I will limit my response to the heart of our exchange, which has focused on how a Christian teacher’s personal convictions can be shared in a secular and pluralistic university classroom. Of special significance here is the fact that while G&A and I agree on their practical rules of transparency, we continue to disagree about their “no identity conversion” rules.
G&A offer several suggestions as to how and why I have misinterpreted their position. For one, they suggest that I have confused their view with that of Stanley Fish. But they quite explicitly say that they agree with Fish that teachers should “stick to doing their (academic) job” (136), and their “no identity conversion rules” are directly linked to Fish’s position (138, 142, 145). Their quarrel with Fish is only that his position “is not very precise” and “needs to be phrased differently” (136).
G&A also suggest that some of our disagreements derive from our differing national identities. Canadians are not governed by U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of the religion clauses of the First Amendment. While this might be true from a legal standpoint, I would suggest that the prohibition to evangelize in the classroom is just as strongly held at Canadian pluralistic universities, reinforced by institutional culture. There is of course the additional question as to whether Christian teachers should obey legal or informal pressures not to try to convert in the classroom. “We must obey God rather than men.”
G&A maintain that our differences also stem from my “misunderstanding” of their “no identity conversion” rule. I beg to differ and suggest instead that their position is not entirely clear, if not contradictory. In their response G&A remind us of some pedagogical practices that can advance student learning: “Sharing one’s religious identity in the classroom” and “Confessing how one’s primary identity influences one’s teaching.” I agree with these rules of transparency. But the language of “sharing” and “confessing” is the language often used to describe Christian evangelism. As such, it flies in the face of G&A’s rules that prohibit attempts to convert in the classroom. Transparency can lead to conversions.
G&A go on to suggest that “Thiessen does not acknowledge that we are discussing identity conversion versus general knowledge, affections, and behavior conversion and in fact seems to confuse the two” (italics in the original). But exactly what is identity conversion? This is an abstract notion. Indeed, conversion of “knowledge, affections, and behavior” seems to be pretty all-inclusive, and therefore really involves a change of identity. The notion of “wholesale identity conversion” (144) can finally be broken down into component parts which can be changed one step at a time.
G&A remind us repeatedly of the inappropriateness of including identity conversion or evangelism as a “course” or “classroom objective.” The focus should instead be on learning. But as I argued in my review, learning and evangelism might be more closely linked than we realize. G&A also need to distinguish between “personal” and “course” or “classroom” objectives. As a Christian one of my personal aims is to evangelize, even in the classroom. Of course, I do not include evangelism as an objective in the official course syllabus. All professors make their syllabuses sound very academic, when really their courses will be infused with personal agendas, including religious (or secular) ones.
A final note on indoctrination. I concede that G&A’s non-conversion rules are an attempt to resolve how the power-imbalance of teacher and student can be addressed in an ethical way. But since I disagree with these rules, I obviously don’t think they have “resolved” the problem of a power-imbalance. Further, indoctrination involves much more than an abuse of power on the part of the teacher. There is also such a thing as “institutional indoctrination” which is all too prevalent at our pluralistic universities today.1
I conclude by thanking G&A for their significant contribution to articulating the challenges faced by Christian teachers within pluralistic colleges and universities. However, I believe there is still more to be done by way of nuancing the extent to which a teacher’s Christian identity can shape what he or she does while teaching in pluralistic settings. It has been a good exchange.