Monday, August 22, 2016

Jürgen Moltmann on lecturing at the beginning of his career

I’ve always been drawn to biography. It combines my interest in and fascination by history on the one hand with my interest in ideas on the other. To top it off, it can give one a new perspective on one’s own struggles and location in one’s own story, and this perspective can be encouraging (it can also be depressing, but we’ll leave that to one side). And autobiography is a particularly enjoyable species of biography. Perhaps the most interesting knowledge that I have gleaned thus far from Moltmann's autobiography was that Ernst Wolf was seriously hardcore: “He smoked black cigars, drank strong coffee in the evenings, and often worked right through the night” (Broad Place, 49)!

By Maeterlinck (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons
But what I really want to highlight today are some of Moltmann’s discussions of his earliest teaching at the seminary in Wuppertal. To begin, here is how he describes lecture preparation:

For me, work on the Sunday sermon now gave way to work for four hours of lectures every week. I remembered what Ernst Käsemann used to say: ‘For every hour’s lecture, ten hours of preparation! Every sentence must be precisely weighted up!’ So I began in the middle of the vacations and wrote and wrote, so as to have a good stock in hand at the beginning of the semester . . . (74-75)

I wish I had time to give 10 hours of preparation to each hour of lectures! Moltmann not only lectured those four hours at a time, but he was also offering other “theological seminars and philosophy classes.” I take it that these classes were much more student-driven and oriented toward discussion, but they would still require time in preparation if for no other reason than to do the reading! Moltmann talks about diving into Bonhoeffer’s work in this context, as well as ethics in general. On the philosophical side he engaged “Feuerbach, Marx, and Bloch” (76). For those of you keeping count, I think we can figure on another 20 hours of work a week to prepare for and meet, let us say, two seminars. But, back to the lectures:

Once one had given a lecture three or four times, with this intensive preparation, the next book was ready.

That brings me to the history of lecturing in German universities: Kant still fell back on philosophical textbooks, reading them aloud and then commenting on them; but from the time of Fichte and Hegel onwards, what the lecturer presented was what he intended to publish himself in the near future. Professors ‘read’ their future works in advance and made the lecture a run-up for their future printed works. It was only in America that I found the old way of lecturing again. It saves a great deal of trouble and time, but is also somewhat unproductive! (75)

Indeed! As a practitioner of the “old German” and “American” model (although I don’t read out textbooks to my students; they read them in advance and then come to class where I expound on them in something of a half-seminar style), I can certainly confirm that it saves time but is also unproductive.

This is a difficult trade-off. It is not clear to me that one method is superior to the other. On the one hand, following this style allows me to spend less time in class preparation and (theoretically) more time in scholarship. The effect is to disconnect my scholarship from my classroom. A negative consequence of this is that making a connection between the two requires a second (and maybe third and fourth) step. A positive consequence of this is that my scholarship can pursue topics, themes, figures, problems, etc., other than those to which I am limited by my department’s curriculum and / or student interest. A negative consequence (if you haven’t figured it out, I’m processing this by writing about it…) is that one’s scholarship isn’t given the impetus of the classroom. It can be put-off until later, and therefore other professional concerns and responsibilities can become your central focus. Speaking of which, the administration sees that you don’t have anything pressing to do with those extra 40 hours or so a week that you would be using on lecture preparation, and they start giving you all kinds of fun things to do instead. Pretty soon things spiral out of control and you have the current American system, where a few professors in each discipline located in the top institutions are able to produce really interesting work and everyone else bends over backwards just trying to keep publishing enough to avoid the proverbial “perish”-ing.

For myself, I would like to find a way to bring at least part of my teaching and scholarship more closely together, but I’m not really sure how that might be done…

But, back to Moltmann – he also tells us what he was lecturing on during his years in Wuppertal, which is interesting in itself. So, here is what he enumerates (some of these are formal titles and some of them are more general descriptors): “‘The History of Hope for the Kingdom of God,’” “‘A Comparison between the Theology of the Reformers (Luther – Zwingli – Calvin),’” “patristic Christology and the theology of the Reformed and the Lutheran confessional writings,” “‘Introduction to Present-Day Theology,’” “‘The Beginnings of Dialectical Theology,’” and finally, “in 1963-64 I then took as my subject my ‘theology of hope’” (75).

It’s fascinating to get this peek at Moltmann’s early development. I hadn’t realized that his first decade of theological work was so historical in orientation.



Darren said...

I very much feel this pain! Thank you for giving it voice, Travis. In most places the curricular limitations are particularly great. I teach mostly survey courses with no prerequisites, with the result that I worry that if I slow down or chase a rabbit trail in the classroom then something important will inevitably be left out.

I wonder if the solution (if there is one) is to treat these situations a bit like a "flipped" classroom, relying on textbooks and assignments to cover the survey work - thus freeing up classroom hours for experimentation and rabbit trails, which could better accommodate the instructor's research and specialization.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Good thought, Darren. I've done much the same thing. But, of course, the traditional name for a flipped classroom is a "seminar." :-)

I tend to use discussion rather than lecture in those contexts, though. I'm trying to work in lecturing at least some of the time. Let me know if you find some success!