“If we could do it,” said Raymond Williams, “we’d give every new faculty member at a theology school a hundred dollars and tell them to take the oldest faculty member out to dinner.” About to retire himself (“I plan to continue my liberal arts education,” he said), Williams has a memory of how things used to be and an acute understanding of the pressures on today’s new faculty, because for the last six years he has been the founding director of the Wabash Center for teaching and learning in theology and religion. It’s been a two-thirds-time job—Williams has also continued teaching in the religion department of Wabash College, a private men’s liberal arts school in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he taught since 1965.

Raymond Williams

When asked what the center is for, one of William’s replies is that his goal is to change the reward system in higher education so that the focus is on teaching as the faculty’s primary task That was the case he said, but “over the last decades faculty identity is increasingly a matter of guild identity. That means there are pressures that keep faculty from identifying with their own school or their own denomination. The guild is arbitrator of rewards, and sometimes they are not closely related to the work at hand.” Williams holds that research and publishing and the rest are important, but that the center of a teacher’s job is teaching.

Williams is no stranger to the guild. He is a member of the board of the American Academy of Religion and has served on its executive committee, and the Wabash Center is a much-felt presence at AAR meetings.

Particularly Graceful
The flow of William’s vocational path has been a particularly graceful one, although it was not exactly as he would have imagined it at the start. After collecting a B.A. from Johnson Bible College and an M.Div. from Phillips University (“Everyone who planned to teach religion back then got an M.Div.,” he said), he headed to the University of Chicago, where he emerged with a doctorate in church history and, as he puts it, “a button that said ‘professor’—not teacher. That was in 1965, and in those days, there were jobs.” Indeed, he had his choice of several colleges, it being the pattern then to teach undergraduates for a few years before moving to a school of theology. When he asked where to go, Wabash was suggested as a good place to move on from. Williams went to Wabash, but he hasn’t moved on yet (although he has spent some sabbatical time studying in India). “I landed in a teaching institution,” he said with satisfaction. In the 1970s he organized a workshop for his teachers on religious aspects of teaching; in the ’80s he became chair of the religion department and his interest in helping teachers teach grew. In the ’90s he did seminars for pre-tenure college faculty, and the die was cast. The Wabash Center opened in 1995 with an infusion of cash from the Lilly Endowment, and Williams set about helping professors reclaim the joy of their vocation.

One means to that end is a series of workshops for various sorts of professors at various points in their careers and in various special circumstances. Pre-tenure faculty members are invited to reflect on their sense of vocation, to speak freely in ways they don’t normally have the opportunity to do, to indulge in what Parker Palmer calls “good talking about good teaching.” 

“So many of them are taking on more tasks and feeling like they ought to,” said Williams, “They have a sense that whatever they’re doing, they’re not doing enough. When they have a chance to reflect on what’s important, they say things like, ‘Now I know why I got into this business in the first place.’” Faculty who have just gained tenure are a different group: “It’s a defining moment in their career. They need to take a deep breath and ask, ‘Where will I place my energy? What am I really committed to?’ Again, we place the emphasis on teaching and learning.” 

Ongoing Evaluation
One thing that faculty learn by the time they’re tenured, according to Williams, is that teaching is easy to do poorly, hard to do well, and that there are lazy, mediocre faculty who take the first path. The question of evaluation is one with no simple answer, but Williams has a few suggestions, including a change from summative evaluation (you get fired or you don’t) to formative, ongoing evaluation. “Faculty evaluation tends to happen at the least helpful times—like with end of course evaluations by students,” he said. Assessment along the way makes more sense, but how to do it? “It seems to me that we need a change of focus from teaching to learning. What we’re trying to do is transformative for the student, and that’s something theology teachers can teach other teachers. One goal of the Wabash Center is breaking down walls so that the best people in theology can dialogue with the best people in teaching and learning.” Teaching Theology and Religion, the center’s journal is creating a genre of literature that is centered in that dialogue. A variety of grants are also available through the center to schools and individuals working on projects that will further the dialogue.

Perhaps the core of the center’s success has to do with Williams’s determination to treat faculty “the absolute best we can.” It works in small ways as well as large. He recalled the response at the center’s first workshop when participants found welcome baskets in their rooms. “It didn’t cost much, but the goodwill generated was beyond value,” he said. The goodwill generated by giving teachers the opportunity to focus on their first love might be incalculable. 

What Has Athens to do with Jerusalem or Bombay?
Searching the text for the situation in life is like looking down on a beautiful, carefully ordered embroidery piece, but being blocked from the tangled complexity underneath that both traces and disguises the creative process and force. A strong urge exists to get beneath the text to what anthropologists call “life on the ground.” How did/do the traditions mold, shape, and move people in their daily lives?... A noted European Indologist, on a first visit to India, watched the aged Brahmin priest ritually bathe images of the gods in a village temple in Tamil Nadu, all the while muttering, “He’s not doing it correctly.” The anthropologist nearby responded that the texts, on which the Indologist relied, obviously did not reflect correct practice. The exchange illustrates the interdependence, and sometimes incongruence, of text and practice, and the difficulty of learning truth from each. 

I have attempted, to combine literary and anthropological approaches in the study of the sociological background of the New Testament, the formation and migration of Indian religious groups, and the process and function of transmission of religious tradition. The most satisfying goal in the study of the humanities is to place us in as direct contact as possible with the lives, struggles, beauty, successes, failures, joys and sorrows of people living in many times, places, and cultures. Our lives are enhanced and our basic humanity created and affirmed by the range of contacts that extend beyond ourselves. The ability of people to create symbols, to communicate by means of them, and to understand across vast distances of time and space is our defining human uniqueness.

I learned the importance of community and the communal situation in life from a research project begun in error. I went to India in 1976 to interview Srivaishnava acharyas (teachers) and sishyas (disciples) because I thought that acharyas teach and transmit the religious tradition. Interviews made it clear that few acharyas are teachers; rather, they are hereditary religious specialists who initiate young people as Srivaishnava Hindus. The function of the acharya is to incorporate individuals into a community, into a tradition of thought and action, as one sishya told me, “The acharya opens the book.” Then, as a member of a community, with a place in the web of history, the individual is able to learn from many teachers. Indeed, the people as a whole are the bearers of the tradition. The lesson from this research is that the transmission of tradition always takes place in a community and that membership in a community is essential to our knowing as well as to our being.

Tradition provides a syntax of languages—verbal, ritual, and visual—enabling us to continue the conversation of culture and civilization.

A thrust toward the future is implicit in the transmission of tradition because an adequate sense of tradition manifests itself in a grasp of those future possibilities the past has made available to the present. We think backwards, but live forwards... Before going to India, I studied its history and traditions and formed a mental picture of India, a fabrication in Jonathan Smith’s sense, both building and lying. Being in India transformed that picture into a new construction, surely not unrelated to the potentials inherent in the earlier picture, but such that I could not remember its exact shape. More generally, the interpretive inadequacy of our predecessors is assumed by all of us in the complex but problematic interaction between the present, past and future.

The function of religion in this world-building and thrust toward the future is partly in providing a transcendent basis for personal and group identity, a natural outgrowth of human character as a symbol-bearing creature. Such transcendence is, potentially, a powerful force in the conservative stabilizing of a social world and in the transformative challenge to the status quo. Thus, religions provide a transcendent grounding for ethos, social order, ways of knowing and acting in a society, and for a person’s identity and goals for the future. Paradoxically, the transcendent commitment relativizes mundane authorities of all types and permits individuals to withstand strong pressures to be “conformed to this world.” The process of transmission of religious tradition is potentially the most confining among human institutions, creating for some a kind of cultural prison, or the most liberating because religious commitment permits the individual to stand within a tradition that calls into question all traditions, including ultimately aspects of itself.

—Raymond B. Williams

An excerpt from the 1992 Lafollette Lecture, at Wabash College.




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