For a Religious Studies and Anthropology course on the subject of the Bible and its history of reception, I require students to read online essays and interact with them on comment threads. I go back and forth with students on the threads. They go back and forth among themselves. I am not the first instructor of letters and science to make interactive online study a core requirement for a university course. I am certain I will not be the last. The upsides are enormous.
The online requirement I integrate into the course deploys two genres neither of which is part of a scholar’s stock-in-trade. I expect students to practice and perfect a third. I assign (1) course-related short essays that take all of five minutes to read, one to five per session. In response, students are required to offer (2) critical comment on one assigned essay per session. I occasionally offer (3) probing comment in reply.
The three genres noted, I contend, are eminently suited to “content creation.” I side with Christian Brady: intellectual goods of the highest quality can be manufactured on an iPad. More shocking still, they can be packaged as blog posts and blog comments and find eager readers around the globe. For the majority of academics, I realize, the questions are other: why on earth would one want to become an online professor? How will it advance one’s career? To the second question I have no convincing answer, though I know for a fact that it can advance one’s career, if done diligently and well. The answer to the first question is easy: as pointed out here, one of the first presidents of the University of Wisconsin, John Bascom, “implored his students — LaFollette and Van Hise among them — that they had a moral duty to share their expertise broadly [emphasis mine - JFH].” This vision of education is known as the Wisconsin Idea. Going online accomplishes it in spades.
The nub of the matter has to do with the purpose of education. If the purpose is to cultivate humanity,1 then education is about helping people resource a capacity for self-scrutiny and a flair for imagining a narrative in which to live. It is about teaching people to express themselves well, and teaching people manners. There, I said it: in the classroom and online, I want to inform, but I also want to teach manners. This is hard work, since I am still learning to have manners myself. The undoubted advantage of blogging and commenting on blog: precisely because blog posts and comments thereto are venues in which bad manners are often on display, there is no better place in which to model the opposite.
The devil, of course, is in the details. By course-related short essay I mean a focused text of a thousand words. Since I am teaching a course on biblical literature, the telling of a story of human interest against a carefully chosen biblical background is a useful genre. In a series on gender based on experiences in Syria, I attempt to leverage the ability of readers to grasp a culture other than their own through story. In Psalm 26: why Christians cannot pray it, I seek to make a prayer plausible through story. The rhetorical choice of activating the sibling rivalry between Jews and Christians is intentional.
An opinion piece on an interdisciplinary subject is another genre of heuristic value. At the crossroads of Bible, faith and science, a piece like Why all the fuss about evolution? serves to challenge the reader to think outside of entrenched binary oppositions. Pieces at the intersection of Bible, faith and ethics, such as In what sense the Bible has much to say about abortion or A homosexual’s best friend is the Holy One blessed is He, have a similar purpose. Short essays which take sides are more effective points of departure for class reflection than lengthy articles of boundless sophistication addressed to academic peers.
“Content-based” and “conflict-of-interpretation” as opposed to “historical” and “history-of-research” introductions to biblical books and themes are ideally suited to jump-starting a class’s intellectual curiosity. Short introductions to books like Genesis and Job attract interest. An essay in response to a FAQ like What does it mean to hallow God’s name? is helpful to many. Essays that spotlight the research of particular scholars serve to bring a particular line of inquiry (Fragestellung) into focus. I tried my hand at this with Mary Douglas, Roland Meynet, Bernard Levinson, and Seth Sanders. To be sure, I have yet to work all of these examples into my curriculum. Stay tuned!
The class I teach maxes out at 50 students without difficulty. Demand is high because the subject matter – the Bible and current events; the Bible and its history of reception – is of extraordinary interest. A goal of the course is to look at the way the Bible informs the public and private lives of Jews and Christians; therefore, the attempt is made to examine the truth claims the Bible is thought to make on its readers by those who treat it as a rule of faith and practice. The attempt to do so in an intellectually responsible way is an enormous challenge. On my understanding, one cannot read a biblical text in a historically competent mode without asking questions like the following - the answers vary according to time and place: what is the text’s political function? On whose behalf and to what end is it deployed? What do people think the text says?
Students find the effort to address these questions to be an intellectual adventure of the first order. When they come to class with their boyfriends in tow, you know you’ve struck a chord. It will always be of interest to elucidate the conflict of interpretations and interpretation of conflict the Bible instantiates. Further: it will always be constructive to defend an ancient text from modern mis-interpreters, secular and religious.
I have begun to put together an online archive of short essays of the genres noted. The majority of the essays are designed to grab the reader by the cognitive throat and leave him gasping for breath until he starts to think with eyes wide open. The archive, which is on this blog, needs work: some content takes the side of a text or is loyal to a religious tradition without enough qualification. Still, in a day and age in which the right to be uninformed is treated as an acquired privilege, it seems better to collude with the text and its religious interpreters than bash the Bible and communities of faith and practice built around a particular construal of biblical content.
The logical next step to work on (I have yet to get far with this): that of teaching students to respond to such essays with carefully framed arguments, thought-experiments, and questions.
A few prove good at it from the start. The question is how to make progress with the others. Many instructors prefer not to work with students on their language skills but grade on the basis of multiple-choice exams. It requires a commitment to one’s students beyond the call of duty as currently understood to train them in the fine art of restating, interacting with, and respectfully contradicting the views of others in powerful and eloquent language. Still, I can think of few more important things a faculty member might do with her time.
A final step to work on: how best to offer probing comment in reply. I invariably markup submitted short essays on questions of grammar, clarity, style, and substance. An unresolved question: how to do something similar with submissions to the comment threads of online essays.
The importance of being able to say what you need to say in very brief compass is uncontroversial. I put the challenge to my students this way: I want to teach you how to give and receive a French KISS (KISS = Keep It Short and Sweet). [Roll that tongue: if nothing else, but putting it this way, I briefly fill the air with pheromones.] Writing well is no different, I say, than learning how to sing or swim: you doubt you will ever be good at it until, by working on it, you are.
I am convinced that the Bible contains the most explosive cocktail of critical theory the world has ever seen, but the hard work of making that evident in brief compass remains to be done.
1The purpose of cultivating humanity, even if the program as originally formulated overestimates the capacity of reason on its own and underestimates the capacity of religion, on the basis of coherent systems of belief and practice, to succeed in that purpose (Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997]; for a brief summary and critique Nussbaum's program, see Martin Gunderson's remarks here) has particular resonance if one believes that the humanity to be cultivated images deity, in the Greek sense as expressed in an image of Poseidon or an image of Artemis, and/or in the biblical sense as expressed in Genesis 1.