Pedagogues or parents?

Image of large lecture hall.

Looking outside as I write this, I see that the nights are drawing in and there’s the beginnings of a chill in the air, which can mean only one thing: autumn term is nearly upon us. Inevitably, then, the minds of many academics will fast be turning away from ongoing research projects or thoughts of a holiday (or a kind of tug-of-war between both these things, as Georgina described so well in July), and towards the returning students and the task of teaching. In that spirit, I wanted to share something I’ve been reflecting on over the summer that has challenged me in the way I think about my own role as a lecturer.

The starting point is a passage in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In the middle of a fairly stern telling-off for the young church (there’s plenty of that in this letter!), we find Paul suddenly making a rather plaintive appeal:

‘I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me.’ (1 Corinthians 4:14–16)

The word ‘guardians’ is παιδαγωγοὺς – the root of our word ‘pedagogue’, meaning a tutor or instructor. Paul is setting out his credentials for criticising the Corinthians as he does; they might be surrounded by ‘tutors’ who are pulling them in different directions, but Paul has a special status as the one who brought the Gospel to them – their spiritual ‘father’. It’s his paternal love for them that motivates him to reach out and challenge them about their behaviour.

Paul’s context and ours are obviously worlds apart. What struck me, though, is this contrast he draws between ‘tutor’ or ‘guardian’ (pedagogue!) and ‘father’, which has some parallels with a tension that I’ve started to notice within university education. One of the supposed distinctions between school and university education is that the former is as much about behaviour management and character-building as it as about intellectual development; the idea is that by the time they reach university, students are fully-formed adults and so teachers can properly focus on the subject in hand. Yet I can see numerous examples of academics who’ve had a significant influence on their students not just intellectually but also in terms of their personal, emotional, and even spiritual growth. In fact, in most conversations I have had with students (or overheard!) about their university teaching, their focus has not been on the content of the sessions but the character of the lecturer – whether they were friendly, funny, patient or combative.

In that sense we can find ourselves acting not just as teachers but also as role-models and mentors, people who are to some degree in loco parentis. If our focus is solely on teaching – pedagogy – as a professional activity, we may find ourselves blind to the other ways in which we are shaping the lives of those we work with. Here’s a few questions I’m going to be asking myself as I head into this term, along those lines:

  • Am I willing for students to see aspects of my life outside of the teaching context? Paul tells the Corinthians to ‘imitate me’ – he is happy to be a role model for them. Do I see myself as an academic role model? Or would I prefer students to focus purely on the ideas I present? (Very few of them will!)
  • Would I be willing to challenge students on behaviour I see that is damaging or inappropriate, even outside a classroom context? Again, professional detachment might make us want to mind our own business; but caring for the welfare of our students (as Paul does with the Corinthians) sometimes means letting them know when we’re worried about them.
  • How does my faith in Jesus affect the way I speak and act in the classroom? I’ve written before about ‘academic citizenship’ and the need to engage with other thinkers in a generous way (even when we are critical of their ideas). The often performative nature of university teaching means that it can be easy to foreground controversy or provocation as a way of making a point; does my teaching model a gracious approach towards academic debate?

What do you think? Where does the line fall for you between a ‘professional’ detachment from the lives of your students, and a recognition that you are also acting as a role model to them? Leave your thoughts in the comments!


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This is timely and challenging - thanks Mark! The question it provoked in my mind is how aspects of this might be gendered. I think you're right to emphasise the parental meaning of Paul's metaphor over the specifically paternal, but does this get more complex when applied to actual male and female teachers, and male and female students? On one level gender differences probably make the line of what is appropriate in teacher/student interactions a bit more pressing to discern.

On another, there is anecdotally a gender disparity in terms of how welfare responsibilities end up distributed in many institutions, and maybe also in what students expect from their teachers, that can lay a heavier burden on women academics than men in this area. Of course this shouldn't stop Christians from seeking to be Christlike and servant-hearted in everything we do, but I think it's a context that needs taking into account. 

I would think also that academics teaching in the States probably have a fairly different take on this topic, especially in smaller, more undergraduate-oriented colleges - I get the impression that the division between primary/secondary and higher education, in terms of character development, isn't so automatically assumed there. So perhaps they could offer insight on the opportunities and challenges of the role of 'shaping lives' as well as teaching topics!

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