Dr. Richard Ascough
School of Religion
Don’t be surprised if when you walk past one of Richard Ascough’s classrooms, you see him standing on the desk rather than behind it. As a teacher with Queen’s School of Religion, he is most likely just explaining how "walking on water" miracles may have been an illusion created when someone stood on a sandbank after stepping out of a boat.
Dr. Ascough's students, who adore him for his inventive and lively teaching style, are lucky that this award-winning professor was gently dissuaded from following another career path in his youth. “When I went to Bible College, I thought I wanted to be a minister, but was encouraged to go the route of academics and not into the church.” He jokes, “It was probably to save the church! But really that advice launched my academic career.”
This warm and magnetic teacher is the winner of the 2002 Queen’s University Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching, the 2003 United Church of Canada Davidson Award for Excellence in Teaching and Scholarship in Theological Education and the prestigious 2009 peer-nominated and selected Chancellor A. Charles Baillie Teaching Award.
As a young graduate, Ascough knew he loved research, but it was only when he first stepped into a classroom that he discovered how he really felt about teaching. “I realized I had a real passion in the classroom and enjoyed interaction with students around the material that drove and motivated me. A big part of what keeps me fresh and inspired in the classroom is that I can investigate new ideas in my research and bring them into the class. Students will challenge me and say, ‘That makes no sense,’ or they get really excited and ask questions I haven’t thought of. Then I have to go and look into that. There is a real symbiotic relationship for me between research and teaching.”
On mentors and the scholarship of teaching...
It helped to have a few mentors nudge him along the way too. “Some professors were actually negative inspirations, but some were truly inspiring like my doctoral supervisor. I have also been inspired by The Wabash Centre for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion in Indiana. As a young professor, I sat there with 14 peers and 5 experienced teachers to talk about teaching. At the time I felt like an imposter, but the senior teachers said they had felt that way too. They told me to push through it and learn the craft and scholarship of teaching.“
“The scholarship of teaching is actually when you sit down and think about what you are doing. You reflect on it, engage in conversations, and think about what it means to be a teacher.”
The teacher is not only a fellow explorer with the students, but acts as a guide, based on his or her knowledge, research and experience.
Ascough has been dedicated to this scholarship for years and has produced many publications about both teaching and learning. He has published over 30 journal articles and essays, reviewed five books on teaching, authored or edited 6 books (and is working on 3 more during his sabbatical this year) and has attained research grants and awards totalling over $300,000.
He’s had numerous invitations to teach outside of Queen’s, and even teaches in areas outside his own discipline (Business Ethics) at the University of Western Ontario. He works as a consultant with other institutions to help them adapt their own curriculum by doing things like changing teaching styles and embracing online learning. In fact, Ascough was the first to develop fully online courses for Queen’s School of Religion and in 2002 received the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies Norman E. Wagner Award for the innovative use of technology relating to biblical scholarship and teaching.
He also helps students make decisions about course selection, academic programs and even suggests what jobs they might take or what texts to read at their wedding! This is a teacher who absolutely loves his students and loves to teach. “Joseph Campbell talks about following your bliss. You have to follow what drives and motivates you. I’m fortunate teaching what I do, where I do. I’d almost do it for free!”
Hand-in-hand with the scholarship of teaching comes the art of teaching. “The craft of teaching is linked to scholarship but is hands-on, the practical side. When something clicks and works well online or in the class – that’s the craft. When you step out of the classroom, you can reflect on why it worked well, or not, and that’s the scholarship. That feeds back into the next time you go into the classroom and try it again.” He uses both skills to adjust his techniques to suit any situation. “When 9/11 happened, it was the first day of class. I knew I couldn’t use my usual methods. But the scholarship gives you the repertoire to draw from – knowing which one will work in a given situation."
Ascough uses a unique “counterpoint method” where he outlines varying opinions on any given topic, so as to engage his students. He considers it simply a bringing of various conversations into the classroom. “There are many ways of doing this. The textbook is one. Students are confused if what I say is not what the textbook says. It is a surprise to me just how surprised they are if I choose a reading that doesn’t agree with me. I tell them, ‘We need more voices in this room.’ This gives them permission to challenge me as a professor. I want to destabilize my authority, and want them to know that a difference of opinion can be expressed and won’t be laughed at.“
An informed guide...
Ascough even tells students to call him on it when he uses the phrase, “Most scholars think..,” because he feels professors bring in their own bias, and that it shuts down conversation since the students are not scholars. “Instead, they are rewarded for their argumentation not their conclusion. It’s not what you end up saying but how you bring in evidence – archaeological, social, historical and textual.” His ultimate aim is to get students to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions.
His students hone their critical thinking skills about religion but also in general. “It is really about understanding, not acceptance. Religion is part of the fabric of social discourse. At the start of some classes I hand out cards and ask students to write down two things – what are you most excited about learning in this class, and what are you most afraid of? I read through the cards and come back and report back on them the second day. Some students are afraid I will take away their Christianity. Some are atheists and are afraid I’ll try to make them believe. It turns out that both are afraid of the same thing – conversion. So I assure them I am only here to invite them to think for themselves and that they don’t have to agree with my position. I simply ask them what sounds right to them and why. Students need to know how to think, to evaluate and to construct arguments. These are things we can teach.”
One of Ascough’s most popular courses is Religion and Film. The students view movies like The Truman Show and Platoon and begin to observe just how much of our cultural discourse is infused with religious language. “I just want them to see it and engage it properly. Do they think it is nonsense or not?”
One former student, Joseph Gagliano, says, “Perhaps Professor Ascough’s strongest innovation is the use of practical tools that encourage students to think like exegetes (persons skilled at the critical explanation of a text). My favourite exercise was one in which the class interpreted a mysterious email that Professor Ascough had received. We attempted to tease out as much information as possible given only the letter. This exercise was meant to mimic the way in which the New Testament scholars draw useful data from ancient and mysterious texts.”
Ascough is the first to admit that there is no magic formula to teaching. “At The Wabash Centre we often wrestle with the idea of what makes a successful teaching moment work. Sometimes in class I am not sure what I did that day, but it felt like everything worked. There are just little moments along the way that say – that felt right.” But even on days when a class soars, he is ever searching, still wondering, “Did they learn anything? Maybe they had a good time, but did they learn?” He wants the world for his students. "Rather than simply ‘unloading’ information though to fill some imagined empty vessel, I view teaching as the walking of a pathway toward deeper understanding."
What touches this professor the most is hearing from students later on once they are outside the classroom. When he was nominated (and won) the Baillie Teaching Award, he had a chance to see many comments sent in by former students. “It’s then that you really see if the learning has stuck. If four years after you taught them, you get an email that says, `I was reading X today and I thought of you because I remembered you talked about this in class and we learned such and such…’, well, that just blows me away. They learned it!”
Gagliano says, “I call him a true scholar. He is fair, yet critical, innovative yet traditional, sympathetic yet meticulous. And while the Queen’s School of Religion is lucky to have him, the most fortunate ones are the students who have been inspired by his passion.”
Ascough feels he simply walks alongside his students as an informed guide. “It’s really not about me. I am just the catalyst. But students are engaging in something now with the skills we learned in the classroom. This is the most gratifying. It gives you a sense that this can make a difference in people’s lives, in how they think.”
Profile by Patricia Henderson