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'Bobmatic' teaching

bob flanagan

Bob Flanagan, a 2011 Blue Chalk Award recipient, fosters an open dialogue with students during his Contemporary Religious Thought class. Photo by Rob Hill

Bob Flanagan’s mother taught him to play with words. So he begins his religious studies classes by taking the word “dogma” and reversing it to reveal “am God.”

Then, he instructs students to call him Bob — which, he points out, is spelled the same forward and backward.

“Dogmatic communication includes one center of authority who may think he or she is God, who says this is the way it is,” explains Flanagan, director of undergraduate studies and assistant teaching professor of religious studies. “But I am Bob, not God.”

Therefore, Flanagan, BA ’67, calls his communication philosophy “Bobma”; it’s his way of downplaying his own religious beliefs, sparking thoughtful conversation and encouraging students to be open-minded. In other words, his views are not necessarily correct; they’re just Bobma.

Every semester, Flanagan walks into classrooms full of students reluctant to speak up during lectures. He likens it to entering a funeral. But give Flanagan a class period or two, and he’ll turn the dynamics completely around.

He keeps his class sizes small, usually around 35 students, and he divides his courses into discussion groups of six or seven. He challenges them with thought-provoking questions, such as: “What, if anything, do we lose if we lose our sense of mystery, magic and wonder?” Although most Americans self-identify as Christians, he encourages his students to think about what functions as religion in their lives. “Religion is whatever provides a sense of orientation, direction and motivation to an individual or group. It doesn’t have to be God or a supernatural power. For many, sports or shopping functions as a religion.” His most popular courses explore the reality of God as well as religion’s role in human sexuality.

Flanagan keeps his classes challenging but casual, sometimes holding them at Shakespeare’s Pizza. In February 2011, the College of Arts and Science recognized his innate ability to connect with students by honoring him with a Blue Chalk Award for advising. However, Flanagan says a life in academia was never his intention.

“I got interested in religious studies out of necessity,” says Flanagan, who was raised Protestant. “I had questions about the nature of religion, hope and courage, and I needed a broader study than my own religious tradition.”

“Bobma” helps Flanagan avoid being preachy, so others can also question and explore their faith without feeling judged. However, he ends his spring afternoon class on just the note one might expect from a religious studies professor.

“May you go forth and frolic in this wonderful weather.”