Thursday, January 22, 2004

Where to Aim
Having taught at Xavier for almost three years now, I have a pretty good idea where to aim when deciding how much depth we can cover. This of course differs greatly between 1000 level and 2000-3000 level courses. In a 1000 level course, there are at times students who would be top-notch students at Ivy League schools, and students who would have a had a hard time passing my highschool. The gap narrows considerably by the time they are Juniors (or near that level) taking 2000 level courses. This semester, I am teaching one course on the Pentateuch to M.A. students at Loyola University in New Orleans. It seems to be a remarkable school, and last week was my first lecture. I'm not sure though at what level I should be aiming. There are some M.A. students in there, and some undergrads, though everyone seems very bright. It is unusual for me because these are students who want to take the class, not because they have to take the course as part of their core curriculum. So, I'm finding my way slowly. While PowerPoint style lectures work best for me teaching students who aren't so interested at Xavier, as the visual images and movie clips help keep them entertained, I'm not sure they are so good for M.A. level students. Tonight I think I'll try a bit of both. I think I'll use PowerPoint for my lecture about the history of writing and the alphabet. But with some ancient texts we read, such as Sinuhe, Tale of Two Brothers, Gilgamesh, Descent of Ishtar and Kirta, I think we'll have a more traditional discussion. The problem is leading discussions is not my forte. We shall see how it turns out. The class size is small, about 10, which is also a huge plus.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Shocking! An Interested Student
Today something unusual happened. I was leaving class and one of my students seemed happy to see me because he/she wanted to talk about big picture items such as what all this historical criticism stuff related to the Bible means. We had previously discussed textual criticism in class, and talked about how the reality was way more complicated than a belief in the inerrancy of the text. For the reading for the next class, it was from Baruch Halpern's David's Secret Demons. In the text Halpern talks about how much of the sources of 1 and Samuel are spin doctors, about how David might not have killed Goliath, about how much about David's enemies dying and David being innocent seemed "too good to be true." Anyway, it was very refreshing to talk to an interested student, though most of the questions he/she was asking were more appropriate for her priest or minister or rabbi or imam. In any event, I remarked that us having this conversation about big picture topics while strolling across campus on a brisk winter day was so cliche. The student mistakenly thought that meant I thought they were stupid or being inappropriate, while I didn't mean that. Having meaningful discussions with students outside of class happens far too infrequently in my experience at Xavier. I think much of this is because students have to take two theology classes, and when you get right down to it, they could care less about the material. So that was nice for a change.

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Why Trees Love Me
The first week of class for this semester is mercifully over. I'm thinking that having students blog is going to be a smashing success. In fact, this semester I am not going to hand out anything. The syllabus is online, as are all the readings not in the textbook. Study guides, paper guidelines, everything, it is all in blackboard. Also, to try to motivate the students to do the readings I am having them blog answers to specific questions before each class. This is taking the place of in class quizzes that I used to do, and even the blackboard quizzes I did last semester. I have the url's to the student blogs, and I've told them that for each class they need to blog at least 150 words. This weekend I'm swamped. There is an upcoming issue of Near Eastern Archaeology about food in the ancient Near East, and they've asked me to rapidly write 2000 words about beer in the ancient Near East. So that is what I'm up to right now, though I'm blogging because it is easier. Anyway, back to the topic. At least it is interesting. God, what if I had to write 2000 words about the vav consecutive?

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

No Handouts
I'm trying something different in my courses this semester. I'm trying to make it so I can teach without any handouts. Everything, from the syllabus, to study guides, to course documents, to the readings, it is all online in .doc and .pdf format. Maybe I'll save a tree or something, even though most students will wind up printing the stuff out themselves. I'm not quite sure how I'll do the tests yet.
High School Students
I was shocked to learn today that in one of my introduction sections I have several high school students. I'm not quite sure about the details yet, but apparently they are bright and gifted students from New Orleans area high schools that are allowed to take one university course per semester. Usually we in the Theology department recommend that students be Sophomores in order that they have the maturity and background with reading and writing, as all of our courses are reading and writing intensive. Even so, I am intrigued by these gifted students and am curious to see how they'll be able to handle the course. I was trying to remember what life was like for me at the age of 17. Maturity is not a word that comes to mind. I was sort of lacking direction and not too terribly focussed.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Blog on Blog
This semester officially begins in 48 hours. This means as usual I didn't get as much accomplished on the atlas as I'd hoped. I'm close though. This semester I am trying something new. I'm having students blog before every class answers to specific questions. This is to both help them improve their writing and to pay close attention to the texts we're reading. Last semester I had them take online quizzes that I posted on Blackboard. The problem was the questions were multiple choice and I spent so much time in office hours fixing technical problems, not to mention the time involved with creating the quizzes. I think students will complain about the amount of writing they will have to do for my courses. In addition to blogs before each class, I'm assigning four papers five pages in length each. I've set the bar high, and will keep you, my faithful blog companion, abreast of how things are proceeding.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Lately I've been thinking quite a bit about what it means to me to be a member of a theology department at a Catholic University. I was apprehensive when I first arrived here at Xavier, as previously in my life I avoided things related to the word theology. For example, although one of my B.A.s was in Religion, and I chose UCSD for my Ph.D. work because it was a degree in history, as opposed to theology or religion. I guess I always assumed theology was less rigorous academically, and had more to do with singing and praying than with real university erudite stuff. I was of course wrong. Though I feel very differently about theology now that I better understand how it uses critical thinking to try to understand some very lofty questions, I feel I have to fight daily to let others know that what I do is an academic discipline. Other faculty members, students who have not taken our courses, and members of the administration seem to believe that what we do in the theology department is pastoral, and we teach students how to remember the 10 commandments, how to have a nice Catholic marriage, and remind them that Jesus wants them to pray the Rosary. From what I understand the theology department here used to be that way. Thank God it isn't now. I don't feel I would have these problems if I was in a department of history, or even in a department of religious studies. I also wouldn't have this problem if I taught in Europe where people have a better understanding of the academic rigor involved in theology, or even in America 100 years ago. Unfortunately, at times I'm probably a more difficult professor than I should be because I'm trying to overcompensate for a false perception. How crazy is that? Also people think I'm holy because I'm a theology professor. People from New Orleans seem to be more spiritual than other cities in America where I've lived. And this association with theology=holy is a dangerous thing, as it is powerful and can work for or against you. For example, if a student attacked me, people would assume it was a greater crime because not only did they attack a professor, but a THEOLOGY professor, as if they attacked one of Jesus' disciples or something. But if I did something wrong, I would have greater distance to fall from my false pedestal of sacredness. Sort of like William Bennett or even Rush Limbaugh. However, they convinced themselves and others that their morality and they as people were better than others. Though, I make no such claims, and am held in this higher perception simply because I teach in a theology department. I also have students come to me with their personal problems because they think I have a direct hotline to heaven. Once I had a young man come to my office who said he grew up in New Orleans and was about to enter a hospice where he would most likely die from HIV/AIDS. He wanted to know about what would happen to him in the afterlife. I have no training in counseling about such matters, so I told him Jesus hated his guts and he would rot in hell. No I didn't. I told him to go to Campus Ministry as they were better suited to help him. Anyway, these are some thoughts I've been having about theology.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Number of Majors and Work Load
Recently the theology department has been accused of not working as hard as other departments because we have less majors.What follows is an edited excerpt from a letter I just sent.
It is true that the Theology Department has less majors than other disciplines here at Xavier. In fact, I have one advisee, Roy DuBose, an exceptional student who is double majoring in Theology and Biology. My work with him goes well beyond making sure he is taking the correct classes, as I talk with him frequently about how his academic and personal lives are progressing. Roy and I are even preparing a joint academic presentation about the Tabernacle in its Late Bronze Age historical context at a regional meeting for the American Schools of Oriental Research. However, I don't feel that the number of advisees I have has anything at all to do with how much work I get done. I am in my office most week days from 7AM until 6PM, take more work home with me, and as the police department will tell anyone (as they need to unlock the door), I am here nearly every weekend. Most of my time is spent on class preparation and grading papers, but I also serve on several committees. Finally, I spend all this time during the week in hopes that I can get caught up to allow me to continue to write on weekends, as I am in the midst of finishing a major biblical atlas in addition to several articles, book reviews, and websites. I would bet that there is nobody on campus, with the exception of Dr. Francis and some others in the administration, who puts as many hours into the academic betterment of Xavier than myself.

Friday, January 02, 2004


I read through my student evaluations a couple of days ago and I've been thinking quite a bit about these and what they mean for my career. They were high in every category, though one question was lower than usual. For the question "My recommendation of this instructor to other students will be:" my average was a 3.67 out of 5, whereas usually I score well above 4 in all categories. A closer look at the evaluations showed a few students rated me in this question as a 1/5, and went on to write in the comments section that they were upset that they had to take two theology courses as part of the core curriculum.

Here at Xavier they say they take the student evaluations very seriously. I do as well, and even create my own evaluation forms that better address each class. But some concerns I have about the Xavier evaluations include:

1. A couple of students can bring the numerical average down dramatically, especially when the sample size is 60.

2. I think I recognized the handwriting from a couple of students who had terrible attitudes all semester, and some of them were involved with issues of plagiarism. Is it fair that we're evaluated as teachers by these students who respond by marking the lowest rating boxes on all questions and then write about how they shouldn't have to take two theology courses as part of the core curriculum. These students do not want to be there in the first place, and this plays a big role in the evaluations instead of accurately evaluating the course. That is to say, I am being punished because Xavier requires two theology courses.

3. In some respects the evaluations are not worthwhile because I ignore them to a point. For example, several students again wrote, as they always do, that I require way too much reading. This I would estimate shows up on about 80 percent of the evaluations. But I refuse to lower my standards. I think if I changed my courses to fit the student's desires in this category the homework assignments would consist of about 20 minutes worth of reading for each class period. However, in the theology department, or at least according to the catalog, students should be spending about 2 hours outside of class preparing for each hour in class. This means 6 hours of reading per week for each 3 credit course.

4. I think one reason student evaluations are weighed so heavily for promotion and tenure here at Xavier is because faculty by-and-large don't publish or do research as much as they do at other schools. Thus, in the absence of books and articles to evaluate, student evaluations have to take on a bigger role.

5. Weighing student evaluations heavily might lead to grade inflation. I think more thought needs to be given to looking at evaluations alongside grade distribution. Popular teachers who give out several A's might be popular because of that. My grades tend to be lower. Most of my grades are B's and C's, with a few D's, F's, and I would estimate 7 or 8% of my students get A's.

6. I doubt the evaluations can accurately reflect the quality of teaching. I can imagine scenarios where excellent teachers get poor evaluations because they are challenging, or because if they teach a small class with say 10 students, that particular semester they got 4 students with terrible attitudes.

In the end, I do pay attention to some things on the evaluations, and ignore other items (such as the complaint about too much reading). I don't know how much I learn though. Almost every change I was planning on making in my courses before reading the evaluations was brought up in one or more evaluation. So maybe they act like Rorschach tests, and tell us exactly what we want them to tell us.