By Ülvi Gitaliyev
The following interview was conducted in person by Ülvi Gitaliyev on 08.02.2022. Parts of it have been edited or cut out for the sake of clarity.
ÜG: How were your professors and their teaching methods when you were a college student?
JP: As a college student, I was at a small Baptist College in Texas and I had gone there to study for the ministry, basically to study religion, so that I could prepare to go to graduate school to get a degree in ministry and to learn. I was already open to questions about evolution and science and I was committed to all of that, but I also had faith. In my college, I looked for teachers who were really open and progressive, particularly in religion. I had several good teachers but I had one teacher who was the one who really inspired me to go on beyond college, to teach. And it was because he took a critical approach to things, and he was very analytical. So, in this positive way, he really inspired me. He was really very good, had good questions, created a discussion environment in class and that’s what I’ve always loved ever since and what I try to do in my courses. In that way, he was really a model to me in that kind of method and also probably in his more progressive ideas.
Now, I know I’ve moved way beyond where he was in all these respects but at the time, I felt like he was really inspirational in those ways. He’s been one of the ones that I would look back on and say informally, at least, he was a mentor to me in a negative way, too, because I saw him be really harsh with people who were very simple in their faith, traditional or even very conservative and fundamentalist in their beliefs. His harshness often broke that down. He really was beating them up in a way intellectually, and many would leave. Either they left the faith entirely or within a few years they had come back, but as stronger fundamentalists. I saw that and to me, that said something’s wrong with it. I didn’t want to do that. I really have tried in my courses through the years to work with people where they are and try to sense where they can move to at that moment and do more gentle and more careful treatment of people. I try my best not to ever belittle anyone for any reason. There will be times when I’ll be arguing, and it’ll sound strong, but I try not to ever make it be a kind of personal attack or anything like that because I’ve always thought that that was wrong. I think we’re more sensitive to that as an institution. I don’t think all my colleagues are like that, but I try to be like that.
“I really have tried in my courses through the years to work with people where they are and try to sense where they can move to at that moment and do more gentle and more careful treatment of people.”
Then, I had the good fortune to meet Paul Riccœur. He’s a French philosopher who was active for 70 years and just died a few years ago. They’re still publishing things that he lectured on or wrote. Even now, there are still things coming out. But it was my good fortune to do my master’s thesis over his ethics and hermeneutics. And then I was lucky that he happened to be on our campus right after I finished it. He read my thesis and recommended me for doctoral programs on that basis. He was also very influential on me in two respects. The first was his way of thinking was very dialectical, looking at both sides and trying to find where they come together and that’s my style. I adopted that kind of style from him. The other thing that I adopted from him was that I had seen Christian scholars who are very arrogant about their perspectives. He was a French philosopher; he was also a Christian, but he was very humble. He never bragged about anything he ever wrote and he wrote hundreds and hundreds of things, lots of books and so forth. So, his work and his life actually were very inspirational to me. And those are the two major ones that I would say had a significant influence on the way that I think, but also the way that I try to engage in the classroom.
ÜG: In what ways has your experience as a pastor influenced the way that you teach here at Berea?
JF: It was something I learned over time, but it’s about learning who people are and where they’re coming from and not just having a quick answer to some problem, as if an intellectual answer solves every difficulty. But really, it was to sort of see where people are emotionally, try to engage them at that level and then really hear from them what’s going on, what they are looking for, what they need, and then don’t try to give them the final answer on life, because life is not like that, but just to try to give them some guidance that might help them make their own decisions. So those kinds of things are also sort of what has come to me in the classroom. When I’m working with students, I want them to be their own agents. That’s why I don’t force people to turn in all kinds of things. I don’t check on people all the time either. I give the assignments; I try to give encouragement for those assignments and give all the help that I could give and then I leave it up to the freedom of the individual to make out of their education what they can make out of it, what it is. The value that you get from your education is the value that you give to it as you’re going through the process.
At least, that’s the way it was for me and I believe that that’s the better way to approach it rather than to force people to try to do all these things and just check on them all the time. I have colleagues who are advisors who are constantly writing their advisees and the students in their classes “where were you” and “what’s going on?” I don’t do that. It’s rare that I would do that. If somebody contacts me and says “I’m going to be out because I’m sick” then I might check on them or if they’re out due to a family death then I’m going to check on them, but those are ways in which my pastoral side of me tries to indicate care for people as well, but I don’t like to try to control people. I want to rely on their agency to accomplish what they need to do.
ÜG: Very interesting approach, especially for a Berea professor.
JF: Yeah, that’s true. You are usually treated like children.
ÜG: You have been teaching Berea College for more than a decade now. How has your teaching changed since your first semester?
JF: In my first year here, I had been told how academically excellent Berea College students were and I just believed it. I trusted the people who told me and for the most part, I think that’s true.
I asked one of my colleagues, how many books do you require in your courses? And he said five or six. I’m like, okay, great. In one of the first courses I taught, I required six books, and we didn’t even come close to getting through all six books. Increasingly through the years, what I have done is I’ve decreased the amount of reading because I was trained in graduate school by being covered with reading at the University of Chicago. In my first year there, we had to take three courses per quarter. That’s every ten weeks, so that is nine courses. I didn’t have any course in which I was assigned less than ten books, which means that in ten weeks, I had to read 30 books. I’m a slow reader, so you can imagine what happened. I didn’t get all that stuff read, but a lot of it does work. You accumulate a lot of knowledge quickly and it does sort of stick, eventually. But what I discovered here was people are encountering some of these ideas for the first time, and I try to remember back when I was in college and what it was like and how difficult those concepts were, but also how difficult those concepts were not just intellectually, but emotionally, for people.
So, this is a case where I would say less really is more and I don’t even like that phrase very well. But in this case, it has been that way that through the years, I’ve decreased the length and the amount of reading that I require for the purpose of going more in-depth into the smaller readings that I require because I think it’s just more valuable. I can always fill in the blanks from a smaller reading, but I can’t always cover everything in larger readings. If you give them 100 pages to read per session, which a lot of faculty members do. That’s 200 pages a week; do you think your students are going to read 200 pages a week? They’re not. They don’t. At best, they will skim it and call it a day. I gradually began cutting down the amounts that I signed for reading for the sake of being able to talk about in a little bit more depth to those things because that way, I know I could get most students to read a little bit.
ÜG: You’re the only professor who makes students ask for permission before going to use the restroom. Can you explain where this policy comes from? Is it from your time as a college student, or was it because of a specific incident with a certain student?
JF: No, there was no one incident. It arose from people just randomly leaving class at any time. It could be during an exam; it could be during a presentation; it could be during a discussion. But in all cases, it was a case of disruption. I don’t care if people go to the restroom. They just need to do it before class and after class. I’ve had students leave class and not be back for 20 minutes and claim they were in the restroom. I once had a student, this was probably 15 years ago, who, during an exam, got up and asked for permission to go to the restroom. I said, sure. And he didn’t come back for more than 20 minutes. So, I went looking for him, and fortunately, it was a male so I could check the restroom. I went into the restroom and I knew he was in there, but I didn’t open the door or anything like that, but I could tell that he was going through papers, sitting there. I just walked out of the restroom and waited at the door until he came out. I saw that in his back pocket, he had papers. I said, “what is that?” And he pulled them out and said, “well, they’re my notes.” I said, “this is what you’ve been doing because you’ve been gone for 20 minutes, you’re looking at notes?” So anyway, I didn’t fail him right there. I just let him go back. He had to gave up his notes and finish. And of course, he didn’t pass the exam anyway. It didn’t matter that he used notes. He didn’t pass it.
“I don’t care if people go to the restroom. They just need to do it before class and after class.”
Based on some of those kinds of experiences, that’s what’s led to policies like, you don’t use your cell phone in class because people were texting messages, answers back and forth or sending them via email on their computers with their computers still open. There are things like that that has led to those kinds of approaches, kind of like my colleague Andrew Baskin who used to lock the door to his classroom at the appointed time for the class, and he wouldn’t let anyone in after that. I actually put that in my syllabus this time, but I’ve never really been able because I’m so soft-hearted. I can’t really do that. People think I’m really hard, but I’m really a lot easier than people think. But as far as the school is concerned, I always want students to know upfront. And I’ll tell you what, my syllabus has grown as incidents have occurred that have made me realize that I needed to have a policy on that. My syllabus used to be 10-12 pages long but the reason I had even one that long was because when I was in college, we didn’t even have a syllabus. We didn’t even know what we were going to do the next day until that day; we’d go to class and we’d be told then what our assignments would be the next day. We knew our textbooks but we never knew what we were going to be reading out of those textbooks and I thought that was a terrible way to teach, so I’ve organized my teaching to where the course flows on. Even if I missed something up here, the rest of it is going to go forward.
ÜG: You’re going to be leaving Berea College rather soon so my question is, what are your future projects in mind and what is your message for students past, present and future?
JF: Oh my gosh. My immediate plans are to continue doing some research and writing. I’m the Chair of the Department for Studies of Religion and Spirituality. I was doing some research in special collections and archives on the history of the department and got really interested in that and so I’ve started a new project which is writing a history of the Study of Religion and Spirituality at Berea College. So, that’s the immediate project that I want to finish, but I also have two other book contracts that are still waiting on me to finish and so, I will probably try to keep working on all of those as long as I can and probably will stay around this area for a while. My wife and I may retire to another place or move to another place after she retires, but she’ll probably work a couple of years longer than me. Those are sort of my immediate plans.
One thing that I’ve started telling students even in class is that don’t think about this experience in college as just the necessary methodological step that you’ve got to get through as quickly as possible for the next thing in your life. Obviously, there are practical reasons that make us think that way. But, where in your life will you find a community where you can have this kind of interaction? It doesn’t exist. It’s very rare unless you end up in a university or college. Even here, as much as I have wonderful colleagues with great ideas and with great projects and research and so forth, we typically don’t sit down and talk about them that much. But in our classes, we get to talk about that kind of stuff all the time. So, I would advise students to look at what they’re doing in college as this incredible, rare gift and to enjoy it and take advantage of it to the fullest because it’s something that you really won’t find in very many contexts outside of an institution like this.
Students should take seriously the things that we’re trying to teach them. For example, I really emphasize grammar and language when coming to assignments. I don’t just look for did the students get a big idea across. I really want to see how well they express it. I try to emphasize this even in all my communications. I do my very best in writing an email back to try to make it as clear and as clean as possible because language is everything. You know more than one language, so you know what I’m talking about. I know international students know this better than our domestic students because they’ve had to cross cultures many times and those languages are the tools for their windows into a culture anyway. But, they’re really the tools for engaging with another culture. I would just say fall in love with languages of all kinds and love it and embrace it and cherish it and learn it. One of the big problems we’ve got in the contemporary world is poor communication, and there’s nothing that contributes to that more than social media. I think those are the two big ones.