“we learned that the work of biblical scholarship is not merely to say that any interpretation is correct or plausible, but rather to demonstrate how a particular interpretation is supported by history, culture, other documents, or exegesis”
“just about everything I could do wrong I did do wrong in my first exegesis”
“what was most amazing was when our writing amazed you”
These are excerpts from the reflection papers written by students in RELG210: Biblical Foundations, a course offered at the small public liberal arts college where I was the library director and liaison to the Philosophy & Religious Studies Department. I have held on to my copies of three sets of reflection papers (with names redacted) for eight years. I tried writing about how they tie to ideas around the role of failure or repetition in learning. Let’s just say my own failures there were less than productive. I tried just writing about the experience of working my friend and colleagues Professor Katharina von Kellenbach and with all of her students. But what I wrote didn’t seem as if it would find an appropriate “home.”
Then I read a column by John Warner, a person I have come to admire. I posted a Tweet about his column and he encouraged me to write about these students, so I am finally trying to do that. My experiences with these students over several years convinced me that giving students space to work, time to repeat and retry, and then asking them to reflect on the entire experience can tell us more about what to do, and why, than we might realize. And I also felt encouraged by Warner to allow myself to write in ways that I was not trained to do as an academic.*
“I realized that the sources that I drew upon did not need to necessarily all argue the same thing but needed to provide support in some way to point to an argument that I had come up with myself.”
I finally realized that I can let the students tell you about how the class changed them much better than I can. But here are a few details that provide some context. This course was a requirement for the Religious Studies major but was also a Core Curriculum offering. The students were usually mostly sophomores and most classes had about 20 students. They worked in pairs all semester writing an exegesis every week. Each week was devoted to a fairly large section of text from the Hebrew Bible or New Testament. The students had a smaller section from that original portion to use for formulating a research question.
Students were encouraged to limit sources to fundamental reference tools and materials in our library and I set up a small cart by the reference collection where everyone collected and left books all week and which I emptied at the end of the week so we could start over the following week. One goal for the professor was to have students get repeated experience with the tools and the format but with different content. I have a PhD in Historical Theology focusing on 2nd-3rd century Christian theology. So often on Wednesdays pairs of students would wander into my office in the library for help. We would browse the stacks together, or I would help them with our Hebrew, English, and Greek lexicons. They learned to use concordances, to recognize the differences among commentaries written by scholars in different faith traditions or using different methodological lenses, and to formulate good questions. They did this through practice and by making lots of mistakes.
Papers (limited to 3-5 pages) were due on Fridays and class time was devoted to conversation about the questions students asked and the answers they formulated. They wrote 14 of these short exegetical papers, the only written or evaluative work student did except the final reflective essay.
“There is something deeply gratifying in openly discussing these lofty and important topics with another human being.”
“Being in a classroom full of diverse and opinionated people made doing the research for the papers more enjoyable because of the different viewpoints and research topics presented.”
Some semesters the reading was in the order that the texts. Other times it was more theme-based (students much preferred the sequential approach). They also did a little bit of extra-canonical reading from the Gospel of Thomas. Through all of it they struggled to find the paths they needed to work together. They worked around schedules, they learned the strengths each partner brought to the work, they did not always share the burden equally.
“Writing collaboratively is time consuming. I had some anxiety about being held partially responsible for another person’s grade.”
“It was really great to be able to learn some of the ins and outs of the library while doing research for a class.” [this is one of my favorites J]
“I would take the suggestions we received from the previous exegesis and immediately incorporate those suggestions into the next exegesis, allowing me to improve upon my weaknesses.”
“I expected to leave with a solidified understanding of the Bible. Instead, I’ve come away only with more questions.”
This small sample of comments is not atypical of what I read in over 60 reflection papers from three sections of the class. Their reflection papers don’t tell us whether they remember how many plagues there were in Egypt, or the names of all the disciples. Instead they tell us everything we need to know about what students really learned, how they learned it, and in what ways the process and the learning has changed the way they think about texts that continue to have an enormous influence on the world and about the way they, and others, interpret and use those texts.
I think a lot about how this approach could be implemented in courses in other disciplines and how exciting it would be to teach this course so students produce an open and online collection of their exegetical papers. But mostly I am grateful to have had the chance to participate in the shared learning of these students and to John Warner for encouraging me to write about it.
*If you are not following John Warner on Twitter, @biblioracle, I strongly encourage you to.