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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

Plain Speaking without Dumbing Down

I remember a brilliant former student of mine distinguishing herself in a master's-level seminar with a charming, vigorous, and informative presentation on one of the assigned texts. This young woman knew how to communicate.

Alas, this same student, who has since earned a PhD in theological ethics from one of the best programs in the United States and has acquired significant teaching experience in several American colleges, recently shared this lament:

What resources do you recommend for me to address the fact that, even when my students love me, they still sometimes comment that I'm speaking over their heads?

I think I've gotten better and better at helping students identify and voice their questions, telling people in advance what I hope they'll get out of a session, using a variety of modes of communication, and other tricks to aid learning. And I've taken courses in pedagogy and applied their lessons. But I'll still get this complaint, even when I struggle to imagine how I could be any more basic. I have often ended up teaching folks who have not had a rich early education (which I guess is most of the US now), so it takes a lot of imagination and hard work to figure out the conceptual framework and vocabulary that I consider basic but that my students are missing.

I've been tempted to be discouraged, as if I can only either speak at a very, very simple level or do serious academic work. But then I remember that some people, including your patron saint C.S. Lewis, managed to do both very well (albeit for the working people of a different age). So I'm determined to believe that I can keep getting better at it.

(On the other hand, my seminary-bound juniors at one college last year complained that N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope was written for experts in the field, when it's really just for people who have been to church a bit and have decent reading comprehension. So maybe it is impossible to reach some folks with some ideas, after all.)

First, let's acknowledge that it is indeed impossible to reach some folks with some ideas.

I occasionally happen upon Wikipedia articles—you know, those articles written by just anyone for just everyone—and if they have to do with mathematics, physics, or chemistry, I find myself utterly at sea within the first couple of paragraphs.

I'm a reasonably competent reader of English. I took maths, physics, and chemistry in Grade 13 (= first-year university) and did pretty well at them. (In fact, I won the physics prize and was on the school mathematics team.) And I have no idea what's going on in these Wikipedia articles. I lack the advanced training necessary, and I'm not sure any amount of explaining things "more clearly" would get me on board, short of my taking several more entire courses in the subject matter. So, yes, without the necessary background, some important ideas just can't be communicated properly. (Speaking of Tom Wright's Surprised by Hope, while that book, like all books, has its shortcomings, what makes it particularly welcome is Wright's appreciation that the New Testament story of Jesus really can't be understood properly without the Old Testament leading up to it. Tom therefore summarizes major themes in the OT so that when we come to Jesus in the NT, it makes sense in a way that just dropping Jesus into the end of an evangelistic presentation—"And here is the deus ex machina to solve all the problems!"—just doesn't.)

And now we have the issue of a professor trying to tell us how to speak at a popular level who throws "deus ex machina" at us. What kind of example is that?

Okay. So let me offer a few bits of counsel from those I have learned from over the years—and particularly such widely quoted experts as my doctoral supervisor, Martin E. Marty of The University of Chicago, and, indeed, my hero, C. S. Lewis. 1. Find good models—like Martin Marty and C. S. Lewis. Like the late Tim Keller. And like excellent journalists who deal with difficult subjects, such as David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Caitlin Flanagan, David Frum, Jill Lepore, and Kelefa Sanneh. (You'll notice these names from a few journals that feature excellent writing in general: The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.) Read them and listen to them until their communication becomes more and more natural, more and more normal to you. 2. Now, just a second. That first bit of advice is terrible. Most undergraduate students in North America aren't reading at the level of The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The New Yorker!

True. But writers about challenging subjects in these magazines do model for us what it means to avoid the besetting sins of scholarly writing: technical terminology (a/k/a jargon), extended sentences with multiple dependent clauses, arch references (such as "Baudrillard" or "Bismarck" or "Belize" as if familiar to everyone), and, yes, use of dead languages (like deus ex machina).

Then we can read magazines pitched at a more appropriate level, and for North American evangelicals (which I am and my former student is), that would be the writing in Christianity Today, Faith Today, and Relevant. Much shorter sentences. Two-sentence paragraphs. Pop culture references. Slang amid workaday syntax.

Read and imitate those, and your communication style will get closer to what you need for the classroom. Ted Talks, of course, will be even better models in terms of economy and impact.

3. Ted Talks, however, are eighteen minutes about a single thing. Class lectures are 55 minutes—or 90, or even 180—about lots of things. But Ted Talks can instruct us nonetheless.

Ted Talks do focus on one thing and so should our lectures. Subordinate points should flow out of that one thing, as they do in all good expository writing. Don't just line up everything I know about the subject and then spout it.

Lecturing is about helping students learn, not about professors discharging their learning. Ted Talks are aimed at an objective, a "learning outcome." Again, however, too much university-level teaching (and typical preaching?) is focused on what I, the speaker, want to say, rather than on what the listener needs to hear in order to—what?

How do you want your audience to be different at the end of your talk? Drive toward that. Make everything you say contribute to that outcome.

4. Presume no background knowledge except, maybe, major motion pictures and huge, huge pop-culture figures. Once you get past Taylor Swift, Spider-Man, Beyoncé, and the Kardashians (God help us), good luck making a point to everyone in the room. Think of the following major figures in popular music, and then think of who you know, likely someone a generation older or younger, but perhaps just of a different class or ethnicity, who won't recognize them at all: Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, the Eagles, Michael Jackson, the Sex Pistols, Céline Dion, Coldplay, Kanye West (or whatever his name is now), and Miley Cyrus (who is, yes, already thirty years old). What one has to do instead is focus on the "segment" that is one's audience. What do they know and who are the stars by which they navigate? One doesn't have to be an aficionado (and don't use a word like aficionado, for heaven's sake) of rapidly changing fads. But one needs to know what one needs to know to perform the elementary act of teaching: connecting the new with the known. What do your students know? Connect with that. Therefore—

5. Talk to students. There is no substitute for having spies among them who can provide reliable intelligence of what is really going on in their ranks. Teaching assistants can help, and anytime you can get a student in your office to talk, ask them what they're watching and reading and listening to. Who counts as impressive in their world? Who are the new role models?

Then bounce around in your references. Some people will know who Connor McDavid is, while others will recognize Steph Curry. Some will resonate with "Stranger Things" and others will, alas, know "Squid Game" or "Emily in Paris." This is basic missionary anthropology. Find out what the target audience understands and then translate accordingly into their idiom.

6. There's a lot more to say. But for now, just this. We want to stretch our students so that their capacity to understand is greater at the end of the course than at the beginning. They will know more words, understand more concepts, imagine more models, and be able to do more things.

Nothing wrong, then, with expanding vocabularies, paradigms, and worldviews. Make them work a bit. That's how we grow. But, like any good coach or therapist, one must proceed step by step so as not to alienate one's charges with too much, too soon.

7. Finally, however, we end as we began. Some students are at university who shouldn't be. Instructors should early on set a bar so that everyone knows that this isn't high school and you will have to both know things and learn things to succeed here.

Still, if most of your students are complaining that you've pitched things too high—especially if they otherwise like you, as they like my brilliant former student—then one must accept one's vocation. These are the students God has called me to teach, not the students I might wish I had instead.

I must learn to speak their language and then speak it, even as I try to draw it up into more complexity and accuracy and beauty. (And if I won't, or can't, then I'm in the wrong job.) It mustn't be dumbing down. It must be what Einstein is supposed to have said: Simplify as far as possible—but no farther.


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