May 30 2024

Interview with Lynn Neal, 2017 Excellence in Teaching Award Winner


When did you know you were gifted/called to the vocation of teaching?

I’m not sure I’d use that language, but at least two events were pivotal in my teaching journey. First, in college, I spent a summer teaching English in Romania (before the internet/web was what it is now). I had to create my own curriculum and teach students who knew little or no English, while I had miniscule knowledge of Romanian. It was great fun, we all learned at least a little of each other’s languages, and I overcame my fear of public speaking. More than this, though, my time in Romania helped me envision myself as a teacher. Second, I was a participant in one of the Wabash Center’s early career workshops. This amazing experience introduced me to the scholarship of teaching and learning, which shifted my thinking about teaching from what Carol Dweck would call a “fixed” mindset (“I’m a good teacher” or “I’m a bad teacher”) to a “growth” mindset, where I could see myself as a continually “improving” teacher.

How would you describe your “teaching life”? Is there a word or a phrase that captures your pedagogy? How or why?

Dogged and passionate. Despite many years of experience, I still over prepare for class, dissect the dynamics of my classes with colleagues and friends, and continue to read books on teaching and learning. I work very hard to be an effective teacher and I think this dogged determination helps me be a passionate teacher eager to create a positive learning environment for students.

Do you use any special templates to draft your syllabi design?

A few years ago I read “Creative Approaches to the Syllabus” in The Chronicle of Higher Education and looked at some of the incredible examples linked in this piece. Knowing the importance of visuality in learning and students’ increasing screen time (and device access to the course materials), I decided to try it. I now use a newsletter template on my computer for my syllabus. This allows me to incorporate charts, images, colors, text boxes, and more. I also place my course outline information in columns that could easily be read on a screen. At first, students are surprised by its appearance (given how it differs from the norm), but this makes it an interesting point of discussion during the first class as we talk about what they have already learned about the course, its expectations, and me through this document.

Do you use any special skills or exercises to help students with their writing?

My current favorite is the “minute thesis” idea, which comes from James Lang’s book Small Teaching. He also discusses it on his blog here. You write two columns on the board, for example, case studies and course concepts, and then select a student to circle one case study and two concepts or two case studies and one concept. You then give the students a minute to think about how these three items are connected. They then share their different statements of connection. And, you can repeat this again with another student circling the items. This activity gives students the opportunity to think about connections across class material, learn from each other, and begin constructing arguments.

What, do you believe, has been your most effective tool in reaching students?

Intentionality. I try to be intentional about my course design and preparation so that students can see the rationale for a particular topic or assignment. Students respond positively to transparency and clarity. Further, as I get older and finding points of commonality with student life gets more challenging, I am now more intentional about building my relationships with students. As a younger teacher, it seemed easier, but now I hope to foster trust and relationship not only through our class time together, but also through conversations with them before class, after class, and online.

What, do you believe, is your major contribution to the profession of teaching?

Well, that’s a daunting question. I guess I would say that my major contribution is my willingness to talk with colleagues about issues related to teaching. Sometimes this occurs in more formal ways. For example, I’ve become involved with our learning spaces committee on campus, published a piece on conflict in the classroom in Teaching Theology & Religion, and for the past two years, I’ve organized and led department teaching book clubs. More often, though, I think the contributions occur in more informal ways as I listen, commiserate, and/or strategize, with colleagues as needed.

What, if any, advice do you give junior faculty just beginning their teaching careers?

I advise junior faculty to take advantage of opportunities to grow as teachers through the scholarship of teaching and learning. In addition, I also emphasize the importance of finding a supportive community of colleagues with whom to talk through the ups and downs of teaching. In The Skillful Teacher, Stephen Brookfield compares teaching to white water rafting, and, I would add, you want the right people in your raft.

What topic should we look forward to hearing about in your address at the Annual Meeting?

I’ve titled my topic “Visuality in the Teaching of Religion” and will focus on various strategies for incorporating visual culture into the teaching of religion, this will include discussion of the “creative syllabus” mentioned earlier, the idea of sending students on “photo missions,” creating image galleries, and other ideas fellow teachers can implement in the classroom.