Teaching Biblical Studies Like Steve Jobs

This weekend I read Carmine Gallo’s piece called, “Deliver a Presentation like Steve Jobs” (h/t to Akma). On the basis of the presentations by Jobs that he has reviewed, Gallo offers ten examples of the kinds of practices that make Jobs’ presentations so compelling.

We bibliobloggers usually wait until Thanksgiving weekend to gripe talk about whatmakesunsuccessfulpresentations. But “presenting” is just a more palatable word for “lecturing,” and summer is a fine time to reflect on the teaching practices that we’ll be taking up in the fall.

Here, I copy the names of the practices Gallo lists (the bold-face phrases), but I describe them in terms of my experience with lecturing on topics in Hebrew Bible.

  1. Set the Theme: Often, but not always, at the start. Don’t make the mistake of keeping it under wraps until it’s unveiled at the end: whatever ties the presentation together, whatever big idea I mean my students to go away with, I want to bring it in clearly and early, and reinforce it often.
  2. Demonstrate Enthusiasm: Risk informality and the possibility of being ridiculed behind your back. It’s cool (and as infectious as hell) to be in love with an idea, or a text, or a discovery. For example, I love how features of El and Baal in Ugaritic religious texts help illuminate religio-political conflicts throughout the monarchical period in Israel and Judah. If you think what you’re saying is exciting, go ahead and bubble over a bit. No, a bit more: burn some calories. There, that’s it.
  3. Provide an Outline: I give a written outline with lectures, though I am inclined to make it briefer and more spare this year than I have in the past. In any case, students have told me how much they depend on my giving clear indicators during the lecture about where we are in our itinerary.
  4. Make Numbers Meaningful: To illustrate: does it matter whether Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in the 1950s or the 1850s? Or the 1650s? Does a social context of fire-hoses, Jim Crow, and “strange fruit” matter or no (over against Shadrach Minkins and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or “perpetual servitude” and partvs seqvitvr ventram)? Insofar as you think it matters for Dr. King, then how might the differences between the 8th, 6th, and 5th centuries matter as social contexts for particular words of the book of Isaiah, and how can those differences be made meaningful?
  5. Try for an Unforgettable Moment: This may, but needn’t, correspond to the climax of the presentation. In your search for unforgettable moments, pay attention to student feedback. I remember learning that students were impersonating (behind my back, of course) my imitation of Israelite refugees fleeing southward in 722 B.C.E., frantically waving their copies of E, Hosea, the Elijah and Elisha narratives, and Exodus and Moses traditions. If they were impersonating it, then they were “getting it”: this may be a point in the presentation that I could sharpen into a planned unforgettable moment. Think big: could a colleague or student come in as a “special guest”? (Wellhausen? The Priestly writer?)
  6. Create Visual Slides: Text shouldn’t dominate: I use just enough text to show where I am in my outline, or to tick off Big Ideas. Often images alone are the way to go. Even with images, don’t feel tied to a literal or prosaic correspondence between the image and what you’re saying: abstract images or landscapes working in the background can create the desired atmosphere just fine. The idea is to create an imaginative space within which to arrange the spoken words.
  7. Give ’em a Show: Entertainment has a structure, a flow: setting the scene; problem or conflict; rising tension; climax and resolution; denouement. A presentation may comprise one long arc, or a series of related arcs, but remember your hearers are sitting in chairs: for heaven’s sake, try to take them at least on an intellectual and emotional journey or journeys. (For example, a journey from the conventional wisdom of Proverbs or creation psalms, to the way Qohelet uses such conventional proverbs as a foil for his dissenting wisdom, to the guns-a’blazing blaspheming wisdom of Job 9 and 19, to a denouement reflecting on the pastoral goods of affirming the “blasphemous” anger that good people have against God in times of tragedy.)
  8. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: For Gallo, the “small stuff” means technical glitches, and every teacher has her share of those. But there are other kinds of glitches: the student question that comes from far out in left field or that tries to hijack the thread; the total misunderstanding arising from a piece of wording that you had never realized was confusing; the quiz that runs late and that sets you fifteen minutes behind on the Most Important Lecture Evah. Students have been learning for centuries under the most preposterous of conditions, and ours will too.
  9. Sell the Benefit: What are they going to be able to do that they couldn’t before? Will Brueggemann’s approach to “orientation and disorientation” in the Psalms allow them to integrate the imprecatory psalms into their pastoral ministry so that they quit telling people in pain to stop being angry? Will a frank recognition that Gen 1 and 2 order the creation of humans and beasts differently allow them to see that all texts (including the primeval story) invite certain kinds questions about God and the world while rebuffing others? Will quizzes and outlines on Bible content allow them not to look like total yutzes when their parishioners say, “I heard something weird about that one biblical story, where is that again?”
  10. Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse: Surely we’ve all noticed that we are better the second time we lecture on a topic, and even better the third time. So, for a new presentation, why punish the first hearers with an unrehearsed draft?

A couple of bonus links: Dr. Crazy’s reflections on writing an article are written with an eye on conference papers; probably too focused on lit review for most teaching lectures, though. Also, here are Ten PowerPoint (or Keynote) Tips for Preparing a Successful Presentation.

What tips would you offer for creating presentations or lectures worthy of a Steve Jobs?

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4 Responses

  1. Well, you get an A for creativity! Thank you for applying the techniques in my column to the teaching of the Hebrew bible. It’s something that I didn’t think about, but I’m honored that you found the content useful. And if you like my 700 word article, you’ll love the new book, The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs. Please send address and I’ll make sure you get a complimentary copy to share with your students.
    -Carmine

  2. as a random piece of information, it was #2 that kept me clinging for dear life until things finally started to make sense just before the midterm in intro… I kept thinking that if you were that excited and willing to work that hard to teach this stuff, perhaps you weren’t lying when you said I would get it eventually- or that it was worth knowing.

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