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Writing assignments in Theology 101

Sep 03, 2023

(Well, not quite Theology 101; rather, Theology & Franciscan Studies 101, which isn’t exactly an intro to theology.)

I’m finally getting close to a “final form” for my sections of “The Way of Francis & Clare.” The course schedule, including reading assignments, is mostly set, but what’s really tied together the entire course is the integration of a service learning project throughout the semester.

Throughout the semester, students take what they learn about Franciscan values to design, plan, & implement a service project that does some good for the local community. Afterwards they will write a reflective essay in which they discuss their experience of service in connection with key themes & ideas from the course. I was inspired to work this project into my course by my colleague, who had used service learning in the past, & students responded well to the project last semester. This semester I’ve worked to more fully integrate the project into my course, mainly by orienting all the other writing assignments in the course to the service learning project.

Early in the semester, students will write a short essay articulating their understanding of “Franciscan service,” on the basis of a couple of readings we’ll discuss in class (including selections of Pope Francis’s Fratelli tutti). This writing assignment will ask them to consider the difference between service & solidarity, & how they might embody solidarity in their own acts of service. This early writing assignment will help students begin to think about service in a Franciscan key, & what they might want to do for their service project. (We’ll also have time in class to brainstorm ideas & begin planning projects.)

Later on in the semester students will complete an in-class positionality mapping exercise (I learned a lot about this from Danielle Jacobson’s & Nida Mustafa’s paper on social identity mapping), which will form the basis of their second writing assignment. I don’t ask students to share with me anything about their social position they’re not comfortable sharing, but I do ask them to reflect in writing on how their social position informs their own particular worldview. That includes possible blind spots they may have as a consequence of their social position; that also includes a unique perspective or insight about the world they have thanks to their social position. My hope—& I’ll be explicit about this in class—is that students will think about the position from which they engage in service. What is it about their social location that puts them in a position to do service at all? How do their intersecting social positions inform they kind of good they want to do in their community?

Then, in the latter half of the semester, students will write a couple short essays on Franciscan values. I’ve already identified most of the possible values (e.g., non-possessiveness, fraternal living, universal kinship, peacemaking, etc.); students will choose one, find a quotation from Francis or Clare to illustrate it, & then explain the value. These will come into play when students are reflecting on their experience in the service learning project.

Finally, for the end of the semester students write a reflective essay drawing on their experience completing the service learning project. The reflective essay has a few parts to it. I’ll ask them to think about to what extent their service learning project met the “standard” of Franciscan service they set in their first writing assignment. Students won’t be graded on how “Franciscan” their project was; rather, I want students to think about how service does & does not allow for the “solidarity”—the change of social position—that Francis & Clare lived in their own time.

I’ll also ask students to think about how their social position may have shaped their experience of doing service. The goal here is that putting service in the context of one’s social position will discourage the “it felt so good to help someone” attitude toward service, which I worry is patronizing & shortcircuits questions about why we live in a world where such service is needed. Instead, I’d like students to think more critically about themselves & society—what about their privilege positions them to do service like this? How might students choose to live in ways that counteract the societal arrangements that marginalize or oppress people?

Students will further reflect on Franciscan values in connection with their experience of service. They might use what we learned in the classroom to analyze & interpret their experience, or they might use their experience to shed new light on the ideas learned & discussed in class.

The reflective essay, then, draws upon each of the previous writing assignments while asking students to rethink some of their earlier thoughts in light of the service experience. I hope this project gives a clear throughline to the course as a whole; I hope, too, that it conveys to students the nature of learning as cumulative & always needing revision. (I’m sure there’s a more elegant way to say that.) Basically: knowledge—in all its forms—builds & often requires us to adjust what we previously thought about the world.

While I’ve done this service learning project before, this is the first time I’m teaching it as a fully integrated component of the course. I’m excited to see how it goes.