The Pitfalls of Grading in Religious Education

Yesterday, this pair of tweets by a current BYU student sparked some interesting discussion about the role of grading in religious educations:

 

 

Though it was about a decade ago, I remember similar things as a BYU student myself.

I. The problems.

As I see it, there are at least two problems with this kind of evaluation and the thinking that underlies it:

The first problem is that it badly misunderstands what a testimony is. A testimony is based on the simple, “plain and precious” truths of the good news of Christ and of the restoration. A testimony of the gospel is not something that gets stronger or better by accessing some kind of deeper, secret knowledge hidden below “the surface.” A testimony of the gospel is simply a choice to believe the good news of Christ and of the restoration.

But the other problem–the more significant and more interesting problem–is that it is seriously problematic to arrogate to oneself the power to evaluate and assign a grade to another person’s spiritual development. This problem strikes at two different purposes of religious education: the academic aims of religious education, and the devotional aims of religious education.

The academic purpose is teach the content of the scriptures provide tools for understanding, and get students engaged with the scriptures directly on their own. In service of that goal teachers have to get students to master the course material. That mastery is measurable (though imperfectly) through tests, and that engagement, if it is not measurable, can be approximated through students’ written work. Grades serve two purposes, then: they both measure a student’s performance, and they incentivize engagement.

II. The different purposes of religious education.

The devotional purpose is not at odds with the academic purpose. But it is different. The devotional purpose is to get students to have not just an intellectual engagement with the scriptures, but to have a spiritual engagement with God, through the medium of the scriptures. That kind of spiritual engagement is not easily measurable. And perhaps more importantly, an academic instructor holds no keys or spiritual authority by virtue of being an academic instructor, to evaluate a student’s relationship with God, her faith in Christ, or her repentance.

This is not to say that faith and repentance are purely internal and have no visible effect. To the contrary, true faith always results in “fruit worthy of repentance.” But judging whether those outward manifestations reflect true repentance and faith is not something that a human being can do. Only God “looketh upon the heart.” So we are to, with his help, evaluate our own selves, not others. When we begin to evaluate the state of another person’s soul, we are acting on incomplete information and our evaluations will be unreliable, subjective, and in the context of a class where students are to be evaluated on the same basis, unfair. The tweet above illustrates this: it is hard enough to be a new convert to the church, and even more intimidating to be a new convert at a church school surrounded by mostly life-long members who you think–though it probably isn’t really true–all have stronger testimonies and more gospel knowledge that you do. The worst thing to do to such a student is to create a situation where they are likely to feel that their worth as a member is being judged.

And there’s a second problem with judging another’s spiritual development. While grades can create an incentive to do the work necessary to master the course material, faith in Christ and repentance are only good when they are sincere, motivated by a sincere desire to believe and to come unto Christ. The minute we start introducing additional, non-spiritual incentives for coming unto Christ, we have undermined faith.

My experience with religious education at BYU was a mixed bag. Some classes were excellent, very rigorous, and evaluated based on academic performance. Others were much more devotional and tended to base grades on some combination of a teacher’s capricious, subjective evaluation of students’ spiritual development and busy-work such as attendance or reading journals that measured effort, but did nothing to measure mastery of the material. My sense was (and is) that teachers were sometimes wary of basing grading solely on academic mastery because they did not want to give the impression that academic mastery was more important than spiritual development, which was the real goal of the class. I think this is a mistake.

III. The problem of grading as it relates to the two purposes of religious education.

I have no problem with devotional goals in religious education. But in my experience, the classes that best accomplished the devotional goal of spiritual engagement with the scriptures were those that were academically rigorous and graded based on measuring intellectual engagement with the scriptures. Those that had a more devotional focus were sometimes nice and faith-affirming, but more often became a sort of game of guessing “what are this teacher’s pet gospel hobby-horses (which often had less to do with the scriptural text we were studying than with the teacher’s idea of Latter-day Saint theology and doctrine in general, or even whatever political controversy happened to be current) and how can I make it sound like I agree with his take on those?” That’s the kind of cynical thinking we inspire and incentivize when we grade students based on their spiritual development.

It wasn’t all bad. I had some really great experiences with BYU religion classes, but it’s worth noting that the best ones–and the ones that most inspired spiritual development–were the ones that focused on academic rigor and didn’t try to force spiritual development. In fact, the best “religion class” I took at BYU was not even a religion class, but an English class in which we studied the Bible as literature. I think devotional and academic goals can (and at church schools, should) co-exist in harmony.

But when it comes to grading, I believe that students should be graded based on their academic performance without any consideration of devotional goals. Such grading is more objective, fairer, and more conducive to producing the kind of intellectual engagement that will lead to spiritual engagement than attempting to grade students based on their spiritual performance.

I have very limited experience teaching in an academic setting. I’m speaking based on my experience as a student and from my teaching experience in a devotional setting as a seminary and sunday school teacher. I am curious to hear the insights of readers, especially those who have formal pedagogical training:

  • What is the best way to grade a religious education course in order to foster devotional goals without sacrificing academic rigor?
  • Might it actually be better for devotional goals for the class to be ungraded? Under what circumstances?

Comments

  1. really great post — thank you for addressing this important cultural problem that we’ve inflicted on ourselves!

  2. I hated my Book of Mormon class at BYU for much of the same reasons you listed. It was surface deep, and extremely hard to get an A in. It was like to try and make it feel like a more legitimate class, they wanted to look for ways to grade your papers or anything else down.

    Something else frustrating was that if you took the class in institute over the summer and just showed up, you could transfer it as an A, and you got a 4.0 grade on your transcript. It didn’t seem fair.
    Once I was a bit more experience, I used to try and get into Stephen R Robinson’s classes at BYU. He had a totally different approach. Instead of being graded on reading (or lying about reading) for 15 minutes a day, we were tested on the scriptures like any other book of study.

    He also gave extremely interesting lectures that actually gave insight into the scriptures, instead of sounding like the same Sunday school lesson that you’d heard a million times before. It made it worth it to be there.

  3. I loved having Steve Robinson as a teacher. I “took” one of his classes by just showing up because my wife (though we weren’t dating yet) was in the class without ever officially registering. Then I took another class from him legitimately. He was wonderful and a great example of what I mean when I say that an academically rigorous class accomplished the devotional goal better than a devotionally-oriented class would have.

  4. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    My wife, a convert of four years and a returned missionary, was given a C in Book of Mormon by Reed Benson because she didn’t know offhand what the Rameumptom was.

    This is the kind of garbage that made me decide many years ago that I would not have anything to do with BYU.

  5. My first religion class was with Prof. Whitchurch, who made a speech on the first day that warned us of the rigors of his class but made it clear that our performance on his tests reflected academic ability and effort, not spirituality. I remember learning a lot from his class that I never would’ve gotten at church, specifically because of the academic focus. That was my experience with most of my BYU religion classes, and I look back appreciatively on them.

    The only class I truly thought was a waste of my time was Randy Bott’s (of “Bottgate”) mission prep class, which was merely him reminiscing about his most shocking mission stories and trying to derive some poor excuse for a moral lesson from them to justify the telling. He marked me down on a paper for missing the requirement to relate some sort of personal spiritual experience, which was my own fault for a careless reading of the instructions, but an odd requirement nonetheless, I felt.

  6. Thanks for sharing your experience, Laurel. Bott was a popular mission prep teacher when I was there, but I never took a class with him.

  7. This must have been a large class to have a TA assigned, and I make some allowance for the TA to be a clueless undergrad.

    I recall my RelEd profs explicitly saying we couldn’t be graded on testimony, but I think I got lucky. I think students have no idea that there are such different kinds of professors and classes in RelEd, and the best outcomes for students AND professors (given the importance of student reviews) come with matching like with like: academic students who want to learn ( as from Robinson) and devotional students who want an easy A and a Seminary/Gospel Doctrine experience.

    I taught a few summers in RelEd, and by the last one was smart enough to filter my students. On the very first day of Honors Acts-Rev, after briefly going over the syllabus, we dove right in to learning the Greek alphabet, and they had a weekend assignment with Strong’s Concordance and a number of Greek lexicons. Those who wanted a Seminary experience dropped and the others thought they’d hit the jackpot. For my part, I got good student reviews.

  8. I don’t know how one can grade devotional goals, unless you’re giving credit for going through the hoop. That is, I can give credit for reading the entire scriptural and secondary material, but whether it’s actually having an effect of personal/spiritual growth on the person, I have no way of knowing.
    It is possible to detect when someone’s *thought process* or conceptions about testimony, history, doctrine, etc. are shallow, but that’s not entirely the same thing, I don’t think.

  9. nobody, really says:

    My grandfather attended BYU back in the 50s and became a good friend of Nibley. It was suggested that my grandfather should apply to the University of Chicago for a graduate program in theology, but with two small children at home it was rather impractical. He went ahead with a graduate degree in sciences.

    That being said, my grandfather had almost nothing good to say about the BYU religion department. The only class he was even remotely fond of was one where the professor simply required the students to memorize “all the verses of three Hymns of Zion, because the day will come when we will sing those hymns aloud, marching back to Missouri with an extra pair of boots hung over our shoulders because we will wear the first pair through, and holding our masonry trowels high over our heads as we prepare the build The Temple”.

  10. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Between Cleon Skousen and Reed Benson I get the impression that the Religion Department was, for a long time, a jobs program for the otherwise unemployable friends and sons of Q15 members.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    I worked as a TA to an ancient scripture prof for two years. My main job was grading. He kept about 25 non-LDS works of scholarship on various aspects of the OT on reserve at the library. Every week students had to write an essay on what was studied in class, and they had to cite at least two of those resources and show that they understood the issues. If they met the page limit and interacted responsibly with the scholarship I could give them an A. Probably a majority of the students met the requirements and got their A. But I’m the process they had learned basic academic scholarship on the OT.

    Whenever students tried to transfer to the U, the religion credit wouldn’t transfer until he sent along a copy of his syllabus, and then they immediately allowed it.

    So in his case it was both easy in one sense but also productive, and the students truly learned the OT from an academic perspective.

  12. I had a handful of excellent experiences in religion classes (Robinson, Fluhman) who found a remarkable balance between the academic and the devotional. Really transformative stuff. It was the professors from other departments fulfilling their department quota where the problems always arose for me.

  13. I agree with you that an academic teaching and grading focus is much fairer to the student and more likely to achieve a devotional purpose anyway. Looking back 35+ years ago at my BYU education I was very fortunate to have a BOM instructor that layed that out very clearly at the beginning. He said that although there was much value in “likening scripture unto ourselves,” his class would be about focusing on the text itself, what it had to say, the intentions of the writers etc. And he followed through both in cutting off superfluous, over-personalized class discussions and in his grading. The result for me was more academic and spiritual development than I remembered having in a typical semester of Sunday School or seminary classes. However, one of my best BYU Religion Ed experiences was a freshman mission prep class taught by two RM’s. That was probably a unique situation that wasn’t really an academic focus at all but very impactful. Their personal stories were very sincere and well-placed, sort of the anti-Bott, from what I gather from the comments above.

  14. it's a series of tubes says:

    I had some quite solid instructors (Largey – BOM, Jackson – NT;POGP) and some popular but, in hindsight, less effective ones (Bott – D&C).

  15. Ryan Mullen says:

    My memories of BYU religion classes has soured severely in the years since I graduated and discovered the world of non-LDS biblical scholarship. Thankfully in that time, I’ve discovered the likes of Matthew Grey, Eric Huntsman, and Joseph Spencer—which showed me that while the classes I took were duds, there are excellent profs in the department.

  16. former byu alum (92-96) says:

    I don’t think I ever got an A in a Religion class at BYU. I just didn’t care as long as I checked the box. I can remember recycling a paper from one class to the next just changing the scripture references.

    I went to the first day of a New Testament class and he was talking about all the outside resources we would use, using Greek and Hebrew translations and it was one of those rigorous classes but I had a full class load and couldn’t afford to pull my focus from my major classes so I dropped it.

    I had a bogus family history class. I had been working on genealogy since I was 12 so I already knew the ropes and just wanted time to work on my family history. One of the requirements of the class was to keep a journal but in the specific format from the teacher. I faked the whole thing and threw it out as soon as I got it back from the professor.

  17. Left Field says:

    You cheated your way to a degree and you’re proud of it. Good to know.

  18. That is painful, definitely worth pointing out, and I agree with everything you wrote.

  19. Wilfred Griggs was excellent. Griggs taught honors NT classes in which we produced our own commentaries on various Gospels. Griggs was quietly critical of LDS scholarship and pointed out that any studious undergrad could interpret and analyze as well as, if not better, than most Deseret Book authors.

    Joseph Fielding McConkie actively discouraged us from quoting his father. He loved debates. JFM may have been a grumpy and argumentative despot, but his debates were hilarious as he “educated” some arrogant RM’s. His examination of “unconditional love” forced most of us to examine what we believed about the attributes of Deity and conditions of salvation and exaltation. I benefitted a great deal from his classes.

  20. Jack Hughes says:

    This is such a BYU problem. The religious studies faculty there takes themselves way too seriously; though I suppose that if they didn’t, nobody else would.

    During my (thankfully secular) undergraduate education, I went to institute every semester. Part of the appeal of institute for me was the fact that there were no exams, no papers and no grades; it was a welcome refuge from the rigor of secular studies.

  21. Latam Girl says:

    tubes…thank you for the reminder about Dennis(?) Largey. He was the volleyball guy right? He probably my favorite BOM instructor. He was fairly rigorous but engaging.

    Millet was very hard but I learned a ton; I think I took the JST course from him.

    I knew to stay away from Reeds courses since I had heard he was capricious in his grading, though for some reason I crossed paths with him at least weekly for a couple of years and he was always super smily and seemed genuinely happy to say hi to me, so he seemed like a decent guy.

    LeBaron (teachings of the living prophets) helped me realize that most of my issues with the Church at that time were really issues with others’ interpretations of what people thought Church leaders had said (and I appreciated his focus on more current guidance and policies from the 12). (Looking back though I feel a bit vindicated in my distaste of thorny issues that made me feel guilty for not wanting to be a SAHM, shunning birth control.)

    (this was all from 90-94)

  22. I graduated from BYU 12 years ago and don’t remember a single professors name.

  23. Ancient history here, but as a previously, academically straight-A student, I couldn’t have been prouder of my C+ in Book of Mormon — wouldn’t have wanted anything that could be seen as reflecting approval from that then well-known professor. He made it clear that anyone, including the BYU Biology Dept., that did not understand matters just as he did was an apostate inspired by Satan. Most of my memories of the BYU Religion Dept. are negative, but I’m sure there were numerous boring times as well. The most positive: a BYU Philosophy Prof responding to a Religion Prof needling him about teaching “philosophies of men” — “yes, I teach about philosophies of men, but I don’t teach the philosophies of men mingled with scripture like you do.”
    I’m told the BYU Religion Dept. has become much better. There is some evidence of that in the OP and comments. Thanks.

  24. Left Field says:

    When I was a student back in the late 70s-early 80s, my strategy was to find out from people I trusted who the good religion professors were and take whatever they were teaching that semester. That worked out pretty well for me. I think I took a couple of classes from Griggs. One semester for some reason, I took a chance on an unknown and was sorry.

  25. Kevin Barney says:

    I never had Griggs for a class. But when I was first out on my mission to Denver in late 1977 he came to do a “Know Your Religion” fireside, in the course of which when he read from the NT he would translate directly from the Greek text (using what I would only later recognize as the United Bible Society’s maroon edition). I thought that was insanely cool (I’m pretty sure before that I couldn’t have even told you that the NT had been originally written in Greek), and that sparked an interest that led me to study biblical languages as well, which has been a joy to me to this day.

  26. Fortunately, none of the religion classes I took at BYU ever had anything resembling a “testimony test” grading component. The two best religion classes I took required a research paper, which required some minimum number of non-standard works, non-conference talk sources. It was doing that paper that I realized that the Book of Mormon doesn’t mention skin color or the concept of race after 3 Nephi. The assignments focused on scholarship, but the lectures used that scholarship to teach profound “devotional” ideas.

    Some classes really did play a game of guess what the instructor is thinking, but that had more to do with remembering obscure facts about the context of sections of Doctrine & Covenants.

    Overall, I found these classes to range from mildly edifying to permanently paradigm shifting.

  27. Mr. Schmidt says:

    @JR: a BYU Philosophy Prof responding to a Religion Prof needling him about teaching “philosophies of men” — “yes, I teach about philosophies of men, but I don’t teach the philosophies of men mingled with scripture like you do.”

    Oh man, that would have been brilliant to experience. Almost makes one wish they could be put in a situation where that would be the perfect comeback for how satisfying it would be to say!

  28. “I don’t know how one can grade devotional goals, unless you’re giving credit for going through the hoop. That is, I can give credit for reading the entire scriptural and secondary material, but whether it’s actually having an effect of personal/spiritual growth on the person, I have no way of knowing.”

    I think this really gets at the issue. In my experience, most of the classes that weren’t very good didn’t actually measure testimony for faith, but it seemed like they were trying to approximate measuring such things by measuring jumping through hoops and doing meaningless busy work (things like, for example a daily reading journal that the instructor never read or graded, but gave credit if you said you read the scriptures every day). Daily reading is better than not reading, don’t get me wrong, but reading just to check a box is unlikely to generate real engagement with scripture as well as reading because you are going to be required to demonstrate mastery of the material through a test or an analysis.

  29. Heptaparaparshinokh…your wife probably got a bad grade from Reed Benson because she was only a female. He was terrible. Unashamedly sexist, racist, elitist, and spouting his right-wing philosophy and simplistic acronyms for life and happiness at every opportunity. I don’t remember my grade in his class, but he gave me a big push on to the road to apostasy.

  30. I attended BYU from 80-85 and took the 14 required credits in religion. Most of the testing was trivial, “name the four sons of Mosiah”, or subjective, “describe how your testimony has increased during the semester”. I spent a couple semesters doing early morning janitorial duty in the JSB, and got more out of that experience.

  31. That’s a good way of putting it, Mark: trivial or subjective. Part of me suspects that teachers go with trivial when they realize that you can’t measure subjective. But why not just go with substantive?

  32. I think one of my profs was from outside the religion department, and teaching a section of BoM was required for his employment contract. I don’t know if this was a general policy, if it continues today, or I’m just remembering wrong. He (of course it wasn’t a woman) may have been just phoning in the effort.

  33. Jay Stealth says:

    I’m an agnostic non-believer now, but I can’t lie. While I was a BYU student I loved almost all of my religion classes. I took Steve Robinson’s New Testament course, which I thought was phenomenal. I loved how he challenged common LDS worldviews and emphasized grace. I also loved Joseph McConkie’s class, which I really liked at the time too. Other classes I enjoyed included Comparative Religion classes. I took one comparing Mormonism and Islam that I really enjoyed. At BYU I was 21-23 years old and a strong believer in the truthfulness of Mormon doctrine and scripture, but I still loved deep analysis that broke it apart.

    One thing that I do appreciate about Mormonism at BYU is that it can be very in-depth about religion. Or course, now, I consider this mental gymnastics, but at the time, I did truly enjoy it.

  34. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    Dot: also a foreigner for whom English was her fifth language.

    There are a lot of garbage dudes in the Church. Unfortunately, the garbage dudes who end up in positions of authority like to tap other garbage dudes for the leadership track.

  35. The best religion class I ever took at BYU was from Wilfred Griggs on the NT. It was rigorous but it felt invigorating rather than difficult. We may have started with an opening prayer – actually, we probably did, although I don’t remember the details now – but other than that it was conducted and graded like an academic course. There were others I liked as well (and some I didn’t!), but that is the one that I have carried with me. And I think because we were so deeply immersed in the book, the “devotional requirements” were met. As a former seminary teacher, I know that you can’t force spirituality down someone’s throat, and that manufactured spiritual experiences are dicey. Give the students the scriptures, and let the scriptures work on them.

  36. Thank God I did not get that scholarship to BYU. I could not stomach some of the nonsense described above. At USU in the 1970’s the academic rigor at the LDS institute was a joke. My brother told me his strategy: Sign up for 5 or 6 classes every quarter. Check out the girls in the class. If none were interesting- stop going. If a few were then keep going and try to date them until they all either had boyfriends already or made it clear they were not interested. By finals one either had a girlfriend or more time to study. (Always the later for me). In this way one could usually get a passing grade in more than half the classes while paying little attention, turning in few assignments or taking a test. Graduation from institute would easily be achieved within 2 or 3 years max.

    I did take one class that tried to be rigorous. I studied diligently and got a high 90s on the first test. Then I got too busy with other hard science classes. I did not turn in assignments and skipped the final. I got a B in the institute class. I went in to protest my grade. The professor was most understanding and assumed he must have lost my final test and assignments. I soberly told him the truth. He pleaded, he thought then my grade was generously fair. I grew indignant and roared at him- just what in the hell do I have to do to…. get a D in your class? I demanded he adjust it downward.

    Academic rigor is difficult to do in a religious class. BYU seems to achieve that often if reports above are to be believed.

    Religion is supposed to build faith. Why embark upon a course likely to destroy faith at a religious school by authority figures grading faith by non-religious criteria?.

  37. Heptaparaparshinokh: You’re right, and there is little change on the horizon.

  38. The high point of my religious education at the Y fifty years ago were the 3 semesters I took from Burt Horsley. Two semesters of History of the Christian Church and one semester on World Religions. These classes had a lot of non-members in them. I remember nothing about how they were graded but I know that they sparked a lifelong interest in the history of Christianity.

  39. My main memory of BYU religion classes from when I was there (2000s) was that my BOM teacher, Byron Merrill, told us very seriously that ALL LIARS WILL BE THRUST DOWN TO HELL. I wasn’t sure what to do with that information because I’m fairly certain that we don’t actually believe in the standard Christian concept of hell, but who knows, maybe if I had taken a better D&C class later I would have learned that.

    Also, haven’t seen it mentioned here, but one of the big issues in religion classes back in the day was the sort of gulf of knowledge between returned missionaries and non-returned missionaries – obviously two years of studying every morning for like, two hours, meant that they knew a lot of the stories/facts that the average college freshman didn’t, but the real issue was that the religion professors treated them like experts when it came to spiritual matters – and this meant, of course, that women (who at that time weren’t allowed to go on missions until they were 21) were NEVER spiritual experts in class.

  40. K. Harris says:

    These are fascinating comments that touch on a subject I have pondered privately and discussed openly with my friends and colleagues since the suicide at BYU a few months ago. I understand that BYU is considering increasing the number of mental health counselors available to students since the suicide but could making the religion classes more spiritually accessible be a valuable prong in a three pronged approach to addressing the mental health needs of the student body? (The third prong might be individual ward worship and ministering which is a whole other topic about the idiosyncrasies of BYU that we could start a new thread on).

    Could BYU require students to graduate from Institute or categorize academic religious studies participation into a Latter-Day Saint Religious Studies minor in order to receive a degree? The same classes would be offered, just one is graded pass/fail based on attendance, reading, participation and small project (Institute grading) while the other has an academic assignment/component. The student would register for the kind of grading they wanted in the class- Institute diploma or academic credit. This would also open up all Utah Valley Institutes for students to participate in…and maybe even open up BYU Religion Classes for non-BYU students to participate in after matriculated students registered.

    Background: I am a double alumni, B.A. and J.D., and I was a BYU Religion Department TA for two professors as an undergrad. I also attended the UVU Institute as an undergrad and appreciated having meaningful experiences with the scriptures without the stress. My husband is a UVU Institute teacher and we have four kids in college right now with one at BYU.

  41. I took Book of Mormon 3 times at BYU because after taking the first half class (the book was split into two courses BofM 1 and BOfM 2 as I recall – I think they were 121 A and 121 B), I realized there were some amazing professors available who were far better than the garbage devotional professor who was little more than a glorified Sunday School teacher.

    First I tackled Susan Easton Black’s class where she offered extremely rich scholarship on the life of the prophet Joseph Smith in the context of the Book of Mormon. Here was a true historian who brought deep testimony matched with solid historical content and a rigorous application to scholarship within the Book of Mormon.

    After Professor Black I figured I was ready to jump in the deep end and signed up for Nibley’s course where we barely made it through 3 and 4 Nephi. His engagement with classical history was so above my head I struggled to keep up. But it immersed me into why true scholarship and engagement with the scriptures in a historical and societal context could be so meaningful.

    Then I took James Toronto’s class on World Religions which offered a window into other faiths from a perspective that treated them on par with our own faith as equals in forming relationships with God, Allah, Brahma, ancestors and others. To me this so fully embodies what a college education should provide when religion is required: to broaden the mind and create connections with diverse belief systems and appreciate their intricacies and histories.

    The last great class I took was Kent P Jackson’s course on the Pearl of Great Price which provided an exceptional framework for evaluating the work that Joseph delivered and the context in which it was presented. His extensive understanding of the history of Egypt and the Middle East offered insights I still reference long after I have read many of the source materials from which he gleaned his own understanding and teaching.

    The only devotional professor I ever appreciated was George W Pace though I took his class almost a decade after the fallout with Elder McConkie and was completely unaware of his criticisms of Leonard Arrington at the time. Still, his approach to learning and engaging with the Savior – this was a New Testament course – helped strengthen my own testimony and balance scholarship with devotion. I’ll admit I took his course because I heard his was an enjoyable class with many narratives and a relatively easy grade. But I gained so much more in the process.

  42. Just curious about the concern over suicide by K Harris:

    What is the suicide rate at BYU? What is it at other Utah colleges? And also at other religious colleges like Norte Dame, TCU, Wheaton, Union, Oral Roberts, Dallas Baptist, etc? Most are smaller than BYU and each is unique, but suicide rates tend to be more stable than say, football rankings.

    My seat-of-the-pants guess is about 5 or 10 per 100,000 students each year which would be maybe 2 or 3 per year at BYU. But this recent one gives me cause to wonder if it is much LOWER there since it made such an impact.

    A few years ago this city had a rash of suicides of people jumping off bridges onto the busiest section of the freeway stopping traffic for hours. Many copy cat suicides followed. Psychiatrists were consulted by traffic experts. They recommended to stop the media coverage and soon the suicides stopping traffic decreased, probably they were still being done in some other less disruptive way. Sometimes the wrong kind of attention can make a problem worse.

  43. I attended TCU for grad school 2005-07 and the connection with the Disciples of Christ was/is scarcely mentioned.

  44. Bleubird2 says:

    I was of the opinion that the religioun classes should be pass/fail and that it should be relatively easy to get a pass grade with attendance and participation. I did have some religion professors who felt that we had to really work for an A and they were among my most stressful classes at BYU-Idaho.

  45. I join ST Miller with a “Hear! Hear!” for Burt Horsley.

  46. Neigh, neigh! :)

    I notice most of the great teachers of religious classes mentioned by name above are at BYU. Every year about 31,000/4 students march off to BYU. Every year 20 years ago about 100,000 children were given a name and blessed in the LDS church. In addition about 250,000 baptisms of new converts annually are heavily skewed to young ages, not a few of whom might wish to attend BYU. Not all apply but it seems that these excellent opportunities to hear great teachers are greatly limited to less than 5-10% of LDS college-age youth and available at BYU, the place with the greatest risk of negative testimony eroding pressure by grading faith academically.

    My personal experience consisted of institute classes in Utah (not BYU) being little more than juvenile cheer leading for the church mixed with match-making. My wife’s experience was similar. My daughter went to an exclusive private college with less than 5 LDS students and no institute. She got a job in a medium sized city with one stake and no single’s ward and one unbelievably horrible institute class taught by a uninformed nut job.

    My son went to a large STEM school with about 30 LDS students and he was instrumental in organizing and helped teach a couple of decent institute classes. At graduate school at a huge university in the top 5 in size nationally with a perhaps 100 active LDS students and a handful of institute teachers; one of them was willing to engage in discussions approaching material congruent with that on this blog, mostly after class. My adopted, eternal exchange student/daughter went to a private school with few LDS students and attended lousy institute classes taught through the single’s ward for only a few quarters. This is probably more representative of the experience of most LDS college students out here in the remote provinces of the Kingdom. The pitfalls seem more along the lines of poor quality.

    What is of concern to me is the emergence of a self-righteous, elite clique of BYU alums who are able to claim key ward callings because they had access to better church education and/or are perceived to be more capable and devoted. If they also happen to be ultra-orthodox ram-rods, they will drive most of the youth away in wards far from Utah where church membership is thin and dispersed. I have watched many recent grads from BYU move into our ward and try to enforce ultra-orthodoxy and BYU standards (and more) upon youth who might be one of only a handful of members in their school, who might have highly-assimilated, mixed-denomination or inactive parents, who might be new members, or largely inactive, etc. BYU is not the bright sun here as it is in Utah, but a rather distant, dim star of little account. These youth lose interest and many of the BYU alums move back west at the first available opportunity. Satan laughs more than at the mention of the word Mormon.

    I am more concerned about those many who don’t ever get marked down in religion class there than those few who do.

  47. Perhaps one of the takeaways from all this is that we should not turn our feelings of self-worth over to others. I fail to believe a TA would qualify to judge anything, even his/her own testimony. Perhaps the teachers in charge of these TAS should give better training.

  48. That’s easy to say, Terry, when you’re not a young college student, a new convert, surrounded by figures of education and ecclesiastical authority.

  49. Institute > BYU Religion Department.

    Plain and simple.