Skip to main content

Responding to recent scholarship on writing pedagogy and hospitality, this essay offers a vision for a hospitable First-Year Writing (FYW) course that fits into the story of Scripture: one in which Christian hospitality lays a foundation for assignments, class conversations, student-teacher interactions, and assessment, among other practices. The essay includes reflections on my own attempts to practice hospitality in my FYW courses at a Christian liberal arts college. Alison Caviness Gibson is senior lecturer of English and director of the Writing Center at Wheaton College.

I am one of the first professors that many freshmen meet at Wheaton College. Nearly every fall, I teach First-Year Writing (FYW), Wheaton’s general education writing course, often at 8:30 a.m. On the first day, students arrive anxious and excited, full of fidgets and hair flips, nervously laughing and tapping their pencils. They are desperately in need of a welcoming face: that’s my cue.

FYW, a ubiquitous general education course required at almost every major college and university in the country, presents many unique challenges for hospitality. This course is usually comprised of freshmen, many of whom are away from home for the first time and feel like strangers on a new campus. One or two seniors inevitably trickle in, often embarrassed that they forgot to enroll in (or avoided) the course as underclassmen. Students bring charged emotional baggage: insecurity or overconfidence about their own writing, resentment about yet another general education requirement, and lack of practice with the vulnerability and revision that good writing demands. The course is no less challenging for the professor, who may feel burdened by the grading that the course requires, unprepared due to lack of graduate training in writing pedagogy, ill-equipped to manage the emotional fluxes of first-year writers, and exhausted by the one-on-one interactions with students that the writing process demands.

But let us not stop there. It is precisely because this course is so precarious that it is also rife with hospitable possibilities. The shared vulnerability felt by the anxious freshmen, disenchanted upperclassmen, and overwhelmed professor may open the door to hospitable writing. Students may develop a greater love for their creator God through crafting their own works of written art. Writing for real audiences outside of the classroom may embolden students to more fully love their neighbors as themselves. With faith seeking understanding, students and professors may learn from one another about how to write charitably.

In fact, hospitality is a practice that is relevant to teaching in all of the disciplines—not just in writing courses. Although Christian hospitality is commonly associated with welcoming guests into one’s home or local church, in recent years, Christian scholar-teachers have delighted in a robust flourishing of scholarship on Christian hospitality in the classroom. From Parker Palmer’s assertion that hospitality is the key to discovering truth to Carolyne Call’s description of hospitality as an “orientation of the heart” that frames student-teacher interactions, the Christian classroom is being bravely redefined as a site of hospitable exchange.1

We’ve seen the development of discipline-specific approaches, such as David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill’s case for Christian hospitality in foreign language courses and David Anderson’s exploration of hospitable Christian practices in special education.2 Jake Stratman, Rebecca Burwell, and Mackenzi Huyser have explored practical pedagogical approaches to hospitality, such as knowing student names on the first day of class, providing service- and experiential-learning opportunities, sharing testimonies in class, and encouraging student reflection.3 David M. Rhoads hospitably welcomes students into his course by presenting all assignments and expectations clearly up front, while Ellen L. Marmon shares the intellectual space of her classroom by “asking [students] for help in organizing the class.”4 Christine Pohl’s seminal work, Making Room, as well as Amy Oden’s history of hospitality in the early church, And You Welcomed Me, have provided the historical and theological foundation for this rich research on hospitable Christian pedagogy.5 Conversations about hospitable pedagogy have sprouted in the secular academy, as well, notably in the works of John Bennett and Carolyn M. Jones.6

And yet, until quite recently, this conversation about Christian hospitality had not been fully invited into one of the most promising sites for hospitable exchange: the FYW course. For the past decade the conversation about hospitality in FYW has largely been a secular one, led by the widely influential work of scholars Richard and Janis Haswell. The Haswells broke the silence on hospitable writing pedagogy in their 2009 article “Hospitality in College Composition Courses,” which they co-authored with Glenn Blalock, and then more fully in their 2015 book Hospitality and Authoring.7 Leading figures in the field of writing pedagogy, the Haswells argue that hospitality “serves as the foundation for the act and activity of authoring and for the teaching of authoring.”8 In their book, they advocate for “complex, interactional, mutually enriching relationships” between reader and writer, teacher and student, host and guest.9

Historically contextualized and supported with practical classroom examples, their argument is also largely theoretical—engaging with the notions of hospitality postulated by Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas. The Haswells are sensitive to the truly radical nature of ideal hospitality, particularly in the classroom, as well as the abuses of hospitality that result in colonization, persecution, and oppression. Nevertheless, they compellingly demonstrate that hospitable writing pedagogy is worth the risks, highlighting that the “true dialogue” it entails promotes intellectual and relational transformation.10

While the Haswells depict Christianity generously (even admirably) in their historical account of hospitable practices, their argument is ultimately a secular one designed for a secular classroom. They treat Christianity as one tradition among many whose practices of hospitality reveal truths—but not the Truth. Their discussion of Christian hospitality is slight, but respectful, likely because it is studied alongside other traditions that are also given due consideration. Thus, for Christian teachers at Christian institutions, the Haswells’ argument is valuable but incomplete: it must be examined alongside a robust Christian theology of hospitality and scholarship on hospitable Christian pedagogy in order for a nuanced Christian writing pedagogy rooted in hospitality to emerge.

Recently, Richard Gibson and James E. Beitler’s book Charitable Writing opened new possibilities for Christian teachers and students in FYW.11 Drawing on Stephanie Paulsell’s work on writing as a spiritual practice, Gibson and Beitler invite FYW students to approach writing as a means of virtue development—that is, as an opportunity to humbly listen, lovingly argue, and keep time hopefully.12 Hospitality emerges most conspicuously in Charitable Writing when Gibson and Beitler suggest a new metaphor for writing that is rooted in charity: writing as love’s banquet.13 Instead of writing to defeat an opponent in “war,” the charitable writer sets a hospitable table at which she and her reader can feast together, mutually exchanging in the roles of host and guest.14

This paper seeks to further develop Gibson and Beitler’s ideas about Christian hospitality in the context of FYW. The reader and I will seek to answer two questions: What is hospitable Christian writing? What is hospitable Christian writing pedagogy? First, I will consider how the Haswells answered these questions from a secular perspective, recognizing the value of their insights for hospitable writing courses. Second, I will offer a fuller examination of the Christian tradition of hospitality, both in Scripture and in the practices of the early Church, than the Haswells, Gibson, and Beitler provide. Finally, I will present a vision for a hospitable FYW course that fits into the story of Scripture: one in which Christian hospitality foundationally supports assignments, class conversations, student- teacher interactions, and grading, among other practices. This final section will include reflections on my own attempts to practice hospitality in my FYW courses at Wheaton College.

The Haswells’ Hospitable Authoring: Key Concepts and Practices

For the Haswells, hospitality is a site of transformation. The essence of hospitality, they explain, is host and guest who “accept in good faith their equality in dignity, privilege, and value.”15 Drawing on the work of Raymond D. Boisvert and Maureen Sander-Staudt, the Haswells depict hospitality as flourishing whenever strangers “understand themselves to be incomplete,” recognize their need for growth, and are willing to be, in Saunder-Staudt’s words, “destabilized, jeopardized, and transformed by their mutual encounter” with one another.16 The Haswells characterize ideal hospitality as bearing four key features: Restlessness (changefulness), Resistance (to totalizing generalizations about groups based on race, class, gender, etc.), Risk Taking, and Retreat (away from centers of power).17 Hospitality is not “charity”—which involves a gift from the host to the guest that is not reciprocated. Rather, mutual respect and peaceful exchange of gifts characterize a hospitable encounter. Hospitality demands a proximity to and vulnerability with the other that facilitates change and dismantles power hierarchies. This free, safe space for interaction resists traditional boundaries between strangers that are rooted in fear and promote conformity: “Indeed, when there is no personal risk or internal change for the host, then the host has merely assimilated, or relegated, the guest into his or her own world.”18

Hospitality, though traditionally understood as an ethical and social relationship between host and guest, is also shown by the Haswells to frame the relationship between teacher and student and writer and reader.19 They decry that the current system of higher education is profoundly inhospitable—with its identification of students as numbers and its focus on learning as billable courses—but implore teachers to challenge this system through hospitable practices. In postsecondary classrooms, three acts of hospitality are, in their words, “pro-learning”: intellectual hospitality, which makes room for knowledge exchange between teacher and student that is not unilateral; transformative hospitality, in which student and teacher are profoundly changed by one another; and Ubuntu hospitality, through which teacher and student understand their humanity to be inextricably bound up in one another.20 In writing courses, specific practices can facilitate such hospitality. Teachers can practice “surrendered reading,” which entails reading student papers through a lens of trust and respect.21 Teachers can also demonstrate “risky response,” in which they respond to student writing by truly asking the student what the student doesn’t know.22 Hospitality is also facilitated by increased office hours in safe spaces that encourage “open-ended, one-on-one encounters.”23 Syllabi can outline assigned readings while also al- lowing room for individual student choices. Coursework need not be targeted directly at course exams but “generously broadcast toward the unknown, seeds tossed toward life beyond the course.”24 Such practices and interactions between teacher and student, who are also reader and writer, can reveal to students that hospitality “operates as an essential means of authoring” that governs the ways that writers receive readers and readers receive writers.25

The Haswells’ vision of transformative, mutually-enriching hospitality in the classroom aligns with much Christian scholarship on hospitable pedagogy. For example, in his well-known book To Know as We Are Known, Palmer argues that “real learning” does not occur until students, teacher, and the subject are brought into relationship with one another.26 Along the same lines, Burwell and Huyser provide strategies to encourage transformational learning in the Christian classroom, such as personal storytelling, reflection, and dialogue.27 In his essay on teaching empathy, literature, and community engagement at a Christian college, Stratman also picks up the connection between authoring and hospitality, arguing that reading and writing can enable students to “think and rethink what hospitality means and looks like in their lives.”28 The Haswells even readily cite Henri Nouwen, whose vision of hospitality supports theirs: “Hospitality is not to change people,” Nouwen argues, “but to offer them space where change can take place.”29 Thus, Christian scholars can link arms with the Haswells in the effort to create safe classroom spaces, assignments, and relationships that will promote learning, mutual gift exchange, and transformation.

But the Christian writer and teacher must ask more: How can I be transformed more fully into the image of Christ through my writing and teaching? What does Scripture tell me about the role of hospitality in the Christian story? How can my writing and teaching participate in that narrative?

Biblical Hospitality: Open Table Fellowship

Old Testament Hospitality: Genesis 18 and 19: Blessed by Strangers through God’s Redeeming Work

Stories that illustrate Christian hospitality imbue the Old Testament. Numerous theologians point to Abraham’s welcome of the three men in Genesis 18 as the most important Old Testament example of ideal Christian hospitality. In Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, Thomas E. Reynolds argues that the “theological root of hospitality,” in a phrase, is “God blesses through the stranger.”30 This is exemplified in the story of Abraham, for the strangers he welcomes are angels who bless him with the promise that he and Sarah will bear a child in their old age. Abraham’s story speaks not to the value of hospitality as a means of earning God’s blessing. Rather, it testifies to the “larger movement of God in the world” and to hospitality as a practice that is deeply imbedded in His work in and through us.31

If Abraham’s hospitality borders on idyllic, then Lot’s attempt at hospitality in Genesis 19 stands in striking contrast for its imperfections. Lot meets the two strangers (the same angels from Abraham’s story) and invites them to wash and sleep at his house. Pohl interprets this scene as a demonstration of Lot’s hospitality in the face of an inhospitable society.32 Yet, Lot’s hospitable actions fall short as well: most egregiously, his offer of his daughters to the attempted rapists of Sodom has been described by many feminist critics as an act of horror.33 And nevertheless, God is at work even in Lot’s broken offerings of hospitality. When the apostle Peter describes Lot’s encounter with the angels and the Sodomites, he does so to highlight the Lord’s power: If the Lord saved Lot, Peter explains, then He “knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment” (2 Pet. 2:9). Peter’s emphasis is on God’s actions—not Lot’s, on God as the rescuer (the perfect host) rather than on Lot’s hosting. Lot’s attempted hospitality is ultimately significant because it plays a role “in furthering God’s movement in creating and redeeming” His people.34

The stories of Abraham and Lot’s hospitality participate in a larger narrative throughout the Old Testament that centers on the covenantal relationship between Israel and God. Reynolds frames this relationship, the Israelites’ wandering, and God’s mandates to them, in terms of hospitality: “The resounding message is this: as the covenanted people of God were themselves aliens, and remain vulnerable sojourners with God, provided for and loved by God (Lev. 25:23), so too should they love others. The memory of being an outsider and subsequently being welcomed thus provides impetus to empathize with other outsiders.” In Saved by Faith and Hospitality, Joshua Jipp echoes this notion, arguing that the experience of God’s hospitality is “at the very heart of the church’s identity.”35 He describes the Lord as “a God of hospitality” who invites humanity into relationship with him, to be his guests and friends. This hospitality becomes “the basis of our hospitality to one another” as we welcome our neighbors not just because God commands us to do so but also because we are so grateful to be welcomed by Him that our love overflows onto others.36

Given that hospitality is so deeply embedded in God’s work, it is not surprising that stories of hospitality (and heartbreaking stories of inhospitality) permeate the Old Testament: Elijah (1 Kings 17) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:9) are both welcomed by widows and provide God’s healing power to their sons. Rahab’s welcome and protection of the stranger spies from Joshua’s army leads them to protect her in return (Josh. 2). Nabal’s inhospitality to David is punished, while David blesses Nabal’s wife Abigail for her repentance (1 Sam. 25). Hospitality is a means by which God reveals himself to his people—through miracles, blessings, and promises—and draws them into special connection with him. His hospitality inspires theirs, which invites Him in again: “Welcome leads to welcome, leading to further acts of welcome.”37 Reynolds describes this pattern as the “circle of God’s hospitality” that is symbolized by “an open table fellowship.”38

New Testament Hospitality: Seeing the Imago Dei

The New Testament continues to present hospitality as foundational to God’s relationship to His people and as an essential practice of Christ followers. One of the key Greek words used in the New Testament to describe practices of hospitality is philoxenos, friendship with or love of the stranger. In his letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts the church to extend hospitality to strangers (Rom. 12:13) and to welcome one another as Christ welcomed them (Rom. 15:7), thus perpetuating the cyclical hospitality depicted in the Old Testament. Peter recognizes the challenge of hospitable practices yet nevertheless commands it be done “without complain- ing” (1 Pet. 4:9). The author of Hebrews reminds us of Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18 by commending Christians to welcome strangers, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2). The New Testament also extends the Old Testament’s hospitality narrative by stressing the imperative for Christ followers to care for the least of these; the theological importance of shared meals; and Jesus as host, guest, and the bread of life.39

The New Testament emphasizes extending hospitality to the poor and neediest most prominently in two key passages, Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 14. In the latter, Jesus “challenges narrow definitions and dimensions of hospitality” that prescribe welcome only to favored guests, friends, and family.40 With all of their inconveniences and risks, the least of these are nevertheless invited by Jesus to his banquet, to Christian community. The necessity of welcoming those in need is further accentuated by the Matthew 25 description of the Son of Man separating the sheep and the goats in his final judgment. This passage challenges us to also see the presence of God in our brothers and sisters—strangers though many are. It reminds us that we are all created imago Dei, and that Christ lives in us and through us. Thus, when we welcome one another, we welcome Christ himself.

In Christ’s life and through his ministry, he serves as both guest, host, and sustenance itself. He graciously hosts—welcoming children, prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners—touching them with healing hands and sharing meals alongside them.41 He feeds the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:12-17, John 6:1-14). Often a needy guest, Jesus also depends on the provision and shelter of others (John 4:7-42). And he is “the bread of life”: those who come to him will never be hungry, and those who believe in him will never thirst (John 6:35). Meals figure prominently in the New Testament as sites of hospitality, with none more so than Christ’s Last Supper with his disciples, at which the bread is his body and the wine his blood.42 Oden elucidates that Jesus’s presence in the bread and wine “signals the hospitality of Christ himself welcoming all who would come into the table fellowship of the Kingdom.”43 Everyone is invited to Christ’s table. When we participate in the Eucharist as a part of Christ’s body, we are reminded of God’s gracious welcoming of his children and anxiously anticipate the “heavenly table of the Lord.”44 Jesus’s death on the cross is a sacrificial hospitality that welcomes us into his everlasting Kingdom. In giving of his life, Jesus “linked hospitality, grace, and sacrifice in the deepest and most personal way imaginable.”45

Hospitable Practices of the Christian Church

Care for the Whole Person

In her indispensable work And You Welcomed Me, Oden assembles primary sources from the early Christian church that speak to the practice of hospitality. Oden’s analysis of these sources reveals that a key feature of hospitality in the early Christian church was its focus on care for the whole person—physically, socially, and spiritually.46 Strangers were provided with physical needs such as food, shelter, a bath, and medical treatment; social needs such as a community of friends; and spiritual needs like prayers for healing, an opportunity to worship, and the Eucharist. Oden categorizes these practices into three stages of hospitality in the early church: welcoming the guest, restoring the guest and dwelling together, and sending forth.47 This holistic hospitality expresses a love of one’s neighbor in his or her fullness and an arms-wide-open welcome into the life of Christian community. Christian hospitality is communal, not simply charitable: “Alms and physical assistance were not sufficient to define hospitality; true hospitality involved face-to-face, gracious relationships of encouragement and respect.”48

Reciprocity of Stranger and Host

Because the Christian is a welcomed guest at God’s table, she is enabled to empathize and identify with a stranger whom she hosts. In turn, the relationship between guest and host involves a mixing that “undoes the distinction between outsider and insider.”49 Traditionally, strangers are not defined simply as those who are unknown to the host, but more complexly as those who are “vulnerable,” “exist[ing] on the margins, both socially and economically.”50 They are “disconnected from basic relationships that give persons a secure place in the world.”51 In turn, they can “easily be ignored,” and while they have much to offer, they can “seldom bring status or financial gain” to their hosts, who already have resources.52 And yet, Oden explains that the Greek of the New Testament that is used to express hospitality, xenos, can mean guest, host, or stranger.53 This “semantic fluidity,” she explains, “conveys the blurred identities of guest and host.”54

In her study of hospitable Christian communities, Pohl notes that respect is sustained in host-guest relationships in two related ways: by recognizing the gifts that guests bring to the relationship and by recognizing the needs of the hosts.55 Through attentive listening and “mutual sharing of lives and stories” the host and guest “[respect] the dignity and equal worth of every person and [value] their contributions, or at least their potential contributions, to the larger community.”56 Hospitality involves “sharing your life and sharing in the lives of other[s]”—which bears resemblance to Nouwen’s translation of the German word for hospitality, Gastfreundschaft, as “friendship for the guest.”57 Though host and guest may meet as strangers with distinct roles, mutual sharing leads to a “new found unity” and friendship in which the distinction between host and guest “proves to be artificial and evaporates.”58

Spiritual Discipline: Seeing the Imago Dei

If Christian hospitality is rooted in deep relationships, mutual sharing, and community, then it cannot be limited to a “singular act of welcome,” to receiving a stranger in our house for the night (though Nouwen reminds us never to neglect that!).59 Instead, Christian hospitality is, in Nouwen’s words, “a fundamental attitude toward our fellow human being” and in Oden’s, “an orientation that at- tends to others, listening and learning, valuing and honoring.”60 Hospitality is a way of seeing and feeling about strangers—one that sees them as created in the image of Christ and feels a deep desire for intimacy with them. True Christian hospitality leads to a recognition of the other, which should lead to recentering, to recognition of one’s own idolatry, and then to repentance.61 Hospitality, then, is about more than opening the door for the stranger; it is a spiritual discipline of “opening one’s own life to God’s life” through acknowledging the revelation of Christ in his children.62

A Christian Model of Writing and Writing Pedagogy

A Vision for a Hospitable First-Year Writing Course

In what follows, I seek to extend this previous research by presenting a model of writing and writing pedagogy that fits into the story of Scripture. Although this model is tailored to the particular goals of a FYW course at a Christian college, its vision is relevant to any course that prioritizes Christ-centered writing. My vision is to orient the course toward Christian hospitality—both in its foundation, its goals, and its day-to-day practice—such that students and instructors develop an awareness of writing and hospitality as interrelated ways of being.

In Call’s brave account of her attempt to institute hospitable practices in her course, she concludes that “hospitality does not happen in single, isolated events, and it is not expressed simply by discrete actions (such as making food). Instead, it flows out from an individual’s orientation of heart and requires constant reflection, monitoring, and support.”63 This orientation of the heart must be undergirded by personal spiritual practices, especially prayer, in order to be fully embodied and sustainable.64 She echoes Homan and Pratt’s comment that hospitality “is not something you do as much as it is someone you become.”65 The following model recognizes that course rituals (e.g., grading, writing, office hours appointments) can also be spiritual practices through which teachers and students develop hospitable hearts. I also reflect on the role of hospitality in my FYW courses, both in my early years at Wheaton and in more recent years when I have more consciously implemented hospitable practices in my pedagogy. These practices reflect the transformational ways that hospitality has begun to change my “attitude” about and “orientation” toward my students, as well as my role as a teacher.66

A Foundation of Trust in the Lord

A Christian FYW course should be built on trust in the Lord. To return to an insight offered by the Haswells, a truly hospitable encounter between strangers necessitates risk that can only be countered by trust.67 As Christian teachers and students at Christian colleges, we are uniquely poised to trust one another because we believe in the same Jesus Christ and we come alongside our students in mutual faith seeking understanding.

Our shared trust in the Lord enables me to now approach writing not as a skill to be mastered but as a process through which my students and I can be guided by the Holy Spirit. I pray for my students at the beginning of every class period, and those prayers change as the semester progresses. At the semester’s beginning, I pray specifically that the Lord would lead the students to research topics that will enable them to grow as disciples of Jesus and as loving neighbors. When the students are deep in the research process, I pray for their discernment, their patience, their fortitude, and their ability to trust in the Lord above their own knowledge. When papers are complete, we offer prayers of thanksgiving.68 Praying for the students has also helped me to see the writing process more clearly through their eyes. Because writing is challenging but life-giving to me, I tend to view struggling writers as lacking time-management skills, perseverance in research, and the meticulous eye for editing. While these critiques may be true in some cases, adopting a hospitable spirit has helped me to see that every student’s writing process is unique and is not inadequate simply because it does not mirror my own. I’ve always been wary of granting extensions on deadlines, but I see now that some students just need more time to think about their arguments, more time to read sources carefully, more time to wrestle with counterarguments, and they should not always be penalized for deeply engaging in the writing process in these ways.

Writing as Collaborative Creation

A Christ-centered model of hospitable writing sees the writing process as collaborative creation. Our Father God created for us a world, ordered it for us, and invited Adam and Eve to partner with Him by naming the animals (Gen. 2:18-23). God could have done this alone; instead, He chose to collaborate, to invite His people into His creative process. He then enters into a covenant with His people—a partnership with an order aiming toward a goal—in which the Creator and the created have obligations that they fulfill together (Exod. 19-20).

This beautiful model of creative partnership should inform our approach to writing in a FYW course. Students should learn that the best arguments are not formulated through deep thinking alone in their dorm rooms, but rather, from contributing to conversations that have begun, are ongoing, and will continue.69 Furthermore, the writing process should be collaborative, involving the contributions of librarians, Writing Center consultants, peer exchange, and conversations with the instructor. This requires all parties to loosen their grip on the ownership of ideas, and instead, to see ideas as valuable gifts for exchange. It demands that professors relinquish some authority as solely the evaluator of the completed writing project and instead to come alongside students throughout the stages of the writing process. It challenges students to be humble enough to accept input from others and teachers to be humble enough to allow students to teach them. The roles of host and guest, teacher and learner should blur (as the “semantic fluidity” of xenos suggests) through mutual sharing of gifts and knowledge.70 This does not mean that the course is without boundaries—God’s covenant included many—but rather suggests that the boundaries are in place to facilitate collaborative writing rather than to stymie it.

In the classroom, I have invited students to join me in exploring how hospitality can shape our writing processes. For example, in my early years of teaching I would explain to students that we were going to perform a peer review in class, provide the research to support this practice, and outline the guidelines for the practice. Now, I begin by asking the students, “What should be the goals for a hospitable peer review? How should a hospitable peer review look different in our Christian classroom than it would in a secular context? What steps should we take to meet these goals?” The students’ answers generate the guidelines for the peer review, which we create together in class. We ask the same questions of many other aspects of writing: What are the characteristics of a hospitable sentence? A hospitable introduction? In the last two semesters, students have derived somewhat different answers to these questions, and we have proceeded with them as tenets nevertheless because they are values shared by the particular students in the course. This means that I am moving away from imposing values on students and moving them toward collective meaning-making.

Conversational Feedback

FYW teachers should view assessment and comments on students’ writing as invitations into conversation, modeled after God’s invitations to us. Even in the space of assessment and commentary, the “hospitable teacher has to reveal to the student that they have something to offer.”71 Thus, the FYW teacher should seek to articulate her response to a student’s writing both as an expression of her opinion and as a gesture of welcome. These two positions are not antithetical. A hospitable teacher is not a neutral one: as Nouwen asserts so clearly, “When we want to be really hospitable we not only have to receive strangers but also to confront them by an unambiguous presence, not hiding ourselves behind neutrality but showing our ideas, opinions and life style clearly and distinctly. No real dialogue is possible between somebody and nobody.”72 A response can be both inviting of dialogue and an honest assessment. Our comments should express praise: inspiring creative, new ideas, and not reducing a students’ work to our own. Our comments should express thanksgiving: conveying our genuine investment in the paper topic and our desire to learn more. Our comments should, when necessary, express lamentation: acknowledging opportunities lost and lamenting challenges that stifled the writer’s progress.

Most teachers of FYW would confess that grading is one of the most arduous tasks of the course, and I confess that I have felt likewise. But I have realized that I cannot be a hospitable reader if I view the stack of ungraded research papers as an imposition on my time, a weight to bear, a treacherous obstacle course through which to painfully wade. To change my view into a hospitable one, I began praising the students’ work in class, acknowledging the many hours that they had invested in their projects, and proceeding with the assumption that the papers were filled with the blessings of the Holy Spirit (rather than merely riddled with grammatical and logistical errors). I read for blessings, and I found them in abundance. The sentence-level errors were still on the page, but they were less present to me, less frustrating. I saw essays that were full of potential rather than mistakes, full of hope rather than failure. Recently, I have begun praying before reading each paper, asking the Holy Spirit to inform what I see. Call describes hospitality as an orientation of the heart, and for me, that orientation continues to be no more needed and no more valuable than in the reading process.

In recent semesters, I have also explored alternative grading systems. Across the country, FYW instructors are challenged to derive efficient means of grading hundreds of pages of student writing per semester. In an attempt to ameliorate this burden and biases in instructor grading, Beth Brunk-Chavez and Annette Arrigucci present Electronic Distributed Evaluation (EDE) as a solution, whereby students upload a paper online, after which it is evaluated by a normed grader who is not his or her instructor.73 Although this format is attempting fairness in grading, it is antithetical to hospitality in its negation of face-to-face encounters between student and grader. It prevents a relationship between the reader and the writer, a relationship that allows them to see the image of Christ in one another. In striking contrast to the EDE model, I now meet individually with each student in conferences to discuss their papers and the comments that I write on them. These collaborative conversations allow the student to articulate the vision for the paper and for me to speak into it. The student does not receive a checklist of revisions to complete, but instead is given authority to take control of the writing process with my support and insight. In the last two semesters, I experimented with not writing grades on students’ papers (though I did record grades in my gradebook), thus encouraging students to focus on engaging with the ideas I shared in my comments and on setting their own writing goals, rather than writing to earn a stellar transcript.

Writing to Invite

Students writing in a Christian FYW course should seek to convey the Gospel and invite the reader into the body of Christ. In Luke 1, Luke describes his writing and research process as rooted in his desire to convey the Truth of Jesus Christ:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything care- fully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke is a meticulous researcher: he has gathered eyewitness accounts that were handed down and has investigated everything carefully. Others have undertaken this project, but Luke seems committed to a more expansive and thorough research process than has preceded him. His purpose in this accumulation of evidence is not to hoard his knowledge but to share it. He writes his account “for you,” his dear friend of God. Twice, he reminds us that it is an “orderly” account; such a significant writing project deserves patient, diligent organization of accurate information. Luke’s sincerest hope is that “you may know the truth”—and this is the purpose that underlies all of the choices he makes as a writer and researcher. So should it be for our students in FYW.

If the FYW student seeks to invite others into the body of Christ, then the audience of her writing cannot be her professor. Her paper cannot be submitted to Schoology, graded by her professor, and then promptly forgotten. One way for the paper to have a priestly effect on the world is for it to reach the hands of an intended audience outside of the classroom. Recent research on the value of writing for “real audiences” and student writing for social justice corroborates the value of purposeful writing that has real effects and implications on audiences in the student’s community.74 Writing for audiences outside of the classroom gives students an opportunity to participate in another guest-host relationship and to facilitate it through the gifting of their writing. Such opportunities challenge students to consider how to present their faith-based arguments to a variety of audiences within Christian and secular discourse communities. For example, a student’s paper that seeks to persuade his local government to adopt stricter laws to prevent human trafficking could be deeply motivated by his love of neighbor—and such an argument might be more convincing to its secular city council members without citing Scripture, while the same argument could be supported with Scripture when presented to a local Christian congregation. Hospitable writers write to invite: they do Kingdom work through creating meaningful relationships with real readers and welcoming them into the Truth they know in Christ.

Writing as a Gift to One’s Neighbor

Hospitable writers offer their writing as a gift to their readers. Because God has given us the “indescribable gift” of his grace, so we should be cheerful givers (1 Cor. 9:7, 15). God has provided us with every blessing in abundance, such that we can share abundantly with others (1 Cor. 9:8). And yet, I know of few students who would describe their academic papers as gifts. As “work” or “products” or “achievements” or “projects”—but not as gifts. Notably, the exchange of gifts between host and guest has long been an expression of hospitality in many cultures, including Christianity, as I previously discussed. Thus, we must reveal to students how their writing can be a gift to their neighbors, rather than merely a requirement fulfilled in order to earn a grade.

For example, a few years ago, Paula Mathieu, Associate Professor of English at Boston College, visited our campus, and she spoke about an oral history project on which she had collaborated with her students. Her students partnered with and interviewed senior citizens, wrote drafts of their oral histories, conducted peer reviews, interviewed their partners again, shared their drafts with Mathieu and finally presented the final product to their partners. In this example, students’ recognition that their writing was for an audience outside of the classroom, and particularly for people who couldn’t do the writing themselves, enabled them to understand their writing as a gift. When utilized in a Christian FYW course, this oral history project could be a powerful means of recording testimonies, sharing the Gospel, and honoring God’s call to care for the least of these.

In my FYW course, my students write a research paper and then revise it into a different genre and submit it to its intended audience. For example, a student wrote a research paper about how children should not consume caffeine, and then she revised it into a children’s book that she then read to a group of children. Another student wrote a research paper about Chicago food deserts and revised it as an opinion editorial that he submitted to a local Chicago newspaper. I initially designed this as a genre analysis project, and while it still serves that purpose, I found that it encourages students to practice hospitality to their readers. It informs the research paper topics that the students choose, and it serves as motivation for completing the research paper when it is challenging. Relatedly, all students in FYW at Wheaton present their research in short presentations at a conference that we hold on campus at the end of the semester. We pitch this conference not as an opportunity for students to show off their learning, but rather, as a space where they can share the gift of their knowledge with their neighbors and freely exchange ideas with one another. The gift of hospitality becomes the inspiration for student writing.

Writing with Hospitable Language

Students in a Christian FYW course should seek to write with hospitable language. Paul, in his letters to the Corinthians and Thessalonians, is our model in this endeavor. In 1 Corinthians 2, he declares that he did not proclaim the mystery of God in “lofty words or wisdom” but rather with “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1, 4-5). Christian students should likewise use language that is inviting to their discourse communities, that values communication and care above manipulation and flattery. Wheaton’s gender-inclusive language policy powerfully speaks to our commitment as Christian teachers and students to use our words to build bridges to our readers rather than to exclude them.

Speaking specifically to the intersection of language and race, let me offer an example that demonstrates how my students of color have meaningfully contributed to my writing pedagogy. In July 2017, I taught an Academic Writing course to 20 rising high school juniors in Wheaton’s Building Roads to Intellectual Diversity and Great Education (B.R.I.D.G.E.) program.75 Designed as an abbreviated version of my FYW course, Academic Writing included many of the same assigned readings, in-class exercises, and discussion questions. One of the topics we discussed, as we do in FYW, is academic voice, specifically, the vocabulary and tone that is appropriate in an academic essay written to a scholarly audience. To illustrate that different voices are appropriate for different audiences, I gave the students commonly known axioms, such as “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” that were rewritten in highfalutin language: “It is fruitless to become lachrymose over precipitately departed lacteal fluid.” I was surprised when many of the students said that they had never heard of the original axioms. Then, one student spoke the truth: “These sayings are so white.” He was entirely right. I had taught this same exercise for years in my FYW courses at Wheaton and had never considered that the axioms were specific to a particular racial group, at a particular time in history, in a particular place. Immediately, I affirmed the student’s observation and then asked the group to share similar phrases that they use in their communities. (“Don’t sweat it” was most common.) This experience taught me the necessity of a safe classroom community where students trust me enough to reveal when my pedagogical practices are unwelcoming to them. It also showed me that hospitality is not one-size-fits-all, that sometimes our hospitable efforts will fail despite our best intentions. I tell my FYW students this story now because I want them to see that what they are learning from me is shaped by what students of color before them have taught me.

Teaching the Student Writer, Created in the Image of Christ

The Christian teacher of FYW should seek to care for the whole of her students, recognizing them as created in the image of Christ. This is true for teachers of any discipline, but its application in a FYW course is distinctive. For example, FYW teachers can guide students toward research topics that will help them to grow as disciples of Christ and in love their neighbors. (This, of course, requires that teachers have created a safe space in which students can honestly share the ways in which they need to grow in faith.) FYW teachers can acknowledge the challenges of the writing and research process—for example, its recursive nature—and help students to think about these obstacles as opportunities for growth in the fruits of the Spirit. Rather than focusing on the final product, the perfected writing project, as the goal of the course, the teacher can designate the written work as the vehicle through which the students will love their neighbor and faithfully serve their creator God. In Reaching Out, Nouwen offers a beautiful vision of Christian teaching that is rooted in hospitality: “When we look at teaching in terms of hospitality, we can say that the teacher is called upon to create for his students a free and fearless space where mental and emotional development can take place.”76 I’m sure that Nouwen would also add spiritual development to that list and esteem it above the others. When we see our students as bearing the image of Christ, then we approach our classroom, assignments, and office hours conversations as hospitable spaces where God can bless our students on their journeys of sanctification. Writing, we can impress upon our students, is not just a marketable skill or a means of self-discovery. It is a conduit through which we can love our neighbor, grow in the fruits of the spirit, and imitate our creator God.77

Teaching to Student Writers’ Individual Needs

Finally, a hospitable orientation of the heart prompts me to see my students as individuals, each uniquely created in the image of God. In our FYW classrooms, our students may feel “othered” for a host of reasons, including differences in race, class, gender, age, first language, quality of prior writing instruction, and degree of familiarity with North American academic genre conventions. I am proposing that the FYW classroom offers us a chance not simply to acknowledge these differences but to value them. Each student has something meaningful to offer, both in writing and to the class community. In his essay “Caring and the Teaching of English,” Brian White calls for “relentless attentiveness to all students in their unique circumstances.”78 I must know my students well enough, as individuals in “unique circumstances,” to provide a space that feels welcoming and safe to each person, thus enabling them to flourish in diverse ways.

In turn, Christian hospitality has challenged me to teach more flexibly ac- cording to my students’ needs. I’ve learned that policies and practices that are hospitable to one student may feel radically inhospitable to another student. In-class exercises that seek to build hospitality at the beginning of the semester when the students are strangers to one another will need to be adapted as the semester progresses and the class community grows. I often teach two sections of FYW each semester, and activities that are joyfully welcomed in one class have sometimes been lackluster or even isolating in the other class. Campus tragedies, such as the death of a student, which we experienced at Wheaton a few years ago, radically change the atmosphere of the classroom and necessitate new approaches to hospitality. In the 2020-2021 academic year, Wheaton adopted a hybrid learning model in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; consequently, I was challenged to create hospitable community among remote learners on Zoom and in-person students who were socially distanced and masked. All of these variables require that I be improvisational: I can’t sketch out a “hospitality lesson plan” at the beginning of the semester and then dutifully implement it without wavering. Instead, I must ask my students for their input on the course, hear their needs, and respond as best I can, even if that means changing the syllabus, revising an assignment, or moving a deadline.

For me, this is one of the most challenging aspects of hospitable teaching: it requires a relinquishing of control, to a degree. This is risky, and it’s hard work. I can’t rehash the exact same lectures and PowerPoint presentations semester after semester. New students have new needs, new questions, new thoughts. To serve them best, I must be fully present to them. In turn, each course becomes like a performance of a play, enacted one semester, with all its glories and flaws, and never repeated exactly the same again, even if we are reading the same writing textbooks as “scripts.” Hospitality reminds me that my students and I are alive, vibrantly alive, by the grace of God. I am not a Scantron machine robotically scoring essays, and they are not ID numbers sitting in desks. God has given us the gift of one another, teacher and student, host and guest. Each semester offers us the opportunity to open the door, let one another in, and receive the blessings that God pours in.


  1. Parker Palmer, To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey (New York: HarperOne, 1993); Carolyne Call, “The Rough Trail to Authentic Pedagogy: Incorporating Hospitality, Fellowship, and Testimony into the Classroom,” in Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, ed. David I. Smith and James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001): 61-79.
  2. David I. Smith, and Barbara Carvill, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000); David Anderson, “Hospitable Class- rooms: Biblical Hospitality and Inclusive Education,” JECB, 15.1 (2011): 13-27.
  3. Jake Stratman, “Toward a Pedagogy of Hospitality: Empathy, Literature, and Community Engagement,” JECB, 17.1 (2013): 25-59; Rebecca Burwell and Mackenzi Huyser, “Practicing Hospitality in the Classroom.” JECB, 17.1 (2013): 9-24.
  4. David M. Rhoads, “Hospitality in the Classroom,” Currents in Theology and Mission, 40.4 (August 2013): 255-261; Ellen Marmon, “Teaching as Hospitality,” The Asbury Journal, 63.2 (2008): 37.
  5. Christine Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); Amy G. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me: A Sourcebook on Hospitality in Early Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001).
  6. John Bennett, “Hospitality and Collegial Community: An Essay,” Innovative Higher Educa- tion, 25.2 (Winter 2000): 85-96; Carolyn M. Jones, “Hospes: The Wabash Center as a Site of Transformative Hospitality,” Teaching Theology and Religion, 10.3 (2007): 150-155.
  7. Janis Haswell, Richard Haswell, and Glenn Blalock, “Hospitality in College Composition Courses,” CCC, 60.4 (June 2009): 707-27; Janis Haswell and Richard Haswell, Hospitality and Authoring: An Essay for the English Profession (Louisville: Utah State UP, 2015).
  8. Haswell and Haswell, Hospitality and Authoring, 3.
  9. Ibid., 7.
  10. Ibid., 54.
  11. Richard Hughes Gibson and James Edward Beitler III, Charitable Writing (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020).
  12. Stephanie Paulsell, “Writing as a Spiritual Discipline” in The Scope of Our Art: The Voca- tion of the Theological Teacher, ed. L. Gregory Jones and Stephanie Paulsell (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 17-31.
  13. In their discussion of hospitable writing, Gibson and Beitler cite an unpublished version of my Wheaton College Faith and Learning paper from 2018.
  14. Gibson and Beitler, Charitable Writing, 114-116.
  15. Haswell, Haswell, and Blalock, “Hospitality in College Composition Courses,” 709.
  16. Quoted in Haswell and Haswell, Hospitality and Authoring, 23.
  17. Ibid., 61.
  18. Ibid., 56.
  19. Ibid., 3.
  20. Haswell and Haswell, Hospitality and Authoring, 8. The Haswells’ usage of “ubuntu” derives from Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa (New York: Crown, 1988), and Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (New York: Image, 2000).
  21. Ibid., 91.
  22. Ibid., 99.
  23. Ibid., 172.
  24. Ibid., 172.
  25. Ibid., 8.
  26. Palmer, To Know As We Are Known, xvi.
  27. Burwell and Huyser, “Practicing Hospitality in the Classroom,” 13, 15, 20.
  28. Stratman, “Toward a Pedagogy of Hospitality,” 45.
  29. Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 72.
  30. Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Ada: Brazos Press, 2008), 243.
  31. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 56.
  32. Pohl, Making Room, 25.
  33. See Phyllis Tribe, Texts of Terror: Literary-feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).
  34. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 18.
  35. Joshua Jipp, Saved by Faith and Hospitality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017), 2.
  36. Ibid., 2.
  37. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 199.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Additional examples of the language of hospitality in the New Testament include Acts 28:7, Rom. 16:23, 1 Tim. 5:10, 3 John 1:8.
  40. Pohl, Making Room, 21.
  41. See Matt. 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16, Luke 18:15-17, Luke 7:36-50, Luke 5:27-32, Matt. 9:9-13, and Luke 15:1-2.
  42. See Matt. 9:10-13, Mark 2:15-17, Luke 5:29-32, John 12:1-2, and Luke 7:36.
  43. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 9.
  44. Pohl, Making Room, 30.
  45. Ibid., 29.
  46. Ibid., 6; Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 14.
  47. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 146-147.
  48. Pohl, Making Room, 70.
  49. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion, 243.
  50. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 20.
  51. Pohl, Making Room, 13.
  52. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 20.
  53. Ibid., 51.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Pohl, Making Room, 72.
  56. Ibid., 13, 61.
  57. Ibid., 72.
  58. Nouwen, Reaching Out, 67.
  59. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 14; Nouwen, Reaching Out, 66.
  60. Nouwen, Reaching Out, 66; Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 14, my italics.
  61. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 15-16.
  62. Ibid., 15.
  63. Call, “The Rough Trail to Authentic Pedagogy,” 78.
  64. Ibid.
  65. Quoted in Call, “The Rough Trail to Authentic Pedagogy,” 78.
  66. Nouwen, Reaching Out, 66; Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 14.
  67. Haswell and Haswell, Hospitality and Authoring, 89.
  68. The chapter “Entering the Study” in Gibson and Beitler’s Charitable Writing invites student writers to pray before writing as an act of “humble listening.” Throughout the book, Gibson and Beitler also model the practice of looking at Christian art before, during, and after writing as a means of humbly acknowledging the work of Christian artists who have come before us.
  69. Stuart Greene, “Argument as Conversation: The Role of Inquiry in Writing a Researched Argument,” in The Subject is Research: Processes and Practices, ed. Wendy Bishop and Pavel Zemliansky (Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 2001):146. For more on writing as a social practice within the context of Christian community and history, see Gibson and Beitler, Charitable Writing, 25-73.
  70. Oden, ed., And You Welcomed Me, 51.
  71. Ibid., 87.
  72. Nouwen, Reaching Out, 99.
  73. Beth Brunk-Chavez and Annette Arrigucci, “An Emerging Model for Student Feedback: Electronic Distributed Evaluation,” Composition Studies, 40.1 (2012): 60.
  74. Writing for audiences outside of the classroom presents its own challenges—as documented by Paula Mathieu, Tactics of Hope: The Public Turn in English Composition (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005), and Elizabeth Ervin, “Encouraging Civic Participation among First- Year Writing Students; Or, Why Composition Class Should Be More like a Bowling Team,” Rhetoric Review, 15:2 (1997), 382-399, to name a few—but Mathieu says that partnerships between universities and groups outside of the classroom are possible and can be mutually beneficial when they are built on personal relationships, mutual needs, and a shared sense of timing. The language Mathieu uses here echoes that of the Haswells and Blalock (2009) in their discussion of hospitality.
  75. B.R.I.D.G.E. is a four-week intensive and residential academic and leadership program that brings together high-achieving, first-generation college-bound, low-income, and African American and Latino students from the Chicagoland area.
  76. Nouwen, Reaching Out, 86-87.
  77. For more on writing as a vehicle for spiritual development, see Paulsell, “Writing as a Spiritual Discipline” and Gibson and Beitler, Charitable Writing.
  78. Brian White, “Caring and the Teaching of English,” Research in the Teaching of English, 37.3 (2003): 325.

Alison Caviness Gibson

Alison Caviness Gibson is senior lecturer of English and director of the Writing Center at Wheaton College.