Last Friday I made my annual pilgrimage to OUF, the Ontario University Fair. It is the largest university fair in our area with thousands of students descending on the Toronto Convention Centre to scope out options for universities, or more often, to make decisions regarding which Open Houses to attend. It is a bit of a chaotic affair, with most students generally uncertain as to which program they want, while a very few know exactly what they want. Not too many are hunting for theology programs (although it does happen!). Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, where I work, is a federated school of Wilfrid Laurier University and I am there representing both institutions. I mostly ferry students from the edge of the Laurier carpet to another professor or student ambassador after discerning specific or general areas of interest. I rather enjoy the day. I get to meet excited and nervous students, connect with colleagues from the campus that I do not normally see, and bookend the event with a train ride.
Every year, the event sets my mind to the topic of education. Universities are funny places, where most of the people who teach have little to no formal education in education. Our university works hard to provide opportunity to sharpen skills, with special sessions, regular workshops, and staff who meet with faculties to develop their pedagogy. At the same time, there is a recurring perceived conflict between research and education in upper education. Some see teaching as a distraction from pure research, some see the two to be mutually informative, and some are really rather happy to have a career where the focus is on curriculum.
I remember hearing , some years ago, a professor make the observation that his vision of teaching changed as he realized that he was not teaching a subject matter but students. This seems sound, so long as the subject matter isn’t lost in the mix. Our university, with its “inspiring lives” tagline invites me and my peers to imagine that inspiration is purported to be at the core of our mission, whether our focus is on research, or teaching, or both.
Of course, theologians know this word well in relation to scripture, and the claims that the Bible is somehow “inspired” or God-breathed. In light of that, it might be a bit ambitious for us to imagine that we can inspire anyone. Still, I think the word appropriate when pronounced with the proviso that inspiration is something that happens unawares. As both professor and writer, I generally have no idea what will take off among my various audiences. The best laid plans for a lecture run astray and seemingly unsatisfactory prose sings unexpectedly. Inspiration happens even though – or perhaps because – we do not have God at our beck and call. The Spirit works in strange ways that sometimes and somehow echoes through what we do, bouncing back to teachers and authors who have ears to hear and eyes to see.
At the end of the day, education is sketched in mystery. It seems like the stars have to align for those “magic” moments to occur. And yet, they happen. I ache for those moments, and so gladly travel to OUF, to look for the face of this student or that, who is passionate about learning and is joyfully curious about the allure of trails unknown; places where we discover whom we are, and that we will never be a fait accompli.