Because of some time teaching at a seminary and now at a college, I’ve been asked to reflect on the difference between teaching seminary students and college students. I haven’t taught seminary students in 12 years, and will get to next Spring again for a few weeks, so by then I may have some more ideas. But here goes:
I begin with a big one. Often I felt seminary students were “using me”. Not in a bad way. But, I often thought seminary students wanted information so they could “use” it in their ministries. College students rarely think like this. In fact, there is more of a “listening to me” direct encounter — this kind: “Professor, I needed that” or “Professor, you’ve got this one dead wrong.”
Which leads to this: seminary students called me “Scot” and my students now call me “Mr. McKnight” or “Dr. McKnight” or (more often) “Scot.” I prohibit “Mr. McKnight” because that is what you call high school teachers. I don’t care if they call me “Dr.” or “Scot.” If I get hung up on my “title,” I’ve got more than titles to be worrying about. Some, of course, think what you call your professor is about propriety or respect and the like; I’m not so sure. I expect propriety; I don’t think it has much to do with what I’m called.
Now here’s some fun observations, most of them overstated.
First, college students are five times more lazy and five times more surprising. Like the student of mine who, even though she didn’t do the assignment of reading what Paul said about women, was fully confident that Paul was “full of shit” when it came to women (that’s a quotation, direct and unforgettable). It led to quite a discussion in class, not the least of which was how to talk about someone many in the room thought was sacred and whose letters were canonical, authoritative and God’s Word. And not a few of our Christians kids learned that others don’t see Paul as they do.
Second, on assignments: if you don’t assess it or test it, college students simply don’t do it. I don’t know how they know it, but they figure this out Day One, First Hour, before-they-leave-the-dorm-room. Those extra “suggested readings” I had padded into my syllabus at TEDS were gone after one hopeful attempt in college. I’ve learned to put in the syllabus what has to be done; no more.
Third, college students are more interested in answers than methods, and thus they don’t ask as often “how did you learn that?” or “where can I find that for myself?” I found seminary students a lot more interested in methods. Now, I happen to be quite interested in methods but I have found that method is taught more inductively than by discussing methods theoretically.
Fourth, college students don’t come to class as prepared or as alert. It never even concerned me when I was teaching seminary students to think if students would be ready. They came ready. The only way I have found for college students to come to class prepared daily is to grade something daily. What I do is concentrate assignments on significant learning experiences, like papers, etc., and let the students work out their own schedules.
Fifth, college faculty is all over the map of the disciplines; in seminary everyone had an opinion about everyone else’s field because we were more or less all doing the same thing: theology. But I have to confess I’m amazed sometimes what college professors think they know about theology and the Bible. I recently heard that Seattle Pacific has a “Bible Day” or something like that where the Faculty gets exposed to what is going on in biblical and theological studies. Whoever is doing that is doing something that surely has to be done.
Sixth, lots of my students participate in a sport; in seminary some of them were has-beens, though lots of them were still hanging out in gyms thinking about the days when they could still dunk. Some of my seminary students were D-1 athletes. By the way, I played some basketball with seminary students. No more — I’d need a bottle of Advil.
Seventh, college and seminary students are identical when it comes to playing golf. I played yesterday with two recently graduated college students. It was fun. The only round of golf I have lost since teaching at NPU was to a college student (Matt Lindahl) who hit the ball farther than I could see. (I played poorly yesterday, but the course was so difficult we all struggled.)
Eighth, on papers … I’m not sure. College students can be lazy and just toss something together at the last minute; I didn’t see that in seminary. But there is a certain joy in seeing college students learn to think their way into a topic by struggling with the Bible and theology. And college students sometimes wander dramatically into issues of personal significance at a level that makes you think you reading a reflection that is life-changing.
Ninth, about 90% of my students in college are not Bible majors; all of them in seminary were. Teaching “kingdom” to kids who don’t know a thing about it is a lot different than teaching a seminary student who wants to see how “realized” I am. (Except for psychology students, who were easier to pick out of a class than a purple hotel — they looked at me the whole time with empathetic eyes and when I made eye contact they nodded.)
Tenth, you don’t have to be as prepared with details for college (though I carry a folder full of notes into class), but you do have to read your students’ eyes more to see if they are with you.
Eleventh, seminary students were annoyed when I was gone; college students hope I don’t return.
Twelfth, I was twice as boring as a seminary professor as I am now.
One of the major differences, though, is change: I taught seminary before cell phones, before wireless, before iPod and before DVDs. In fact, before students all had computers. I understand that today even seminary students sit at the back of the class and surf the web during a lecture. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they turn on a recorder in the computer and that it turns words into text and that they, while the computer takes notes, they take care of an eBay deal.