One of the great nuggets of wisdom that I gleaned from the legendary Mike Pennock ’64 was that teachers need to find something that they love to do - other than teach - that will give them the satisfaction of a sense of completeness. Mike spent countless hours on his lawn, and it showed. Some of the more cynical of us thought that he used it as an excuse to be outside and smoke a cigar, but nevertheless, the lawn was magnificent.
Mike’s reasoning for this practice was that as a teacher he seldom got the chance to see the well manicured lawns that he tried to get the crabgrass out of in class each day. Students graduate, go off to college, graduate, get a job, get married, etc., but for the most part we don’t see anything past high school graduation. The finished product is seldom something that we can get a glimpse of, let alone get to know on any level of depth.
This is why I cook. I love to cook. This summer my wife Ann bought me a wok and I felt like Ralphie on Christmas when he received his official Red Ryder carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. Everything about cooking is wonderful - looking up a recipe, getting the food, preparing it, cooking it (or better, grilling it), and serving it. It is an act of love, it is very Eucharistic, but it is also a finished product.
Last Tuesday I and my compatriots in the Theology Department experienced the best of both worlds - we got to see a former student - a finished product - and we got to see him “cook”.
Dr. Patrick Manning ’03, Assistant Professor and Chair of the Department of Pastoral Theology, Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University, spoke to us on the topic of “Meaning, Pedagogy, and Mental Health in the Theology Classroom.” Based on research that he has done, especially for his highly regarded text Converting the Imagination, Patrick shared with us a number of insights that help to answer the question: How can we meet our students' needs?
Beginning with some unsettling statistics about the world that our students inhabit and about how that world has adversely affected their lives - and especially their mental and spiritual health - Patrick went on to discuss why some tried and true methods of catechesis just don’t do the job for today's young Catholics. Things like arguments from authority and a focus on abstract doctrines don’t cut much ice with young people who have seen a collapse of authority in the Church and the world and who want practical, rather than theoretical, information.
Both Patrick’s experience and research confirm that what these young people need is a nurturing community that cultivates an environment able to get and sustain their attention and that supports them in their journey of making meaningful lives. In a nutshell, young people want to be, in the words of the document Mental Health and GenZ: What Educators Need to Know from the Springtide Research Institute, “noticed, named, and known.” This is simple common sense, but in the rush to complete course curricula it is easily lost. A conscientious teacher, especially as final exams loom on the horizon, might be more tempted to eschew student questions in favor of content that “needs” to be covered and therefore miss the opportunity to make that student feel noticed, named, and known. Sadly, if today’s student doesn’t feel that the person in front of the class cares about him and his personal journey, then the content - as important as it is - will remain just content and will never become life changing.
Insights like this were numerous and there was a shared sense of how fortunate we were to have Patrick speak with and spend time with us before we dove into this semester’s class work. It was great to reconnect with him - one of those who were definitely noticed, named, and known during his time in school here, and to witness first-hand one of the best blades of grass in Doc Pennock’s lawn.