For theological ethicist William Schweiker, the advantage of his field is that “people are already involved with morality—what is just or unjust, good and evil, the claims of responsibility—before they enter the classroom. You don’t have to create the interest for it,” said Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics in the Divinity School.
In lectures, seminars, and one-on-one sessions, Schweiker tries to hone students’ natural interest in morality into cogent, well-argued theses. He’s famous for pushing students toward greater clarity and focus in their arguments—a habit that has earned him the nickname of “The Focalizer” among his students.
“Thinking begins with waking up to the complexity, joy, perplexity and often sorrow of moral and religious life. The scholar’s and the thinker’s job is to provoke and to articulate that experience in order to provide orientation and guidance in how to live,” he said. “That’s what ethics does.”
Teaching was a natural path for Schweiker, who grew up in a family that discussed and debated intellectual topics. “The idea that you would spend time trying to clarify ideas and convince other people came rather naturally to me. I’ve never had to struggle to enjoy teaching,” said Schweiker, who received his PhD from UChicago and joined the faculty in 1989. Since 2007, Schweiker has served as director of the Martin Marty Center.
Still, “I’m not one of those people who has sat back and adopted a philosophy of teaching. I’ve tried to hear and articulate students’ questions and to enable them to pursue and answer those questions,” Schweiker said. “That’s easy at Chicago. We have such gifted and diligent students. It makes teaching easy.”
Working with graduate students is a particularly satisfying endeavor for Schweiker, who enjoys seeing his students tackle new topics and ideas. “These people are creating new forms of thought. They’re helping us understand thinkers and the history of problems better than we have before,” he said.
Schweiker encourages his graduate students to pursue their own interests and points of view. “I’m not interested in disciples,” he explained. He prefers that students “go their own way, rather than reproduce what the professor is doing. I have students [with whom] I disagree, but if they can make a good argument then learning has advanced.” At the end of the day, “the whole point of teaching at a place like the U. of C. is to educate students into being colleagues and friends in the work of creating new knowledge.”
He was stunned when he learned of the Graduate Teaching Award. “I was just profoundly touched that students would take the trouble to nominate me and go through the work of getting letters of support,” he said. “Teaching is its own reward. But you labor in the classroom for a long time, and in seminars and tutorials, and sometimes you lose track of the effects that these things are having on students and colleagues. I passionately love what I do.”