A Quick Detour: On Choosing University Readings

THE HOBBIT: UNEXPECTED JOURNEYI am at that time of year when I am finalizing readings for an upcoming course. I’m thrilled to be offering a new course at Maritime Christian College called, “From Middle Earth to the Garden of Eden: Thoughts on Faith and Culture from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.” Here is the teaser that is going out with the advertisements this week:

What can Hobbits & Marshwiggles teach us about faith? In an era of change, world-renowned authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien  were able to engage their culture with a Christian message in a time when culture was not receptive to biblical truth.
We also live in such a time, don’t we?
Becoming Pilgrims in Narnia, adopting a Hobbit’s Theology, can teach us to engage our culture with faith in Jesus Christ.

The Lion Witch Wardrobe (1stEd) LewisAs frequent readers will know, the possibilities are endless. Here are some of the things I would love to read in a class:

  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, “On Fairy Tales,” and “Mythopoiea.” I don’t think we can get through The Lord of the Rings in a single semester, though I’ll encourage the films and be playing some clips.
  • C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Out of the Silent Planet, The Great Divorce, and The Screwtape Letters. I will have to choose. And, of course, Mere Christianity!
  • Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey (1982). For those that don’t know, it is a brilliant conversion narrative. And he plays out his approach to writing well in Lion Country (1971).
  • Certainly something from Marilynne Robinson, perhaps from When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012).
  • Something from Madeleine L’Engle, Ursula Le Guin, and/or Anne Lamott.
  • Harry Blamires, “Thinking Christianly and Thinking Secularly,`ch. 2 in The Christian Mind. Blamires was a student of C.S. Lewis.
  • I’m also thinking of John C. McDowell, John Granger, Mark I. Pinskey, or Gregory Bassham & Eric Bronson.
  • I’m considering Matthew Dickerson, “Affirming the Creative and the Heroic,” ch. 5 in The Mind and the Machine: What it Means to be Human and Why it Matters (2011).
  • And for a novel, perhaps Katherine Paterson, Bridge to Terabithia, Paulo Coehlo,  The Alchemist, Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev, or Lois Lowry, The Giver.

There is too much to choose! I would love advice if you have it.Some of the topics in the class include:

  • The Last Will Be First: A Hobbit’s Theology for us All
  • C.S. Lewis’ Public Voice
  • The Power of Myth and Mythmaking
  • The Garden of Eden as Prophetic Story for Today
  • Power, Good & Evil in The Lord of the Rings
  • The Sacred Journeys of Frederick Buechner
  • Bridges to Terabithia: Fantasy and the Imagination as Bridges to Faith
  • Upside Down Discipleship with Screwtape
  • Following the Apostle Paul to Mars Hill and Back Again

Essayist Bookshelf 2013What makes this course more complex is that there will be a number of auditors–people from the community sitting in on the lectures. Most of them won’t do much of the reading, so I cannot rely on readings in the lectures.

Thinking through the great selection I have in front of me has got me thinking about university textbooks and readings again. I am eternally unsatisfied. I have only ever used textbooks for what I call information download courses–when students need to get a certain amount of data out of the class for their programs. I resist these courses–I wonder if we could even teach World Religions or Cultures of the World in a different way. So I mostly use readers.

As I am going through one of these readers for another project, I was struck by their selection technique. The Stanley Hauerwas Reader (2001), edited by John Berkman and Michael Cartwright, has a strikingly different approach to a university textbook. Here is how they brought the book together:

In 1997, the editors mailed a survey to about two hundred theologians and philosophers around the world familiar with Hauerwas’s work, asking them
what they thought should go into this volume. We received concrete suggestions from about sixty respondents, which were tabulated and critically evaluated.
From that survey and analysis came a first draft of essays for inclusion in the reader. A year later we sent out a second survey, sending the proposed list of essays for the volume and soliciting suggestions of additional essays that ought to go in, and, if essays were added, what should be deleted. Again, we received about twenty-five responses with concrete suggestions and made some changes accordingly (13-14).

This seems to be an early version of “crowdsourcing”–a great idea for textbook writing. Their principle behind the crowdsourcing is a combination of excellence and accessibility. Those priorities pushed them to a further goal:

With our selection in hand, we sought publishers who would be interested in a volume large enough to adequately cover the key subject areas discussed
above. In addition, we sought a publisher who would publish the book at a price that would enable wide distribution, inexpensive enough that graduate
students would not hesitate to buy it and cost-conscious professors could justify requiring it for their courses (14).

I love booksI love this: Editors who are concerned about cost and availability. This 750 page behemoth is available for about $30 still, and my library has the license for the e-book. Definitely a plus.

This got me thinking about what I think the key priorities are for choosing a university textbook. I haven’t ranked them, and perhaps you would add some, but these are mine:

  • Cost. I aim for $60/course for all textbooks. I know with the big intro books it will be a little more, but this is my goal. Students shouldn’t be burdened by expensive books.
  • When assigning books, I look for those that are available used or are out of copyright. I choose the best edition, not the newest one.
  • While I tend to “primary sources”–having students read the older stuff–I balance it off with newer material when I can.
  • I want the book to be good. I mean really good. I want students to be able to use a resource textbook for a decade or more. Or, if it is a novel or essay collection, I want them to want to keep it for life. I spend enough time in used bookstores to know that students sell my books! But I try to pick good books.
  • Essays should be short (10-20 pages). Hopefully by the end of undergraduate education, students are hardier when it comes to long texts. But they don’t yet have that endurance in 2nd or 3rd year. So I like short essays.
  • Essays must be well written. I prefer witty, exciting, controversial, personal, or narrative essays.
  • Essays need to be accessible. I will typically assign one or two difficult essays that I use in class to teach how to read exciting ideas embedded in difficult text. Albert Camus is a great example. But, mostly, the essayists and textbook writers should understand undergraduate students, and know how to get them to the ideas they are presenting. If they don’t, they are the wrong essay for my class.
  • I judge books by their covers. Sorry, but I do. I want books–especially if they are costly–to be beautiful, alluring, tempting even.
  • Introductory textbooks should be in simple paragraph form in easy-to-read columns with colour pictures, graphs, extra readings, and online supplemental aids. This can be done for $80 or less in Arts & Humanities course, but probably not in Social Sciences.

CS Lewis Apologetics Books Mere Christianity Miracles ScrewtapeThis priority list only makes my job all the more difficult for this upcoming course! But, if I do this well, students will have a better experience. Ultimately, they will learn more. And that’s what we’re all after, after all.

Note: If you are interested in this course, there is a special audit price. Contact MCC at 902-628-8887 if you are interested, or contact me through @BrentonDana.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
This entry was posted in News & Links, Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to A Quick Detour: On Choosing University Readings

  1. What an exciting course! Ever think of doing this as an e-course so those of us in other countries can benefit. Btw, I’m reading Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art which is WONDERFUL so far. Don’t know if it will work with the course you’re teaching or not.


  2. You need to add CW! I recommend “The Greater Trumps” or “Descent Into Hell” for your themes. They’re free on Australia’s Gutenberg site.
    And CSL’s great book on faith is “Till We Have Faces.” It licks all the rest hollow.


  3. Ann Kruse says:

    Have you read “The Battle for Middle-Earth: Tolkien’s Divine Design in The Lord of the Rings” by Fleming Rutledge? The publishers are Eerdmans and I think I bought it in the seminary bookstore right after I graduated. That’s been a few years, so it may not be available, but I thought I would mention it. Judging by the number of notes I made in the margins and multiple sections highlighted, it must have been engaging.

    This sounds like a great course. If it is ever offered as an e-course, sign me up!


  4. jubilare says:

    If this is any evidence, you are a good teacher. I think some of my profs were this conscientious, but not all of them.


  5. Pingback: On Pretending to be in a PhD (pt. 2) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  6. keebslac1234 says:

    Terrific post. I will be pushing up daisies before I get even halfway through my gargantuan reading list. Oh well. My “retirement” years may hold more time for book worming. I would love to be nearby your school to audit a course or two. I would (guarantee) read all assigned books and essays.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.