Incoming director Nancy Lynne Westfield and outgoing director Nadine Pence discuss the future of the Wabash Center.
Courtesy Wabash Center
Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D., says she’s had a “whirlwind life.” Her career has included stints as a landscape architect in Philadelphia, as a minister of Christian education in New York, and as a professor of religious education and director of the Social Justice Leadership Project at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. Her students have described her courses as “creative, intense, and strangely fun.”
Westfield is also the author, coauthor, or editor of several books, a contributor to HuffPost, a blogger, a consultant, and an artist. She is an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church and a womanist theologian who writes about the religious, educational, and spiritual experiences of African Americans.
On January 1, 2020, Westfield will be the new director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion.
Q. Before completing your graduate studies — two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., all related to theology and Christian education — you earned an undergraduate degree in agriculture. Have these two career paths ever intersected?
A. The plan was always to be a teacher of some kind. I am a landscape architect by training, and I also had a call to ministry. I have always thought about my work in gardening and horticulture as ministry, and I also knew that I was supposed to be working in the church.
As for the career paths intersecting — even now, as a teacher, I don’t plan a class; I design a class. When I prepare a syllabus, I use the same skills I used as a designer of gardens. It’s an act of creativity. That’s how I see it.
Q. How did you become involved with the Wabash Center?
A. After I was hired at Drew in 1999 as a professor of religious education, one of my mentors said I should apply for the Pre-Tenure Career Workshop at the Wabash Center (a program for faculty in their first years of teaching theological or religious studies). I didn’t know what the Wabash Center was at the time, but after looking it up on the internet, I took his advice.
In retrospect, I think the Wabash Center has been the most influential institution on me, other than Drew. Participating in the workshops, becoming a peer leader, writing blogs, and serving on committees has brought me into conversations with colleagues from around the country. I have seen people be transformed by these conversations.
Q. As director of the Wabash Center, you will be in a position to initiate change. What aspects of the Center will change, and what will you consider changing?
A. Wabash is intentional about the hospitality it gives people. For example, some teaching environments trivialize the work of faculty. Yet when people are treated with dignity and respect, as the Wabash Center treats faculty, they blossom. This makes them realize their work is not only important but is also significant in the lives of other people — beyond the group of those immediately gathered.
The Wabash Center will always practice that kind of hospitality, because people rejoice in it. Out of our meetings, workshops, and colloquies come a sense of camaraderie and collaboration. If faculty members can’t find a conversation that values teaching in their own schools, they will certainly find it from their peers at the Center. People invariably discover “I don’t teach alone.”
Q. Faculty members who attend Wabash Center programs are already experts in their own disciplines within theology and religion. How does the Center add to their skills?
A. In religious studies and in the theological disciplines, as in other fields, scholars tend to focus most of their attention on their particular areas of research, but sometimes they do not give much attention to how to teach this information. So there are biblical scholars who may not be experts in teaching the Bible, and church historians who may not have experience teaching church history.
At the Wabash Center, the emphasis is helping faculty members learn to teach well in the fields in which they are scholarly experts. We convene colleagues to do just this kind of reflection. And, in addition to the gatherings, there are opportunities to apply for grants to support projects related to teaching and learning.
Q. You’ve received many grants from the Wabash Center to support faculty-related projects. What did they enable you to do?
A. We used one grant for faculty development at Drew. We took the conversation about teaching out of the hands of the administration and brought it squarely to the faculty. With another grant, we convened a group of African American scholars from several schools to talk about what it means to be Black, and if there is a thing called “teaching Black.” Those conversations culminated in a book — an anthology titled Being Black, Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies — that examines the problems and prospects of Black scholarship in theological schools.
Q. What are some of the emerging issues that may be topics of discussion in the next year at the Wabash Center?
A. In 2020, we are planning a yearlong assessment of Wabash Center programs, however, there are some topics we are already considering. For example, we have always organized our workshops around career “seasons” — early-career faculty and mid-career faculty — and now we are wondering if we should offer workshops for late-career faculty as well.
We are also aware of the rising number of faculty who have administrative responsibilities and are thinking about the impact of that. If a scholar spends half her time as a department chair or director of a center, does that obligation inform her classroom or does it distract from her classroom? How do those responsibilities fold together? Maybe that will be a future colloquy or workshop.
Another thing we are wondering is if there are emerging faculty groups that we need to be attentive to in addition to African American, Asian, and Latinx scholars. We have come to realize that the teaching life is different for every group. Our conversations on race-critical consciousness will deepen.
Q. The workshop for early-career faculty has been part of the Center’s program from the beginning. Do new faculty need to “refresh” their teaching methods and materials before their careers have really started?
A. In the early-career faculty workshop, we talk about the teaching life and what it means to be a good teacher. What we discovered is that in the first couple of years teaching, many faculty just dust off an old syllabus and trot out notes from courses they themselves took as students years ago. To those of us who are invested in teaching and want to see it as a more creative and impactful enterprise, that’s appalling.
In these workshops, we also address vocation issues such as tenure and promotion. I remember that the first workshop I attended laid out the notion that a faculty member must plan for tenure, not just wait for it to happen. That prompted me to create a plan for my tenure process.
Q. You taught at Drew for 20 years and have described the experience as transformational. Was it a difficult decision to accept the appointment to lead the Wabash Center?
A. I am grateful to both institutions. Drew allowed me to find my own way, figure out what kind of teacher I wanted to be, and be innovative in the classroom. The Wabash Center has profoundly influenced my career as a teacher and my scholarship and publishing life. To be able to lead an organization that focuses on teaching and learning, and to walk alongside people who are passionate about their work as teachers — that is exactly where I want to be.
Wabash Center’s outreach to educators
The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion has tallied impressive stats since opening its doors in 1996 on the campus of Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Its initial offerings — a conference for pre-tenure theological school faculty and a workshop for theology professors on teaching and learning — have expanded in number, scope, and mode of delivery.
Since its founding, Wabash has:
- Welcomed more than 1,300 faculty members to the Wabash campus in Indiana for yearlong workshops (right) about issues affecting the teaching profession.
- Awarded 1,530 grants totaling $14.3 million to 381 institutions and an additional $2.6 million to 515 individuals — all in support of projects that promote and sustain pedagogical conversations.
- Hosted more than 130 off-site conferences and conducted 245 consultations on higher education campuses across the United States and Canada.
- Published more than 700 articles from more than 950 authors on the scholarship of teaching.
The Wabash Center website (www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu) offers many tools and resources for effective teaching practices including:
- More than 1,000 sample syllabi submitted by working faculty.
- Videos in which professors reflect on the value and art of teaching well.
- Podcasts, blogs, an e-newsletter, and a new online peer-reviewed journal, The Wabash Center Journal on Teaching (to be launched in January 2020).
Plans are under way to admit two cohorts for next year’s faculty workshop. The first will be open to faculty who have taught in theology or religious studies for two to five years at colleges, universities, and schools of theology; the second will have similar eligibility requirements but will focus on early-career Latinx faculty. The goal of both workshops is to provide a place for new educators to share ideas, reflect on practices, build academic community, and become acquainted with pedagogical conversations.