"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's the Goal? Um, uh, well, I, um...

Working with non-native English speakers has many perks, one of which is being in a quotable misspeak factory. You can't blame students for slips; that’s part of the learning process. I emphasize to students that, in the interest of language learning, it’s more important to be outspoken and make mistakes than to remain silent.

My recent favorite was actually a written comment from a student, expressing his gratitude to me: “You are the kind of person who I would love to do.” The mistake is of course one of do versus be; he wasn’t actually coming on to me, but trying to show his admiration for my character, lifestyle, job, and family, which I gathered. It was very sweet. But now his comment is forever etched in my mind, both for its sincerity and its comedy.

But not all resonating comments are light. I recently was approached after one of my lower-level classes by a student who didn’t seem all that engaged in the lesson that day. With limited English, he asked me, “what was the goal?” He went on to express confusion about the purpose of the lesson, what objectives I had in designing it the way I did. He felt like he just spent over an hour doing an activity for which there was no discernable goal, and was clearly disappointed (though kind about it).

Now, to be fair, one can’t always please every student. Some students are more vocal about their displeasure than others. And not all students appreciate the same kinds of activities, emphases, lessons, etc. But students rarely challenge me in this way. My first response was to explain what value the lesson possessed, the ways I observed learning happening in the classroom, what my method for teaching was.

But—he was absolutely right. He caught me. I had no real thought-out goal. Typically my lessons involve one or several goals, helpful in ensuring that students are getting the most out of the lesson. Sometimes my goals are less structured and more general, such as in a more organic lesson where I spend more time responding to student questions and curiosities that arise from the topic than presenting detailed requirements or expectations.

But I believe even in these more fluid classes that at least knowing why I’m doing what I’m doing is important. But I failed that day, and he rightly called me on it. I felt the defensiveness stir in me, which I may have successfully hidden from him (though language learners can be pretty intuitive and can often see through my words). In the end, I felt at peace with my response to him. But the fact that the question lingered in my mind the rest of the day and week tells me that both the shock and sincerity of the challenge as well as the truth of his words carried some weight.

This student was sensitive to the necessity of goal-setting. And I am too, I think, generally. This particular lesson was prepared fairly haphazardly. Learning did take place, I’m sure. But that’s not the point. Even if I was successful in some ways, I failed to embody an important personal value—knowing my goal, my telos, my purpose, my end—in a very particular situation. This is of course a key element in virtue ethics, on which I’ve shared a bit in recent posts: possessing a clear vision of where one is headed or what one is aiming for that gives direction to how one should live and be and function now.

My mind goes to the Church as well, notably how our Christian goal is understood—by Christians and non-Christians alike. Part of our denominational plurality—as well as diversity in worship style, doctrine, ministries of the church, and “feel” or “culture” of various churches that aren’t necessarily linked to denominational differences—arguably means a plurality of goals as well.

That is, if I asked several Christians what the goal of the Church is, as well as their personal Christian goal, I’m sure that despite some overlap there would be differences in the way these corporate and individual goals are expressed. Some would probably give a concise phrase that they feel warrants no further explanation. Others might give me a multifaceted verbal outline.

Some would state their goal, but acknowledge that this is just one way of saying it; others might recite a Bible verse with confidence that there’s no better way to think about the matter. Still others might dismiss this “goal talk” altogether, feeling it sounds too business-minded, too restrictive, too focused on bottom lines, too "purpose-driven."

I guess I’m curious to hear from anyone stopping by: what do you think about the Church’s goal, or goals? What one central aim, or set of priorities, should direct how we speak, act, prioritize, or determine our values? Or, what ultimate goal should or does compel a Christian to act “Christianly?”

For Christians, how do you articulate the Church’s goal? I guess that could be answered regarding “little c” church (e.g., the church located at 2nd and Main) or “big C” (all who identify as Christians). What is your goal as a Christian? Does having a goal help you? Does it shape you? Is your goal kind of vague and general, or more clear and specific? Is the language of “goals” even helpful for you in living your Christian life, or unnecessary?

For those who aren’t Christian, what do you think the Church’s goal is? What do Christians seem to say their goal is? What appears to be their goal in practice, as in, what can be inferred about the goal of Christians based on what you see them doing and hear them saying? Do you admire the goals of the Christian Church? Do they bother you? Would you consider becoming a Christian if their goal (or goals) was different?

Thoughts welcome…

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