Samford University’s Core Texts and University Fellows honors programs recently hosted their first annual conference on "Teaching the Christian Intellectual Tradition” (TCIT). The conference, supported by funding from the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, explored ways to help students connect to Augustine of Hippo, the 4th-5th century bishop regarded as a key founder of the Christian church.
Leading Augustine scholars and faculty from more than 30 schools attended paper and plenary sessions focused on unique interpretations of Augustine’s writings and innovative approaches to teaching them. The resulting mix of disciplines, experiences and institutional cultures created an event that exceeded organizers’ expectations. “Both during and since the conference, a number of attendees have told me how useful the conference will be to their own teaching and how they are looking forward to the next TCIT conference we plan for 2016,” said Samford religion professor Scott McGinnis, one of the conference organizers.
“Samford's interest and expertise in teaching was very much on display,” McGinnis added. He said six Samford faculty members presented papers and many more attended or helped host sessions and meals. Many attendees praised the University Fellows honors students who helped with the conference.
Conference Coordinator and senior University Fellow Rachel Ray spent spring 2013 sending hundreds of e-mail messages to departments and professors throughout the U.S. and internationally. She managed the responses and paper submissions and, finally, led a group of Fellows volunteers in managing logistics during the conference. Ray, whose classics major earned her a round of applause at the Friday evening banquet, said she expects the experience, as both coordinator and attendee, to distinguish her as she applies to graduate school.
Augustine plays a significant role in Samford’s Core Texts and Fellows curricula. “Like him or not, understanding Western history is impossible without wrestling with Augustine's legacy on many, many fronts,” McGinnis said. “Studying Augustine allows students the opportunity to know their tradition and consciously define their own place in it, or against it.” Plenary speakers Kristen Deede Johnson of Western Theological Seminary and Peter Iver Kaufman of the University of Richmond presented strong cases for Augustine’s relevance in that process.
Reflecting on an encounter with students who felt called to move to Africa, Johnson discussed Augustine’s teachings on justice and power. These teachings, she said, could “help bring to light for these students the significant role of structures and institutions in any effort to seek justice,” while also motivating them to “look for ways to engage people, institutions and structures right where they are.” “We don’t all have to be celebrated saints like Teresas of Avila to love others and impact our communities right where God has placed us,” Johnson said.
Johnson concluded her address with an expression of hope for students that echoed throughout the conference. “May Augustine prompt them to seek the grace of God in Christ that in all that they do they might prioritize the justice game over the power game, that they would be faithful, responsible and humble with the power that has been entrusted to them – not avoiding power as inherently evil but using it for the greater good of justice”.
Kaufman, in his address and in a university convocation, emphasized Augustine’s “critique of, and alternatives to, the contagious careerism so many of our undergraduates bring to college and bring to the core courses.” The modern academy, which many believe values short-term career training over deep engagement with the foundations of western civilization, does not fare well in comparison to Augustine’s City of God in Kaufman’s estimation. He described Augustine’s “recoil” from politics and the career path it promised, and lamented that many modern university graduates will realize too late that “their guilds, skills and powers inhibit their humanity.”
“Pre-professional programs are all the rage” as students shun arts and humanities, Kaufman said. But as bleak as the higher education landscape looks from the perspective of the humanities, the students at Samford and elsewhere who follow that path distinguish themselves in important ways. “Sudden socio-economic swerves turn today’s career paths into tomorrow’s cul-de-sacs, putting a premium on candidates’ agility, versatility and, I would add, integrity,” Kaufman said. “So, too, Augustine.