Called to Criticism

December 22, 2004 | 38 comments
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A couple of weeks ago, the mail man braught me my long awaited copy of the first volume of B.H. Roberts’s Seventies’ Course in Theology. As you can imagine, it has been a heady time around the Oman household. In reading it, I came across what I am sure would be Aaron Brown’s dream calling: class critic.

It turns out that as the Church’s instructional curriculum was formalized around the turn of the twentieth century there was a practice of calling people to serve as “class critics.” Essentially, this person’s role was to listen to the lesson, and when it was done get up and tell the class what he though the teacher had done wrong. Or at least, that seems to have been the way that it frequently worked, because in the preface to his book Roberts felt called upon to tell “those who have been called to criticize the lesson” that they should also take the opprotunity to praise the teacher for those things that he did well and offer suggestions in addition to criticism.

A couple of days later I was reading in The Essential James E. Talmadge while preparing a lesson for Elders’ Quorum. I came across a discussion of class critics in Talmadge’s diary as he was worrying about turning his theological lectures at the LDS University into the Sunday School manual that became The Articles of Faith. He seems to have been fretting over whether or not he had provided the class critics with sufficient instructions. (A side note: Talmadge was a brilliant and facinating guy, but, man!, does he seem to have been anal.)

I, for one, look forward to the complete restoration of all things when called and set apart class critics will once more haunt the teachers of the Church. The real question is what sort of instructions we should give them?

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38 Responses to Called to Criticism

  1. a random John on December 22, 2004 at 9:28 am

    You mean those guys sitting in the back of EQ making snide remarks weren’t called to do that? I’m going to have to talk to the bishop…

  2. Adam Greenwood on December 22, 2004 at 9:42 am

    Is Talmage spelled with a d now? I’m perplexed.

  3. Julie in Austin on December 22, 2004 at 9:56 am

    Amen, Nate. I think this really should be part of the Teacher Improvement Coordinator’s job, but perhaps done privately . . .

  4. Mark B on December 22, 2004 at 10:12 am

    The Georgia Talmadges, a long line of racist politicians that ended with Herman (so far as I know) who was an insignificant empty suit on the Senate Select Committee on Watergate, were spelled with a “d”.

    Elder Talmage had no “d”.

    Too bad y’all were too young to have spent the summer of ’73 watching South Carolina’s own Sam Ervin run those Watergate committee hearings.

    End of threadjack.

  5. danithew on December 22, 2004 at 10:45 am

    What an interesting idea to have class critics. It could either be very productive or an extreme disaster.

  6. Curtis on December 22, 2004 at 11:08 am

    “Elder Talmage had no ‘d’.”

    Indeed. That was why he always lost in those hotly-contested General Authority one-on-one basketball games. No D.

    Sorry.

  7. Curtis on December 22, 2004 at 11:10 am

    It seems that it would take a lot of humility to effectively pull this calling off… without seeming to be an incredibly pompous ass.

  8. Bryce I on December 22, 2004 at 11:13 am

    Clearly, one of the major problems with the concept of a class critic is that the evaluation would be hopelessly biased. Our ward’s gospel doctrine class regularly has over 70 members attending. Depending on who is teaching, different subsets of that population will contribute and be engaged in the lesson. I imagine five intelligent, thoughtful people pulled at random from the class would have five very different views of the strengths and weaknesses of any given lesson. The points that they would agree as areas of improvement presumably are basic enough that a Sunday School presidency/ Teacher Improvement coordinator could help a teacher identify and address.

    What really needs to be done is for teachers to be given opportunities to account for their stewardship — to set goals with the leader of the quorum or auxiliary in which they serve, and to evaluate their progress on a regular basis. Sadly, this happens very seldom in my experience (I’m in our stake Sunday School presidency).

  9. Scott on December 22, 2004 at 11:23 am

    An aside, Hugh Nibley snidely called Talmage “a busy little welshman” during a sunday school class once, referring to the different courses he was teaching at BYU. He also was not impressed with the “improvements” Talmage made to the Book of Mormon. (putting it in chapter and verse)

  10. Mark B on December 22, 2004 at 11:43 am

    The critic could be either a pompous ass or a pain in one.

  11. Ana on December 22, 2004 at 11:43 am

    Any evidence of class critics in Relief Society? Without searching, I’m going to guess no … I think most women would be horrified at the idea. Not because it’s a horrible idea, but because – at least in Church settings – we tend to abhor the slightest suggestion of conflict, even when it might be healthy.

  12. Nate Oman on December 22, 2004 at 11:48 am

    Scott: Tailmaeg didn’t put the Book of Mormon in chapters and verses. Our current chaptering and versification was done by Orson Pratt in the 1879. At the time Taelmiage would have been 17.

  13. Ryan S. on December 22, 2004 at 11:56 am

    “You mean those guys sitting in the back of EQ making snide remarks weren’t called to do that? I’m going to have to talk to the bishop…”

    I used to feel sort of guilty for being one of “those guys in the back of EQ” but now I realize that I am just being prepared for my destiny calling. Until I’m officially called, I guess I’ll just continue to practice on my own.

  14. Jack on December 22, 2004 at 12:03 pm

    I got a little criticism from the bishopric when I was GD teacher. Some meek soul had complained that I wasn’t following the lesson material closely enough. Even though they praised me up one side and down the other it didn’t prevent me from being angry at the criticism – which was really very mild (and appropriate as I look back). I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’d rather feel some sense of responsibility for what I do in my calling as a free agent (with ocasional corrections as needed from those with the proper stewardship) than having to answer to some schmoe who’s constantly looking over my shoulder. Considering how poorly I handled that little bit of criticism from the bishopric, I might be tempted to beat up a regular class critique right there infront of the class.

  15. Last_lemming on December 22, 2004 at 12:11 pm

    Re-threadjack

    I’all am old enough to have spent the summer of ’73 watching the Watergate hearings (and doing virtually nothing else). But no matter how far Senator Sam’s eyebrows flew when doing the standing long jump (as one TV critic put it), they always landed in North (not South) Carolina. Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings can attest to this, having occupied both South Carolina seats throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s.

  16. Scott on December 22, 2004 at 12:21 pm

    Talmage made revisions in the 1920 edition, like the double columns, this may be what Nibley was reffering to. It was just an aside, really.

  17. Bill on December 22, 2004 at 12:26 pm

    Maybe we could call people to a panel to criticize the musical numbers — American Idol style.

    Actually, when I was responsible for scheduling musical numbers, I would sometimes hear criticism. Sometimes I sought it out: when I asked people for
    their reactions, they usually ran the gamut from unqualified enthusiasm to unreasoned loathing. The latter was as often the result of a narrow elite
    prejudice as it was of narrow popular prejudice. There are also usually many who listen with a generosity of spirit whether they know too much, or too little to
    appreciate a given musical number.

  18. Aaron Brown on December 22, 2004 at 12:29 pm

    What’s wrong with being a “pompous ass”? That’s the whole point, I thought. :)

    Seriously, I would love this calling, but I’m unavailable at the moment, since I usually teach all the classes that I attend. And there is obviously nothing in my classes that would ever merit criticism, so there’s really no need for the calling at present.

    Aaron B

  19. Stephen Hardy on December 22, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    This discussion could take so many directions:

    It is rare and unusual to find a teacher interested in really encouraging a discussion. This is hard to do, and also opens the way for discussions to ramble a bit (sort of like these blogs.) No teacher likes to lose control of a lesson. I don’t think that we are being programmed to discuss, but rather to learn. But really to re-learn or review. This is especially true because we are taught to shun “contentions” so we (I know that I do) often ignore parts of the lessons which we might disagree with.

    However, when we self-censure like that, we are hurting ourselves and others. Our relationships can’t grow if we strongly censure our comments and suggestions. Holding back on important comments is insulting to our fellow-members, and allows us to feel superior or dis-engaged. I am totally hypocritical when I say this because I never, ever, ever comment in classes that I don’t teach. And as a result of this, I don’t think that my ward knows who I am. This may hurt me more than others because I don’t have the opportunity to “try-out” my ideas in a public forum and therefore my ideas remain untested.

    A few years ago I was teaching a GD youth class, and I found one night that my eight year-old daughter was reading the manual in her bed. “This is so cool”, she said, “I love these lessons.” For a minute I was pleased to think that my eight year-old was able to read and comprehend the manual, but as I thought more about it I realized that we have a manual written on a third grade level or so.

    The lesson manual reminds me of skipping stones. There is so much in our scripture, and yet we skim from topic to topic, in an almost unconnected fashion, and on top of that we review the same lessons on a four year cycle. So we will throw the same stones, and skip the rocks in exactly the same places again in four years.

    Does anybody else find our lessons profoundly boring? Are you engaged in Sunday School? Should we be?

    I don’t know what to suggest for this, because the lessons are written on a very basic level partly because we always have new and tender converts and we are always making sure that we are building on the same foundation. I understand that, but I must say that I agree that there can be a problem, but I really disagree with the solution. I think that we could (and should) have much more engaging lessons without resorting to obscure quotes by the Orsons (Pratt and Whitney) or the employment of multi-media approaches.

    I would like to see more of us just reading the scriptures verse by verse and discussing them. Even if we only get through one half or one chapter a week, I have found that this is much more fulfilling than reading bits of scripture out of context and skipping entire sections.

  20. Jonathan Green on December 22, 2004 at 1:05 pm

    What Nate describes in his post sounds very much like a respondent, someone designated to respond to a paper or papers presented at an academic conference. Is that a reasonable comparison? In an academic setting, sometimes a respondent works well, sometimes not. It might have helped me as a Gospel Doctrine teacher: I could have been assured of at least one person in the audience being prepared and following the lesson attentively, and I would have had to prepare my lessons with that in mind. Also, it seems like it would somewhat dilute the responsibility for seeing that correct doctrine is taught . Today, it’s pretty much up to the teacher, but with a class critic, maybe it would be easier to speculate a bit and then let the critic say what he thinks. (I don’t think Gospel Doctrine teachers should spread false doctrine, but I do think it’s a legitimate pedagogical device to make the class think you’re just about to do so, if that’s what it takes to hold the class members’ attention.)

  21. Kevin Winters on December 22, 2004 at 1:15 pm

    Stephen: I wholeheartedly agree with your frustrations. I’ve been wanting to write a paper on ‘Vain Repetition in Sunday School Lessons,’ where we always hear the same lessons, with the same material, the same ‘searching questions,’ the same quaint stories and anecdotes, the same quotes from the Prophets, the same object lessons, the same main points, etc., etc., etc. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t enjoyed my religion classes here at BYU–it feels like Seminary all over again. It’s also one of the reasons why I pretty much always have an extra book on hand in Church…

  22. Todd on December 22, 2004 at 1:20 pm

    (tic) Maybe we could have a “secret shopper” style service where various members are called to write critical reports and forward them to the bishop. (/tic) –tongue in cheek…

    On a more serious note, I sincerely believe that bad teaching does more damage to the church than we could possibly imagine. How many times have teachers neglected that we come to church on Sunday largely in part to be “spiritually filled”? I know of more than one specific instance where people have drifted into inactivity simply because the teaching they received contained a dearth of spiritual content and commitment.

    On whether the lessons are “simple” or not–that makes the problem seem like an intellectual one. My concern is do the lessons actually the address the spiritual and prosaic needs of the people who attend? A “smart” lesson is usually a good one, but a wise and thoughtful lesson is usually remembered.

    In some cases, I do believe the manuals promote complacency, but in others–particularly the Priesthood/RS manual–I believe a wealth of intellectual and spiritual insight can be gained by simply reading the thing–they are, at least, a good springboard. Of course, I must admit that some of the past presidents’ remarks seemed to be more regularly fufilling to me than those of others.

  23. Aaron Brown on December 22, 2004 at 1:30 pm

    As everyone knows, it is difficult, if not impossible, to both (a) tailor a lesson to the needs of new members and/or those of limited understanding; and (b) present a lesson from an angle that is fresh and original enough to engage those who feel like they’ve “been there, done that” a thousand times before. Since I teach both Gospel Essentials (90% of the time) and Elders Quorum (25% of the time), my own practice is to really stick to the fundamentals in the former, while I explore strange side issues in the latter.

    I think that the single most important role of the teacher is to keep things interesting. If people are engaged, they learn and are motivated to keep coming and to keep paying attention. I also believe that a discussion format, even a fairly free-wheeling one, is preferable to a lecture, unless the teacher has something really interesting and novel to say (which is a very rare event). I almost always promote open discussion the whole time, which has the added advantage of freeing me from having to put much effort into the lesson beforehand.

    Aaron B

  24. Bryce I on December 22, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    Aaron Brown said:

    “I also believe that a discussion format, even a fairly free-wheeling one, is preferable to a lecture, unless the teacher has something really interesting and novel to say (which is a very rare event)”

    While I have similar opinions as to what makes a good class, I also know people who feel otherwise — that lecture-style classes are infinitely preferable to group discussions. The real trick is to find ways to engage all types of learners in a ward.

  25. Aaron Brown on December 22, 2004 at 2:19 pm

    The truth is, it really depends on the quality of the discussion or lecture (obvious point). A great lecture is better than a free-wheeling discussion any day. I guess my experience is that most lectures in Church are dull, so it’s preferable to lead a discussion that is likely to be a product of the interests of the class members (or at least of the vocal, participating ones).

    Aaron B

  26. a random John on December 22, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    Kevin,
    You are in luck! You can tack religion classes from Alonzo Gaskill. If you thought all religion classes were the same you are in for a treat. I have even gone to sit in on his classes while on vacation in Utah. The big difference between the classes he taught at Stanford and the ones at BYU is that BYU students constantly interrupt him after he says something interesting and ask, “Is this going to be on the test?” Ahh, to experience high school again via BYU…

  27. Larry on December 22, 2004 at 3:08 pm

    Since some of you know my Gospel doctrine teacher (he never blogs) I won’t mention his name, but he and I have a hoot every Sunday. I am the unofficial back row critic who sits with the nearly dead (High Priests). The level of his rhetoric and understanding makes it an ideal class to be in. However, because he is a lawyer, the need is frequently there to correct his interpretation of the Gospel.

  28. Nate Oman on December 22, 2004 at 4:56 pm

    I think that there is a tendency in the Church to think that a teacher who lectures is per se a bad teacher. It seems to me that it depends on the quality of the lecture. I have absolutely no objection to being lectured at. However, I want to learn something from the lecture.

  29. Kevin Winters on December 22, 2004 at 5:42 pm

    random: Well, I’m done at BYU in April, so I don’t think I’ll have the opportunity to take a class from him. Oh well; ya win some and lose some…

  30. Kevin Winters on December 22, 2004 at 5:47 pm

    From my short stint of teaching Gospel Doctrine, I always tried to do a discussion because I knew that, if I lectured, I would focus on things that I found interesting and which I quickly learned others did not. So, I would lead discussions, occasionally disagreeing with comments that people made, and tred to give my two cents while being as kind as possible in my disagreements (though once I found myself pitted against almost everyone there; I didn’t change my mind, but I don’t think I convinced them either). I love teaching, honestly, but teaching GD was always a struggle for me, if anything because my sole diet of philosophy sometimes made it hard for me to relay what I was thinking using non-philosophy terms. I’m quite certain that I scared some people away as the numbers in my first class and in the classes thereafter were not equal, but I also always had a few stalwarts who would show up consistently. I loved it, personally. :o)

  31. Geoff Johnston on December 22, 2004 at 6:43 pm

    Re: Stephen’s frustration with the manuals

    My understanding is that the scriptures themselves are the source of the lesson and the manual is just a resource. In fact at the beginning of the gospel doctrine manual it says: “This manual is a tool to help you teach the doctrines of the gospel from the scriptures.” I personally find its value as a tool quite limited so I tend to just teach the doctrines of the gospel from the scriptures. I ended up doing the same thing when I taught early morning seminary. I found the seminary “resources” to be of little use as well. Why dilute the teaching when you can get the straight stuff directly from the scriptures? Youth and adults alike have seemed to appreciate getting the hard truth from the source anyway.

    Re: discussions vs. lectures

    The same manual says: “You normally should not give lectures. Instead, help class members participate meaningfully in discussions of the scriptures.”

    I’m currently Sunday School President and our lessons in Gospel Doctrine are mostly lectures with only a few comments coming from the class. But ours is not a normal situation right now. First, we are in an explosive growth area in Arizona and on the verge of our second ward split this year, so we have 200+ people coming to gospel doctrine every week — that does not lend to discussions. Second, our teacher is not good, he is Grreeeaat! (Frosted Flakes anyone?). His knowledge and skill are so extraordinary that members are loath to let the classes end.

    Isn’t it nice that the instructions from HQ give us latitude to fit our situations? Too bad every ward can’t get great teachers today – it really helps!

  32. Walt Nicholes on December 23, 2004 at 2:16 pm

    Elder Spencer W. Kimball (prior to his presidency) once bemoaned in writing that one of the great trials of the period after his operation when he had no voice was that he was unable to refute some of the nonsense that was taught in church settings.

    All of us with opinions are entitled (and under rules of divine truth may even be expected) to offer respectful dissent. And when the respectful dissent is incorrect, then dissenting dissent.

    This is one of the reasons that members of Bishoprics have been counseled to attend Sunday School classes and make occasional comments after sacrament meeting.

  33. David King Landrith on December 23, 2004 at 8:38 pm

    I teach the deacon’s quorum each week, and I can assure you that deacons take their role of critic quite seriously. Perhaps it has something to do with their responsibility to watch over the church.

  34. David King Landrith on December 23, 2004 at 8:45 pm

    Scott: [Nibley] also was not impressed with the “improvements” Talmage made to the Book of Mormon.

    Talmage’s improvements consisted primarily of thousands of grammatical corrections, and B. H. Roberts argued in favor of them (he said that since they the grammatical errors were obviously corrected in translations of the Book of Mormon, there’s no reason to preserve its bad grammar for its English speaking readers). If you want to see the original, Harold House (a Community of Christ [RLDS] publisher) prints a replica of the first edition, first printing of the Book of Mormon in all its glory. Also, a strangite Mormon named John Hajicek put his genuine first edition, first printing of the Book of Mormon online at http://www.inephi.com

    Regardless of the quality of Talmage’s improvements, without his improvements the The Book of Mormon would embarrass most educated members and its values as a missionary tool would be seriously compromised.

    Incidentally, Talmage also introduced a couple of minor improvements to the 4th Article of Faith from the “ordinances” to “first principles and ordinances” to clarify, since it’s a bit awkward to refer to faith (#1) and repentance (#2) as ordinances.

    It seems to me that Talmage’s corrections are entirely within the tradition of a calling to criticism.

    Lastly, in meetings where priesthood holders are present, it is the presiding priesthood holder that is responsible to refute false doctrine (e.g., bishop in sacrament meeting, quorum president or group leader in priesthood).

    There is some vagueness here, since it’s not always clear what constitutes false doctrine or how one is to correct it. I once heard of an aged member who whistled her testimony. Joseph Smith said that such displays are of the devil unless someone provides an interpretation by the spirit, but how does one refute it?

  35. Kevin Winters on December 24, 2004 at 11:13 pm

    Geoff: Yes, that is what it *says*, but in my experience it either doesn’t register with the teacher, they’ve never read it, or due to their procrastination all they can do is follow the manuel. I imagine that the latter is more often the case, as I’ve heard on many occasions a teacher kid about having put it off and only prepared the night before. If anything, I’ve known many teachers who, as they teach, have the manuel open more than their scriptures and who consult the manuel during teaching more than they do their scriptures. This, of course, isn’t to say that all their lessons are horrible (even those that have had little preparation), but my primary gripe is the wattering down that everything gets hen such happens and the *complete* lack of questioning–people give the same answers to the same questions and almost never delve further into what’s there. In my mind, there’s not much more intellectually insulting than a group mentality wherein no one knows how to question and question well. To borrow from Heidegger, they’ve made ‘the one’ their hero–they settle into what ‘one’ thinks, what ‘one’ believes, what ‘one’ questions, and what ‘one’ does in a lesson (either as teacher or student).

  36. Blake on December 27, 2004 at 12:31 am

    I am all for class critics if I get to be one, and I don’t want them if I am teaching the lesson — unless they really just want to praise me. Can you imagine a class where the spirit has been present and the critic then gets up and announces all of the mistakes? Since I am often charged with teaching false doctrine by those who teach false doctrine, it seems to me that such a position would be just delightful!

  37. Geoff Johnston on December 27, 2004 at 1:38 am

    Kevin: I’m with you — most teaching in the church is not good. Often it is painfully bad. And as you noted, the learners are often worse than the teachers — not caring enough to expend any energy asking any questions or seeking at all. D&C 50 clearly describes what type of teaching and learning is acceptable to God and it requires deep spiritual effort on the part of both teachers and learners. I suppose keeping the classes to the high standards set in section 50 was part of the reason to have class critics to begin with.

    DKL: Thanks for the insights on the Talmage improvements.

    As for alleged Nibley gripes; in An Approach the Book of Mormon there are a couple of examples of how a meaning of a passage could be different if a comma or semi-colon was not added in later. But if that can be called griping (as Scott said) it is extremely mild. (Maybe Hugh had stronger words in other settings…)

  38. russ turner on December 28, 2004 at 7:02 pm

    You know, the “called” critic would have to be super empathic so as not to offend those of us who are not willing to do our own studying for class. In my Gospel Doctrine class I’ve taken the role of “His Majesty’s Loyal opposition” and it works well in keeping the class learning. This is with full cooperation of the teacher–in fact, he’s a little miffed if I miss class because this “team teaching” approach presents alternative views and perhaps instigates thought and comment, although it’s usually someone who wants to “get back to the manual”. I’ve been called a trouble maker by more than several of the stalwarts after class, but it’s usually with a smile, indulgent or supportive. As a Gospel Teacher for eight or so years, several years ago, I prepared for hours, getting the material into shape and, especially, supported by scripture, as the case allowed. It does infuriate me to see how many teachers do the bulk of their preparation during Sacrement Meeting. For what it’s worth.