The Exegetical Thesis as (Digital) Storytelling

The “exegesis project” is a The Big Project for masters students in a biblical studies course. Usually, it’s a paper, of course. This term, I hope to encourage students in my “Book of Daniel” to consider doing the project in the form of “Digital Storytelling.” I realize that this calls for a two-part explanation:

  1. What makes exegesis “storytelling”?
  2. What makes exegesis “digital”?

I am going to take these one at a time. Today, we will stick with the first. In beginning to learn exegesis, one of the big hurdles for students is that they are asked to bracket their spiritual autobiography long enough to attend to the biblical text’s own historical context. That being so, what can I mean when I ask them to accomplish their exegesis as “storytelling”? I’ll break it down:

What makes it “exegetical”?

  • The body of the work asks questions about the meaning of the biblical text for its author, and for the community to whom the author appears to have written, in that author’s own social and historical context.
  • The work’s arguments rely on publicly available evidence and explicit lines of reasoning. They do not depend upon private revelation, confessional dogma, implicit lines of reasoning, or logical fallacies.

What makes it “a thesis”?

  • The work is organized around the defense of a single claim, or thesis. A thesis is NOT, then, an opinion, a narrative, an “exploration,” or a review. A thesis should be defensible, relevant, and manageable. By “defensible,” I mean that it is a proposition that can be established by publicly-available evidence (not private revelation or confessional dogma) and an explicit line of reasoning. By “relevant,” I mean that the thesis forces your reader to re-evaluate the biblical text; the thesis “makes a difference” to how the biblical text is read. By “manageable,” I mean that the thesis can be argued comprehensively within the constraints of the assignment; it is not too big an idea for the word count, and also not so small that the paper falls significantly short or has to be “padded up.”

What makes it “storytelling”?

  • Even when presenting data (as in a lecture, or a thesis paper), there is a “narrative” of sorts: you lead the reader from a starting place, through a terrain known only to you, to a destination. A good presenter “knows her narrative”: you could take away her slides or her paper, and she can still guide you through the “narrative” of her subject matter or thesis (Ask a student about a recently-completed paper; if they can do this, it’s probably a good paper.)
  • We commonly ask our students to “book-end” their thesis with an introduction and a theological/hermeneutical conclusion. The project should begin with a statement of the student’s interest in the biblical passage. It should end with her own assessment of the passage’s theological claims as determined by exegesis. (Are those claims moral? coherent with other biblical passages? intelligible to today’s reading communities?). This conclusion should also include claims about how the text might, or might not, lend itself to preaching and teaching in particular, well-defined communities of hearers. This is to say, the thesis project is a “round trip,” beginning and ending with the student’s own pressing theological and hermeneutical concerns.

So…What makes it “digital,” if it is?

Stay tuned. In a follow-up post, I will look at the phenomenon of “Digital Storytelling” in the digital humanities, and how it might serve as a platform for “exegesis as storytelling.” In the meantime, what do you think of this way of putting things? Does “storytelling” offer a useful lens, or muddy the waters?

[The Exegetical Thesis as (Digital) Storytelling was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2012/01/30. Except as noted, it is © 2012 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Letters of Reference Check List

So, one of the duties that feature heavily this time of year is “letters of reference”: for Ph.D programs, for scholarships, for employment. (The other duties you know also: students need help planning Winter or Spring courses; students struggling with current course work are looking for life lines; and grading for the current term, so well managed up to this point, has just now spun out of control.)

Sometimes it’s hard to write a good letter. Scratch that: it’s always hard to write a good letter, in the same way that it’s always hard to get to any of the housekeeping that fills itself in around course work, administration, office hours, and (hear my hollow laughter) scholarship. What tends to really make the difference is the student herself, by performing at a high level in the first place, by getting the request in to me nice and early, and by giving me lots of information instead of requiring me to make of the letter a whole new research project. It’s arithmetical: time not spent housekeeping a letter is time spent writing the letter.

Over time, I have developed a “check list” that I return to students who ask me for a letter of reference:

The Check List

  1. Whenever possible, please plan to have given me 30 days to write. If not, give me as much time as possible.
  2. If I have written a letter for you in the past, please remind me of this, telling me when that was and who it was for.
  3. Please include the full name and appropriate title for recipient of letter.
  4. Please include the full address for recipient.
  5. Please include any information materials about the program/scholarship/job/etc, unless that information available clearly on a web page (see next). This can be in electronic form or hard copy.
  6. If the scholarship provider, program, employer, etc. has a web presence, please include an URL for that web site.
  7. Please remind me what classes you’ve had with me, and what term(s) they took place. Or, remind me of our other ties. (Sorry, I really can remember, but if you save me these minutes, I’ll put them to better use for you working on the letter itself.)
  8. Please give me clear instructions for delivery: mail directly, return sealed to you, &c.
  9. Please include a portfolio of work you have done for me in the past. (This may not be necessary, I usually still have anything that we have exchanged in electronic format, but at least check with me about this). Material can be electronic or hard copy.
  10. Please offer me a few sentences on how I can really help you with this. What talking points would be helpful? What are the details of the impression you hope to convey? How does my letter contribute to your overall package?
  11. Always remember that a letter writer’s “stock in trade” is honesty. The very best way to secure good letters of reference is to distinguish yourself from your peers early and often in course work. Thanks.

The whole point is to be able to quickly organize the resources that will inform an interesting, positive, distinctive letter.

What do you think? If you teach, have you composed a similar check list? If you are a student, do you have any thoughts about these kinds of requirements?

[Letters of Reference Check List was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/11/17. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

THATCamp Pedagogy This Weekend (Picking My Feet Edition)

Have you ever been to Poughkeepsie?

I’m on my way this morning to THATCamp Pedagogy (ProfHacker post), an unconference on teaching and learning as an aspect of digital humanities (THATCamp home). The unconference is in Poughkeepsie NY, and is sponsored by Vassar College.

Besides the “unconference” sessions, there are planned “boot camps” on:

  • integrating digital projects into undergraduate courses;
  • teaching with Omeka;
  • the undergraduate’s voice in digital humanities;
  • “So Long, Lecture.”

I will plan to live-Tweet as opportunity allows. On Twitter, you can follow me for the weekend at @anummabrooke to see my Tweets alone, or follow the hashtag #THATCampedagogy (note the single “p”) to follow all Tweets on the unconference.

[Addendum: the hashtags actually used at the unconference have been #THATCamp and #pdgy]

Have you ever been to Poughkeepsie? (Not Safe For Work!)

[THATCamp Pedagogy This Weekend was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/10/14. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Biblical Scholars: Care to be Interviewed?

I have assigned my “Introduction to Old Testament” students to interview a “real biblical scholar.” Students will collaboratively come up with questions for their interviews during October, and conduct their interviews by phone or Skype in early November. They will then write a report on their interview.

Here is how I describe the report to them:

The student will have already prepared and refined a list of questions, independently and in collaboration with colleagues. She will have contacted the subject, arranged the interview, and held the interview, in accordance with instructions.

The report should demonstrate that the student asked questions appropriate to academic biblical studies, while also appropriately inviting the subject to reflect on “essential questions” related to the practice of academic biblical studies. The report should contain an introduction, a list of questions, and a body that communicates the subject’s responses to each question, and a conclusion. The report should show evidence that the interview has prompted the student to “step back” and reflect on her practice of biblical studies both for our course work and longer term.

I would like volunteers to either have a completed PhD, or else be ABD with a full-time academic job in biblical studies.

If you are interested, you can respond here in comments, or else email me at my work address: brooke dot mylastname at garrett dot edu.

Thanks!

[Biblical Scholars: Care to be Interviewed? was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/09/20. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

If You’re Happy and You Know It (biblical Hebrew songs, cont’d)

So, mostly what I’ve been doing is supporting my faculty colleagues in their transition from Blackboard to our new Moodle learning management system.

But, partly what I’ve been doing is continuing with the biblical Hebrew resources in my series, “A Foundation for Biblical Hebrew,” a series that uses communicative learning tools as a supplement to an elementary biblical Hebrew curriculum.

This is, “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Some points I had to work through, and on which I welcome feedback:

  • I decided that being happy and knowing it was best expressed with perfect verbs joined by we-gam.
  • I decided to use the masculine plural pronoun suffixes; sorry, but there’s just no room in the song for a more up-to-date solution to the problem of gender inclusivity. In English, I usually use the feminine singular as the “representative human” (“each student must see to her own work”).
  • “Let your lives show it”: going with the jussive here, naturally, verb-subject.
  • For the commands, I abandon personal pronouns: “clap a palm”; “stomp a foot”; etc. Again, only so much room in the scansion. This—leaving pronominal suffixes off of body parts where they are the objects of verbs—accords well enough with biblical usage (Psa 47:1; cf. Isa 37:22; but Ezek 6:11).
  • Main learning points: body parts, the masculine plural imperative, the masculine plural pronominal suffixes -tem and -kem; the conditional particle ʾim.

Feedback encourages, as always.

[If You’re Happy and You Know It (biblical Hebrew songs, cont’d) was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/09/12. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

The Wise Man Built His House Upon a Rock (Biblical Hebrew)

I’ve worked into biblical Hebrew the children’s song, “The Wise Man Built His House upon a Rock.” I happened to hear the Boy singing it one morning, and I found myself putting most of it into Hebrew while shaving.

I like it as an exercise for my students because it’s simple, and because the vocabulary is so well attested biblically: build, descend, ascend, fall; wise, house, rock. The choices I made about verb patterns could give rise to fruitful conversation about the qatal, yiqtol, and wayyiqtol. It’s good for me, too: I had initially been drawn to the Infinitive Absolute for the concurrent action of rain falling and floods rising, until my search for biblical parallels suggested I was on a wrong track. (I’d be on firmer ground if the two verbs shared a single agent.)

Another song I plan to put into biblical Hebrew is a version of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” While not all of this vocabulary is biblically well-attested, it has value for communicative teaching of Hebrew: it uses words that have high “pay off” for daily usage. (So, I’d be open to songs that use body parts, colors, numbers up to thirty, and everyday objects.)

A third song I have planned is “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” A fourth is a surprise.

How about some revision of “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” with all biblically-attested animals? More advanced would be a revision of, “Hush, Little Baby (the Mockingbird song).”

What other simple children’s songs can you think of that might be put into biblical Hebrew? The song should be fairly short and simple. Ideally, they should EITHER 1) feature vocabulary that is biblically well-attested, OR 2) feature vocabulary that has high pay-off in terms of everyday nouns and concepts like body parts, colors, numerals, and so on.

[The Wise Man Built His House Upon a Rock (Biblical Hebrew) was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/07/05. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

RBoC: Not-Yet-End-of-Term Edition

End of term? Not even Spring Break yet! (Next week, insh’allah and the creek don’t rise).

I have in mind some writing on pseudonymity and nymity in blogging, on a recent Chronicle op piece about keeping quiet in faculty meetings, on ancient language “reading examinations,” and on “feeling like a writer.” This is what I’m doing instead:

  • Facilitating faculty training on our new Moodle learning management system (so long, Blackboard);
  • Arranging to offer similar training to our platoon of TAs;
  • Preparing biblical Greek reading exams for 2nd-year Greek students and Ph.D. candidates;
  • Catching up on a self-paced UWM online certification program in online teaching and learning;
  • Working up a couple of videos for our seminary admissions page;
  • Keeping up on quizzes, exams, and papers for Elementary Hebrew, Elementary Greek, and Intro to OT;
  • Experimenting with a couple of new productivity helps to organize the above and more;
  • Eat, sleep, you know. Maybe try for a haircut.

What do you find this week  among your RBoC?

[RBoC: Not-Yet-End-of-Term Edition was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/04/12. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

Teaching Carnival: Backstory (and New Carnival)

The newest Teaching Carnival (4.8), by Annie Vocature Bullock, is available!

Linking to this edition of the Carnival, ProfHacker Jason B. Jones also fills us in on where it began, and how one can host or contribute to a Teaching Carnival.

It is through the Teaching Carnival that I began to get to know most of the blogs in my Academic Blogroll. (See my right sidebar, underneath my regular Blogroll.) While I don’t love the other Carnival in my life less, it is the Teaching Carnival that most often makes an immediate difference to my daily practices of teaching and writing.

You can always find past Carnivals on the Teaching Carnival Home Page.

[Teaching Carnival: Backstory (and New Carnival) was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/04/04. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

VOST2011: The Visions of Students Today

What do students in Higher Education see today? What do they “see” in the sense of, “What are their visions?” And, what do they literally see from the place in which they are expected to learn?

This is the question posed by Michael Wesch, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. Wesch is well known for his work so far in gathering and analyzing the experiences and voices of higher-ed students in an internet age.

Watch some of the YouTube videos tagged VOST2011. For an educator in Higher Ed, the videos are rather hypnotic, occasionally disturbing, and often illuminating. Take the following as an example:

More upbeat, but not less analytical or thought-provoking, is this piece from a student at University of the Philippines:

In the professorial circles in which I run, I am probably among those more likely to identify with the students of VOST2011: besides being a “distance pedagogies guy” (in progress), I am after all a Gen-Xer, and until a subject matter grabbed me in my Masters work, felt continually disenchanted with and alienated from the structures of education, while still identifying strongly with other students as a peer group. At the same time, however, I am formed by an exceptionally traditional and modernist Ph.D. program, and believe as strongly in “disseminating data” as in facilitating constructivist activities for peer-to-peer learning.

Professors: What do you think of Wesch’s call for submissions, and what do you think of some of the videos? How do they speak, or not speak, to you as educators?

Students: What are your visions today? What do you see from the place where you are expected to learn?

[VOST2011: The Visions of Students Today was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/03/25. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]

The Writing Process: An Interview with a Fourth Grader

Writing is thinking.

Writers know this by hard experience. Writing is not simply reporting on thinking that has already taken place: the thinking that goes on happens by writing, or it doesn’t happen at all. It is this knowledge that brings a writer, again and again, back to a writing process.

In recent years, I have seen—anecdotally—a sharp decrease in understanding about a writing process. Otherwise excellent students can be heard to say, in the last week of the term (out loud, where people can hear), “Yes, I plan to write that 8000 words paper for Prof A  today, tomorrow, and the next day, and then I’ll write that 3000 words for Prof B in the two days after that.” It’s not laziness: you heard me say “otherwise excellent students.” It’s not simply a function of being overwhelmed: compared to earlier years, the students are not taking heavier loads or working longer hours. Rather, my sense is that, on average, fewer students have received, in their secondary and undergraduate education, a grounding in a writing process.

My current syllabus attempts to force a writing process on the students by requiring stages toward a final thesis paper, with students reviewing one another’s work at each stage:

  1. Research report, written to rubrics and submitted for review to three peers;
  2. Thesis statement with plan for defense, written to rubrics and submitted for peer review;
  3. Complete draft, written to rubrics and submitted for peer review;
  4. Final draft.

Early results have been underwhelming, with a sizable percentage of students simply failing to accomplish the research report. Again, this suggests a lack of familiarity with the benefits of a writing process: anyone who has benefitted from a writing process in the past will be eager to embrace it later when given the opportunity. At the same time, students who accomplished the research report have been eager to get to the peer review.

So now you understand why it is that, when my fourth grader, lying in bed and chatting before lights-out, began to talk about “the writing process” as they learn it in elementary school, I leapt for the laptop and began to record. Take ten minutes, and learn how it’s done.

[The Writing Process: An Interview with a Fourth Grader was written by G. Brooke Lester for Anumma.com and was originally posted on 2011/03/22. Except as noted, it is © 2011 G. Brooke Lester and licensed for re-use only under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.]