Teaching the Bible
Most students come into biblical studies classes with at least a cursory knowledge of the Bible, and, often, strong feelings to go with that knowledge. As a teacher, I seek to build on students’ knowledge, to encourage them to explore their ideas and assumptions, and help them engage more deeply with texts through close reading, use of secondary material, and group discussion. My goal is that when students leave my classes, they have improved their close reading skills, become conversant with major conversations in biblical studies, and have gained familiarity with a range of methods and viewpoints from which to engage the Bible.
As an instructor of Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, I find that students learn best when they can interact actively with the material they are studying. For example, instead of simply assigning students readings on syntactical terms, I craft assignments that require them to explore syntax inductively, using biblical software. I also structure seminars so that students interact with each other during class time. Participation from everyone is key. I often start class with an exercise that requires each student to share an observation or question from their assigned reading. Having heard their voice once, students, including shy students, are more likely to continue to contribute throughout the class.
Discussions are more nuanced and analytical when students respond to each other during class discussion, rather than simply interacting with me. For example, I sometimes split students into small groups and have them do short exercises based on assigned readings. This is particularly important when the assigned reading is difficult. I have taught Mary Douglas’ chapter on Leviticus from Purity and Danger several times, and the first time I taught it the discussion was unfocused and imprecise. Students were too unsure of the material to engage in productive conversation. The next time I assigned the reading, I first had students outline various parts of the argument in smaller groups and present their findings to the class. In the subsequent discussion, students made more detailed claims, referred to the article with better accuracy, and participated with greater enthusiasm.
To encourage student curiosity, I often present more difficult materials in class than what students will encounter in their homework and quizzes. When working alone and on graded assignments, grappling with material that is just at the edge of their knowledge or beyond it causes students to feel discouraged and frustrated. The same exercises when presented in a group setting in class promotes a sense of excitement and competence in students. It also serves to introduce them to new material ahead of time, giving them a chance to gradually become acquainted with new concepts.
Another way in which students encounter risk in my classes is through discussions of controversial topics. For example, I used Jon Levenson’s article “Is There a Counterpart in the Hebrew Bible to New Testament Antisemitism?” to encourage students to think about the place of polemic in sacred texts and how they as future pastors would teach such passages to a congregation. When reading the story of Jephthah’s daughter, we talked about how to read texts that include violence against women with victims of such violence in mind.
In my classes, I mix frequent, low-stakes assignments and bigger, high-stakes assignments. This allows students to practice and receive feedback on key skills of the course, be it writing an exegetical argument or translating a section of Hebrew, before they have to do a major exam or paper. Students can see how they are meeting course goals as they go along, rather than just at the end of the term. Students report greater satisfaction when criteria for assessment are clear, so I include grading rubrics with all assignments.
In addition to mixing high and low-stake assessment, I also use different forms of assessment to cater to different learning styles. In Introduction to Old Testament, for example, students have a couple of content-based tests (map quiz and torah content quiz), an assignment that asks them to compare a biblical text to a piece of art (literary, visual, or musical), and a final exegetical paper. The variety of assignments allows students to display a range of skills and to explore a different interests. It also meets an important goal of the introduction class, namely combining the acquisition of specific content with learning how to write and research in the field.
Close reading and clear writing are key skills in biblical studies, but they are also skills that will serve students in a variety of future career paths. For these reasons, students receive frequent feedback on both skills in my classes. Short weekly writing assignments allow students to practice reading and writing frequently and receive on-going assessment. I have found that line-editing students’ work produces little or no improvement over time, so instead I focus my feedback on specific problems, and suggest exercises to work on these. For example, if a student overuses adjectives and adverbs, I suggest that they take a piece of their own writing, highlight all adjectives and adverbs, and delete half of them. Students are more likely to apply this kind of concrete feedback, and their writing shows clear improvement over time.
I also include comments on their arguments, guidelines for academic writing, and further avenues of investigation or books that may be of interest to them. Students report that this kind of feedback makes them feel validated and authorized as students and scholars.
In order to improve as a teacher, I am enrolled in Duke University’s Certificate of College Teaching. As part of this certificate, I have taken several classes on pedagogy (Fundamentals of College Teaching; Online College Teaching; College Teaching and Visual Communication), and participated in a peer observation and feedback program. I regularly attend the Graduate Department of Religion’s Teaching & Learning events, which cover various issues related to teaching religion, including teaching controversial topics, effective grading, and how to develop assignments appropriate to class goals. I am currently a fellow at the Duke Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge. My project explores the use of technology in teaching Biblical Hebrew.