Saturday, February 28, 2004

I've been thinking quite a bit lately about service learning. I have a service learning component in my Theology 1120 course, Introduction to Biblical Studies. I have often been asked what this course has to do with service learning. In the end I have to conclude probably not too much directly. But I still feel that it improves my course, even if there isn't a direct link. I can see how health sciences would benefit more directly from service learning because students could visit aids patients for example and see first hand how the disease effects lives. Or some French students I know have been doing service learning where they volunteer at the French consulate. That makes sense. I am committed to making the world a better place, and so I thought this meant that service learning could help me do that. I also thought that service learning was a great way to make my courses fit with Xavier's mission, which is "the promotion of a more just and humane society" . . . and to prepare "students to assume roles of leadership and service in society." So, about two years ago decided to implement a service learning component into my 1000 level classes. I had students pick a biblical verse that would improve the world and then implement it through a service learning project which involved at least 12 hours of volunteer work. Some students joined me working with Habitat for Humanity. Others volunteered in assisting people fill out forms for housing, with senior citizens, after school programs, etc. This got to be very complicated, and this semester I just decided to have everybody volunteer 8 hours with me at Habitat for Humanity. Mark Gstohl, a colleague and friend of mine, once eruditely observed that when he did service learning, he was aware that clearly there was service, but he wasn't sure how much learning there was involved with this project. For the most part I agree, but I feel there is learning involved, it's just that it doesn't necessarily directly relate to biblical studies. But maybe the Saturday we spend working is more important overall than learning the difference between the Leningrad Codex and the LXX. I've thought about this quite a bit as of late. One thing that I've noticed is that I have a better relationship with the students who volunteered with me at Habitat for Humanity. They've seen me work putting on a roof, and I've seen them work pretty hard as well. I also saw them devour all the lunch before I had a chance to get off the roof. That was nice. That Saturday helped me get to know the students better, and they got to know me also. We could interact outside of the classroom. This is mostly good, but now when I have to give students I like bad grades on papers it is painful to me. Next semester I will be teaching four sections of 1120, and that would mean if I do the same thing with service learning I would have 120 students to look over one Saturday. That's a bunch. Maybe I'll break it into two, or try something different with two sections. Recently I got some certificate from the service learning office here on campus recognizing my work with them. That was thoughtful. That's it for now, I'm off to grade papers arguing whether or not Moses is a good role model.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

I've nearly finished grading the book reports on Halpern's David's Secret Demons. A few amusing typographical errors include:
"Tradition has put David on a peddle stool."
"Halpern challenges these views in David Secretes Demons"
"Red slippery pottery helps to date the 10th century."
"Halpern tries two asses the argument"

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Emails from Frank Cross and David Noel Freedman
Yesterday, Friday the 13th, was lucky in many ways for me. Maybe lucky isn't the right word, but it was a memorable day. I received two emails from two of the greatest Bible scholars of the 20th century. The first was from Frank Cross Jr., now retired from Harvard. He taught most of my teachers. This was the first I had received correspondance from him, and it was exciting for me. He is a hero of mine. Last semester I received the Frank Cross Award from the American Schools of Oriental Research for my book To Your Tents, O Israel!. I wrote Frank Cross and said among other things: "I wanted to contact you and let you know how much the award means to me, as well as how indebted I am to your scholarship. You not only taught my teachers, but your seminal article “The Priestly Tabernacle” started the debate on the tabernacle’s historicity, and a large part of my book related to this. Thank you." Professor Cross wrote back and said many kind things, including "letters like yours warm an old teacher's heart." That was nice. Then I received another email, this time from David Noel Freedman. Professor Freedman was one of my teachers at UCSD, and remains a friend of mine. He wrote to say that he received the manuscript for the atlas that I sent him, and that he was excited about the forthcoming publication. Professor Freedman is editing the manuscript and it will be published with Eerdmans. Freedman and Cross were students together at Johns Hopkins where they studied under William F. Albright. It really made my day to hear from them both, and even more amazing perhaps, that they both sent emails. Professor Freedman still does his incredible work on a typewriter, and for him to be sending email is pretty shocking for those that know him. Sometimes ancient historians/Bible scholars pride themselves on how little they know about technology. How times have changed.
Mardi Gras is Upon Thee
I'm so excited the parades are starting. For me it's the best part of New Orleans. I cherish going to the parades with my kids Kalypso and Gilgamesh, perhaps because I get more throws when they're present. Last night was the first parade in the Uptown area. I couldn't go because I am in a play here on campus. The play is Counselor at Law, and it is a very good one. The director and producer are great, and it is exciting to be part of a production. I did this before my first year at Xavier. I was in A Raisin in the Sun. One student last night was a real pain in the butt. The director cut a small part of a scene because the actors were having a problems memorizing their lines. Anyway, this actor decided that he was going to walk out and not be part of the play. His part is pretty substantial, and this action would have seriously ruined the production. He stayed in the end, after much fighting, but it was disturbing for me to see such arrogance and selfishness and rudeness coming from an 18 year old. A select few of the kids that go to school here are quite spoiled, and they treat the faculty and staff like household servants. Like we're being paid to do whatever the students should desire. I realize it is important to see the potential in students, and to look past all the problems associated with adolescence and see the adults and leaders that they are on the verge of becoming. It is also important not to lose sight of the mission of the university, and to not be obsessed by a few negative elements. I need to be more of a glass half full kind of person, but it is hard sometimes. The demands of teaching in a school like this are very demanding. In addition, trying to maintain a stellar publishing record can exhaust you. It has been nice to see students mature over the years, and most of the students here at Xavier are what makes this place so special.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Victim or Personally Responsible?
I'm having students write a book report on Baruch Halpern's David's Secret Demons. One student wrote something up over the weekend and asked me to look at it. I read it on Sunday, and put my comments on the paper. It wasn't very good. It had very little to do with the book, and had much more to do with this student's experiences with Jesus and Sunday School. Anyway, the book speaks at length about archaeology, and I commented that readers of her book report would be shocked to find that Halpern talks so much about archaeology, as her report doesn't mention it at all. The student was very upset, and commented that she didn't include archaeology because she didn't understand what Halpern was talking about in those sections. This student blamed me for being a bad teacher, and that was why her book report was so bad. This student has never seen me in office hours, or asked questions in section when we covered this material. She never showed up for a section when we went over how to write a book report for this book, and talked about archaeology in detail. Anyway, it got me thinking about the lack of personal responsibility, about how if you are doing bad in a class you don't need to take credit, but rather you can blame the teacher for not being qualified. Good thing this student wasn't taking classes 20 years ago when she would have to conclude that perhaps her grade was based on the work she was doing.

Friday, February 06, 2004

In my upper level course, prophets and prophecy, I sort of have this Jeckyl and Hyde (Cain and Abel might be the better analogy) thing going on with my two sections. One section is perhaps the most enjoyable group I've ever had the priviledge to teach here at Xavier. They are enthusiastic, interested, well prepared, and most importantly, they laugh at my jokes. The other section is, let's say, not so enthusiastic. The first third of the course has been devoted to a fantastic book by Baruch Halpern called David's Secret Demons. In the book Halpern applies historical criticism along with archaeological insights to the story of David. It explores such issues as who really killed Goliath, why the Uriah story might be political hype, and how to remove spin from ancient campaign accounts. It is a complicated book, but we've spent a great deal of time going over it in class. A week from today I am asking students to hand in a five page book report about the book, and from student reaction this morning, you would think I asked them to cut off their right arms. One student even took a poll as to how many students had a hard time understanding the book. Thank God for democracy. I told them I set the bar high, and that I think teaching them critical thinking such as Halpern applies in the book is the most valuable thing that they could learn in a university education. Especially in a world obsessed with Janet Jackson's breast while at the same time government officials, corporations, and a complacent media are spiraling the world ever downwards. That students need to be able to critically examine evidence or lack there of, and that at times it is good to be challenged, as that is how we best learn. I think students here in this MCAT preparation environment are spoon fed lists and formulas that they are asked to memorize, and then they regurgitate these on the exam. I look forward to reading their reviews, and I predict they will be much better than the students think they will be.