A Conversation with Thomas R. Schreiner
Respect for our students and for our schools is what undergirds a meaningful calling to teach, observes Thomas R. Schreiner, the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and associate dean of the school of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky.
As Schreiner gets ready to enter his fifth decade as a professor, he finds this respect comes from cultivating one’s own personal relationship with God, which prevents cynicism from taking hold. Schreiner has written several key works, such as the Romans volume in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series and Interpreting the Pauline Epistles (Baker, 2011). Recently, Schreiner sat down with Didaktikos editor Douglas Estes to discuss teaching, publishing, and much more.
Estes: What does teaching well mean to you?
Schreiner: I would say it depends on the subject matter. Since I teach New Testament, I believe the best way to communicate that subject is the old-fashioned way, and that is through the lecture. And I know that lectures aren’t popular in every quarter, but I still think lectures are very effective, especially when it comes to communicating the kind of content we have in the New Testament books.
My experience is that the students love lectures if lectures are delivered well. The key for teachers is that we’re excited about the subject, and that manifests itself in different ways through different personalities. Students sense and they know if we’re bored with what we’re doing. Hopefully, we’re not.
Especially given our subject matter, I think there’s a spiritual dimension to it. We don’t always reflect on this, but students get to know us. They know what we love, and they know at least to some extent what we’re like. Any good lecture, even if in a large class, should be open for discussion. So I regularly invite students to ask questions, and regularly say, “Does anybody have anything else to say?”—which invites students to disagree with me. So I sometimes will say, “Any reflections, observations, refutations?” And I’m not kidding. I want to be open to student input.
Estes: I was doing some research the other day, and I was reading David Gooblar’s book, published by Harvard University Press, on effective teaching in the collegiate classroom. He basically says that for all the years people have talked about the variety of styles that are better than lecture, the truth is that, in whatever blind test they did, the students didn’t learn any better with active learning styles, flip classroom, or other approaches than they did with just lecture.
Schreiner: Wow, that’s fascinating. That fits with my biases, at least, and my experience as a student, as well. My favorite classes as a student were lecture classes, if the teacher was excellent. If you have an excellent teacher, then students flourish. If you’re lecturing for a long time, you need breaks.
It’s important to let your personality show. We all have different senses of humor. Well, let your sense of humor show. Students enjoy that. When I’m lecturing, I let myself be free to use humor to lighten it up at times. My mentor, my supervisor in my PhD program, Don Hagner, was a big advocate of the lecture, and I know Don influenced me in that way.
Maintaining students’ attention
Estes: As we lecture, what are some of the ways that we can be “on” with students? What are some of the ways you’ve found that are effective to grab students’ attention with lecture in this day and age?
Schreiner: Every situation is different, isn’t it? I teach graduate students who are interested in the subject, who want to go into the ministry. It would be a completely different enterprise if you’re in a classroom and you know some of the students don’t want to be there. That’s a challenge I haven’t faced for a long time. Whatever situation you’re in, it’s important to communicate to the students why what you’re studying is important.
What difference does it make in life? I think that’s an important element of any lecture. If students don’t perceive or grasp why what we’re talking about is important, they’re going to shut off and not listen.
The next thing I’m going to say is difficult to practice, because in some ways it’s intuitive, but good teachers are always aware of what’s happening in the classroom. There’s a sense in good teachers; they know what people are thinking, they’re alert to the body language of the students. They have a sense of when students are beginning to get bored and they need to change it up a little bit. That’s hard to quantify or it’s hard to explain because honestly that kind of social awareness or emotional link with the students is probably something you either have or you don’t.
Estes: You’re right, it depends a lot on the classroom. This idea of emotional awareness—tell me a little bit more about that. Have you seen examples of the professor having a good emotional rapport with the students?
Schreiner: It is somewhat intuitive whether someone is wired that way, and it manifests itself before and after class, as well. And students know we don’t have all day to talk to them, right? Everybody’s busy, but there’s a way of showing concern for students when they come in and when they leave, and a way of respecting and honoring their questions and comments—and students recognize when professors honor them as students.
One way that shows up in teachers is when we honor and respect students who disagree with us in the classroom, and we don’t belittle them in any way or put them down. That’s one dimension of it. But there’s a kind of friendliness and joyfulness that manifests itself in different ways and different personalities that we as teachers can express. Another way to put it is that students sense whether we love them and we truly care about them.
Estes: You mentioned your relationship with your advisor, Don Hagner. Let’s say you had a young professor who has just finished their PhD. What advice would you give them about teaching well?
Schreiner: It wouldn’t be that different from what we just talked about, but it’s very important as a young teacher to be evaluated. I would recommend to bring supervisors—friends, if they’re able—who are gifted into your classroom, so they can give you advice on how to improve. I think that’s a crucial dimension of growing as a teacher. But aside from that, the key is: Do you love your subject? Enthusiasm for your subject is evident to students. Students can discern whether professors love what they do.
Students talk to me about professors, and they almost always talk about the personal qualities of that professor. And it almost always boils down to how the professor loves the subject and it’s contagious for the students. They pick up on it and delight in it.
Estes: You mentioned evaluation. Is there anything else a struggling professor could do, especially if they have a hard time with lecturing? What would you recommend?
Schreiner: I’m not an expert on that. I just look at my own experience as a young professor, and I did not learn how to teach mainly from classes on how to teach, if that makes sense. I’m not putting down those classes, but I learned how to teach from watching good teachers. I’d say, “Why? Why do I love this class?” So if a person is at that point—they’re beginning to teach, and they haven’t imbibed that—then it is going to be more of a struggle. But I would ask that person to reflect on the classes they love.
Now, perhaps we should have a qualification here. Perhaps someone is very academic, and so they connect with classes and teachers that most ordinary students wouldn’t connect with. But then if that’s the case, they need insights from others. The main thing they need—because they’re not picking it up themselves—is others to come into their lives and say, “Hey, this is what works and this is what doesn’t work. Here’s how the students are experiencing your class.” So an essential element is humility. Is that person willing to accept some correction?
Estes: One thing we see sometimes is a move away from the traditional courses that undergird theological education. How would you respond to that?
Schreiner: I think that’s a terrible mistake. Traditional courses have served us well for hundreds of years. Maybe you could even say thousands, if we look at the early church history. We need to be aware of what C. S. Lewis warned us about—chronological snobbery. We can fall prey to fads in theological education, and since we’re immersed in our present culture, we don’t recognize that they are fads. So we ought to stick with the subject matters that have stood the test of time.
In terms of curriculum, I want to retain the classics—and not just the tools courses, but to continue to teach students biblical languages and systematic theology and church history. I think those things are vital and important. The practical courses are crucial as well, but there’s a temptation to minimize the classical education of yesteryear. Of course, we want to apply the classical disciplines in theological education to contemporary issues, but I don’t see how we can apply theology to contemporary issues if we don’t know it. And that means both knowing the history of doctrine and the church and the exegetical and theological discipline.
Estes: You’ve been active in ministry apart from the academy. Can you give us a quick snapshot of some of the key ministries you’ve been involved in, and then reflect on how your ministries have influenced you as a professor?
Schreiner: I was on two church staffs. My first job years ago was at Azusa Pacific University from 1983 to 1986, and I was an associate pastor in church; I preached once a month and taught Sunday school. Then when we moved to Minnesota, I regularly taught Sunday school, and I went out and preached some. I served as an elder at that church, but I wasn’t on staff.
Then when we lived in Kentucky from 1998 through 2015, I was a preaching pastor at our church, and I met with the leaders and was vitally involved in ministry. And I would say that serving in the church in that way had a massive influence on my teaching— and my scholarship, as well—because I began to think more about: Why does what I’m teaching matter in the life of the church and in the life of individuals? And I began to think of it in terms of the ministry of the church, in terms of the Christian life and missions.
So I would say nothing shaped my teaching and writing like pastoring. That doesn’t mean every page of what I write or everything I’m teaching has a direct, immediately recognizable application, but it’s always in my mind. So I think pastoring had a major impact on me; I’m so thankful for it.
We all have different journeys and narratives. I’m very interested in technical scholarship, but I’ve written more for the church—even in my commentaries—because of my pastoral ministry. When I’m writing my commentaries, when I’m teaching my classes, I’m constantly thinking about how this works out in the life of the church, in the life of the Christian, for missionaries, for educators, for counselors. So it’s hard to exaggerate what an impact ministry has had on me.
Estes: I guess the challenge for the academy is to keep seeing young scholars have some role in ministry throughout their lives.
Schreiner: Yeah, I think so. It sounds so elementary, but I don’t think everybody does it. Obviously, most people in the academy, they’re not going to be pastors. Maybe they won’t be leaders in their church, but we should all be involved in our church in significant ways. And it’s easy as a scholar to become disconnected from the church and from people, but there’s a depth in relationships in the church—both for joy and for trials and sorrow—and those relationships shape and form us and actually make us better scholars no matter what we’re doing.
Some scholars do very technical scholarly work, where the practical application may not be as immediately clear, and we need to appreciate and celebrate such work. We don’t want to return to a time when pragmatism and practical application squeeze out those kind of contributions. At Southern, we have a diverse faculty—and I’m sure this is true for every faculty. People have different gifts and abilities. Still, every faculty member should be active in church. Of course, that will look different for various faculty members, but if they’re not active in a church at all, I think that’s a big problem.
Value of publishing
Estes: Given your publishing record, why do you think it’s important for scholars—especially younger scholars—to publish?
Schreiner: That’s a great question. I don’t think it is necessarily important for young scholars to publish. I think it depends. We’re all different. Faculty members have different strengths, different capacities, and different interests. Faculties are diverse, and we should celebrate that diversity. So some will publish more than others. I don’t think it’s wise for administration to have a one-size-fits-all approach to faculty, as if all faculty members should be producing when they’re young.
And for some young scholars, again, there’s no rule, but publishing down the road is the better course. They get their feet under them, they become established. So that’s one side of the equation. The other side—and I’m sure, Douglas, you’ve met people like this as well—some scholars don’t publish because they’re too perfectionistic. We need to realize that what we publish isn’t the last word on a subject.
We’re learning, we’re growing as we’re writing. We’re not reeds shaken by the wind in our publishing, but neither are our writings pillars that can never be moved. And I said to myself early in my career, I don’t want to become so proud that I think, “Well, if I’ve written something, I can’t change my mind.” So I can say there are things I’ve written and I’ve changed my mind. That’s OK.
So on the one hand, I don’t think everybody ought to feel like they have to publish when they’re young. On the other hand, there can be a sense of, “Oh, I have to say it perfectly,” and it can immobilize us. And we have to realize we can’t and we won’t say it perfectly. Every book I’ve published, as I let it go, I’m thinking, “There’s flaws in this book. There are things that I know could be better if I could spend more time.”
But there’s a certain point where you just have to let it fly. So I would say to young scholars, publish what you’re excited about. Publish what’s in your heart. I’ve always written out of a strong desire to write on what I write about, and I think that sustains you in writing.
Estes: And you can’t correct yourself later if you never wrote the first piece to begin with, right?
Schreiner: Right, right. None of us is Augustine, but even Augustine wrote retractions, didn’t he?
Estes: That’s right—and part of growing as a scholar and a professor is to be able to communicate what you’re working on and then come back to it later and continue to tweak it.
Schreiner: Oh, yeah—and to say, “Hey, some things I got wrong.” I don’t want to be cavalier, but obviously that happens.
Prioritizing your relationship with God
Estes: What is one thing that you think Christian faculty in higher education should pay more attention to? What do they need to focus on?
Schreiner: There are a thousand things I could say, but I would put it this way: the most important thing is not to get weary in our relationship with God. The most important thing for faculty is what’s most important for everyone. And having served on faculties for thirty-nine years, I think we have to beware of a cynicism that can easily come with faculty politics—and sometimes we become cynical. That’s a spiritual issue.
There are frustrations no matter where we work and in every situation. In Christian institutions, we may begin to concentrate on the faults of others, and we can’t help seeing them, but we may forget about our own. We need to continue to cultivate our love for God and love for one another. Love covers a multitude of sins. And maybe it’s the times in which we live, but I feel like we live in such an environment where we concentrate on the sins and faults of others.
There are times when people need to be called out for what they’ve done and there needs to be discipline. But we’re primarily called to love, and when we show love for others, we remember we’re sinners, too. We don’t excuse sin, but we work with other sinners and we love them, and that will keep us from being cynical. And that love will give us joy in teaching and it will help us love our students.
There’s a generosity of spirit that we need to cultivate that makes our institutions stronger. Maybe I just feel that way in the particular environment we’re in, but that’s so important to me, that love for one another and not growing weary with God or weary with one another.
This article was originally published in the October 2022 issue of Didaktikos. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
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