Uncensored in the Liberal Arts Classroom By Todd Womble

After finishing my MA at ACU in May 2010, I entered a doctoral program at a large state university to work towards a PhD in American literature. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect other than for things to be significantly different. This turned out to be true in many ways, some of which were unexpected. Specifically, I found myself feeling a sense of censorship that I had never felt in my classes at ACU. Yes, you read that correctly: I felt more censored at the large state university. Since my return to ACU in 2015 as a faculty member in the Department of Language and Literature, I’ve realized why this is the case.

Classes in the Department of Language and Literature vary widely, and our faculty has specializations ranging geographically, historically, and thematically. To put it simply: we are a diverse department, both in the classes we teach and the people who teach them. But beneath this diversity is a foundation based on the study of language, how it works, and how it is integral to the way we see and interact with the world and the people around us. Our goal is to facilitate our students’ investigations into how language plays a role in the human experience. We use that phrase—the human experience—often in the liberal arts, and we take this very seriously. We are determined to help our students become better thinkers, which, we believe, leads to better citizens and, hopefully, better believers. Language is how we interact with the world, and the better we are able to do this, the better we are able to display Christ to others.

What, exactly, does this have to do with censorship? It comes down to the cohabitation of pedagogy and faith—something that is unique at a school like ACU. The fundamental difference between my experiences at the large state school and here at ACU is the direct correlation between what we do in the classroom and what we profess to believe about Christ. This does not mean that questions of faith are forced into every class discussion here, nor does it mean that these questions are disallowed at other schools. Matters of religious belief are universal, and centuries of literature from across the world speak to this. These matters are undoubtedly discussed in liberal arts classrooms at every campus, but in my experience, there is a limit to how much traction these questions can gain. Specifically, in my time at a state institution, when classmates expressed opinions or responses relating to their own faith or belief, they usually fell flat. It wasn’t that we were told we couldn’t talk about these things; instead, it was simply that the atmosphere of the class wasn’t hospitable to these discussions, and would inevitably push the conversation other directions. Sometimes these other directions were fruitful, but I found that too often important matters related to the human experience with faith were ignored or overlooked out of a misbegotten fear of being offensive or religiously biased. Instead of jumping into these important conversations about faith, we instead turned elsewhere. I believe that something was lost in these moments, and my time back at ACU serves as evidence to this.

As I mentioned earlier, forcing matters of faith into every single discussion I have in my classes is not my agenda. But the freedom to allow for these matters to be discussed when they come up organically is refreshing. In this sense, I feel total freedom in my classrooms, for which I am grateful. Don’t get me wrong: this doesn’t mean my classroom is a free-for-all in which I encourage students to explore their most off-the-wall reactions or explicit thoughts. There are moments when discussions need to be reigned in, and other moments where boundaries need to be pushed. Knowing when to do either is a challenge, and this is part of what’s so exciting about the liberal arts classroom. But I feel blessed to be in a place where we discuss, interrogate, and explore religious belief—an aspect of the human experience so universal and important—without reservation.

We believe that learning is a lifelong process and that those of us who teach make a commitment to continue our learning throughout our lives. The Adams Center exists to promote the lifelong learning of Abilene Christian University’s faculty as they strive to integrate their faith and their discipline.

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Author:  Publish Date: February 10, 2017

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About CHARIS

The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

2017-18 CHARIS Editorial Board:
Dr. Carisse Berryhill
Dr. Jason Fikes
Karissa Herchenroeder
Mac Ice
Chai Green
Tammy Marcelain
Molly Scherer
Dr. John Weaver

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