Reflections from President Rev. Dr. R. Guy Erwin

Reflections from President Erwin
August 13, 2021
Week of Pentecost 11

Dear ULS Community:

The onward movement toward the beginning of the semester seems to pick up speed: each week brings me through a calendar event that once seemed safely tucked away in the future, to be thought about later. This week it was the faculty “in service” day—which in easier times would have been a retreat. But once again this year it was a long Zoom call. I’ll say more about that below.

We also did our first official entertaining in the president’s house on the Gettysburg campus, hosting a dinner to welcome Dr. Teresa Smallwood, who is joining our faculty and will be Gettysburg-based. She was making a visit here from her current home in Nashville, to choose an on-campus apartment and office and generally get familiar with the area. We tried hard to make her feel welcome, and I invited the Gettysburg-based faculty and senior staff and their spouses to join Rob and me for dinner this week. It was very nice to be able to re-open the house to an (entirely vaccinated) group of people for social time. It is just the first of many such events, I hope, and we will follow it up with some Philadelphia-based entertaining soon.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook for daily posts (if you don’t, here’s how: copy into your browser or follow this link) will know that we had a little excitement here in Lewars House this week, involving local wildlife. This quiet, old, and unlived-in house had, we discovered, also become home to a few bats up in the attic. This, Rob and I discovered to our surprise and dismay last Monday while watching TV late one evening on the third floor, when suddenly a bat started flying around the room above our heads. The third-floor ceilings are not very high, and the encounter was closer than was comfortable for either us or the bat.

I’ll make the three-day saga short by saying that we had some other encounters (all safely distant from us physically), and visits from pest control professionals who confirmed the (small) presence of bats in the attic and took appropriate steps to remediate that. We did have other encounters with at least three bats still in the house, which involved us trying to seal and isolate any room in which we found one, and opening windows for them to escape overnight. For the most part that seems to have worked. But we did find one straggler dead on the carpet of an empty room one morning—or so we thought. After calling the state and county health authorities to find out what to do with a dead bat, and learning we needed to safely package and refrigerate the little corpse, then drive it to their lab Harrisburg for rabies testing, we went to recover the body (still under a towel) and discovered it was not dead, but sleeping—maybe sick, definitely groggy. So I scooped it into a old plastic take-out food container and poked some air holes in the top. By this time all our conservation and animal-loving instincts had kicked in and we felt sorry for the poor little thing.

That necessitated a call back to the authorities, whose position completely changed when they learned that the bat was alive, and the Adams County game warden then had to come to pick it up for euthanasia and testing. At least we were spared the trip to Harrisburg. We are confident that our contact was very slight and not risky, but of course if we find out that the bat was rabid, we will be vaccinated for that as well. No one but Rob and me (and the pest control professionals) got anywhere close to a bat. Today we return to Philadelphia for a couple of weeks, and we’ll let others secure the house further during that time. So that, I hope, is how the bat story ends. Excitement we did not reckon with this week, but we now know a lot more about bats. Our friends and relatives have already exhausted us with every bat joke and pun they can think of.

Back to the faculty “retreat”: one of the reasons we do this is to have time to think together about our whole work as a teaching body. Generally, that means reorienting ourselves to our common tasks and discussing what we need to think about going forward. For our students, taking a course means an intensive encounter (generally) with a single professor. I remember how much fun it was for me, way back when, to see how differently my various professors taught, and how distinctive they were. What I didn’t know until I became one is how much time they spend talking to each other about how to accomplish together our seminary’s curricular and formation goals—how behind all those distinct personalities and methods is a lot of common thought, and that the outcomes for our students are a shared responsibility and concern for our whole faculty.

Our main concern as a collective teaching body right now is how to be more thoroughgoingly anti-racist as a teaching body and bring our curriculum into line with that. That is less a shift in content than in focus or perspective, and though everyone on the faculty is fully committed, we (and I include myself) need thoughtful reflection and intention if we are better to practice anti-racist pedagogy. We are products of our own education, and of systems less sensitive to such issues. And we are still here to teach all the classical loci of seminary study: Scripture and its interpretation, theology and theological method, Christian history and experience, and the arts and practice of public ministry. We can—and want to—do this in ways more fully informed by the American history and experience of racial inequity. The injustice that some of us know in our very skins and bodies, others need to learn to remember. We can best do this together.

Second, and more technical, we are committed to better and more thorough ways of assessing our educational effectiveness. This really means “How do we know that our students are learning from us what we intend?” and “How can we show that?” There are all kinds of approaches, and we have both the knowledge and the means to do these assessments, but we need to establish more consistent patterns and systems and apply them more fully. This is—I believe most faculty members would tell you—not the exciting part of teaching. Most of us were drawn to what we do by our fascination with the subject matter, not the methods. But we owe it to our students (and to our accreditors) to be able to demonstrate that we keep our promises to educate. Students also play a role, and again—naturally—there is less excitement on their part in analysis of outcomes than in simply taking in the fascinating material our courses present to them. But that analysis is also our proper work.

So a “faculty retreat” brings us back together after our summer break, gives us a chance to get reoriented to a new academic year, lets us welcome new faculty members and connect and reconnect, and brings excitement among us for what is to come. There was a really delightful “first day of school” sense of excitement present there, even on Zoom, even among those who have been doing this work for decades. I am convinced that the true strength of any academic institution lies with its faculty, and ULS is blessed with truly dedicated and enthusiastic—and diverse and interesting—teachers.

It promises to be an exciting and interesting semester ahead, but it won’t be a “piece of cake”—we have a lot of coping with the pandemic yet to do and are not yet free of worry about the infection rates and variants of the virus. But we will try to be as patient and understanding as possible with one another, and knowing that we are all in the same boat should help. But it will require a level of patience not natural or easy for all of us, and that, too, will be work.

I don’t want to say more about that stuff—after all, it’s Friday the Thirteenth. But know that all is well at ULS right now. I’ll be back in two weeks. I hope you can still eke out seize whatever recreation the remainder of the summer can offer you. Pray for those in need. Stay safe and cool. Help get people vaccinated.

God bless you all, and I’ll see you soon.

Yours faithfully,

Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary

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