Two comments about courses of study separated by more than 80 years have me thinking again about the relational fabric of my classes in the time of COVID.

One of the comments arose from the learning experiences created by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the seminary he led at Finkenwalde in the late 1930s. Bonhoeffer had recently endured dispiriting experiences teaching at a university and had decided to pursue learning rooted in the intentional practice of Christian community.  His student and friend Eberhard Bethge later recalled Bonhoeffer’s insistence on a rule that students were never to talk about another member of the community in that person’s absence, or were to tell the other person about it afterwards if they did so. Bethge commented that “the participants learned almost as much from their failures to observe this simple rule, and from their renewed resolution to keep it, as they did from the sermons and exegeses.”1

The other comment came during a course planning meeting amid the collective freefall into online learning that has occurred this year. As we exchanged ideas about how best to organize a Moodle page to help students navigate the learning experience, a colleague (I don’t remember which) mentioned that it would be good to keep a discussion forum reserved for students to post personal updates and photos to help build a sense of community, a goal that should not be lost in the shift online.

Both comments reflect a concern not just for what students learn from course content, but for the nature of the relational fabric that underpins and accompanies the learning process. Both were rooted in a Christian impulse to value mutual recognition and support, the “one another” that pulses through the pages of the New Testament. Both took this interest in community and translated it into a concrete learning practice rather than leaving it as a fondly articulated “value.”

At the same time, it is the differences that have me thinking. Some years ago, Robert Wuthnow, in his Sharing the Journey, traced shifts in our understanding of “community” during the 20th century. He suggested that these shifts had been quite radical, moving us from material interdependence and long-term life together to a more transient and individualistic focus on encouraging words and good feelings. He charged that typical small-group ministry in Christian circles “serves more to comfort people—allowing them to feel better about things as they are and helping them to be happy—than to challenge them to move significantly beyond their present situation.”2 We want to feel good about being with others, and we want those others to take care of themselves and not rock our boat too much. We are more likely to say “go in peace, be encouraged” (to paraphrase James 1:16) than commit to another’s material needs or constructively challenge them to change.

As I look back at Wuthnow’s argument from the vantage point of my current teaching situation, characterized by a significant measure of shared anxiety and the awkwardness of combined screen-mediated presences and masked social distancing in the classroom, comforting people and creating spaces for them to share their feelings and personal concerns does not sound so bad. Yet Bonhoeffer’s practices were digging deeper (as my colleague’s wider classroom practices are surely also doing). He was targeting the growth-oriented discomfort and concrete interdependence the evasion of which Wuthnow was lamenting. The practice that Bethge mentioned was not aiming at mastery, but at the intentionally experienced friction of falling short, the prickly awareness that it is easy to talk of everyone being in God’s image and harder to actually honor others in our speech. It was a practice that could easily transfer to an online course, as could other practices that Bonhoeffer instigated.

For instance, he required each student to go for a long walk at least once with each other student during each session of classes, with the aim of building more substantial relationships among them.3 What if students in an online course (or subgroups within the course, if numbers are larger) were asked to spend at least 30 structured minutes during the course in a video call with each other student, with the explicit goal of learning more about who they are, and then looking for one concrete way of expressing support for one another? Might that push further than creating a social media-like space within the course environment (useful indeed as the latter might be)? Would the idea that taking a course involves not just the opportunity to share, but taking active responsibility for the wellbeing of other course members be too countercultural? If so, why?

In a class this semester focused on second language pedagogy I am trying to build a trajectory that begins with dividing students into smaller groups and requiring live interaction around the readings for 30 minutes per week outside assigned class time. I made reductions in the reading to compensate. I have shared with students my goal of laying the groundwork for better collaboration later in the semester, when students begin to design curriculum together. We will discuss why collaboration is hard, why it will go wrong, and why it is not successful if one person does most of the work. In a few weeks, when the design process is underway, we will give time in class to sessions where students from each group will share strengths and weaknesses in their projects with members of other groups, whose explicit task will be to contribute in ways that improve the project. We will talk about why we are doing this, about the need to invest in one another’s good and to give more substance to our talk of Christian community than acting nice when around others.

Other kinds of classes will require other practices; what matters is not the template, but the intentional connection between beliefs and practices. Charles Taylor has commented regarding social practices and their relationship to how we imagine the world that “if the understanding makes the practice possible, it is also true that it is the practice that largely carries the understanding.”4 What understanding of community are we carrying? I wonder what learning practices, and what practices of living together as learners, are made possible by a Christian understanding of community as mutual belonging and active commitment to the well-being of the neighbor. I wonder what understanding of community is carried in, and gleaned from, our actual learning practices. I wonder whether thinking about this carefully might be urgent, given our current wider struggles to live together amid our differences even as we are impeded from adequate contact with one another.

Footnotes

  1. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. (Bloomsbury/ T&T Clark, 2010), 181.
  2. Robert Wuthnow, Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s New Quest for Community. (New York: The Free Press, 1994)
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, D (2013) Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 14. Trans. D. Stott. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 26.
  4. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 25.

David I. Smith

Calvin University
David I. Smith is Professor of education and Director of the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning at Calvin University. He writes on teaching and learning at https://onchristianteaching.com.

One Comment

  • David, I love the challenge you cast at us to articulate what we mean by community. I have always loved what happened at Finkelwalde and read Life Together annually (just for the unnerving experience of being told off by Bonhoeffer!), but it can seem terribly male and German!! In more practical ways, at a distance, I have rediscovered the rich value that serious conversation and reflection through WhatsApp groups can generate. Our Ed.D. group at York St John started a WhatsApp group two years ago and it has been a lifeline to many of us, not just in the practical “helps” but in the sense of a community egging each on to “love and good works.” Here we have not articulated “the understanding of community we are carrying” BUT inductively we are sharing a life, an interdependence that grows as we learn about each other’s research, comment on it, and come to learn about our place as incipient academics. Articulating the collaboration you intend at the beginning of a unit of work or a course is something I used often with primary age children, using cooperative learning approaches, but have not seen it so much at tertiary level. Thanks so much for the post.