On Thinking in Public
How my writing is like my teaching...
Just three weeks into the life of this newsletter, we’ve had a surge in subscriptions. So in addition to saying Welcome and Thank You to all of our new readers, I thought it might be a good idea to offer them a few words of explanation. Not what I write about. (That’s covered in the welcome email and About Me page.) But how and why I write like I do.
For example, this issue of The Pietist Schoolman is already unusual in one respect: you knew what it’s about by the end of the first paragraph.
I hadn’t even noticed my tendency of “burying the lede” until my dad said something a few years ago. At first, I was crestfallen: in the age of digital and social media, rule #1 is to make clear your point as quickly as possible, since most readers don’t scroll past the first screen. But Dad told me not to worry about it. He thought it showed that I was interested in cultivating a readership that wants to go deeper, sticking with me past the initial impression to think through the day’s topic.
It’s advice I took to heart. To this day, I try to make the first paragraph interesting… but also opaque enough that you’d actually need to continue for at least one more screen to fully get what’s happening.
Which — to get to what’s actually my main point — is also one way my writing is like my teaching.
Like my books, articles, blog posts, and newsletter issues, my lectures often start not with a thesis statement or outline, but an illustration or allusion. Something to pique students’ interest and draw them into the story — often somewhere in the middle of that story — before I tell them why they’re hearing the story.
The more I write, the more I recognize such parallels with my teaching. While that’s not always intentional, it’s as it should be: especially when I’m writing for a general audience, I want to make the blog or newsletter feel like an extension of my classroom.
So if you keep reading The Pietist Schoolman, I hope you feel like you learn something… but not just that you’ve acquired information.
When I read course evaluations, I’m always happy to find that students think I come across as knowledgeable. But that’s much less important to me than two other responses:
First, the other most common comment I see on course evals: that I strike my students as being passionate about what I teach.
In a classroom or in a newsletter, I hope it’s abundantly clear to my audience how much I care about my subject matter. I want my students and readers alike to watch someone care deeply about history, education, faith, and how they connect, to see a Christian trying to love his neighbors of the past — even if that love is sometimes tinged with dismay or regret.
But second, coming across as being knowledgeable is less important to me because I also want my readers, like my students, to see a supposed expert wrestling with the limits of his understanding.
I don’t think I quite realized the significance of this until I got an email from a student in 2017: not a history major, but a nursing student who had just listened to me lecture about the Radical Reformation in our first-year Western Civ survey. She appreciated that I modeled “how to understand, process, and learn information on a deeper and more intimate level” and that I “set an example of how to live an integrated life…” But what moved me most deeply was her final comment:
Another strength I see in your teaching is your vulnerability through your words and actions. The world always places the word "vulnerability" as a weakness, but I see it as a strong characteristic that is vital in order to dig deeper in faith and to be more intentional, relatable, honest, respectful, and selfless with other people.
What she had experienced in that particular lecture, for example, was me admitting that I — as a military history professor who reluctantly believes in just war — didn’t know what to do with the Anabaptist commitment to nonviolent nonresistance. When I give that lecture, my main goal is not to disseminate information, but to show students an example of a Christian rethinking his belief in the tragic necessity of war when faced with the convicting counter-witness of women and men who would rather take up their cross and die than kill and betray their Lord.
My student called it vulnerability, and perhaps that same quality imbues at least some of my writing. But in venues like this newsletter, I tend instead to describe it as “thinking in public.”
What do I mean, and why is it worthwhile? Let me quote from a 2019 post I wrote at the Patheos blog The Anxious Bench:
Historians might build on the work of a larger community, but research and writing tend to be solitary, private pursuits, done out of sight of any sized public. When that scholarly labor bears fruit, the findings are often published in such a way that only readers who possess a certain vocabulary and background knowledge can understand and appreciate its meaning. Even teaching — our most intrinsically “public” activity — is hidden from the view of all but the precious few who can afford to pay college tuition and want or need to study history in college.
I don’t believe that historians should stop publishing monographs or journal articles, or that we can cease charging the tuition that pays our salaries. But blogs, podcasts, and other digital media do make it possible for many more people to see what it is that we do….
Of course, [the idea of “thinking in public”] terrifies many scholars. It’s like letting people you’ve never met read over rough drafts of your article or syllabus. (And perhaps leave nasty comments on them.1) To think in public is to confess uncertainty in public, to reveal ignorance in public, and to make mistakes in public. That’s hard enough for anyone who’s tempted to treat expertise as the measure of their professional ability, but it’s especially worrisome for Christian scholars whose work already invites the scrutiny of suspicious constituents.
But not thinking in front of such publics is riskier. Keeping private what we do only invites misunderstanding and distrust; it just deepens the “distribution problem” separating us from the rest of the church. For the same reason that I keep the shade open and let everyone in our student commons see into my office while I’m working2, I’ve long since decided to make my scholarship and teaching more transparent — however small or large a public is watching.
Let me reiterate: when I write these newsletters, as when I stand up at the front of a classroom, I hope I convey passion and share knowledge. But as importantly, I hope I continue “to confess uncertainty in public, to reveal ignorance in public, and to make mistakes in public.”
If that sounds appealing to you, I hope you continue to read The Pietist Schoolman! Have a great weekend.
By the way, I may open commenting at some point in the future, if I decide to make that function a benefit for paying subscribers. Of course, my email is not hard to find if you have a question or comment.
That was back when I still officed on the second floor of our Academic Center. Now that I’m two levels higher and one building over, it’s a lot harder to see through my open window… though I still make a point of leaving my door open at almost all times.