July 19 2024

An Interview with the 2013 AAR Excellence in Teaching Award Winner, Carolyn Medine

Interviewed by Tina Pippin, Agnes Scott College and Chair, AAR Teaching and Learning Committee

Carolyn Medine, professor in the religion department and the Institute of African American Studies at the University of Georgia, is a mentor not only to her own students at UGA, but also her peers in the academy. Through her work at the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion, as cochair of the Teaching Religion section of the AAR, and as a leader in underrepresented minority groups in the academy, Medine’s influence has been wide and deep. Upon receiving this award, she gives credit to her own influences from high school and college—in particular, Ruel W. Tyson Jr., who taught her how to approach a literary text, and Charles H. Long at UNC–Chapel Hill. Medine sees mentoring as something that cannot be assigned; it is a natural process in which like-minded people find each other. For her, part of mentoring is the “handing on”; ideally students take what they learn and go beyond what she has taught. Mentoring is driven by student curiosity. This relationship is part of lifelong learning; Medine is committed to guiding students, especially racial and ethnic minority students, and even more specifically women students, through all the stages of their career, from undergraduate to professional success. Medine is part of a multiracial “sisterhood” of women who care about teaching, and about each other. She believes that the job of the teacher is “to become obsolete.”

Medine operates from the belief that pedagogical theory undergirds teaching. Donald L. Finkel’s Teaching with Your Mouth Shut (Heinemann, 2000), was a particularly challenging and influential book for her. Finkel brings the issue of power in the classroom to the fore. Medine reflects on her religion and literature class, “I was able to help the students see how to become their own teachers. I would introduce the idea for the day, then let them go, acting as a kind of director or talk show host. They taught themselves everything I would have taught them.” This technique is not without structure—Medine believes there has to be something for the students to start with (e.g., a strong, detailed syllabus and assignments) in order for them to begin making their own structure. She relates, “I get more rigid, determined, about the responsibility of the teacher to create a course in which students are not alienated but brought to their own excellence on tests and assignments.” She employs alignment or scaffolding in her course structure so that students can see the structure, see the scaffold of what they are doing in the classroom, and understand why. “’What did we do and why do you think we did it?’: This question is a way to get beyond the to-do list and to see that all the pieces have purposes and are not neutral—and ultimately, the objective is to see me, what choices I have made in the classroom and why.”

Just as the Finkel book once haunted her, Medine is currently haunted by active learning techniques and discussion sessions, with a particular focus on graduate teaching assistants. But most of all, as her workshop at the AAR Southeast regional meeting last March showed, she is focusing on what it means to read and how to teach people to read. Because we are teaching a generation used to reading little bits of texts, it is important to teach the dialogic and intertextual quality of reading. As a theoretical base, texts such as Denis Donoghue’s The Practice of Reading (Yale University Press, 2000), a more conservative view, along with deconstructive thinkers like Jacques Derrida, have been helpful. Medine states, “Teaching has always been, for me, thinking out loud. Students really help me clarify things.” And her current emphasis on the reading process helps create a communal space for mutual learning.

Medine points out that the “Teaching Tips” sessions at the AAR Annual Meeting have been full; there is great interest within our professional association in the craft of teaching. The Teaching Religion section works on increasing consciousness of the fact that scholars come to the annual and regional meetings to find ways to teach their subjects. Medine is a major voice in these sessions as a guide for both new and midcareer faculty. Her advice for new faculty “is not to keep making new classes. It is important to teach classes over and over, not to be bored, but to refine them! The more you work on them, the clearer the alignment gets and then you can work in new material and improvise.” For a course this fall, she is teaching again Augustine’s Confessions: “I never thought I’d see my teaching life mirrored in Augustine—I am a Franciscan at heart and by profession a secular—but I do.”