John Grayson

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 - 13:18

John Grayson
Mount Holyoke College Faculty Award for Teaching

Superb teachers are microsurgeons: they coax and guide and help students engage with material in ways that allow them to see what they have never seen, hear what they have never heard, and do what they could not do. They stimulate synapses, build connections, and create neuronal pathways that permanently alter their charges’ brains. But great teachers, such as Professor John Grayson, touch their students’ souls. Students follow him from course to course, and struggle to find words for the experience and the transformation they undergo. “The things I learned transcend academia.” They write of being “enchanted,” “respected,” “heard,” “transformed.” They write of loving every second, and of the astonishing vibrancy of the classroom. And they wonder about how he does what he does. “I don’t think it was the reading or the lectures (which were great), but … I spent time thinking.”

John makes students think because he takes risks in his classes; he risks new, contested topics, and ventures into unusual, untested intellectual territory. So both John and his students must work together to grapple with ideas, plot solutions, and identify impossible intellectual knots. This is the craft John practices. Students praise his careful attention to their questions, and they value his deliberate and thoughtful responses to nuances of arguments and to the interpretative intricacies of highly freighted texts. He has the ability to step back, to listen to disagreement in discussions, and to then move the class forward to a common understanding.

And there are the personal traits. John does not try to impress. As one student writes: “John is hilarious (for example …), humble, a great teacher (for example …), humble, a creative philosopher (for example …), humble, an amazing professor (for example …), humble, and a great advisor who seems to really care for what I want to do in my life.” [The committee noted with approval the critical thinking evinced by this student’s use of specific examples and the qualification “who seems to really care....”] John’s humility and honesty in discussion and in self presentation gives students the confidence to wrestle with complex social and theological issues. He moves agilely between high theology and philosophy on the one hand and nitty-gritty social and political experience on the other.

But there is far more than craft and personality behind John’s wizardry. His courses are scholarly and psychological constructs of the highest order. In addition to the beautifully taught and transformative introductions to religion and philosophy of religion and modern theology, there are the evocatively titled and exquisitely crafted courses like: On Human Freedom; The Women Who Shaped the Mind of Frederick Douglass; Religion and Revolution in the Nineteenth-Century West; Creation and Evolution; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Code of Discipleship; and Modern Mythmaking and Religion. These courses are a tapestry of sustained scholarship, humane values, unflinching inquiry, and situations so problematic as to almost defy further problematization. Yet all have a compelling narrative and developmental arc that accounts for the oft-echoed student refrain that “He [John] makes every student pay attention to him without any force.” Most singular, and most emblematic, is Religion 230: The Spirituals and the Blues, which John has taught over the years to classes of seldom less than 50, and sometimes more than 100, students. This course explores the central importance to American political and cultural ideals of African American freedom making. Through musical performances, visual images, and literary accounts, John leads students through the changing sacred and secular terms of justice and freedom in U.S. history. The course offers an extended confrontation with a central contradiction in American life: the meaning of freedom, and the achievement of justice, in a raced world. And, as any of his students will tell you, in this course John does not permit note taking. As John argues, and they attest, his students hear the resonance of an oral tradition, the musical language of freedom’s yearning, and develop personal powers they did not know they possessed.

John, we find ourselves awed by your imaginative mapping of a universe that is at times sorrowful and at other times quite joyful. We are fortunate to count you among us, and it is a pleasure to present you with this Mount Holyoke Teaching Award.