Oralities & Literacies – Chapter 5 – Playing By Ear

The following is a chapter from the book ‘Oralities and Literacies: Implications for Communication and Education‘.  A chapter will be posted here each week.

Chapter 5 – Playing By Ear

by Ellen L. Marmon, Ph.D

Orality and Theological Education

Okay class, open your Bibles to the book of Matthew. Would a volunteer please sing the workers in the vineyard parable, and include the whole class somehow? Great Emily, it’s Matthew 20:1-19.

“So once upon a time, there was a story set to rhyme, about workers on the vine, mmhmm
yeah, workers on the vine.
The guys worked from early morn, to the long day’s closing horn, and they finished really worn, finished really worn.

(Chorus) ‘Cuz the workers get their pay, pay, pay, pay, pay, no matter what the time of day….that they started on the way…. it’s all the same, all the same. 

There were people who came in, for much fewer working min…utes, tthat wasn’t really quite a sin….mmhmm, yeah, not really quite a sin.
They didn’t work as long, but got paid in this story-song, is that really wrong, is that really wrong?

(Everyone) ‘Cuz the workers get their pay, pay, pay, pay, pay, no matter what the time of day….that they started on the way…. it’s all the same, all the same

The workers who were there, from beginning really cared, about how it wasn’t fair, how it wasn’t fair.
While you’ve been worried about the fairness and the wages, you could’ve been getting down with this sick truth: My estate worker told his vineyard workers that all get the same money for the day. And when the fellas complained about what they got paid, they all got told this is Kingdom way.

(Everyone) ‘Cuz the workers get their pay, pay, pay, pay, pay, no matter what the time of day….that they started on the way…. the first are last, last are first. (Sung to the tune of “Shake It Off,” by Taylor Swift).”

Emily and her group of theological seminary students had 20 minutes to create an interactive way of teaching one of Jesus’ parables. The other four groups acted out their parables, making use of props; and pulling us outside to see where the seed landed on hard, thorny, and fertile ground. The groups were nervous, but the results were memorable and faithful. Students asked Emily to post her lyrics in our online classroom – finally, something in print. People walking by our classroom might have wondered why Asbury Theological Seminary was hosting Vacation Bible School; instead, graduate students were learning (or relearning) how to convey God’s truth without words printed on a page.

This chapter addresses the surprising partnership of orality and formal, theological education. First, looking at oral teaching/learning patterns from a traditional perspective involves centuries of practice and decades of scholarship (Ong 2002). Examining the current “digitoral” generation (Moon 2013) adds new, technological dimensions to an already rich trove of insights into education. Identifying institutional roadblocks to incorporating orality in Christian training and education leads to a few suggestions for steps forward. In addition, this chapter offers examples of creative, embodied options for learning in a highly literate environment (see Appendix A). These initial steps can lead trainers, teachers, and students alike into holistic, integrated approaches to ministry.

Adult Learning and Orality

Being a grown up and being a learner are inseparable roles. While some learning unfolds privately for men and women, “learning is firmly embedded in our work, family, and community activities” (Merriam & Bierema 2014). Over the last 50 years, the field of adult education has developed beyond formal settings to every life-based venue imaginable. Whether people are pursuing a GRE or Ph.D., a certificate in cosmetology or a solution to a clogged drain, they enter a process of deepened understanding and expanded capacities. They enter the holistic process of learning.

Beginning with the assumption that “the body and mind are split,” the global West has consistently emphasized cognitive knowledge or information as the goal of learning (Thompson 2013, p. 105). However, more recent scholars and practitioners are calling for an embodied understanding – one that reunites head with heart, mind with body, self with others. Even though educational research has not made the connection directly, this holistic approach to adult learning points to the unlikely partnership of oral and print-based education. Field leaders and missionaries are embracing this partnership; however, administration and faculty at institutions that train students for ministry are slow to integrate orality with literacy.

To be fair, the missional arm of the Church still struggles with the importance of contextualization in ministry (Krabill, 2013, p. 114). But more and more, people are discovering that local communication patterns, heart language, and oral practices all open up possibility for life change. Unlike any lecture or propositional sermon, storytelling, rituals, symbols, and drama connect directly with learners. Joining ear, eye, body, mind, and spirit creates a rich, memorable learning experience (Vella, 2002, p. 149). Western adult learning scholarship and practice are beginning to affirm this phenomenon. Although the term “Situated Cognition” tips the scales toward the thinking domain of learning, this theory does acknowledge the importance of context and the need to reflect right where the adult learner lives and works (Lave & Wenger 1991).

Transformative Learning Theory points to life itself as adults’ full time curriculum, one that triggers unnerving possibilities for slight to earth-shattering shifts in seeing, understanding, and doing (Mezirow 1991). “Communities of Practice” embrace the social nature of learning, the immeasurable contribution of relationships and shared experience (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002).

Along with experience, the body is receiving serious attention under the headings of somatic, intuitive, tacit, and embodied knowledge.  “The key to recognizing life experiences as sites of embodied learning is to recognize that it is not just the mind that is having the experience, but the body – and attending to what we are learning through the body is embodied learning” (Merriam & Bierema, 136). The connection between body and emotions is also receiving attention as another critical dimension of adult learning (Dirkx 1999). Recognizing the spiritual nature of learning, Tisdell argues that spirituality “works in consort with the affective, the rational or cognitive, and the unconscious and symbolic domains. To ignore it . . . is to ignore an important aspect of human experience and avenue of learning and meaning-making” (2001, p. 3). So far, however, scholars in the field of adult education are addressing each of these domains separately, making no connection to long-standing oral patterns of learning.

Interestingly, even neuroscience supports embodied, participatory, holistic education. The brain houses more than facts and logical categories; it also connects with patterns, images, and feelings. “While our educational system tends to favor the verbal and analytical strengths of the left brain, it is important to note that learning is maximized when the strengths of both sides of the brain are activated” (Merriam & Bierema, p. 171). Story, drama, visual art, music, dance – all these traditionally oral methods move discovery from trivial to meaningful, from “brain use” to learning, and even to “brain change” (172). What Western educators are now acknowledging as legitimate facets of adult learning are the very combinations of relationships, body, mind, spirit, and emotion that oral communities have relied on for centuries. So why do these more holistic approaches to learning meet with such resistance in higher education, specifically in formal training for ministry?

Obstacles to Orality in Theological Education

Ong identifies a literate bias on the part of many Western thinkers and writers. “To assume that oral peoples are essentially unintelligent, that their mental processes are ‘crude’, is the kind of thinking that for centuries brought scholars to assume falsely that because the Homeric poems are so skillful, they must be basically written compositions” (2002, p. 56). Unfortunately, this bias also extends to oral patterns of teaching and learning. Participatory, visual, movement-based, proverbs-oriented, and narrative methods are often seen as naïve, unsophisticated – suitable for children, but not for adults.

Merriam and Bierema explain: “There has also been the recognition that the West has so privileged the notion that intelligence as an individual, innate ability measurable by tests that other dimensions of what might be considered ‘intelligent behavior’ in a real-world, multicultural context have been overlooked” (p. 177). Educators representing the social sciences are more likely to embrace holistic approaches to learning. They may be the only faculty at an institution who have actually encountered research supporting teaching methods that involve more than the mind. Many disciplines require scholars to drill miles deep in their subject matter without ever addressing effective ways of communicating that subject to others.

Add to lack of awareness a lack of time for most faculty. Accrediting requirements, publishing expectations, non-stop committee work, and concerns about the institution’s fiscal viability all encroach on faculty’s time and energy for teaching. In addition, the realities of social media, online education, hybrid courses, and more, stretch people who are training women and men for ministry beyond their own training. Delivery systems for courses change yearly, challenging weary “digital immigrants” to navigate a new frontier (foreign country?) populated by “digital natives” (Prensky 2001, page). The dynamics mentioned above, far from being a litany of excuses, point to a seismic shift in education. For many educators in their mid-forties and above, living in the post-modern, post-Christendom, post-traditional-classroom, post-book (with real pages), post-diagraming-sentences-in-the-fourth-grade world is terribly unnerving. The fluid nature of literate, Western instruction elevates change as the only constant for educators. Herding cats is easy; this is more like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree.

With Wandering Steps and Slow – A Way Forward

“Habit is habit, and is not to be flung out the window by any man [sic], but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”
— Mark Twain, 1894

Teaching in the vortex of post-everything change, I have some sympathy for institutions, departments, and faculty members who cannot possibly add one more learning curve to their professional terrain. However, the stakes are too high for those preparing ministry leaders to ignore the gems that oral communication patterns can bring to the classroom (on campus or online, under a tree, or in a field). Palmer and Zajonc argue for the fullness of holistic learning in higher education:

Life comprises an infinitely rich array of sensorial, emotional, and intellectual experiences. …The theater of the mind is dense with impressions, feelings, thoughts, and impulses toward action. Parallel to the universe of outer experience is the comparably rich world of inner experience. Taken together they constitute the world of human experience. Strangely though, reductive philosophy and science, even higher education, seem bent on gutting the richness of experience, reducing it to evolutionary adaptive strategies and synapse firings. Experience has been labeled ‘epiphenomenal’ and considered by some to be merely the froth on the wave of a neuro-science reality. Yet it is here that we live our lives, that we suffer and rejoice, struggle to understand, to love, to act.  (2010, pp. 61-62)

Real life is the setting for ministry with real people; consequently, educators who do understand the importance of heart, mind, spirit, and body learning need to influence others, both strategically and respectfully. The following ideas represent small, yet faithful steps to take toward teaching and learning that transform individuals and communities alike. Warning: the person taking these steps might just experience the deepest change of all (Taylor 2006; Quinn 2004)

  1. Look for like-minded, like-hearted educators in your institution or training agency.
    1. Which faculty members consistently receive high evaluations from their students?
    2. Which faculty have traveled, taught and learned outside the United States?
    3. Who teaches pastors and leaders who are pursuing a professional degree, like a Doctor of Ministry of a Doctor of Education?
    4. Are any faculty connected with the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion? These are people who are passionate about reaching learners in creative ways. http://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu/home/default.aspx
    5. Who is attending the teaching tutorials offered for faculty?
    6. Look in all departments and at all ages of teachers. You might be surprised to find a professor seventy years of age writing his first blog to connect with students; or a biblical studies professor taking students on a biblical narrative tour that stops at gardens, chapels, the furnace room and local cemetery near campus for her talking points.
  2. If your institution houses a Ph.D. program, does it require students to take an instructional design class? Talk with the program director about the curriculum.
  3. Start an ongoing conversation with these men and women, inviting all faculty to join in at any time. Perhaps create an online classroom where teachers can post ideas for learning tasks (Vella 2001), resources, and creative methods used for teaching, as well as evaluating.
  4. Create a learning group with students in their early twenties (digital natives), asking them for ideas to enliven course content, assignments, and student interaction.
  5. Bring students who grew up in oral communities into your class (in person, via video link, etc.) and have them describe how they, or perhaps their parents, learned a particular concept or skill when they were younger (international students, rural and urban students, and the like).
  6. Work with the Academic Provost or appropriate Dean to experiment with a “flipped classroom” approach, where all the reading/assignments are completed outside of class, so time together can be devoted to reflecting, experimenting, and interacting with the material and each other (Merriam & Bierema, p. 207).

Each step assumes a change or enhancement to current practice; still, the values that form the foundation of theological education remain solid. When adults fully engage in their learning together; when teachers become learners, humbly acknowledging that their storehouse of information is just the beginning of education; when theological seminaries, Christian colleges and training agencies create holistic, collaborative curriculum; then Seminary students and ministry leaders alike will experience what Paul prayed for the Ephesians (1:17-19). I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us, who believe.

Those who have ears, let them hear!


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