As I prepare for school to start in a few weeks, I have been thinking about what has and hasn’t worked in the past few semesters.
Last year I changed the way I taught freshman level introductions to the Old and New Testament to include more room for students to think not just recite. My Old Testament course now spends 10 weeks researching and writing an exegetical paper. Each Friday during those 10 weeks, I set up shop in a study room in the library and the students work to complete a research assignment (based on Helps for Writing an Exegesis Paper). It is not a long paper, only 1000 words, but I require students to write more than a summary paper. Each student must come up with their own research question about the passage and then work to answer that question. I was amazed that no matter a student’s background, public school, private school, or homeschool, how foreign this concept was to most of them and multiple students told me this was the hardest thing they were asked to do all year.
My New Testament course centers around building an exegetical notebook. In the notebook, each student is required to have one page on each of the New Testament books with basics like historical setting, author information, major themes, and outline. But the major item is that for each book they must write both a one paragraph and one sentence summary of the book (the students work in groups on the first part and work alone on the summaries). Rather than assigning another exegetical paper, as I planned, I added the summaries from my own experience of having to provide a one page, one paragraph, and one sentence summary of my PhD thesis. You can learn a lot by thinking about what is essential in any given work.
Although I was happy overall with the new course structures, I am making several changes for the upcoming year. One major change is taking a step backwards in the process towards uncritical thinking. Throughout both semesters, the biggest hurdle for the students was telling me what they thought about any given passage. Some of the issues were church doctrine related, some due to the fact I would be the one who gave them a grade, but all of them stemmed from similar fears – the fear of being wrong or the fear openly disagreeing with what they ‘know’ is the right answer.
I believe much of this is because they, we, are programmed by our education to believe that we must start with the right answer. I think this approach is disastrous for research because it removes all questions. In this method, the goal of research is to prove why it is the right answer ,therefore, all of research is an argument with those who we believe are wrong. Without a doubt there is a place for this in education, but this is not the place to begin.* This year I am going to try and show the students that we begin with our own ideas, our pre-understanding.** This is not a prioritizing of personal opinion or even jumping on the slippery slope to post-modernism. Rather it is a way of approaching research as personal reflection before it becomes public debate (almost sounds biblical – Matt 7:1-5). In this method, the goal of research is to test our ideas to see if they can hold up. Thus, research becomes a means of introspection, a way to argue with ourselves, a place for students to begin to wrestle with their faith (or lack of faith). In other words, by beginning with uncritical readings research becomes the process of thinking critically about our readings and this is the place I want to open up in all the classes I teach.***
*A mistake I made in last year’s courses was pointing students towards commentaries to quickly. I thought reading commentaries would help calm their fears of not being able to do the assignment, and it did help. The unintended consequence, however, was that students quickly assumed the commentary was right and spent much of their efforts proving why.
**Still trying to figure out ways to get them to read for themselves. I started, in the Spring, by giving students this Personal Statement on the 1st day of class. In Old Testament classes, this is a place I find Leviticus really helpful. Having students offer thoughts on sacrifices which are considered crazy today seems to be a place they feel free enough to offer opinions.
***Of course, there is no such thing as our own readings because we have all been conditioned to read in certain ways by a multitude of factors. Yet, I still want students to read the text and think about what it means to them before they begin to engage what others say it means.