Self-evaluation of my teaching

by J. Melburn Soneson

Mel Soneson taught Philosophy at North Park beginning in 1956. Mel hailed from Cook, Minnesota, 28 miles north of Virginia, Queen City of the Mesabi Iron Range, 70 miles south of the Canadian Border at International Falls. The GI Bill enabled him to go to college beginning his learning quest at Bethel College, then the University of Minnesota and University of Chicago. Along the way, Mel awoke from his dogmatic slumbers never to fall asleep again. As professor at North Park, he became an alarm clock that few could sleep through. He was a lively and engaging teacher. He woke his students up to the life of the mind and the joy of questions and doubt. Without Mel Soneson, it would not have been North Park. Here we have the rare opportunity to read his self-evaluation made available to Pietisten by his son Jerry Soneson, associate professor of religion at Northern Iowa University. -Phil Johnson

One certainly can play games with one’s self in any self-evaluation process. In the process the introspective detection of this ploy can produce a form of skepticism. The self-examination of one’s self-examination can lead to an infinite regression, thus militating against the view that an honest appraisal is possible. Such ambiguities in my self-evaluation with which I have labored have undermined my sense of integrity in the assignment to produce “a detailed self-evaluation focusing particularly on your professional and personal activities and achievements at North Park and in the larger community.” The definitive character of this assignment fills me with despair on the one hand, and on the other hand, with a sense of delight that I may marshal a defense of my pedagogical efforts. Such vacillation and indecision, which can rightly be termed “nonsense” from the perspective of an objective observer, can be debilitating, and in my case, certainly has resulted in procrastination in this assignment.

Nevertheless, I feel constrained to follow this dialectical tension and express my sense of shortcoming as well as my sense of accomplishment. In stating my accomplishments and shortcomings, of course, I am assuming criteria and beliefs first of all, and primarily, regarding my “Christian vocation,” and secondarily, regarding my “profession as a college professor.” Of course, in one sense these aspects of life are not differentiated for me, but in another sense, they must be distinguished as belonging to two distinguishable traditions. I recognize the relativism inherent in determining and establishing both traditions and their respective criteria. My criteria for the fulfillment of a Christian vocation, for example, may not be the criteria of countless other people. Likewise, my criteria for the teaching profession certainly can be questioned by those holding different educational theories than my own.

Vocationally, I feel the call to minister in service to others in need. This vision of service to others is shaped by my faith in God as I understand the meaning of God in Jesus Christ. The particular kind of need in others that I feel called to address can be best understood in regard to my own spiritual journey. As an undergraduate preparing to become a member of the clergy, I became excruciatingly aware that one of my basic needs was a reconciliation in my own self between issues of faith and the seductive powers of the cultural learning process. While in college and graduate school, my eyes were opened to the questions, problems, and potentials of the faith/learning relationship. I increasingly saw these issues as I studied the disciplines having to do with human persons in their relationships. The anthropological question became acute due to the apparent success of the psychological and sociological reductionism of the twentieth century. To understand humans, or more poignantly, to understand ourselves as frequently portrayed in these disciplines, begs the question of the meaning and reality of religious faith. The certainties of these sciences, indeed, disrupt traditional religious faith, but religious faith in turn puts these certainties in question. I am still convinced that the central need of twentieth-century people is not the intellectual cohesion of faith and learning, as a matter of working out an objective set of systematic ideas, but something that has to do with what goes on inside our spirit or consciousness, namely, the dynamic inner reconciliation between learning and a living faith in God. This central need constitutes a religious quest, and so I am persuaded that the ultimate aim in the educational process is religious in character. My vocational task as I began my academic work was to help make this issue clear and challenging. My professional role as a teacher is primarily influenced by this aim and thus the criteria of my self-evaluation both as a Christian and as a professional educator are oriented by the fulfillment of this purpose.

The aim of education, as I see it, is to facilitate and achieve a particular form of fulfillment through increasing awareness of, and rational adaptation to, one’s larger culture. Certainly this aim can also be understood as a religious quest. I stand in the tradition that proclaims the possibility of life fulfillment as the gift and the appropriation of the Christian Gospel. I see myself as an heir of the Pietist tradition that celebrates the experience of God, in contrast to the rationalist tradition of identifying and asserting the correct ideas or doctrines of God. The Pietist recognizes the limitations of the rationalist demand for the definitive idea of reality and the correct answers to life’s greatest questions. Recognition of this limitation of our reason can itself be the result of education. As a result, education, while providing a necessary means for understanding, ordering, and handling our cultural heritage, paradoxically, can also lead to the recognition of its limitations. The intellectual development within the educational process per se cannot provide all of the answers to our greatest social and personal problems. In fact, it would seem to be the case, as I understand it, that not one of our agonizing questions of life has an intellectual answer in a definitive and final sense, something we can hold with certainty. As a result, I see my role as a teacher to raise, polemically, the questions underlying the vast and rich treasure of human endeavor. Those questions, for which there are myriad answers, must be raised for clarity and discussion in order to help students understand the distinctively human and therefore fallible character of the answers. Thus, methodologically, I see my task as engaging the student in the dialogue of life, namely, the examination of ideas, creeds, codes, doctrines, dogmas, and the questions underlying them, all for the sake of promoting personal engagement. Of course, I am poignantly aware that students who have absorbed the cultural norms for education and seek an authoritative and definitive answer to the questions of life are frequently disturbed by my method. Yet I felt my task, in the Socratic sense, to be like a “gadfly” for the purpose of personal appropriation of truth, rather than functioning as an authority philosophically and theologically. The authority I do maintain, on the other hand, is the educational, moral, and religious demand for rigorous critical investigation of all human endeavors, including those of our own religious traditions.

I am well aware of the fact that I am considered a failure according to those standards of education that identify education as the transmission of objective truths guaranteed by the authority of the professional. I do not apologize for my communication of the philosophical and theological positions and arguments of my disciplines. In fact, I am a good teacher in the presentation of the thought inherent in the positions and the logic of the arguments of the philosophers and theologians we study. I am satisfied that I adequately convey and encourage investigation of, and appreciation for, profound thought. I encourage critical thinking after the careful exposition of the grand thought-systems of the past as well as the thought-patterns of contemporary life. But critical thought is my forte. Critical reflection, however, is frequently interpreted as the work of an iconoclast resulting in a form of manifest agnosticism. So, of course, I disappoint some students due to the obvious ambiguity that results from my critiques.

I identify my own philosophical and theological position as an experimental possibility, an experiment in thought and practice, if you will, rather than a conclusion at which I have arrived that might be considered logically necessary and definitive. Many students shy away from my explicit invitation to explore and experience questions for themselves. I also am aware that I don’t communicate this invitation adequately. Other students, for example, who take the polemic of my method seriously, examine their religious and philosophical ideas, such as creeds, doctrines, theories and laws, and in this examination lose some ideational certainties that they previously maintained. Frequently, they drop one set of certainties for the “certainty” of skepticism. If I interpreted the loss of unexamined certainty as the loss of faith in God, I would see no purpose in continuing as a teacher. But as a matter of fact, there are too many religious and philosophical certainties held by people as their faith, many of them standing in contradiction to the others, that they simply cannot withstand the test of rigorous logical or experiential examination. Moreover, the history of Christianity is replete with instances of the dissipation of certainties while Christian faith continues in spite of these breakdowns. As I see it, therefore, faith is something different than affirming a set of intellectually defined certainties. What students can see and experience, when my pedagogical method is working at its best, is that faith has to do with

  1. trust in the goodness of the world as a product of God’s involvement,
  2. hope in the possibilities of continual transformation for the better, and
  3. commitment to engaging in life to assist the actualization of those possibilities. Faith – as trust, hope, and commitment – is often liberated in the midst of the breakdown of certainties.

While the quest for certainty and the demand for definitive answers seems to be increasing in intensity among students, the process of developing a self-awareness of values can also be noted. I take a measure of satisfaction in a new sense of freedom that I detect in some of my students who engage in this process. The critical handling of ideas that frequently have had an idolatrous character, can be and certainly has been liberating. This freedom, coupled with a growth of individual responsibility as the fulfillment of the educational task and integrated with a celebration of experimental faith in God, can still be detected among students with whom I have worked. For this integration, I can take no credit, but I can share in the celebration!