M. Shawn Copeland, Ph.D., says that she rarely lectures in her own classroom. She instead practices the Ignatian ideal of accompaniment, in which the teacher serves as “a more creative and collaborative companion in learning.”
Copeland, associate professor of theology at Boston College, was the speaker at the second annual Distinguished Guest Lecture in Jesuit Pedagogy, sponsored by Fordham’s Center for Teaching Excellence on Feb. 12 at the Lincoln Center campus.
The Center supports Fordham’s faculty in their goal to improve as teachers.
Copeland said Ignatian pedagogy informs her work with Boston College’s PULSE program, a yearlong philosophy and theology course that incorporates sustained service in a fieldwork placement.
She said the model of a teacher accompanying students on a journey of discovery development, rather than simply presenting a body of knowledge, is rooted in the basic tenets of Ignatian philosophy.
“Ignatius and his disciples very much wanted to help people in the manner of Jesus, to be available to people as they were and where they were, to constantly devise new ways of making the gospel meaningful,” Copeland said.
Similarly, good teachers meet a student “where they are” and gently guide them along a journey of personal and intellectual transformation.
“Teaching accompanies the student as he or she is and nurtures growth,” she said.
The PULSE program’s intensive service learning often takes place in the Greater Boston area in communities that are different socio-economically and racially from most students’ hometowns. Copeland said that the program is transformative for many students, opening their eyes to the Jesuit ideals of solidarity and justice.
While the program has a rigorous academic component and fulfills Boston College’s philosophy and theology requirements, Copeland said that students’ learning happens just as often on public transportation—the “bus”—and in unfamiliar interactions with the people they serve. She referred to this educational model as “books, buses, and bodies.”
“I teach persons, not topics,” she said. “PULSE is about people, but coming to know other people is never easy.”
Her key objective for her students is development, which she defines as a complex, multifaceted tension between limitation and self-transcendence.
Some of the areas in which she hopes to see her students develop include a more nuanced understanding of theology; developing a more realistic perspective of the world without growing cynical; and a more complex understanding of the interlocking systems of racism, sexism, and social privilege.
Guiding students toward such profound growth using the gentle model of accompaniment carries a risk, Copeland said. There is no guarantee they will apprehend the lessons.
“This is the accompaniment, because I can’t tell them. I need to assist their discovery in as many ways as I can muster,” she said.
Good teaching, Copeland suggested, is not just the transmission of knowledge and skills. It involves honesty, perseverance, and service to an ideal—components that ultimately imbue students with the ability to continue the journey of growth throughout their lives.
“Good teaching entails a cluster of attitudes, skills, methods, and activities aimed to make the student independent of the teacher,” she said.