Thursday, October 28, 2004

Pornography and a Public Blog

Something interesting and unexpected is going on with my Theology 1120 blog project. Yesterday when I got in my office I had a phone message to call the Vice President of Student Services here on campus. I did, and he said that a student of my Theology 1120 course had come to his office complaining that I had sent the student an email that asked them to visit a very graphic pornography site. "Wow" I said, puzzled by all this. He said it was sent by "A Bible Log." Well, a day later, it turns out that someone in the world posted a comment on the student's blog entry that was a link to a pornographic site. When people post comments, it automatically emails the student who posted the entry. So the student gets this email from someone known as, with the subject [Theology 1120 Blog] Comment: "The Bible" that has a link to a porn site. The student apparently didn't understand this, and when they got an email that said something about Theology 1120, they assumed that it was from me. So I spent the morning explaining to this university administrator that I of course didn't send the email, that we have this blog project, blog is an online journal=weblog, that it is public and people can post to it. All the while imagine how embarassing this was for me. First, I'm curious who all the 1,624 people are that got addresses before adult-free 1625. Second, anonymity seems to bring out the worst in people. So, I still want to keep the blog public and let anyone who wants to post a comment, but now I need to have my students go in and delete the inappropriate stuff. Is that what we've come to? Leaving porn links on blog entries? I know exactly what will happen now. So, funny anonymous readers, go ahead and put a comment with a link to pornography on this entry. I'll do my best to delete them. Let the games begin!

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Living in Red, Voting Blue

First let me say that I’m not sure this blog is the proper forum for my political views, and I have always made somewhat of an effort to keep my own personal opinions regarding politics (and even religion) out of the classroom. I will on occasion in class pose questions related to politics, or make analogies between events in the ancient Near East and the Bible to modern political issues. For example, both Bill Clinton and now Bill O’Reilly come up when we discuss the Ten Commandments, and I at times compare Akhenaton’s moral/religious certainty as well as his public isolation in Akhetaten Egypt with the policies of George W. Bush and his frequent escapes to his ranch in Crawford Texas. I try to be fair, and funny, and interesting, and when students ask me about my political affiliations, or who I will vote for, I tend to say that the classroom is not the place for me to talk about my personal views, but if they are curious, they can ask me in my office and I’ll tell them.

And so, back to this blog. I have at times in the past posted entries related to politics, and then deleted them a day later when I reflected on the issue and decided to keep this blog restricted to matters involving teaching. But now the most important election of my lifetime, an election that will have profound ramifications in the entire world, is a mere seven days away and the very different candidates are in a statistical dead heat. Most of the voters in this country are not informed on the issues. Most people still believe that Sadam Hussein had something to do with the planning of 9/11. Most people believe that Islam is a religion that has at its fundamental core a desire to destroy America and all of its values. Most people don’t agree with the president and feel we are going in the wrong direction but they like his moral certainty, sort of like supporting men who don’t ask for directions. Over the weekend I saw a T-shirt with an eagle on it, and it had the following text: “Listen world: either respect these colors or change your flag!” How did we come to this? I was upset four years ago, and still believe that a small group of oligarchs, including five Supreme Court justices with political motives, stole the election from the American people. I felt and continue to feel disenfranchised. But I, like many people, felt that Bush 43 had so little support that his agenda would be modest and he would make an effort, like he did in Texas (I heard), to unify and not divide. I found all of his "Bushisms" amusing, and so I felt I’d laugh for four years and then the world would move on. But it didn’t work out that way.

Traveling abroad, even though US foreign policy was harming the world and has been for years, especially the Middle East, I at least had the excuse that the American people did not elect this administration, that they stole it, and that I like most American people wanted to improve the world. I find myself longing for the days when this country was run by people like Nixon, Reagan, and Bush 41. I hated their policies, but at least they listened, made informed decisions, and compromised when necessary. They didn’t boast about how non-intellectual they were, nor did they wear their religion on their sleeve. They had a greater understanding of the world. I fear that this administration, especially George W., sees the world in binary terms, does not understand nuance, and acts repeatedly without studying an issue simply because he is confident that Jesus is behind him. Well, as a Bible scholar I can say flat out that Jesus never would have advocated an invasion of Iraq. Jesus would not have even wanted a war in Afghanistan. I believe that Jesus would have been a big fan of the UN. The current administration is so top heavy that the decisions are made first, and then the “facts” are spun to find support for their decision. I, as a citizen of the world, am terrified at the prospect of four more years of this group. Preemptive wars, the very real possibility of a draft, the privatization of social security, the reduction of civil liberties, the increased isolation of the U.S., and ever increasing hatred around the world of my country and its citizens. I don’t feel safe.

So I’m voting for John Kerry. Bush’s bid for reelection focuses solely on painting Kerry as weak, not on Bush’s record for the past four years. I don’t agree with all of Kerry’s positions. I know people who feel that this is selling out, because he doesn’t reflect ALL of my opinions on the issues. Four years ago I voted for Nader. I understand that the two party system is flawed, and the electoral college does not work. I live in Louisiana, a red state with 9 electoral votes, with current polling estimates of Bush 50%, Kerry 32%. So why not vote for a third candidate when this state is clearly going red? I don’t believe this election will be over November 2. I believe that I owe it to the world to do my part to make sure that even if Bush wins fairly or otherwise, that nationwide the other candidate had more popular support. I don’t feel Kerry will bring peace to the Middle East, because the key issue is the question of the Palestinians and Israel. Neither candidate will address this sufficiently. But I feel that the chances that we will invade Iran are much less with Kerry in office. I believe that many issues that desperately need reform such as education, the economy, and health care will be better in the hands of Kerry. So for me it is not a perfect vote, and if it were McCain, Powell, or Giuliani running against Kerry, and I lived in a red state, I would probably vote third party. But not this year. Not with the stakes so high.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

1120 Blog Purpose Manifesto

The following has to do with a 2000 word per week blog assignment for my Theology 1120: Intro to Biblical Studies Course. The actual postings from students can be seen here.

Before I get all preachy, first let’s revisit what I wrote initially in the criteria and purpose section of the blog:

Several biblical authors and subjects sought to improve dramatically the worlds in which they lived. Similarly, this project asks you to make the world a better place by identifying a problem and implementing a solution. Along the way, you will reflect on how various biblical and non-biblical authors have addressed similar issues. Additionally, in keeping with course goals, this project seeks to improve your ability to think critically and to improve your writing. Your blogs (an abbreviation for web logs) will provide a published documentation of your thoughts, efforts, and means by which you personally improved the world.

I want this Blog “manifesto” to clarify my purpose. The course is called Introduction to Biblical Studies. So, some of you have asked, what on earth does working to better the world and then having to write about it have to do with the course? Let’s look at some concrete biblical examples from this week’s reading. The prophet Hosea tried to get the people of Israel to change their ways before their destruction in 721 BCE. To symbolize Israel’s religious infidelity, he married a prostitute, and when she cheated on him, Hosea forgave her and took her back. While I’m not asking any of you to marry a prostitute, I am asking you to think deeply about what Hosea was doing. He identified a problem in the world, settled on a project to help fix the problem, and then he (or one of his scribes) wrote about it. He wasn’t living passively in his world, and he wasn’t writing for you 2,700 years later. He was angry with injustice and evil and tried to take action. Then let’s look at the case of Jeremiah. He didn’t sit in the proverbial “Ivory Tower” and passively watch as morality in Jerusalem declined and his country eventually fell to the Babylonian army. Instead, he got angry and tried to change the world. I asked you to read Jeremiah 20, in which we read how much Jeremiah suffered to right the wrongs that he saw in his world, and then he wrote about it, trying to change the world for the better. Trust me when I say that all of us put together, volunteering our time and energy and writing 2000 words per week, don’t even come close to the level of suffering that Jeremiah endured to improve his world. Later in the semester we’ll look at Jesus, who I consider to be the best example in history of a person who tried to improve the world through action. We could sit in the classroom all semester and read the New Testament, and think about What Would Jesus Do? But my understanding of Jesus’ message is not to memorize facts, figures, dates and quotations, but to engage the world—to make a real effort to improve our lives, to fight for the exploited, and to right wrongs globally. So, these are my thoughts about what your blog projects have to do with biblical studies. I hope that through the course of the semester you’ll reflect on this.

Additionally, if nothing else, these projects will make you better writers. I could talk all semester about pronouns and subject-verb agreement, but in my experience the way you become a better writer is by writing. So I asked that you compose 2000 words per week throughout the semester. Also, I should add that these projects fit well with Xavier’s mission statement, which says “The ultimate purpose of the University is the promotion of a more just and humane society.” And that is just what we are doing with our projects.

I know from many of your midterm evaluations and comments on your blog entries that you feel that you can’t really improve the world because “what good seriously can a 19 year old do?” I fight apathy every day of my life, and it is difficult. But I would add that none of us are capable of seeing all of the ramifications of our actions. If just one of these 120 projects even slightly improves the world, then it will be worth it as far as I’m concerned. I think back on the people that made a real difference in my life. Some of them I don’t even know their names. They were role models who I encountered briefly, and they have no idea who I am or that they impacted my life, but through their efforts they made me a better person. I believe that the world is rapidly becoming a more unjust and cruel place. Never in my lifetime have I seen such greed, corruption, and moral relativism. But rather than throwing in the towel and giving up, I want to do something about it. I love my job as a university teacher, and feel that empowering students with the ability to be critical thinkers is in the end the best use of my life. You should be able to analyze information and think on a higher level than the sound bites and misinformation that we see more and more. But I also want you to not simply think critically and theorize about what ought to be done. I want you to do it.

So, that’s my motivation, and that is the best I can do at the moment to explain my rationale for this project. If you have any thoughts about it, or questions, or suggestions, I would love to hear from you in the comments section below. You can either identify yourself or be anonymous.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Blog Evaluation Survival and Why Laptop Computers are Like Cowboy's Horses

Oh man that was a rough weekend. I read every single posting on my students' blog, and evaluated them. Many were behind in the postings, but overall I was impressed with what my students came up with. Again, they picked a problem in the world and this semester they are trying to fix it. Some are addressing AIDS, some abuse, some illiteracy, some the high cost of pharmaceuticals, some environment, some political and news ignorance. One student is even trying to increase critical thinking here on campus. I wanted desperately, while my mind was still focused on these postings, to put together a summary web page and load it on the server. BUT, I have this temporary loan computer with only a few of my files. My REAL computer has been missing for the past week, as the disk player is broken. Anyway, so I have all these lists about what to do when my real computer is back. Almost all of my files are backed up on an external hard drive, so I'm not freaking out about that. But, the files are all over the place and I know from personal experience life is simpler with files on one computer, not two. Over time computers become so personalized. My calendar, years of email, all sorts of stuff about my life are on that beloved 15" Powerbook G4 of mine. I spend more time with it than I do with my kids probably. I know that's sad. Anyway, that G4 of mine, I call it Thoth (after the Egyptian deity of scribes/learning), and Thoth has been very loyal to me over the past year and a half. I liken my relationship to Thoth to a cowboy's relationship to his horse. Not that I'm saying if I jumped out my window while bad guys were shooting at me that Thoth would be below to catch me and we would ride off together guns a blazing. But, I know that with Thoth I could give the bad guys' email addresses to all those friends in Africa who have all this money and just want a place to get it out of the country. But now, darn it, Thoth is sick, and I wish my buddy all the best. Godspead little Thoth!

Friday, October 15, 2004

48 Hours of Blog Evaluation-God Help Me!

Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. So I asked my 110 students this semester to write 2000 words per week and post it on a course blog. They did, and now that midterm grades are due next week, this weekend I will spend virtually every waking hour evaluating each students work. I think I'll divide the grades into two categories. One grade will be for the project that they came up with to improve the world. I'll be grading this section on the scope and duration of the solution that they came up with, and give them feedback on ways that I think their project could be improved. Secondly, I will give another grade based on the quality of writing and their effort, that is to say if a student posted each week 2000 words to the blog, and by and large avoided grammatical mistakes, than I'll give this section an A. I'm not sure yet how I'll grade the section if they are missing postings. We'll see. Anyway, while you blog readers are out enjoying the weekend, which by the way should be great weather in New Orleans, think of poor me, reading, reading, evaluating, and reading. I just figured out that 110 students multiplied by 2000 words is 220,000 words x 8 weeks = 1,760,000 words. I'll let you know later about some of the best projects.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Midterm Evaluations

After attending a workshop by CAT (Center for the Advancement of Teaching), I decided to try midsemester evaluations. I did these years ago and found them to be a valuable resource. I put my evaluation on blackboard. It has 10 questions and the students rate me with a number as well as getting a chance to provide feedback in essay format. After the students give me their feedback I will respond. I think it gives me and the students a chance mid-semester to look again at the course objectives and for me to better explain teaching my methods.

Friday, October 08, 2004

1st Impressions and Syllabi

Today in the course portfolio working group we discussed syllabi. I brought up something that I heard at a Wabash seminar, that students make up their minds about professors in the first 15 minutes or so. One of the Wabash seminar leaders, Professor Keith Naylor, informed me that he never spends the first day of class going over the syllabus. I found that idea very intriguing. I’m bored out of my mind reading the syllabus to the students, the students are bored, some even insulted (justifiably in my mind). So this year I skipped the syllabus entirely, and started the first class reading as a group Lamentations and discussing what happened in Jerusalem in 586 BCE and how this was the most important event in the Hebrew Bible as far as I was concerned. I simply let them know how to access my syllabus online (my website and blackboard). I also have them post the first week on their course blogs their thoughts about my course commitments and whether or not they can meet these goals. That reserves class time for more important things in my mind. This way, I hit the ground running and let the students know that I very much want to make the most out of every minute of class time. I was very happy with the way this worked out and will continue this practice. Students mentioned in their blogs how surprised they were with this method of teaching, but in the end I think it worked very well.

Letter from Former Student

I just got an email from a former student thanking me for being their teacher a few years ago. They are now a chemist by the way. In her letter she said:
"Dr. Homan, u helped me to restore a part of my life that I had turned a way from my last few years at Xavier. U made me read the bible for class. This assignment helped me get my spiritual life together, which allowed me to fix other aspects of my life and find happiness."
That was nice. Every now and then I take some time and write letters to people who have influenced my life. Only I spell Bible with a capital B and write out You. God, I'm so freaking anal retentive!

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Better Than Me: Motivate?!?
My Intro to Biblical Studies exams are challenging because of the amount of material that they cover. I try to come up with a balance between basic biblical literacy and critical thinking. While I still require research papers and now I have students blog 2000 words per week, I find for the biblical literacy portion the standard exam format with identifications works well. I also have a critical essay section as well as a section called “Who Says to Whom in What Book of the Bible.” Yesterday I graded the first exam for two sections, and many scored in the 40-60 range unfortunately. I’m not motivating these students it would seem. But one student scored a 97, which I found to be pretty amazing. I was never that focused as an undergraduate. She was very well prepared, and obviously had put a great deal of work into studying. I wish more of my students could be so motivated. I’m curious about ways beyond grades that I could find to motivate students to work hard. Having students think I am funny, nice, pleasant, demanding with very high expectations: none of this seems to be working. My best teachers always made me want to work harder, and I was so afraid of letting them down by turning in inferior work. I want to be that kind of teacher. It’s difficult in a core class, in that about 3/100 are theology majors, and most of the others resent that they have to take two theology courses. They are especially upset that I ask them to do so much work. So beyond demanding so much work, I want to find ways to make the students motivated to do well in my course. Any ideas?