Because of the amount of both news and theology that I read, it’s a relatively frequent occurrence for me to have some serendipitous moment of convergence between two different things that I’m reading, and last weekend was yet another of those occurrences. The offending texts in this case are philosopher Stanley Fish’s most recent column for The New York Times Opinionator blog and A History of Christian Theology by the late great William Placher, a text that I’ve assigned for a Christology course I’m teaching this fall.
As he traces the Third (II Constantinople) and Fourth (Ephesus) Ecumenical councils and the Nestorian controversy, Placher notes that “when theologians interfere with popular piety, they arouse opposition.” And indeed, one need not study theology for very long before they realize that this is most certainly the case. It was with this thought in the back of my mind that I read Stanley Fish’s most recent blog.
Fish is a philosopher with whom I often do not agree but always find winsome, entertaining and witty. He’s been called a religious chameleon (I can’t remember where I heard that expression used – I apologize if I’ve plagiarized you), and, more importantly in this case, is an apologist for humanities education. In “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, Fish examines the recent efforts by the Texas public university system to hold professors more accountable for educating students. One of the most significant ways Texas aims to measure professors’ effectiveness in teaching is through course-end student evaluations.
Fish rightly blasts this practice on its own (lack of) merit, but allow me to return to Placher for a moment to pose the following scenario. A theology professor, teaching in the context of an evangelical Christian liberal arts university, teaches their students that the Bible is not the same thing as a science textbook or a history textbook, and in so doing challenges their students’ inherited theology. Or, to use Placher’s phrase, the theologian challenges the popular piety of their students.
Two questions: Will this theologian receive positive evaluations from their students? Will those evaluations be accurate assessments of the professor’s teaching abilities and efforts?
The answer to both questions is maybe. If the students enter the institution with the expectation that certain parts of their inherited theology are unhelpful or incorrect and that the role of the university is to challenge and correct and question some of that inherited theology, then they appreciate their professor’s challenge. I suspect, however, that there are a number of evangelical students for whom the opposite is true: they have no desire to be challenged, little curiosity about what others think, and do not appreciate those whose views are different from their own (in my view the popularity of Glenn Beck and his ilk are a sister symptom here). These students resent being challenged to think differently, and so trash their professor on their student evaluations with labels like “liberal” or “too intellectual/theoretical” or “heretical” or simply “boring.”
These sorts of concerns certainly do call an over-reliance on student evaluations for judging professor effectiveness in theological education into question. We certainly do need to evaluate whether professors are effectively facilitating student learning, and it’s possible that the course-end evaluation is one tool for painting a larger assessment picture. But I think it’s questionable – at best – to judge the effectiveness of a theological education by whether or not the student is satisfied at the end of the course.