On Being a Teaching Fellow

by David Penn

One of my former discussion group students asked me to write for the Prophet about what it’s like being a Teaching Fellow at STH. That was, I admit, before the presidential election happened, which, since that was months ago now, says something about what it’s like being a TF. It was a good question though, and I have thought about it often. I even started writing a few times, but it was difficult to find a tone that wasn’t too dramatic, (the TF is the midwife of the theological school, helping students birth new ideas) or too academic (the TF, much like ancient conceptions of the Logos, stands in a dialectical relationship between the faculty members and students).

I finally got some inspiration. I finished my Prospectus—the paper you write before you write the Paper—and decided to do some personal reading, so I picked up Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, by Krista Tippett. Tippett is an extraordinarily gifted listener. The interviews she does on the NPR show On Being are often breathtaking. She can elicit incredible insights from folks with one word responses. Yes. Wow. This comment from Walter Brueggemann, in a response to one of her questions, gets the tone I was seeking just about right. “I’ve recently been thinking more and more that it’s so astonishing that the Old Testament prophets hardly ever discuss an “issue.” What they’re doing is they’re going underneath the issues that preoccupy people, to the more foundational assumptions that can only be got at in elusive language. Very much the institutional church has been preoccupied with issues. And when we do that, we are robbed of transformative power…The task is reframing so that we can re-experience the social realities that are right in front of us, from a different angle” (Quoted in Tippett, 56).

What are those ‘more foundational assumptions’? Grace Jantzen calls them ‘imaginaries,’ and she rightly calls out Western imaginaries as being…messed up in a whole host of ways. We often lack, however, the language to even begin asking questions that might scrape against or expose our imaginaries. What is it, I wonder, to be human? The point I am getting to is that the reason I got into theology in the first place was to interrogate these foundational assumptions, and my time as a TF has been a wonderful crucible for that very thing.

blackboardMy experience has been one of navigating between a myriad of responsibilities while simultaneously learning how to ask questions. The responsibilities range from the banal—scanning articles, fact checking a book before printing, setting up webpages—to the profound—reflecting with colleagues on a contentious class session or an unexpected lecture. The balancing of these responsibilities takes a lot of energy but also provides ample fodder for reflection. How many parents read Emilie Townes in the waiting room at the pediatric doctor’s office or Paul Ricoeur at intermission of an elementary band concert? Note Saturday evening reading: Ricoeur goes well with red wine and dark chocolate; Nietzsche and Heidegger need something a bit stronger. One colleague said he kept up with his Kierkegaard because his daughter needed his presence in the room in order to fall asleep, so he laid under her loft bed reading Attack Upon Christendom (silently, I presume) until she was sufficiently asleep that his footfalls would not wake her.

The ability to ask questions is, I think, central to the task of the TF and the human. In order to learn from our faculty advisers, TF’s have to ask questions. ‘Why this text and not that one?’ ‘What is the pedagogical reason for this?’ ‘How would you grade that?’ But also, in crafting discussion sections or lectures, question asking matters. ‘What questions will the students have of this text, and how can I answer them?’ ‘Should I answer them?’ ‘What does this text ask of the students?’ A TF’s nightmare is probably a discussion section in which there is no discussion. Segundo is helpful: “…the questions arising out of the present [must] be rich enough, general enough, and basic enough to force us to change our customary conceptions of life, death, knowledge, society, politics, and the world in general” (Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology, 8). Easy enough, right?

Of course, these are the same kinds of questions we need to fuel qualifying exams, a dissertation, and, ultimately, a career. So be kind to your TF’s; yes, it is a little bit awesome to get paid to do this work while getting a degree. And it is also bewildering to navigate daily life—estimated PBJ sandwich tally for this school year alone: 2 kids + 1 adult (wife doesn’t like them) X 100 days – 50 lunches made with leftovers = 250, not including after school snacks and weekends—while seeking language to expose, analyze, and, we hope, reshape the foundational assumptions, the imaginaries, which in turn shape our experience of the world. Oh, and get those papers graded by Tuesday!

I’ve been reading Rumi at night before bed. I think I’m becoming a mystic. Or a pseudo-mystic, which sounds cooler but isn’t. He writes a lot about presence and absence and about living. As a TF, I am always doing things I have not done before; lecturing to graduate students; writing a prospectus; forming a new research project; always I am doing that difficult thing, though much of the time my questions don’t quite make it. And Rumi’s words are haunting: “You are like a pearl on the deep bottom wondering inside the shell, where’s the ocean?” (The Basket of Fresh Bread, in The Book of Love, trans. Coleman Barks, 66-68).

It takes a lot of work to be able to even ask that question. Sometimes after a discussion section or lecture you can see in the eyes of the students that whole new oceans have opened up to them. And on those days when I have inquired well, when I have listened well, or had a thought arresting enough to stop me on the bike trail to pull out pen and paper, I think the life of a TF is a good life. Rumi’s poem, The Basket of Fresh Bread, is partially a critique of the work we do. Our mental questioning, our intellectual wrestling, can form a barrier between ourselves and God. But our work can, if we are willing to live with the questions, be an endless source of life. He concludes his poem with words that point to what it’s like to be a TF and a human:
“Stay bewildered inside God,
and only that.”


David Penn is a PhD Candidate in practical theology. His current questions include: what is it about the culture of a religious community that matters to young people? What does human flourishing look like across the full spectrum of life? How do adolescents participate in divinity? When not at the library, he can be found listening to music composed by his daughter, biking with his son, and making pizza at ­home with his wife. Or wondering where the ocean is.

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