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University professor impressed with small college life and learning

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It’s not every day that a well-regarded medievalist and university professor offers his time, free, to teach a class at a small liberal arts college in Kansas.

Dale Schrag, left, Bethel College director of Church Relations, with Joe Goering, professor of history at the University of Toronto

On the other hand, this one’s name is on a major structure at that same college.

Actually, it’s his father’s name. Joseph W. Goering – whom everyone in Moundridge has always known as “Butch” – is named for his late father, the Moundridge banker and businessman Joe W. Goering (the younger Goering isn’t “Junior” because the “W.” in each name stands for something different). And Joe W. Goering Field, Bethel College’s football and soccer field completed in 2005, is named in honor of the gift that Lovella Goering and her children gave in their husband and father’s memory.

As a history and English major at the University of Kansas, 1965-69, Joe Goering met Paula Waxse, a nursing student from Oswego. They married and went to Yale University for graduate work – where Joe earned a master’s degree in arts and religion at Yale Divinity School – and then to Toronto. Goering completed his Ph.D. in medieval studies at the University of Toronto in 1977 and has been teaching there ever since.

As a professor of history, Goering teaches both undergraduate and graduate students. His specialty is medieval history, and Toronto has the largest graduate program in medieval studies in the world.

A number of factors played into Goering’s presence on campus for Bethel’s January 2008 interterm. One is that he is currently on a year-long sabbatical. Another is his self-professed desire to dodge his sisters’ attempts to make him feel guilty for not spending more time with their mother, who lives in Moundridge.

Another is that the standard text in medieval theology, The Sentences by Peter Lombard, has recently been translated for the first time into English from Latin and published in the past year by Goering’s colleague at Toronto, Giulio Silano.

“The first volume is now available, with three more to come,” Goering says. “I did a ‘test run’ with the manuscript before it was published, in a class at the University of Toronto, and this was the second time I taught it with the finished book.”

“If there’s any area of European history that we’re weak on at Bethel College, it’s probably medieval history,” says Dale Schrag, who directs Church Relations and is a Reformation scholar himself. “This was a priceless opportunity to expose our students to a quality professor from a major university.”

Schrag grew up in Inman and was, like Goering, a varsity debater. Goering thinks the two might have met first as high school students at a debate tournament at Bethel College in the mid-’60s. Schrag remembers that they would see each other at Christmas during their college years, but lost touch when Goering headed for Yale and Schrag for voluntary service in Colorado.

Then, years later, Schrag’s father, Richard, was visiting family in Toronto and needed to be hospitalized. One day Paula Goering came home and told her husband, “We have a patient who is a Schrag from Moundridge – you need to go see him.” Goering did and found it was the father of his old friend. Later, when Richard Schrag was home and Goering was visiting family in Moundridge, Richard urged Dale to contact Goering again, thinking they might still have some common interests.

It turned out they did. “We started talking that day,” Goering recalls, “and we’ve basically never stopped.”

During one of those visits, Schrag likely mentioned the possibility of Goering’s teaching a class at Bethel sometime. With his sabbatical in 2007-08 and his desire to try out Lombard’s Sentences on another college class, Goering approached Schrag with the offer to teach an interterm course in medieval theology in January 2008.

“I simply did the legwork to make sure that it could happen,” Schrag says. “There was, of course, only enthusiasm in the college’s response, in no small part because [associate professor of history] Mark Jantzen is on sabbatical. With the other history professor teaching BIFL [Basic Issues of Faith and Life] in January, there was no history department offering during interterm until Joe offered to come.”

Goering had an interterm class of seven, not all of them history majors. He was impressed by his class and by Bethel in general, he says.

“This probably shouldn’t have been surprising, but I’m amazed at how hard the students worked,” he says. “Medieval theology is unlike anything they’d read or studied before but they weren’t buffaloed by it. They struggled with the material and figured it out. You can find students like that at the University of Toronto, of course, but with a much bigger pool to draw from.”

His students appreciated him, too. “I liked the free style of the class,” says Bridget Kratzer, a senior social work major from Newton. “Joe allowed us to talk about what we thought, but also wanted us to say what we heard [Peter Lombard] saying, what he was trying to get across.”

Kratzer was also surprised and pleased that Goering, who had never taught at Bethel before and was only there for three weeks, would take the time to come and see The Upside-Down King, an original musical for which she was a cast member.

Goering says he enjoyed eating lunch in the cafeteria, noting that around-the-table discussions typically went well beyond just “surface small talk” and that there was a real sense of community.

Visiting with Schrag, an examiner for BIFL during January, as well as with other Bethel faculty and staff, Goering learned more about Bethel’s senior capstone course, which he also appreciated.

“It’s an ambitious requirement, to have all seniors – in any and every field – read from the Bible and from literature and be able to talk about it coherently and with some knowledge, to be able to pass an oral exam,” he says. “At the University of Toronto, you wouldn’t have that kind of common enterprise that brings together all disciplines, that relates to life experience and that has a deliberately religious component.”

Bethel has “a coherence you wouldn’t necessarily find at any small, private college,” Goering says.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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