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Jennifer Ayres receives top teaching award: ‘Exemplary she has been, extraordinarily so’
Portrait of Jennifer Ayres

Jennifer Ayres, winner of the Exemplary Teacher of the Year Award as well as the Provost’s Distinguished Teaching Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Education, serves as director for Candler School of Theology's Doctor of Ministry (DMin) program.

Jennifer Ayres’ ambitions as a teacher are big — and so is her heart.

Winner of the Exemplary Teacher of the Year Award as well as the Provost’s Distinguished Teaching Award for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Education, Ayres says, “I try to teach in a way that allows us to be fully human in all of our intellectual, vocational and emotional dimensions.”

Before Ayres joined Candler School of Theology as associate professor of religious education in 2011, Emory was already her intellectual home; she earned a PhD in 2007 from the Graduate Division of Religion (GDR). Ayres currently serves as the “Person, Community and Religious Life” Course of Study Chair in the GDR.

She finds it “deeply humbling” to join past Exemplary Teacher recipients with whom she has studied — Thomas Long, Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Candler, and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law — as well as colleagues such as Don Saliers, theologian-in-residence at Candler. “I hope that I can live up to the model they have set as public scholars and teachers,” Ayres reflects.

Candler Dean Jan Love has no doubt, noting: “It is hard to imagine Candler functioning without Dr. Ayres’ deep engagement and wise counsel. Her excellence in leadership shines through both in her devotion to classroom pedagogy and in her commitment to sharing that considerable expertise with the broader Emory community.”

“Conversations with Jennifer are always lively and wide-ranging. Not only is her teaching well respected in the classroom, her engagement with the task of teaching has always encouraged us to reflect on the quality of how we teach,” observes Saliers. 

Strengthening a key program

Four years ago, Ayres became director of the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) program, and two years ago, the stakes for supporting these students got much higher.

“The students graduating this year have been religious leaders during a pandemic, during an increased awareness of racialized violence and in the face of extraordinary social, cultural, political and personal pressures. Accompanying them as they make connections in their coursework and projects has been deeply meaningful for me,” Ayres says.

Allison Henderson-Brooks, assistant dean of students at Candler, observes: “Jennifer’s pedagogical approach to leading our students during this pandemic, in which many of them sustained tremendous losses, was remarkable.”

Chris Ndjungu, a 2022 DMin graduate, calls Ayres “our coach, our No. 1 cheerleader and an ever-present help in uncertain times. Exemplary she has been, extraordinarily so.”

The classroom as lab

“The advantage of teaching educational theory is that I can use the classroom as a lab,” Ayres acknowledges.

She draws from the tenets of critical pedagogy, specifically the scholarship of Paulo Freire. Freire criticized what he termed “the banking model of education,” which treated students as if they were empty vessels needing to be filled, like a piggy bank. 

For Ayres, students are co-creators of knowledge. “Learners are also always teachers, bringing their own wisdom and life experience. I daily seek to make room for that in my classes,” Ayres says.

Rosalynn Curry, a 2022 DMin graduate, says there were occasions, during her studies, when she “could feel the weight of the moment bearing down on my soul.” She likens Ayres’ words of encouragement to Proverbs 16:24: “Pleasant words are flowing honey, sweet to the taste and healing to the bones.”

In the same class and program as Curry, Joe Natwick seconds that notion. “As full-time pastors, chaplains and priests, DMin students need all the support we can get to make it through this rigorous program. Many of us would not have crossed the finish line without Dr. Ayres’ faith in us,” he says.

Transparency is also key to Ayres. She wants students to understand her learning objectives and makes it a point to acknowledge her mistakes. In her words, “I feel as if my own research convicts me on a regular basis. I am regularly confronted with possibilities and challenges and all the ways in which this work is fraught.”

Helping lead Candler’s curriculum revision

In fall 2021, a curricular revision began, Candler’s first in 15 years, and Ayres was one of the leaders driving it. Dean Love describes it as “a massive effort that entails rethinking the school’s pedagogical endeavors in light of the school’s mission and fundamental changes in graduate theological education.”

The growing diversity of the faculty and student body motivated the decision. Although many students still use their MDivs to serve as faith leaders, others are what Ayres terms “seekers,” who “have deep philosophical and spiritual questions that they long to explore. They don’t necessarily know what that means for them on the other side of the degree.”

Lanae Hollingsworth, a 2021 MDiv graduate, represents the type of student who sees merit in religious education as a value-add to another profession. A math teacher, Hollingsworth is often asked how an MDiv helps her.

“Dr. Ayres’ courses taught me the necessity of journeying alongside students in a learning community that is not unidirectional but rather has give-and-take, making growth on all horizons possible and leaving room for the unexpected,” says Hollingsworth. 

The idea is to create a more nimble curriculum that embodies the methodologies and perspectives of the faculty and gives students more choice. One to-do: design a new first-year experience. Ayres acknowledges that “the first year of theological education has to tap into the deep sources of motivation that brought students here.”

On May 2, following what Ayres reports was a “vigorous discussion,” the curricular revision was passed with overwhelming faculty support. The proposed changes, which will introduce a wide menu of courses to meet degree requirements, now move forward to the university and accrediting bodies for approval. 

In that discussion, Jonathan Strom, professor of church history as well as senior associate dean of faculty and academic affairs, acknowledged Ayres’ role, saying, “Your generous and thoughtful way of responding to questions and some objections was instrumental in achieving such a high level of consensus.”

The virtues of the ‘slow professor’

The “Slow Seminary” initiative is something that Ayres, along with colleague Elizabeth Corrie, associate professor in the practice of youth education and peacebuilding as well as director of the religious education program, began to pursue after absorbing the lessons of the book “The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy.” Ayres credits Allison Adams, director of research and scholarly writing at the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, with leading her and other colleagues to this book through a faculty reading group.

The hope is to provide more support for midcareer faculty. In 2018-2019, Ayres, Corrie and others across the school established what Ayres describes as a “group of mutual accountability.” They help each other protect time for reading, writing, spiritual practices and family life. 

Says Ayres, “We are trying to avoid acceding to a society based on speed. Our students see that we are too busy; we transfer that to them. What are we teaching our students implicitly about what theological leadership should be about?” 

Making good on a Christmas wish 

Teaching was always in Ayres’ plan. At the age of 8, she “asked Santa to bring carbon paper so that I could make worksheets for my imaginary students.” As serious-minded as Ayres is, she has a funny side. When called to meet with the provost and president, during which they revealed the award to her, she asked herself: “Am I getting fired, or worse, being asked to be on a taskforce?”

As far as Ian McFarland, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Theology, is concerned, Ayres has job security.

“Her combination of institutional vision and organizational acumen has impacted virtually every facet of Candler's life,” he says. 

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