Twelve things I would change about the college experience

As a follow up to my last post about college related stress, and on a slightly similar note, here are some things I would change about the Bible College/Seminary (for American Readers) experience. You can sum up these points with “make the college experience more reflective of real life.” I have some other thoughts about the process the Presbyterian Church uses for sorting out its candidates. But I’ll keep this general for the sake of maintaining my position as a candidate…

  1. Make ministry more of a priority
    I feel like I’ve been sucked out of any sense of normal church life (well, normal based on the last eight years of heavy involvement in church life) by the college experience. I’ve almost forgotten what its like to talk to somebody on a week night, or talk about anything other than what I’ve learned or been thinking about during the week on a Sunday. It’s what people ask. And I’m often too tired or distracted to care. College students are meant to be involved in church life, as a candidate I’m meant to do ten hours a week… But count off the hours of church on a Sunday (twice), Bible Study, and a Staff meeting and my time is up. This may be my bias against languages speaking – but I spend a lot of my time doing language grunt work, and a lot of that time wondering what the payoff is in terms of my future ministry, the answer, in the day and age of amazing computer programs and multiple reliable translations, “not a whole lot.”
  2. Teach more practical stuff, earlier
    Maybe if I’d done MTS I wouldn’t be saying this – but shouldn’t our facility for training and equipping people for ministry be training and equipping people for ministry. I’m sure most ministry stuff is better caught than taught – but having some formal apologetics training, and a bit of pastoral care/counselling training from the outset would be terrific, and ending up with some how to do the business of church would be nice too. Just thinking about the practical side of ministry, and how things are going to work in the real world when rubber meets road, would be a more valuable exercise than most language classes (there it is again). Role playing, talking to experts, practical stuff that gives you some idea at how you might tackle awkward pastoral issues wold be heaps more useful than hoping you get some really sticky situations in your 10 hours of parish time.
  3. Get students thinking about modern communication technology
    Call me biased, but I reckon every Bible College student should blog. Blogging helps to find a written voice. It’s a chance to articulate thoughts on issues raised in class. It’s a chance to be creative, and to think about application. It’s a chance to get ideas out into the world. Blogs could even be part of the assessment process. Vocational ministry is about communication. Bible College students should be thinking about how to use technology, social networking, emails, anything they can get their hands on – for the sake of the kingdom. Blogging is great for crystallising thoughts. They should not only have to blog, but they should have to post comments on the ideas of their friends (on their blogs). This is only a partly serious suggestion. But most marketing people think the Internet is the future – so we have to encourage people in ministry to be thinking about how it fits with their future. The college itself needs to think about how to use the web better, both in terms of its own homepage and the wider world of social networking, blogging, and multimedia stuff.
  4. Make students teach RE as a community service/part of the curriculum
    Why are we keeping young, dedicated people who are being educated about the Bible out of what is a golden opportunity for loving and serving our communities.
  5. Equip students better mentally to cope with Scholarship
    Rather than spending a week before college starts grappling with the Greek and Hebrew alphabets – we should be helping prepare students for the challenge of dealing with  stupid “Emperor’s New Clothes” scholars are going to present to their thinking. Academia rewards new and exciting ideas – which gives rise to a lot of people getting excited about really dumb stuff that shouldn’t be taken seriously past showing why it’s dumb. College should not be a time where you lose your faith and have doubts preyed on by scholars with an agenda who you’re not really warned about. Some scholars are wolves in wool
  6. Modernise assessment processes (get with the programs)
    Seriously. Who uses pen and paper for anything other than taking phone messages (other than GTD people) any more? Why am I expected to lug a pen into an exam and scrawl illegibly as fast as I can answering four questions in 2 hours? Get with the times. Students inevitably write slower than their ancestors, and type faster. Concerns about plagiarism or cheating with the power of the Internet are both stupid and unfounded – a) because you can check for plagiarism as quick as you can say “google” and b) because the whole idea of a robust education is getting people to interact with the ideas that are out there – and it’s stupider to expect students to rote learn said ideas in order to regurgitate them in an exam situation. There are tens of good computer programs out there aimed at making the art of theology easier – why aren’t these being deliberately included in the curriculum so that a lifetime of sermon preparation/Bible teaching is also easier?
  7. Make language learning more reflective of reality, and more useful
    Most ministers I speak to who use Greek and Hebrew (and its a minority) do it with the aid of books and computer software. And yet we’re expected to memorise paradigms and rote learn vocab in order to spurt it out on demand. I can’t imagine that situation ever arising in the real world… “Excuse me Reverend, could you tell me, on the spot, why this word in my KJV is translated in that way” – aren’t we better off teaching (and I’ve got to give my Hebrew lecturer credit here) people to understand the way the language works (like an animal), equipping students to dissect words and getting a bit of linguistic theory under their belts to avoid illegitimate totality transfers and to understand semantic ranges. At the moment we spend so much time doing rote learning stuff and writing out paradigms until our fingers and eyes bleed that we’ve got almost no time to look at the actual Bible or think about any of the other three subjects.
  8. Get rid of exams
    Why do we think asking for regurgitation in two hours, on paper, is a good way to assess thirteen weeks’ worth of work? No one does, and it isn’t. Assessment on a regular basis (to encourage people to keep up with the work – rather than trying to cram it into the short term memory) that is more closely modeled on the real world (discussions, presentations etc) is surely a better gauge of a person’s progress. Show some initiative and encourage people based on educational notions of learning styles and the like.
  9. Make assessment marking less arbitrary (death to word limits)
    My own, very personal bugbear,1 is the word limit. Word limits are entirely arbitrary. I am not suggesting no limit on writing – but to use words is dumb. It misunderstands language. It actually encourages dense rather than flowing writing, and complexity over simplicity. Let me explain. Every sentence is an idea. That sentence was five words. My last three sentences used a total of thirteen words. Other people may use the same number of words to express less, others more. Others may use the same number of words but triple the number of syllables, or enhance the complexity of the words they use. We all know that shift+f7 gives you a thesaurus that is capable of turning your rudimentary slang into highbrow academia. Essays should be given a qualitative assessment, not a quantitative one. Students should be penalised for including stuff that’s irrelevant to their argument – but they should not be penalised if their argument required extra words because it needed them. And if you want a limit in order to make the lecturer’s job easier when it comes to marking – set a typeface, type size, and line spacing – and then set a page limit. That will encourage more concise writing. That’s how journalists do it too. You write in column inches, not in word counts (unless you’re a freelancer paid by the word). And you cut stuff from the bottom if you have to edit it. Lecturers should stop reading when the writing gets boring. That’s real life. It’s also reflective of preaching (where you should go as long as you’re interesting – according to QTC’s preaching lecturer). The vast majority of my time writing assignments is trying to cut five hundred words from an assignment that doesn’t have five hundred words to spare. The only options seem to be to lose substantial and important logical steps to an argument, or to go over the word limit and cop a penalty. If anybody knows how to, in 2,000 words, interact with scholarship (at least 10 peer reviewed articles), the Bible, and other primary documents while answering a question that is contentious enough to be at the scholarly coalface, then please, let me know.
  10. Make assessment criteria clearer (and stick to it)
    The Australian College of Theology provides guidelines for assessing essays that almost universally get ignored (so far as I can tell). Of the five essays I’ve had marked thus far – only one referred directly to this criteria in terms of the mark given, the rest seemed just to go with some sort of vibe (though the marks have all been fairly similar).
  11. Encourage the development of the fruit of the Spirit above the fruit of the head
    I’ve chatted to a few people disillusioned with the college process online, and in real life, in the last little while – and if a criticism comes up enough, from enough different people, sooner or later you’ve got to wonder if it has merit. Assessment of someone’s capability to do ministry is almost always based not on what they know, but if they know God. And if they are suitably gifted. I don’t know how the college can do his better – but I don’t think stress, diarrhea, grumpiness, worry, academic envy, and tiredness, nor did I notice broad knowledge of scholarly opinions, Greek parsing, or Hebrew pronunciation mentioned as desirable attributes in Galatians 5 (and my Greek isn’t that bad, nor is the semantic range of the items in the list that broad).
  12. Start later, finish later (or at the same time)
    Again, a personal bugbear. Our college advertises that it finishes in time for students to beat peak hour home. Which is great. What they don’t advertise is that you have to drive to college in peak hour. We live 17 km from the college (according to the GPS) and it takes 40 minutes to get there in peak hour, and 25 minutes off peak. Peak hour seems to start at about 3pm anyway – so the trip home isn’t substantially faster. And seriously, who is at their best in an 8.30 class?

1 I know I break this rule a lot here – I write too many words. But seriously. I’m a journalist. Brevity is my thing. You will find almost no adjectives in my writing. I don’t pad out my sentences with flowery language. I might choose a cool noun here or there, but I try to carry my writing with my vocab in one word bursts. I try to be a sniper rifle, not a shotgun. Word choice is about precision, not about scattering a few words in the breeze hoping one will hit the target.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

14 thoughts on “Twelve things I would change about the college experience”

  1. Loving this list Nathan!

    I reckon MTS does make a big difference to the college experience (depending on the quality of your traineeship, of course!) One of the most valuable things my traineeship did for me was to give me the questions to ask during college. And I think it has helped me to see why all the ‘non-practical’ stuff is actually exactly what we often need.

    Hear hear to getting rid of pen and paper – I feel like I have to rehabilitate my hand muscles every time exam period comes around!

    I think 11’s a really interesting point – the whole question of where giftedness meets academia. It’s easy for someone to say that they’re at college to learn, not get high marks – but aren’t marks meant to be indicative of learning or at least communication of learning? Not sure where to go with that but it’s a tension I feel. We’ve been involved in a collaborative class this semester which has been a lot of work and had its fair share of stress but has actively discouraged competition among students. High achievers can still achieve, but they can’t do it without contributing to the learning of others.

    Ridley’s introduced some of the stuff you’ve listed in recent years (like proper assessment criteria; some non-exam, more-regular-assessment classes) and we’ve found it’s really enhanced our learning.

  2. Hi Tamie,

    Thanks for the backup. We actually have a “non-competition policy” at college. There’s no discussing of marks allowed. And the idea is to discourage people from pursuing academic success above all things… it just doesn’t stop the “what if I don’t know something important” or “I’m seeking to glorify God by my marks” mentalities – and it’s hard if you are an academic type to figure out when enough is enough, and what result is good enough.

  3. Amen to all of these, Nathan, though I wouldn’t lay all the blame at the college’s feet.

    I think a lot of the tension comes from the fact that we’re using a Higher Education framework (i.e. academic) to train people for an end goal which is not primarily academic (i.e. pastoring).

    If I were trying to rebuild the system from the ground up, I’d start with the desired end product, and work out how to produce that. I suspect it’d look a lot more Vocational Education.

  4. I echo Stuart’s observations.
    I do think candidates who are not part of the eldership of a local church are at a disadvantage.
    As for 1&2: I never counted attending the church I was at a student at as part of ten hours. I was a part of that church and did what I’d do if I was a part of any church.
    The field work component may be more or less intentional than it has been. Experience gained over three (four) years should result in a reasonable range of situations.
    3. Yes.
    4. Absolutely. And their lecturers too.
    5.-10. will not be popular with the Theological Education Industry (TM). They have their turf to protect and they don’t like being taken away from the tertiary education table.
    11. May just confuse ‘Trade School’ i.e. Seminary for the totality of training for ministry. But I know the difference is clear enough in your other statements.
    12. Bwah-ha-ha. Back in the 90s I drove from Wynnum to St. Lucia every term day for six years. Average travel time: 30 minutes.
    But you’re right from your other list: the company in the car when we were driving to college with the other guys made me wish every trip was longer.

  5. Hey Nathan, I agree with a lot of your points – especially on things you like about college. I think the live blogging idea is a bit scary, aren’t you encouraging the publishing online of any and every untested idea?

    I agree that time is a pressure – so juggling church and college a challenge – but isn’t that the reason for the privacy policy on grades? Very few students are gunning for academia, yet the nature of the course is to reward academic excellence. Most people’s goals for college are contrary to the implicit goals of the grading system, meaning – they’re going to serve in a church and use this knowledge in a plethora of ways other than scholarship. Should college be a technical school? should grades reflect fruit of the spirit? or is it understood that the grading system is one dimensional, based on the secular university system and that God is training the heart, mind, body, soul and spirit for work that is not entirely cerebral?

    And isn’t the nature of first year and language exams simply to lay the groundwork of fundamental knowledge that just needs to be “learned”? Much like the first years of school require memorising timetables, rhymes and formula – critical synthesis of ideas built on this essential framework comes later with maturity.

    I would add to your list: more community events for college life. Since QTC is non-residential we really don’t get that much of college community life since most people are busy in churches etc. Maybe mission earlier in the year or a day-of-mission in first semester to bond teams earlier on. Perhaps a mid-year retreat to cement relationships since the Advance Retreat is a blur for those who know no-one.

    1. Hi Jenny.

      Thanks for your comment. Robyn and I were both really excited when you decided to stick with us at QTC, and we’re looking forward to college starting again soon.

      The reasons you give for keeping grades private are worthwhile. They’re a good reason for people not to have to tell other people their grades – but the QTC policy seems a little more restrictive. I’d be happy to tell people my grades if it was of benefit to them – I think knowing where people are pegging grade wise could be of benefit if you’re looking for opportunities to serve each other. I agree with most of what you’ve said about grades – except that some people are gunning for academia which means they have to do well and it may be beneficial to know what others are in that boat in order to develop a little friendly competition (that’s just how people of my personality role – I’ve been spurred on greatly by knowing where my brother-in-law pitches mark wise. Even if that’s not Godly or healthy… it has had pretty good results.

      Re the languages – I suspect that’s a great model if we’re educating language scholars – but I’m not sure you can create a language scholar without having somebody devote themselves full time to the language (remember what Wes said in language week last week about his approach). Since we are aiming to equip people for service I’d love to see college saying “this is actually what this will look like when you’re approaching a passage to preach from it” – which for most people will mean turning to a computer programming and applying their understanding of grammar and the nature of each language.

      I like your additions.

      1. Oh yeah:

        “I think the live blogging idea is a bit scary,aren’t you encouraging the publishing online of any and every untested idea?

        Exactly. For me that’s one of the beauties of the technology – it’s a way to get early peer review and to essentially crowd source new nuances and additions to the original idea, or to see clearly why it doesn’t work.

  6. Are you kidding about the marks, Nathan? It’s hard for me to empathize with this — I’m just not that competitive — but I’m trying to imagine a good way of being competitive about this stuff.

    And I think colleges in general need fewer centralized ‘community’ events, not more. They’re not church-like communities, nor can they be. (What church could require thousands of dollars per year to join, exclude non-tertiary-educable people, all unbelievers and even believers from a different background, and be heavily unbalanced in age and gender?) By all means, college students should have friendships, but not the kind which take them away from genuine discipleship and mission.

    Non-residential colleges have an advantage, here: they can encourage students to find Christian community in its proper home: the local church.

  7. Stuart,

    Not kidding about marks, as an extrovert I reckon I need some external telos and I’m a firm believer in a little competition spurring each other on.

    I so completely disagree with your view on college community. I’ve probably never disagreed with anything you’ve said more. My dad’s greatest asset in his ministry, especially early on in a country town, from my perspective, were his college buddies who would get together once a year for a study retreat and would make countless phone calls during the week to float ideas and encourage each other in the relatively thankless task of denominational ministry. Since you’re the gadfly on the rump of institutional Christianity I’ll assume that’s the perspective you’re speaking from. Your comment suggests you think college should be a time for individual development and not an expression of Christian fellowship preparing us for a lifetime of service. Were people to follow your advice I suspect the burnout rate would be much higher.

  8. Also – it’s not like Jenny suggested we should be meeting socially every week, she suggested one extra get together a year. Very few people are as equipped to encourage Bible college stuents going through the college process as their fellow, or past, students. Are you suggesting with your rather vehement dismissal that there is no place for vocation based networks or support groups? Or for student associations on campus? This objection is just odd.

  9. My comment was not meant to be dismissive (and please forgive me, Jenny, if you feel dismissed). Tone’s a difficult thing :) I should’ve added the qualifier that I don’t know enough about the situation at QTC to say whether it sucks up too much of your time, but I thought I’d covered myself enough by saying that non-residential colleges have the advantage, here.

    Meanwhile, as I said, I do think friendships are a good thing — deep and good friendships of mutual blessing. But that’s quite a different thing from what I’ve observed at some residential-style colleges and their ‘community’.

    I’m not surprised you disagree, Nathan. (Though let me consciously distance myself once more from being that gadfly: I hope any critique is for the sake of the church, not to spite it.) But your comment exposes the very culture that I think has such damaging potential (and, in a number of cases I’ve witness, actually causes serious damage).

    When paid church workers start thinking of other paid church workers as their peers, then they are at risk of no longer being able to hear the gospel applied to their lives. No, of course it’s not always the case. But I’ve observed it often enough that it warrants a mention.

    I think that the Spirit-filled ministers of the gospel (who also happen to be your sheep) who can watch and share in your life and speak the truth in love to you must be more fervently desired than people whom you see infrequently and who only hear your side of the story.

  10. Sounds like you want to excel at the essay writing and forget the languages – is that right? Well, I guess you can unofficially share your marks with others – and I think it’s pretty easy to guess who’s coming out tops academically. I think your car buddy is a top grade scorer. I’m happy to share my marks with you – but I don’t imagine I’m going to provide the healthy competition you require. Is competing with yourself unsatisfying?

    I agree it’s hard to load up the semester with more ‘social’ events. The wives and women’s evenings are good for this, touch football and handball help, social lunches etc. I guess its creating that balance of strong community without running everyone ragged.

  11. I’m happy enough doing well at the languages too. I’m not writing them off – I just think “doing well” should look different to “rote learning”…

    “I guess you can unofficially share your marks with others ”

    Not according to Bruce.

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