Father James F. Keenan, SJ

So what?

September 19, 2018

I never wanted to teach. In fact, when I was a Jesuit scholastic in formation, I became a community organizer and worked wherever I studied.

When I was to be sent to regency (the training period when new Jesuits work two or three years in ministry before going to theology and ordination), I worked mighty hard to get assigned, not to teach in a Jesuit high school or college like everyone else, but to work as a community organizer out of a Jesuit parish in Buffalo. 

I got it, but seven months later my job evaporated. I told my provincial, who simply replied, “I am afraid to say, you have to teach.”

Yikes! After seven years of resisting, I found myself teaching English and theology at Canisius High School in Buffalo. I loved it. The rest is history. I finished studies in 1987 and have been teaching ever since.

In 1999, while teaching at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, the outgoing superior asked me if he could nominate me as his successor. Knowing that the position was for six years, I asked him if I could I return to teaching afterward and he said, probably not; they will keep you in administration. A day later, I told him I was trained to teach ethics — I think God wants me to teach ethics.

Curiously, an hour after that conversation my provincial called me: I need you to go to Manila to teach ethics this summer for three months. I want you to do it every other summer for several years. 

As I hung up I first thought, Manila? Then I thought, God has a sense of humor in taking our decisions seriously.

That summer in Manila was the finest summer of my life. I found I could teach on the other side of the world and it was as rewarding there as here. I went back for six summers.

Human beings like to learn about worthwhile matters, and that’s what teaching is about: helping others learn about worthwhile matters. Teachers need to communicate not only what they are expected to teach, but also that what they teach is worthwhile. 

My friend the historian Jesuit Father John O’Malley used to say at the end of his lessons, “So what?” He would teach a long lesson on, say, the Council of Trent, and then say, “Now you know why there was a council. So what?” With that “so what?” question, a dozen hands went up to offer a wide spectrum of answers.

One very popular course I teach is called “HIV/AIDS and Ethics.” I like large classes, so I admit 50 but only by permission: Students have to tell me why they need to take a major course in public health.

In each of the 24 class sessions we discuss one topic. I assign three articles for each class and then lead a discussion on the particular topic.

We study everything from how HIV strains differ from culture to culture to how gender inequity, economic disparities and different forms of discrimination pose deep challenges to effective treatment and prevention.

We examine research, drug trials, patenting and economic assistance, and we specifically consider the matter of human dignity and its relevance for certain populations more at risk than others. But all along I try to teach them why this knowledge is worthwhile

I am always interested in developing a student’s “voice.” One’s voice is like a fingerprint, the singular trademark of being able to articulate what one thinks and believes. This is why I have discussions. I want students to develop ways of explaining themselves, of conversing about worthwhile matters.

Similarly, I give oral exams. I want students to tell me face-to-face, in their own voices, why this article mattered, why this issue is important, why this narrative is worth repeating. 

A week before a quiz, I also give students a list of 20 questions to study, telling them that I will randomly ask three questions and advising them to set up study groups so that they can develop their arguments (their voices) so that they are polished when they meet with me.

After every class and even after every exam, I walk away thanking God for the opportunity of teaching, especially when I hear what my students have found worthwhile in the matters that I have taught.


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