Monthly Archives: June 2009

More Link Dump

It’s easier to point to other pages than to write out thoughtful (or facile) blog entries, so because today is Packing Day — in which the professional packers come to finish off what Margaret, Jennifer, and Pippa have not already done — I’ll simply point to other people’s thoughtful entries. Well, another reason is that the topic I most want to blog about is still embargoed.
So, today’s postings at Inside Higher Education include several noteworthy columns. Evidently the Obama Education Department wants to underwrite online courses at the high school and community college levels, which would then be “owned” by the feds and would be free and open to all. (I infer that this means “not for credit.”)This makes tons of sense to me; it’s the sort of educational initiative that I’ve been pushing for all along. “For credit” is a cost-intensive system that’s easily open to abuse; “not for credit” depends on the student’s own interest, makes available the skeleton of guidance toward deeper understanding, and can persist without constant intervention for evaluation and updating. I just hope that their express interest in “vocational” course offerings doesn’t tie the courses to transient topics and phenomena (“Introduction to Cobol”).
In related news, the government is announcing a study that shows that online (or, especially, mixed-format) courses produce superior results compared to face-to-face courses. Big caveat: if I read the article correctly, the more precise reult of the study is that the amount of time a student puts into their studies — which turns out to be greater in online courses and mixed courses. My takeaway is not so much that digital trumps carnal, but that effective teaching requires that teachers elicit voluntary interest from their students. If you interest students in the topic under examination, and demonstrate to them that they can learn what they want to (at least, some of it) if they put the time in, they will be more likely to put the time in. Online courses tend to have more elastic schedules, so that students have access to more time in which to pursue their interest. The principle doesn’t favor online education; the contextual framework for teaching favors online. In an all-face-to-face setting, such as in many conventional schools, teachers will be able to amplify the effectiveness of their teaching by eliciting willing participation in study — not a news shocker, but well worth remembering anyway.
I was interested by the article on administrators who deal with campus crises mostly because it supports the research of Gary Klein on “intuition” and decision-making, and hence coheres with my arguments relative to the Aristotelian practical syllogism, signifying practices, and ethics, interpretation, and pretty much everything. The administrators on whom the column reports knew the rules and procedures well enough, but they made their decisions based on experience, intuition, and a sort of pattern-recognition that enables them to spot the key relationships and mechanisms that would bring about the best results. Plus luck.
Last, a chain of links led me to this powerful comics-form comparison of Orwell and Huxley, with acknowledgment to Neil Postman. I’m not uncritical of Postman and his technological Cassandrism, but the comic makes its worthwhile point quite vividly.

If It’s Saturday This Must Be Chaos

I don’t have time to go over the past few days in detail, but I’m back in Durham, where the family is packing up our temporal goods to go into storage, and thence to begin our Summer Of Transformation. I anticipate being able to make a major announcement sometime next week, but so far there’s nothing definite for me. Margaret will teach in Baltimore again next year, our possessions will have their base camp in our friend Sarah’s garage, and Pippa will begin her formal art training at Interlochen.
But the most important thing, and I’m sorry I was too distracted to post about it on the day, my long-time blogging friend Dorothea Salo is closing up shop at Caveat Lector. It sounds as though she’ll continue her online presence at a different venus — at least we may hope so — but CavLec will begin accumulating dust and cobwebs.
Dorothea taught me (and many of us) a lot from her insight into ebooks, mark-up, digital librarianship, repositories, and women in technology — among only a few topics. We haven’t been trading links and comments as often as we once did, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for whatever Dorothea does next. I have a lot left to learn from her. Thanks, Dorothea, and I’ll miss CavLec. (Regards to David; by the way, I have this ring….)

En Passant

Lest anyone suspect that I’ve gone hiking with Mark Sanford: that’s a good guess, but not exactly correct. Of the last few days when I wasn’t blogging, I spent some time fretting and editing and daydreaming and pondering my presentation for tomorrow morning, and some (not enough) hanging out with Margaret, and the last twenty-four hours or so traveling and getting situated for my talk/interview. I’m about to head out to scout the terrain this afternoon, so that tomorrow morning I won’t have to puzzle out the pertinent locations de novo while also trying to get to my appointments on time.
Having a lovely time; wish you were here. (And I found out that there are no mailboxes in Newark Airport, perhaps none in U.S. airports altogether; I wrote some notes on the first leg of my flight and went to mail them, when a somewhat condescending official advised me to not even try. I suppose this makes us all more secure, but I’d want to hear from Bruce Schneier before I accepted that premise.)

Knowing With Your Body

I like the article I posted yesterday, but even though it points to ways that we communicate and interpret Scripture non-verbally, it remains a predominantly cognitive, abstract exercise. This afternoon I delighted to read Dave Rogers’ account of training for his first marathon; I was rooting for him all along as I read, and when at the end he laid out the punch line —

When I left my condo last Sunday, my kitchen sink had been clean for seven straight days. Prior to that, I would clean it from time to time, but it would always accumulate a collection of dirty dishes, food scraps, water stains and the occasional beer bottle cap. I’d come home from work and see it and feel rotten about it, but always sort of regard it as something that was just “too hard” to keep up with. Well, maybe not anymore. Commitment and consistency. Embodied knowledge that we have within us the means to achieve the things we wish to achieve, if we choose to commit to them. Right now, I’m committed to a clean sink.

— I was wishing I had put a more vigorous, explicit emphasis on the embodied aspect of sound biblical interpretation. It’s très à la mode to say, “You have to be the change you want to see in the world,” but Gandhi was applying to direct social action a principle that applies every bit as much to sound theology or sound Scriptural interpretation. If you aren’t doing your biblical interpretation with your whole body, you’re probably not on the right track (or, “you’re interpreting the Bible sure enough, but your interpretation is that the Bible doesn’t matter”). And if you try to make your whole body accountable for an interpretation of the Bible, it’s going to change the way you read as much as it affects your presence in the world and your relations to all creation round you.
Well done, Dave — congratulations!

Interpreting the Bible in a Sea of Signs

Late draft for an article published in the Yale Divinity School alumni/ae magazine Reflections, Spring 2008, pages 53-57. I reckon this draft differs from the final copy in some respects, but the differences should be slight.
I came to Yale as a refugee from the early days of the computer graphics industry. Business had been good, and would eventually get much better, but as soon as I set foot on campus and heard the clatter of late-summer typewriters settling the academic debts of spring semester, Yale drew me into the musty delights of the Higher Criticism, three different library classification systems, and Coffee Hour.
   Once I settled into my seminary studies, however, I discovered that my fascination with biblical studies engendered a baffling problem: the more I learned in my biblical courses, the less my studies seemed to enhance my ministry and preaching. Like any good academic apprentice, I tried at first to redouble my efforts. That only aggravated the problem; I knew more and more, but the technical apparatus of my learning always seemed to stand between me and the fluent, compelling, preach-able biblical theology for which I thirsted. My increasing technical expertise did not help me inhabit and proclaim the traditions I was studying.
   My teachers at Yale Divinity encouraged me to keep chipping away at this complex of problems: in biblical theology with Brevard Childs, literary theory with Richard Hays, postmodernism with Cornel West, among others. Gradually, the puzzle pieces came together. Their inspiration and instruction helped me articulate a way of understanding interpretation that produced theologically rich readings of scripture, but also allowed for a nuanced, historical-critical approach to the Bible.
   My way forward involved learning to explore the Bible and Christian tradition without participating in the ceaseless power struggle over whose interpretation is authoritatively right and whose is wrong. This means sidestepping — recuperating from — a fixation on the illusory authority of claiming the “correct” interpretation. I offer instead a way of thinking about interpretation that still involves deliberation about better and sounder interpretations, but without pretensions to decisive interpretive authority. This proposal is unlikely to assuage our fiery passion to claim privileged possession of biblical correctness. But it may afford the incalculable advantage of clarifying the bases of our interpretations, and the bases of the relation of our interpretations to our dogmatic conclusions, our ecclesiology and our ethics.
Continue reading Interpreting the Bible in a Sea of Signs

Well, Look At That

I was skimming the Yale Divinity School newsletter for alums, and came across a long list of awards that the Associated Church Press had bestowed upon YDS publications. Toward the end of that litany I learned that my article “Reading the Bible in a Sea of Signs” had won an ACP Award of Merit (i.e., second prize) in the category of “Theological or Scholarly Article.” I’m pleased, over and above the predictable jolt to my vanity, since I’ve detected relatively few signs that more than one or two people actually read the piece (it’s not available online through Yale; I may go ahead and reproduce a version of it here).
So I’m hanging onto second prize in a minor award category for all I’m worth, because we’re hip deep into moving, and moving is something for which I will never receive a prize of any sort. I hate moving, I don’t cope well with moving, and all the more so as (a) this is the third or fourth move we’ve made in the past three years (depending on what you count), (b) we’ll have to move stuff again next year anyway, and (c) we don’t yet know where we’ll put down our bags even for the coming year. This renders me pretty useless for the burdens of moving, which then fall the more heavily on Margaret, whose strain makes me feel worse, and besides, where will we even live next year, et cetera.
All that being said, I’d rather go through the move while holding second prize in this theological beauty contest, than without. Thanks, ACP!

What Makes Exegetical Research Hard?

[Part Five of this series: one, two, three, four]
Granted, then, that the practice of exegesis is complicated by confusions concerning what the term itself names, concerning the expectations that readers bring to exegesis, concerning the genres in which to express interpretive proposals, and concerning language and what we do with it — granted all those complications, exegesis also involves complications from its involvement with research. Biblical scholars frequently overlook this point, since (in order to become biblical scholars) they often have an insatiable appetite for research; but more typical individuals find research daunting, confusing, sometimes frustrating, sometimes quite unpleasant. Some simply do not have a temperament suited to biblical research, and others might be inclined to pursue research but don’t have an aptitude for the various aspects of research. Sometimes barriers to access to reference materials impede students’ research, and sometimes deadlines (and poor planning) limit the amount of research someone can accomplish. Usually, students undertake exegetical research mainly to satisfy other people’s requirements and expectations, rather than out of a vivid desire to learn; that renders the whole exercise less engaging, more mechanical, than pursuits that draw learners into voluntary commitment to inquiry. Few people have devoted much time to the kinds of activity that exegesis requires; the very unfamiliarity of exegetical research renders the whole activity less satisfying. So one of the fundamental elements of exegesis — research into possible appropriate interpretations — calls for students to operate with underdeveloped skills, in unfamiliar environments, with limited time, at purposes they don’t care for, regardless of their disposition and personal strengths (or weaknesses).
There’s not much we can do about temperament and aptitudes at the start, but it helps us who teach biblical studies to recall that we have been selected as the sort of people who wouldn’t have much trouble with exegetical research, whereas our students include a varied spectrum of learners. Even among those who ardently want to know more about Jesus (or Isaiah, or the Holy Spirit, or whomever), not everyone wants to learn by looking through a stack of books, searching a database for relevant articles, reading, note-taking, comparing, and so on. When we add the consideration that some of these students have already received discouraging feedback on exegetical research (often for reasons they don’t fully understand), their reluctance to throw themselves into detailed investigation of the scholarly interpretations of a given point seems eminently justified.
Beginning exegetes will find further pitfalls in the very topics they’re assigned to study. The topics of exegetical assignments often seem utterly fascinating to scholars, but remote and baffling to students. Perhaps the assignment touches on a nuance that beginners can’t imagine caring a whole lot about, or perhaps the assignment invites attention to a puzzle that only stands out to an observer who already knows the material well, or perhaps the assignment addresses a plainly puzzling or controversial passage that defies explanation at a beginning level. Perhaps the assignment is left open to the students’ choice, leaving them up in the air about what might constitute an appropriate topic. For all these reasons and more, students may feel unmotivated to pursue their research with much energy.
Any lack of motivation will certainly aggravate the fact that research materials are not universally available for handy perusal. Many students don’t live conveniently nearby a research library (and ordinary public libraries typically hold relatively few useful reference works in biblical studies). Even when one can get to a research library, it takes effort to shuttle from databases and catalogs to the shelves that hold books, and sometimes books are misshelved, and sometimes libraries distribute their volumes in confusing ways. When I went to seminary, the library operated collections with three different cataloging systems. The desired books may be circulating, or on reserve, or they may not be in a particular library’s collection. Exegetes who conduct their research online may encounter obstacles gaining access to copyrighted material, if they aren’t associated with a subscribing institution, or if their institution’s privileges do not include off-site browsing. And all this is aggravated by the likelihood that good exegetical research will require multiple trips to the library, refining and adding and abandoning and reviewing various lines of interpretive inquiry. (I will not even describe the user interfaces of some prominent catalog-search software systems, which seem to have been desgned by Mordac, The Preventer of Information Services.) Even if students only perceive themselves to have limited access (see: “lack of motivation” above), the effort of conducting research will diminish the productivity of their research sessions and the likelihood that they will conduct follow-up research to check and enhance their first results.
Finally, the bibliographic problem-solving behavior that characterizes biblical researchers calls for activities at which most people don’t spend much time. Even when I have walked students through exegetical research, showing where I looked for preliminary information, where I looked for further clues, where I would look on library shelves for resources, which periodicals would be more likely to provide helpful articles than others, how to compare two rival interpretive arguments, and so on — even when I demonstrated all the various steps that I typically undertake (with an accompanying handout), students would find it difficult to do what they had just seen me do; that which they had to re-enact on the basis of instruction and demonstration was still awkward and counterintuitive. Unfamiliarity breeds resistance.
[Next: conflicting authorities and criteria]


You aren’t a believer, are you? Haines asked. I mean, a believer in the narrow sense of the word. Creation from nothing and miracles and a personal God.
There’s only one sense of the word, it seems to me, Stephen said.
Happy Bloomsday!

Seth Godin Catches Up

Seth Godin has a very-perceptive analysis of the future of textbooks in an era of digitally-mediated, open-access scholarship. His vision of textbooks that comprise a selection of chapters and mini-essays rings quite true, and affords some advantages even he doesn’t specify. (OK, having offered several glowing compliments to Seth Godin, who doesn’t even need or care about my praise, is it too petty of me to note that I posted a version of his idea five years ago, and sketched it in greater detail to several granting agencies (in vain)? Yes, it is, but I’ve gone and done it anyway.)
(Oh, and I’m sorry that link takes you to a static page whose style sheet seems to have gone cattywumpus. It’s an aftereffect of the big Movable Type crash that impelled me to convert to WordPress, and I haven’t had the determination or support to go back and scrape all my earlier entries to appear in the WordPress version — which is a shame, since it means comments are effectively closed, and the spam comments are left in there forever, though in a more nearly perfect world I’d like to purge them.)

Other Side

I’m coming down from the wedding euphoria these days; the astringent sting of all the upcoming challenges will do that to you. In the next three weeks, all of our worldly possessions will be packed up and most will be stored; I’ll become officially “unemployed”; I’ll have interviewed for a terrific job opportunity that would entail a high degree of geographical dislocation; we’ll have to make some kind of decision about where Margaret (at least) will live next year, since none of the job possibilities that remain open to me is anywhere near Baltimore; we’ll take on several significant financial obligations; and all of this will be happening at once. Temporary homelessness beats indefinite homelessness all hollow, and we have friends to shelter us (thank you!), but it still feels a little creepy to be over fifty, established in a particular professional practice, broke, and up-in-the-air about so basic a thing as my home address.
So, I think I’ll take a shower and go try to write one of the overdue essays I owe (two lectionary essays, a talk for the job I’ll be interviewing for, and I mustn’t forget the two papers I’ll give at the November SBL meeting, plus I’ll be preaching a couple of times later in the summer — I’ll be filling in at Christ Church for a couple of weeks). Getting something done should help.