Every semester, I teach First-Year Writing, a general education course that introduces students to academic writing and research. This course is challenging to students in myriad ways—for many, it is the first time they will write a college-level research paper, and in order to do so they must learn new writing processes, new genre conventions, new research methods, and new library tools, to name a few. Perhaps above all, though, this course can be intimidating because it makes students vulnerable.
Writing requires vulnerability. The author is vulnerable to the critique, the praise, even the neglect of his or her reader, and that makes writing risky. The student writer is particularly vulnerable to the scrutiny of his or her professor, who not only assesses the quality of the writing but assigns it a grade.
It also requires vulnerability and humility for a writer admit that something he or she has written is wrong, to press delete, and to write again (maybe quite a few times).
In The Christian Imagination, Willie James Jennings tells the story of John William Colenso, an Anglican priest who moved to South Africa in the nineteenth century and sought to evangelize primarily through Bible translation. Colenso’s story particularly struck me because he is a writer who struggles to be vulnerable to his audience.
Although he worked closely on his translation with the natives he sought to evangelize, especially William Ngidi, he “turned native questions into occasions for theological self-absorption. It was as though he heard their questions, turned away from them, turned toward England, and began to theologize” (Jennings 150). Ngidi becomes Colenso’s intellectual dialogue partner, and he even authors his own book, which is “among the first English/isiZulu texts written by natives.” And yet, Colenso failed to acknowledge Ngidi as a co-author in the translation, to admit the dehumanization of the colonialist project in which his Bible translation participated, and to recognize Ngidi in his full humanity. He was unwilling to be vulnerable with Ngidi, to really hear him.
That is, until he did. Eventually, Colenso came to feel pathos for the Africans who were called and treated as nonhuman, and in turn Ngidi felt pathos for Colenso when he was called and treated as a heretic for supporting the natives. According to Jennings, this “joining,” this “sharing in the pain, plight, and life of another,” finally, is Christian translation.
Studying Colenso in the 2017 CACE faculty seminar helped me to think about how I can “join” my students in our First-Year Writing course. Christian hospitality is our guiding principle: as a professor, I can “host” my “guest” students hospitably by emphasizing that I have something to learn from them. I can invite them to participate in my own research projects, I can collaborate with them on their research papers (instead of just grading the final product), and I can structure the course around their particular needs.
This kind of vulnerability allows professors and students to share in one another’s lives more fully.