself for a redesign of one course and a first design of another course for next semester, and I’ve been thinking about burdens again. How can I design and frame tasks in ways that challenge students to grow in more than task completion AND provide the kind of support that might actually nurture that growth AND communicate gentleness and humility as we take aim at some genuinely challenging questions and practices? I don’t think the solution to the temptations of hypocrisy and self-righteousness is to lower my sights, to abolish the idea of yokes and burdens. But I am still wondering how to teach with one finger pointed at possibilities that exceed us and disciplines that beckon while keeping others flexing with all their puny might as they probe for the lightness in the burdens, for the yoke that feels like grace.
- David I. Smith, “Reading Practices and Christian Pedagogy: Enacting Charity with Texts.” In David I. Smith & James K.A. Smith (eds.), Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011): 43–60.
- Heinrich Böll, Wanderer, kommst du nach Spa . . .: Erzählungen (München: DTV, 1967), 45–56. It can be read in English translation as “Stranger, Bear Word to the Spartans, We…” in The Stories of Heinrich Böll. Translated by Leila Vennewitz (Northwestern University Press, 1985).