Graduate Education, Soulcraft, and the Formation Nexus

Too many graduate programs are designed according to an information paradigm and not a formation paradigm.

December 16th, 2011

In most graduate programs students are taught to analyze and critique. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of those grad school graduates turn their cutting conceptual training upon graduate education itself. Higher education grievance literature is now a veritable genre. The inflated price tag, the conflated purposes, and the deflated rigour of undergraduate and graduate education have all been under attack. One common target for the critics is the dissertation. This is an easy target, and most who have endured the process evidently enjoy reading about the oppression of other up-and-coming academics (who are these cruel sadists?). I suppose that this little essay could be described as grievance literature, but I'll do my best to curb the cruelty.

I'll state my grievance boldly and badly—too many graduate programs are designed according to an information paradigm and not a formation paradigm. There are a number of reasons why I think that this is badly stated: the thesis forces a binary opposition that is not always helpful or accurate; some programs must rely on the accurate transmission of information more than others; there are, in fact, many programs that have well-established traditions of formation; and every program is engaged in the process of formation (or de-formation), whether it is recognized or not. Nevertheless, I've stated my grievance boldly to draw you, the reader, into deeper reflection about pedagogy and the purposes of graduate education.

Shop Smart

Perhaps some of you have read Matthew B. Crawford's delightful book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (The Penguin Press, 2009). Crawford's memoir-like account leads the reader through the mechanic's garage (motorcycle maintenance is Crawford's first love) to the hallowed halls of the University of Chicago (Crawford is a philosophy wiz), and then back to the bikes again. Crawford senses that there is something about working on a sluggish motorcycle that is truer (because it is more real) than so much he has encountered or attempted in the ethereal world of philosophy. The pragmatism Crawford espouses is certainly not foreign to the University of Chicago, but this isn't simply an intellectual treatise on pragmatism. It is an account of the grace of things—the way that they impose necessary limitations and provide helpful feedback.

Imagine a person lost at sea, floundering in the waves. How would our postmodern drifter feel if she came upon something solid, and not just some floating jetsam, but land? She wouldn't likely cast herself back into the sea, for she is now finally where she belongs. Crawford does not provide a theology of creation or culture; he is simply describing human contextuality. In his wisdom of motorcycle maintenance he discerns norms for contextual learning and a contextual life. Something like this is at the heart of biblical wisdom literature. In this literature one of the most persistent themes is knowing where you are—namely in the creation-house of the Lord. Yahweh is the hospitable host, and we are guests in His glorious B&B. In one way or another such wisdom ought to be the context and goal of every graduate program.

Good Form

I recently returned from a conference entitled Education as Formation hosted by the Kuyers Institute at Calvin College. This is a great conference theme, and I was hooked as soon as I saw the conference announcement. The conference was expertly planned and the Calvin hospitality was much in evidence. The plenary speakers were educational experts, and the workshops I attended were thoughtful displays of scholarship and practice. It seemed to me, however, like we just didn't quite have the vocabulary or the focus to discuss the central issues: In what ways is education formative? Formative to what end? How is such formation done well? What is the relationship of freedom and formation, or more pointedly, what are the dangers of indoctrination? The reticence of many conferees to reflect theologically about our educative responsibilities seemed strange for this venue, but perhaps I was hoping for too much.

An instructive forum called Formation in the Classroom has been made available online. Reading through the (in)formative contributions stretched my perspective as well as my pedagogical imagination. These brief essays suggest a few things:

  1. Formative education is what most students really want and need (Fred Glennon)
  2. Formation and information are part of every course in every institutional context (Douglas Jacobsen and Rhonda Hustedt Jacobsen)
  3. Every teaching method is formative, so professors must be clear about what formation is taking place, and what formation could be taking place (John J. Thatamanil)
  4. Formation is eschewed at some institutions and especially in some fields (Amanda Porterfield)
  5. In addition to the informational intent of the professor, and the formational impact of the professing, much of learning is also about the reformation of the student and the transformation of self and community (Mary Elizabeth Moore)

Education, even graduate education, ought to be attentive to formation or development or nurture, and it ought to be attentive to the end of that education—wisdom. I take nurture and wisdom to be two of the clearer biblical norms regarding education. I also think that they pass the parent test. In other words, what do the best parents do with their kids, and what do they want for their kids? I think the answer is, again, nurture and wisdom.

Our Model

Eighteen years ago, I helped launch a graduate program at Geneva College—a M.A. in Higher Education. We presently have sixty students enrolled in our program. We call our approach to this degree a "foundations" approach. In other words, we take a multi-disciplinary approach to prepare students for what will likely be an array of campus positions. We offer concentrations in Student Affairs, College Teaching, Educational Leadership, and Campus Ministry, but the bulk of the curriculum is common, and it is encountered through a learning community.

Understandably, our program reflects its founding fathers. The program was launched by, and much of the teaching continues to be provided by, four men. We understand the implications of our "maleness" and have sought to remediate that bias in a number of ways. Instead of exploring our liabilities (more on that in a moment), let me lead with the other foot. I have the distinct joy and privilege of working with three of my very best friends—Terry Thomas, Brad Frey, and Dave Guthrie. The first two have Ph.D.s from Pitt in the Foundations of Education and the third has one from Penn State in Higher Education. My degree is not in higher education, or even education, but in Religion and Culture from Boston University. Each of us has a seminary degree as well, and we worked in campus ministry with the Coalition for Christian Outreach for a combined total of fifty years. Since our college years, we have all been transfixed and transformed by the glorious gospel of the kingdom. So whether it was ministry work with students, our own academic work in graduate school, or the opportunity that we now have together, we have wrestled to conduct our work as an expression of the good news that God cares about higher learning. The integration of faith and learning has been a central concern to each one of us, and we've tried to give expression to that in Geneva's program. In other words, we have been professing professors, and we've been clear with all of our prospective students that this is a program that does not eschew formation. At the heart of most of our courses is a hope in God's future restoration of the world, and a belief that our duty in the meantime is to lean toward our own reformation and toward the reformation of the academy as well. That we could do a much better job at this formation work, and that we would benefit from others who bring different gifts and perspectives to the project, goes without saying.

Let me add one other thing about our program that arises out of the campus-ministry experience of the founding faculty. We are committed to community. We believe that most learning is social, and that most learning finds its fulfillment in the service of community. During our formative years with the CCO, we benefitted immensely from an eight-week new staff training program that was full of the Bible and theology and debate and ministry. The entire staff would convene each spring for two weeks of seminary-style classes and plenty of play time as well. Staff cohesion was maintained by a series of two-day staff seminars, each addressing a relevant topic for perspectival and professional development. All four of us remember the transformational power of these communal experiences, and we wanted to invite our grad students into something similar. We want our grad students to enjoy the support of their peers and to bond as colleagues and as mutually called friends so that they experience graduate school not as a series of academic hoops, and not as an ivory tower of de-contextualized intellectualization, but as a moral enterprise and a communal mission.

But alas, the four of us are "idea" people, and our program is not particularly shop-crafty. We have worked to attend to this limitation by hiring a faculty member with strong hands-on professional savvy, and by bringing in leading practitioners to teach our institute courses. Ideally a professor is neither abstract nor concrete, but is instead able to lead students through concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation (this is the learning cycle described by David Kolb). And ideally a good professor isn't just pointing to a goal for students; she is embodying something and inviting others to step in.

Such formation might be described as an incarnational model. A few bloggers have objected to using the word incarnation as an adjective—as in incarnational ministry or incarnational pedagogy. They want to save the word for the miracle of the embodiment of God. So perhaps it serves us best simply to talk about embodied ministry and pedagogy.

Dirty Pedagogy

Incarnation and Dirty Pedagogy was the title of the workshop that I presented at that Calvin conference, along with my friend and colleague, Doug Bradbury. Let me say just a word about the genesis of this workshop idea. I teach an Intro to Campus Worldviews course in our graduate program. I noticed, as the years rolled past, that I was not generating the same level of critical concern regarding the enthralling worldviews of modernity and postmodernity that hold higher education captive. I also noticed that the biblical worldview of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation wasn't received as the essential and glorious alternative. Faculty spend too much time blaming students for what they "don't get," and I was determined not to do that. Instead, I looked for what was missing in my own efforts to help students care about worldviews and about a Christian worldview.

I came to realize two things, or really the same thing from two different directions. First, I came to realize that while I had been doing my best to help students explore a robust theology of creation, and of the fall, and of redemption, and of consummation, something was missing. I was incarnation lite in my theology and my teaching. At the same time I noticed that Doug, who was committed to experiential education, deep reflection, and communal accountability, was connecting deeply with students, even in the classroom. So together we set to work with a pincer strategy. I worked from a robust theology of incarnation (dirty theology), and Doug worked from pedagogically embodied practices (dirty pedagogy) to discern more clearly the contours of what we are calling the formation nexus.

The Formation Nexus

We believe that the best learning takes place when students experience and express love, when they embody learning in a place and for a place, when they recognize the absence of the kingdom and long for the coming restoration, when they, in the meantime, share in the sufferings of our time, and when they celebrate the mystery of God's world and Word. I'm still working out the implications of this model, so I will simply invite theoretical and pedagogical feedback.

Kingdom Learning

We haven't yet even plundered Jamie K.A. Smith's Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009). Smith suggests a compelling alternative to cerebral approaches to worldview work, an approach anchored in a theology of love and desire and in liturgies for life and learning. The implications of this book for work in graduate education are profound and challenging, and I think it comports nicely with some of the issues raised in this essay.

The reforming of graduate education is taking place, but it is slow and piecemeal. Some of the changes are simply the byproduct of the privatization, profitization, and professionalization of graduate education. Other changes reflect a pedagogical shift from teacher-focused to learner-focused pedagogy. Still other changes reflect new players in the game of graduate education—small colleges, for-profit institutions, and on-line programs. None of these changes lie at the heart of what I think we need most. Faithful reform will reveal the moral heart and normative dimensions of each field, a new epistemology and pedagogy rooted in relationality, and collaborative learning toward public scholarship (i.e. learning that serves).

To close, I'd like to address readers who are in graduate school with some advice for honouring the Lord in your studies:

  1. Learn together. Seek out a community of learners in order to provide opportunities for collaborative exploration, creative imagination, debate, and application.
  2. Fall in love. Pursue your work as an expression of love—the love of the Lord and of the neighbours served by your field of study.
  3. Live a liturgy. Develop the practices and patterns of life that will enable you to become a humble servant and a spirited prophet in your field.
  4. Get dirty. Make meaningful contributions in your field and in your community.

All of these factors are suggested by and reinforced by a robust theology of incarnation. This should come as no surprise, for there is no kingdom without the King, the One who will be gloriously incarnate in our midst forevermore. And as you know, that One is the source of all wisdom and knowledge.


Don Opitz is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the M.A. Higher Education program at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.


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