Mar 30

Patterns Teach

What do patterns in Church practice and patterns in the stories we hear in Church teach us? I was thinking about this question recently after reading the #VisibleWomen series at the Exponent. The question of how patterns teach was brought to my mind because the whole series seems to be built on this idea. The purpose of the series is to make suggestions to Church leaders about ways that women could be made more visible in areas like Church art, in giving talks, and in conducting their own session of Conference. The subtitle explains the reason: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” The suggestion of this line is that patterns of practice in the Church like how infrequently women are portrayed, how rarely Heavenly Mother is mentioned, and how women aren’t even allowed to conduct their own Conference session, are conveying messages to women that are limiting their view of themselves.

I used to be a statistics teacher, and in that role, I often thought about how patterns can teach. One way the issue came up was when I used example data to teach my students about a statistical test. They would sometimes draw conclusions from irrelevant patterns in my examples. For example, if I illustrated use of a test using two examples, one where the data were temperatures in degrees Fahrenheit, and the other where the data were temperatures in degrees Celsius, students might conclude that the test could only be used when the data were temperatures, but not if they were shot put distances or cell phone provider preference ratings or rat body sizes or any other type of data. Or if the data I showed were all rounded to the nearest ten, students might conclude that the test could only be used with data that had been similarly rounded.

I’m not at all surprised that my students did this. People are great at finding and generalizing patterns. The upside of this is that it made teaching easier: students picked up on many real patterns in how different tests could be used without my ever having to state them explicitly. This generalizes far beyond the classroom. Much of what we learn (probably most of it) comes from observing patterns in what other people do, rather than from having people explicitly explain things to us.

What I tried to do with my students to avoid accidentally teaching things I didn’t intend to with irrelevant patterns was to vary the characteristics of my examples as much as possible to break up the incorrect patterns. For example, if I wanted to avoid conveying that a test could only be used for temperature data, I might show one example that used temperature data and another that used something completely different, like elephant tusk length data. If I wanted to avoid conveying that a test required values rounded to the nearest ten, I would show data where values were rounded at different points.

In case my statistics-related examples are too dense, here’s one that might be more straightforward. If I were teaching someone about parts of speech, and I introduced adjectives with the examples “orange,” “blue,” and “green,” it wouldn’t be surprising if the person I was teaching concluded that only colors qualified as adjectives. I would be better off using a set of examples that broke up the pattern I didn’t want to convey, so something like “orange,” “hairy,” and “difficult.”

Getting back to my opening question, there are many obvious patterns in what we do in the Church, and these patterns convey clear messages, even without anything being stated explicitly. I thought it might be interesting to list some of these patterns and briefly outline what they’re teaching. Many of them come not even from our practice but from the types of stories that are taught (in Conference, Church magazines, and in lesson manuals). Continue reading

Jun 30

Reason and Emotion

When the BBC’s modern version of Sherlock aired in 2010, it appealed to my deep seated love of problem solving, mysteries and attention to detail. I had read The Hound of the Baskervilles and one or two of the short stories in the past, but decided to read the entire Sherlock canon, which is comprised of four novels and 56 short stories. Overall, they were a very enjoyable read. However, given that the stories were written between 1887 and 1921 it is not surprising that Sherlock holds some extremely sexist attitudes.   Continue reading

Nov 07

The Fine Art of Spiritual Vaccines

I was recently called as my ward’s early-morning seminary teacher. I’ll pause to let you all wince.

There are many challenges to this calling, but, to my surprise, waking up at 5:15 AM is not the greatest challenge. (This isn’t to say it’s the smallest challenge, either; I’m not a morning person, at all, and I freely admit to having some very un-Christian feelings in my heart–and words in my mouth–when that alarm goes off.) Continue reading

Oct 04

St. Augustine and the Sunday School Teacher

In reflecting on the value of figurative language in On Christian Doctrine, Augustine explains that “I contemplate the saints more pleasantly when I envisage them as the teeth of the Church cutting off men from their errors and transferring them to her body.” I’m totally with him in that I love the idea of Aquinas, Joan of Arc, and hey, maybe Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon too, chomping us down into the digestive tract of Christian devotion; it offers something for the imagination to chew on during a dull sacrament meeting. Continue reading

Sep 20

How Do You Teach Lessons When You Don’t Agree With Them?

I currently teach Relief Society in my ward. It’s possibly the best calling in the church. It’s teaching, which is usually fun. It involves nothing administrative and no meetings. You don’t have to call people on the phone (a dreaded task which I will go to great lengths to avoid). And it’s only once a month. Really, I have it pretty good. Continue reading

Jan 17

Searching for Honesty and Wholeness in Teaching Women’s Studies

I’ve been a teaching assistant for an introductory Women’s Studies class the past few semesters. Last semester I had a rewarding and thought-provoking experience (I’ve actually had many, but I’m going to talk about one in particular) with one of my sections. We were talking one week about art and activism and the ways in which women have used art to represent their lives and make feminist statements. I think the reading prompted the students to consider how to negotiate feminism in their own lives because one student expressed frustration with translating the ideas from class into her lived experience. She was trying to deal with friends dismissing her by saying things like “Oh, there she goes again with her feminist complaints about patriarchy,” and she wanted to know what to say in these situations; basically, she wanted to know how to communicate the ideas she learned in class and have people actually listen. We talked in class some about that frustration, and ended up bringing the conversation back to the art we were discussing–how the women artists used humor, creativity, and personal experiences to reach their audience (rather than just angry ranting). Continue reading