Teaching Spotlight: Michelle Voss Roberts

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Michelle Voss Roberts

Michelle Voss Roberts

Tell us about an upcoming project that will enhance your teaching both in and beyond the classroom.

This winter break, I will travel for three weeks in India with a group of thirteen Wake Forest faculty, Divinity students, and undergraduates. This trip is the beginning of a new spring course, “Multicultural Contexts for Ministry: Christianity in India,” in which students consider the role of culture in religious identity and practice—both in India and at home. The travel itinerary affords exposure to Indian Christianity and a predominantly Hindu context. Some of the itinerary highlights include the multi-religious city of Madurai; Kottayam, the Eastern Orthodox capital in India; Bangalore, home of important institutions of Protestant and Catholic formation; and Chennai, where students will learn about the St. Thomas Christians, present in India from at least the fourth century.

What takeaway will students take away from this experience abroad before integrating these takeaways into their time at Wake Forest?

This course will enable students to understand firsthand the complex interactions of religious traditions and cultural context. India, a nation in which practitioners of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Christianity, and many other sub-traditions interact on a daily basis, is the ideal place to study these relationships. For example, when in India, the class will have extensive conversations with religious leaders who embrace Hindu categories for formulating their Christian faith, as well as with Dalit (formerly “Untouchable”) Christians, who reject these categories. Students’ exposure to the latter Indian cultural group (which for years was neglected in scholarship on Indian Christianity) will equip them with critical perspectives that will help them move beyond cultural relativism to make informed evaluations.

What’s the one aspect of this course that you view to be the most important for its success?

One of the most vital portions of this course is a transnational collaboration with Dr. M. Thomas Thangaraj of the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary and emeritus professor at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.  Dr. Thangaraj is an accomplished hymn writer in Tamil and English who has been a leading thinker on the questions of faith and culture, especially as that pertains to the introduction, growth, and development of Christianity in India. With Dr. Thangaraj as a conversation partner, students will explore his innovations and those of other colleagues at various Christian centers in India. These explorations will immerse students in issues of inculturation (e.g., What is the relation between Christianity and culture?; Which aspects of Indian culture are compatible with Christianity, and why?). In light of the rise of Dalit activism in the church, students will also be led to reflect on the question: “With which of India’s many cultures is Christianity compatible or incompatible?” These questions will come alive when we visit sites and institutions where these are pressing issues.

Why do you view such initiatives as being vital to a successful classroom setting?

Much of my teaching is based on the principle that we learn best when we converse with people different from ourselves. We learn not only about historical, cultural, or religious others, but we also learn about ourselves in the process. We leave home (metaphorically, or in the case of this course, literally) and return again with new categories, with new lenses for viewing the familiar.

How does this form of teaching enhance Wake Forest’s dedication to enriched teaching experience?

Our educational conversation will not end when we return in mid-January. The continuation of the course after the trip will provide readings in theologies of culture and models for constructive public engagement that will refine these skills. We will also engage Indian communities in the Triad, thus reversing the question of Christian minorities in a predominantly Hindu culture to consider Hindu minorities in a predominantly Christian culture. Finally, we will share what we learn with the broader community through a special presentation with Interfaith Winston-Salem. I see this entire process as embodying Wake Forest University’s commitment to community engagement and diversity.

What about your course of study and about Wake Forest makes this approach to teaching necessary?

Because School of Divinity graduates are being educated for leadership in a multicultural world, cross-cultural engagement is essential to their education. Travel experiences such as this one equip students with the awareness of cultural diversity they need to become transformative leaders in a religiously plural and globalized world. When students learn to view their own religious tradition through the eyes of another culture, they can begin to identify how religious assumptions (their own and those of others) are drawn from specific cultural contexts. They also become more tolerant of differences and sensitive to the challenges of religious minorities, which are crucial qualities for today’s emerging religious leaders.

Who was your favorite teacher and why?

I have been blessed with many excellent teachers, but the person who comes immediately to mind is Dr. Laurie Patton (now Dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke University, but then Professor of Religion at Emory University). Dr. Patton holds her students to high expectations and inspires them to meet those expectations. One semester, she gave our class an assignment that I have come to see simply as a good intellectual practice: when someone in class refers to a work, thinker, or idea with which you are unfamiliar, do some research on it before the next class. This practice transforms the expertise of others from something intimidating into an opportunity for learning and conversation.

What was the last lesson you learned from your students?

Don’t schedule class during Fall Break