Teaching Today's Students

“Metanoia” in PhD Mentoring

by Kenneth L. Parker, Steber Professor in Theological Studies, Department of Theological Studies

Metanoia is a transliteration of the Greek word, μετάνοια, and means “change of mind, repentance, regret.” While the Greek word means far more than the English terms “repentance” or “regret” can convey, the expression “change of mind” is too vague to carry the force of its intent. I prefer Matthew Arnold’s commentary on Jesus’s use of the word in the gospels: “the main part was something more active and fruitful, the setting up [of] an immense new inward movement for obtaining the rule of life … a change of the inner man.” (Literature and Dogma, 1873, 196).

Professors who teach in doctoral programs naturally associate this change of the inner person with the PhD students we are shaping into scholars and teachers. We seek to refashion their perspectives on our discipline and exhort them to shed former ways of engaging our intellectual project. We hope they will respond to our vision for the work to be done. Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a form of “evangelization” in our intellectual work, and our PhD students are disciples who place themselves in our care, so that they may be prepared to carry on the work we have embraced.

Yet it may be important to step back from our role as mentors and consider our own need for metanoia. When I began teaching in my department’s PhD program in Historical Theology, I adopted the mentoring style modeled for me at Cambridge University. My supervisor assumed I would come to him when I needed help with my dissertation research. He considered the process of identifying a topic, formulating and implementing a research agenda, and writing dissertation chapters to be a solitary enterprise. I experienced the work as isolating and lonely. But I persevered, found a way forward, and finished my work in record time. That model worked for me. Yet my efforts to replicate that pedagogical style at SLU had mixed results. Students often required multiple extensions, and one dissertation student failed to complete in the maximum time allowed by the Graduate School. I felt mired in a way of mentoring that did not yield the desired results.

Seven years ago something changed. I confronted a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was a student who had been traumatized by the isolating experience of dissertation research. The opportunity was a publisher’s solicitation of a volume of essays based on conference presentations I had made with a group of students. In the months and years that followed a new pattern of mentoring emerged, a method that I call the apprentice workshop method. I learned that by organizing a one-hour weekly pro-seminar with my dissertation students, we all thrived. They not only overcame isolation that had debilitated and impeded their progress, but also became productive scholars and teachers—publishing articles, presenting at conferences, and gaining employment. I became more productive, too, because my students became the first, best critics of my rough drafts. We learned from each other. The experience has changed me. My experience of metanoia required an openness to alter deeply engrained patterns of mentoring. The process has been life-altering, and I am deeply grateful for it.


Ken Parker2Kenneth Parker is a Steber Professor in Theological Studies in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University (1992-present), with a PhD in Divinity from the University of Cambridge (1984) and post-doctoral studies at the University of Fribourg (1987-1990).  He received the 2013 Donald G. Brennan Award for Excellence in Graduate Mentoring, and he currently serves as a Reinert Center Faculty Fellow.