Monday, September 27, 2004

My Teaching Philosophy
Over the weekend, as part of this course portfolio workshop in which I am participating, I revised my Teaching Philosophy. It now reads as follows:

“You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
The Talking Serpent in Gen 3:4-5 (ca. a very very long time ago)

I was always troubled by God’s harsh response to Adam and Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden. But, given the choice between immortality and knowledge, I’m eternally grateful to Adam, Eve, and even the snake for initiating the process of eye-opening experiences. As one who teaches topics related to the Bible, ancient Near Eastern history, and archaeology, I am both proud and honored, and I take my vocation as a learning facilitator very seriously.

The Bible has been read by more people and has been translated into more languages than any other book in history. Yet, for all its popularity, the Bible is probably the least understood book in the world. Teaching courses pertaining to the Bible allows me to make this influential and amazing work understandable and accessible to non-experts. Many of my publications and projects, such as The Bible for Dummies and BibleDudes ( were written in the attempt to reach this goal. I work hard both in the classroom and outside of it to passionately share my expertise in these important topics.

When others, especially former students, look back on my life, I want to be remembered as a good teacher. Good teachers create effective learning environments, they convey their enthusiasm for the topic, and they are capable of envisioning where the student’s potential will take them instead of focusing on where the student’s ability currently or previously resides. They are respectful, but they also set their expectations high and demand excellence. Good teachers value feedback and are accessible, friendly, and collegial. They are role models. Good teachers want to improve the world, and try even in the most difficult of times to be optimistic. They are honest and feel comfortable in the limits of their expertise. They even say “I don’t know.” I believe that teaching is more than a job, it is a vocation, a life-long journey that emphasizes the very best aspects of humanity. When I can contribute to a student’s eye-opening experience--when I can stand back and survey the classroom as the people are being empowered with the ability to think critically, that is a substantially rich and gratifying reward indeed.

In the classroom, I used to employ a standard lecture format, but I found this didn’t work effectively for me as a teacher. During the past five years I have increasingly incorporated a variety of additional methods. While I continue to lecture at times, I also show many still and moving digital images along with audio clips to spark interest and enhance overall retention and comprehension. I include several student projects in the semester, and have found that these can be entertaining and excellent pedagogical tools. I try very hard to be entertaining in the classroom. Most recently, I have explored teaching methods involving technology in order to facilitate learning. Thus, I helped students develop websites that apply critical methods to the Torah. Last semester I created with my students several digital movies that focused on prophecy as well as the Enuma Elish, and then I put these movies online. This semester I am experimenting by having students post 2000 word entries per week on a blog regarding a project that they came up with that relates to biblical studies and improves the world. For more than a year I have kept a blog about teaching Bible, ancient Near Eastern history, and archaeology, and have received a great deal of feedback from both students and fellow educators.

I want to be a better teacher. I have grown from my successes and failures in my capacity to educate myself and others. I know that in time I will be a different teacher from the one that I am now. I’m not exactly sure what these differences will be precisely, but I will cherish the journey.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Is the Scholarship of Teaching Scholarship? Or Alternatively: To
CAT or Not To CAT?

At Xavier we have this academic institute called CAT, which stands for the Center for the Advancement of Teaching. I am a big fan of this resource, especially the people who work there. I remember my first days at Xavier, before the semester started, trying very hard to get classrooms set up with projectors and sound systems. The director of CAT was extremely helpful in enabling me to use some of their classrooms. Since then, I have taken advantage of many of CAT’s resources. I’ve attended their workshops, and even given a couple myself. When I had to print a camera ready copy of a book that I wrote, I used a printer owned and operated by CAT. I’ve used their facilities to digitize movies, and I’ve used their financial resources through grants to get software and a digital movie camera that I use often. I have worked closely with Bart on a number of projects, including a website called BibleDudes. I use Bart as a resource several times a semester, and he has been extremely helpful. I also worked with Gayna on a couple of projects, and she has been helpful as well. Currently I’m in a Course Portfolio Working group sponsored by CAT. In this group we reflect on teaching and our classes. I have no doubts at all that CAT helps me to be a better teacher.

However, around campus I have heard from many people that I shouldn’t invest so much time and energy in CAT projects. I have heard and notice that there is a wide gap between those who do CAT and those who don’t, and those who do are in the minority. I have heard that my time would be much better spent on so-called “real” research instead of this scholarship of teaching stuff. Maybe it is good advice. With the vast amounts of time that I have invested in creating BibleDudes, for example, I could have easily written and published two academic books. While I have continued to publish in academic peer-reviewed journals, and see the importance of continuing to do so, much of my work lately has focused on making the difficult topic of biblical studies accessible to my students. Thus, I wrote The Bible for Dummies with my students in mind. However, many people in academia see that publication as a joke. But to my students, they are really impressed with this publication, and could care less about the academic books and articles I have written. So, in some ways I am a better teacher for having authored The Bible for Dummies.

The fact is that I have a limited amount of time, and have to be intelligent about how I spend it. I’m sold that the scholarship of teaching is very valuable scholarship. I need to learn from others ways to improve my teaching. Just last week I had some students present a Bible Mystery that answered why Michelangelo’s statue of Moses depicts him with horns on his head. They clearly presented to the class their answer, and it was entertaining and informative. I asked the students if they all understood, they unanimously said yes, and then I randomly called on them to answer the same question. It wasn’t until the 9th student I called on that he/she could articulate the answer. The students and me were all shocked at how hard teaching is. So I realize that teaching is extremely difficult, and that I need to continuously seek out better ways to convey material. I realize that training students to think critically is much more important than memorizing lists. I also will continue to work with CAT, and do my best to let others know that the scholarship of teaching is valuable scholarship.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Some Thoughts From An Internet-Addicted Teacher and A Recommendation to My University
Hurricane Ivan, even though it largely spared New Orleans, has hindered my effectiveness as a teacher. This is because my classes are dependant on the internet, especially blackboard as well as a site that I have set up on a server run by the Center for the Advancement of Teaching. School was cancelled all last week, and the internet was down campus wide at Xavier from Tuesday morning until Friday. This meant I could not send or receive e-mail, which mattered a great deal to me because this is the main way that I communicate with friends and family who were worried, and also how I regularly communicate with editors, publishers, and other professional contacts. This meant I could not check to see on Xavier’s home page whether or not classes would resume Thursday or Friday. This meant I could not receive emails from students asking for clarification or help. This meant that I couldn’t post messages on blackboard about the revised schedule. I think it was Friday evening that the servers came back to life, and I was able to communicate via email to many students (about 40). Several of them commented that they wanted to use the time that school was cancelled to get caught up on their blogs, but the server was down and this prohibited them. Several students evacuated Tuesday and wanted to know if we had classes Friday. Several wanted help with a paper that is due soon, and clarification about the schedule. Blackboard is still down and it is really hurting my classes. Students typically in their emails said they went to blackboard to see announcements, or guidelines for the paper assignment, and couldn’t because the server was down, then they emailed me. I don’t know why the servers went down, perhaps the university felt that the area might flood and they shut off the computers. I very much hope that ITC (information technology center) at Xavier takes a moment and plans for future events such as this. If they could have had one person assigned to come to the university and reset the servers so that they functioned properly, this time that we had off from the hurricane could have been very productive for me and my students. Instead, we lost a lot of momentum and will have to spend much of my class time Monday and Tuesday talking about schedules and administrative issues. Technology could have helped me be a good teacher even with the school being closed this past week, but, it didn’t work, and I wished it would have. So do my students.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Ivan the Horrible
Xavier will be closed Tuesday and Wednesday. I applaud the administration for making this decision, especially as they did it before NOPS, Tulane, and Loyola. It was the right decision in my opinion and showed real leadership. In the past, students complained that Xavier lagged in making hard decisions such as this. I heard students today saying that they were praying that Ivan hit New Orleans. They must really really hate school. Ivan is a pretty huge storm at this point. I am hoping for the best. Either way, I'm staying home with the dogs. Therese will decide tomorrow whether or not she will be leaving with the kids.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Voting and Voting Registration
It turns out that a link to voter registration on my web page inspired the office of University Relations to put the same link in the electronic newsletter that they sent out last week. That makes me feel good. My friend Bart, who let me know about the above link, points out that "If voting changed anything, it would be illegal." He is advocating electoral reform, because this winner take all system of the electoral college and the two party system does not give us a voice. He says "We vote because it's our civic duty. Plus, if you don't vote, you sacrifice bitching rights for the next four years. Of course, your vote matters more in local races, so I hope you won't neglect our Sept. 18th election."

Good advice.
Future Leaders, Bad Attitudes, and Editing Blogs

Many of the journals that my theology 1120 students are keeping online say some pretty negative things about me and this whole project (this blogging project is here).

Interestingly, one student's blog received the following comment from an anonymous viewer:

"I stumbled on this site and am enjoying it. Seems spelling and grammar are kind of a problem with your students. Also seems they are very angry about having to write and think. I wish they would take both the writing and the thinking seriously. These blogs are really scaring me. Seems that many of your future “leaders” have pretty bad attitudes. I’m going to keep an eye on this. I hope in the end they will learn something from the exercise. It looks like a good idea to me. It’s very eye-opening to see how angry your students get when they are asked to do work!"

I sent the students blog and this comment to a few colleagues. One mentioned "Ouch! Are you going to talk about this with your student(s)? Not sure that I disagree with the comments--I didn't read the whole blog, but is displaying student work to the WWW a potentially bad thing?" I too agree with the comments, and feel that we should be honest about the entire enterprise. It highlights and makes public the poor writing skills of our students. The majority of my students are sophomores or freshmen. I've found the maturity level and writing ability goes way up by the time they are juniors and seniors. But, instead of focusing on the negative, check out this excellent blog from a first year freshman.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Hearing Voices
A few weeks ago, I posted the following notice on the announcements section of Blackboard:
I want you to vote. It doesn't matter if it's Democrat, Republican, Green, Peace and Freedom, or whatever. Just vote, especially November 2. All this semester I'll bring to class forms if you are interested in voting in Louisiana. They are simple to fill out, and I'll mail them for you saving you 37 cents. I think it takes 30 days to process in Louisiana, giving you plenty of time to be all set for Nov 2. If you are registered in other states, please consider voting absentee. I can help you figure out how to vote absentee if you would like.
I thought long and hard about this issue. It seems like your vote only counts in the presidential election this year if you live in a swing state, and in some cases, live in a swing county. But it seems like it is one of the few ways to express our opinion that we have left. I live in a country that thinks we are headed in the wrong direction, but prefers someone who sees all issues in a binary fashion. That is to say, even if leaders are making the wrong decisions, the fact that leaders don't see nuances or waiver is appealing to voters. This depresses me, and while I'm close to being apathetic I still try. More important, perhaps, is to try to instill in youth today the idea that their voice can be heard by voting. Thus far I've had two students fill out registration forms and I've mailed them in.
I think I could be severely depressed come November. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Salary and Respect
Before class yesterday, a student was commenting that several teachers in Mississippi quit teaching and started to work at a casino she works at because they made more money. The students seemed shocked that serving drinks or changing money at a casino was worth more to our society than educating 3rd graders. The student said she made $43000 a year at the casino. I told the class that I was paid less money than that by the university I teach at. Their jaws dropped. I tried to explain to them that nobody becomes a professor because they want to get rich. Being a professor is a lot of work, and the rewards are great, but they don't come in paychecks. I explained that I made enough to live off. I don't need fancy cars (I drive a 92 Toyota Tercel) or fancy anything, in fact, everything I am wearing right now came from a thrift store. Anyway, I think the students reacted not by looking up to me and feeling how awesome it was that I was sacrificing to make the world a better place. Instead, I think they respect me less now that they know that. Sort of like they are going to make much more money than me so how can I be justified in asking them to work so hard.