Monthly Archives: January 2012


When I read that Ars Technica was reporting that the Apple Event on Thursday would likely announce authoring software for e-textbooks — ‘ “GarageBand for e-books,” so to speak’ — I was as excited as a reader with long memory could imagine I’d be. The trick will be waiting till Thursday, and (if the announcement is as I imagine it) to not let this development interfere with my progress on the James commentary and my hermeneutics essays. On the other hand, my colleague Yvonne had suggested before that my current work on hermeneutics might more appropriately be presented as video essay than as conventional written-word pieces….

What Good Are Student Evaluations?

I repudiate alliance to any clubs whose constitution mandates blasting undergraduate student evaluations indiscriminately. I care ardently about my students and their benefit from our work together. I respect them as learners, and I know that there are ways of improving my teaching based on information from them. Someone will probably ignore the preceding avowals, but I thought I should put them on the table at the outset — because although I’ve been troubled by student evaluations (as practised by my home institutions for years of teaching), they never seemed to add up to an interesting problem, the sort of thing that has sufficient jagged angles and reflections and refractions and beneficial and baneful consequences that I needed to think more about them.
This morning, though, I may have crossed the threshold. This morning it occurred to me to wonder why we put great stock in critical assessments from students whose aggregate capacity for forming critical assessments often lingers in the range of second-class honours (B to C range). If you were making important decisions, would you seek out the aggregate wisdom of a pool of informants whose judgment shakes out as about average? Or to take this from a different angle: how influential is general student input in forming the policy of educational administrators? There’s obviously a student-appeal angle to certain administrative decisions, often having to do with facilities and student services (‘New dorms!’ ‘Better food!’), but is that a deliberative interest or a calculated pitch for popularity? How much does a senior management group weight student feedback when it considers, for instance, promoting/retaining/firing a vice-president of academic affairs? These are genuine questions — I simply don’t know. My general sense, however, is that senior admin think that they actually know something about running a university that undergraduates don’t, and that any feedback from students must be weighed against the very different perspective that expertise and experience warrant.
So, on what basis would one regard the tabulated results of student course evaluations with more gravity than one would a student poll of top ten English novels, or favourite musical compositions? The strongest case I can think of would rest on students being, in effect, experts on learning and teaching, since they’ve been immersed in teaching/learning activities for years before they get to university. But they’ve been immersed in video and film, and that doesn’t make them (again, in the aggregate, the mode in which student evaluations most commonly come to us) reliable film critics. They give a valuable perspective on what sorts of film undergraduates enjoy, and of course some are insightful critical observers of cinema — but that set amounts to only a small proportion of the number who actually voice their preferences about films.
One can’t top-slice the undergrads with the best marks and listen only to them; we have especially much to learn from students who didn’t thrive in particular classes. One can’t exclude high-flyers. We know that ‘attractiveness’ makes a significant difference in evaluations, but we can’t simply lower the evaluations of handsome lecturers and raise the evaluations of the homely. Some staff bake cookies at evaluation time. Some staff count hostile evaluations as a badge of honour and court criticism (then discount it). Some staff elicit more negative evaluations by cueing students to emphasise ‘ways the course could be improved’. The environmental variables, the differences among evaluation forms, the timing of evaluations, and (once again) the reliability of student informants, and the relatively small sample sizes all tell against student evaluations serving as a sound meter for ascertaining the quality of teaching.
How could we elicit better information? I know there’s a lot of research out there on student evaluations, among which some must shed useful light on the problem of improving the quality and usefulness of feedback. No doubt we could learn a great deal if, for example, master teachers conducted interviews with each student in a class, but (ouch) we don’t care enough to go to that expense. We could put more stock in observation, but the inclusion of an observer changes the he classroom dynamic, doesn’t it?
Students and their families spend vast sums for their university courses (and will be spending much more under the Con-Dems’ privatisation of tuition). Lecturers are under increasing pressure to do things other than ‘teach well’. The usual data on how courses proceeded, especially when standardised across the whole spectrum of university offerings, provides only scant benefit for assessing how a course proceeded. I reckon, this morning, that the results of the course — the essays and exams — might themselves be a better ‘evaluation’ except that they’re too information-rich in some ways (who wants to re-read a whole stack of papers or exams to get a sense of how the students did?), and insufficiently revelatory in others. Our Staff-Student semester reviews are very good; maybe there’s a way to build on that.
Teaching is too important, and the persons of undergraduate students are too important, to assess what’s going on in a class by tick-boxes and ‘hot or not’ polls. Our teachers need more useful (non-threatening) feedback. Our students need to be assured that their experience matters, without being elevated to an authority that their discernment doesn’t warrant. The educational system isn’t so much broken as it is a cut-price makeshift, sustained by partial measures of affordable approximations of what would be best for all concerned, one ill-suited to produce optimal learning or teaching. The role and characteristics of most student evaluation forms symptomatise the incoherence of a budgetary, policy-oriented, ideological, impasse of conflicting interests. Sadly, undergrads and their families lose the most.
Or maybe I just didn’t get enough sleep last night.

Weekend Update

Last week I neglected to post anything during the weekend, which undercuts my determination to shift at least some of my online energy away from the perniciously-compromised enclave at Facebook and toward my own blog. I don’t have anything particularly momentous to add today — Margaret is working on some administrative stuff, I’m reading about the Epistle of James and transcribing the Order for Morning Prayer in Greek from my photocopies of the early 20th-century edition (based on the 1662 English Book of Common prayer) to a clean, Unicode-compliant text — and we’re both taking breaks to watch The Wire. The weather was clear and chilly today. Not much excitement, in other words, except when poor hapless Prez shot and killed his fellow officer. But that was in Baltimore, not Glasgow.

Too Much Life

Daniel honoured my ponderings about the prominence of ‘the cross’ in his fourth chapter by blogging further about the problem of cruciformity in Pauline ethics and ours. I have a few brief comments about our discussion, but I will keep them short because I didn’t sleep very well last night, and I will probably make even less sense than usual.
First, I re-emphasise that I have no objection to the axiom that we mustn’t let our theologia crucis be suppressed in favour of a theologia gloriæ. I am not ashamed of the gospel; lift high the cross! Cross, cross, cross. All okay by me.
My hesitation involves situations wherein the sound exposition of Pauline theology (and Michael Gorman’s Cruciformity and Apostle of the Crucified Lord are two of my favourites, which I’ve assigned in classes for years) entails such an emphasis on the cross that it may no longer be evident that ‘the cross’ isn’t by itself the vehicle of our redemption. One of the virtues of narrative theology lies in its appropriate, important insight that moments in the story don’t do the whole work of the story itself. Specifically, in this case, the cross (perhaps more precisely ‘the way of the cross’) matters for disciples in conjunction with what led to it (faithfulness in action, regardless of how appreciatively that faithfulness is received — whether with acclaim from the crowds, or with persecution, torture, and execution at the hands of Roman power), and it matters in conjunction with what came after (the revelation that God’s power for life is so great that death cannot prevail over it). So it may be that ‘the cross’ and ‘cruciformity’ function suitably as shorthand for the whole story, but capsule summaries don’t substitute for the defining narratives of our identities. We want to keep an eye on our short cuts, lest we fall into the error of mistaking the short cut for the Way.
But that word of caution contains what may be my response to myself and to Daniel. I noted his attention to, and he reaffirmed, the daunting dangers of ‘successful’ ministries; humility, in its evangelically healthful mode, not in the feigned humbleness of Uriah Heep or the culturally-mediated self-abnegation that scars the souls of many of our neighbours, characterises faithfulness to the Jesus who set his face to go where he would be least popular, where rancour against him was most concentrated, where he may well (without supernatural foresight) have anticipated the most hostile of receptions. Faithfulness tarries not to cultivate fame, nor avoids facing opposition (nor seeks suffering, nor refuses truthful praise); faithfulness follows where the Way leads.
There will be no short cut to discerning whether our course is unduly influenced by craving for approval, or by ineradicable shame. Again, short cuts aren’t the gospel. But the steadfastness that sustains faith through ups and downs, whatever the (im)balance of those circumstances, bespeaks the character of Jesus, and even of that gospel-mad Paul (whether you love him or not).
Anyway, thanks for the good read and the worthwhile conversation, Daniel!

Daniel Kirk, Jesus, and Paul

… the Christian life is the kind of thing that makes the kings of the earth nervous — not because it encounters them with the force of arms, but because it testifies to a power that not even death can contain. (Kirk, 76)

   With Chapter Four, Daniel Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved turns to the ethical implications of the understanding of New Testament theology that he’s been tracing in the first three chapters. As in previous chapters, he describes Jesus first. The Jesus whom Kirk presents here called disciples to specific behaviour: following, teaching, healing, exorcising, proclaiming, cross-bearing, and so on. Although the Jesus of John’s Gospel puts great emphasis on ‘believing in me’ (‘believing in his name’, believing in the son’, ‘believing in the Son of Man’), even John portrays a Jesus who instructs his followers that whoever believes in him will do his works, and even greater works, and that they must love one another as Jesus loved them, so that ‘the love of a Christian community is none other than the continuing embodiment of the self-giving love of Jesus’ (Kirk, 79).
   Kirk then shows the continuity of Paul’s ethical exhortation with Jesus’ teaching. While Paul doesn’t simply repeat what Jesus said, the development from Jesus to Paul involves their different settings relative to the overarching narrative that Kirk proposes. Jesus lived (according to the flesh) before the resurrection, and his teaching relative to death and resurrection remained obscure to the disciples. Since Paul can look back on the resurrection, he and his audiences can take account of the resurrection and trace its implications in a way that would have been unintelligible for Jesus. Nonetheless, the narrative Paul teaches, like the narrative that depicts Jesus’s own ministry, identifies the cross as the pivotal element in recognising God’s work and God’s will. Whereas for Jesus, discipleship entailed following him on the way of the cross, Paul takes discipleship as the vocation of ‘making [one’s] life a living narration of the story of the crucified Christ’ (80).
   Kirk extends himself to disabuse readers of the notion that justification by faith is in any way antithetical to actually, you know, doing good things. This effort bespeaks a different ecclesiastical ecology from that which I’ve inhabited; I rarely, if ever, encounter someone who treats good behaviour as a threat to their pure sanctity. Much more common in my worlds is the ‘believer’ for whom believing, the right kind of believing, and concentrated correct believing constitute the epitome of adhering to Jesus. Kirk’s exhortation applies as well to the latter as to the former, though I wonder whether some believers might let themselves off the hook too easily on the grounds that they aren’t anti-works (just works-indifferent). In any case, Kirk draws on Paul’s repeated emphasis on ‘faith working’, on the ‘work of faith’, and God’s making it possible for us ‘to will and to work for his good pleasure’ — and of course, on Paul’s predictably forceful moral instruction. After these pages, a casual reader will find it difficult indeed to imagine how anyone could ever doubt that Paul wanted believers to live in particular ways.
   Kirk wants not simply to argue that Christian believers should not be allergic to works, though; he wants to show how that working coheres with, and perpetuates, the gospel that Jesus proclaimed. The pivotal element that aligns Paul and Jesus, according to Kirk, is the power of God, greater than sin and death, that transforms the life of the believer. Transformed believers will readily accept the derision, rejection, abjection of their scornful neighbours; while not all would actually be crucified, the cruciform life of enduring abuse in order to bear witness to the power of resurrection life will apply to all. God, in the Spirit, can free believers from their imprisonment to mortality, to the earthly powers of success, fame, and acclaim — imprisonment to the temptation to secure for themselves control over the contingencies of life by triumphing over adversaries and circumstance. Contrariwise, Kirk reminds his readers that Paul’s strength was made perfect in weakness, in being rejected and punished and trashed.
   Readers who take up Kirk’s exposition of Pauline theology (and Jesus’s theology) will endeavour in all things to make themselves transparent to the luminous power of the gospel. As people who have been in-corporated into the life of Jesus, sharers in the life of Christ, they will act in the world in ways congruent with their exemplar Jesus, as they were coached to by Jesus’s eminent interpreter, Paul. That way of life isn’t determined by rule-following (for no one will be justified by works of the law), but by that divine power made flesh in Christ, communicated to us by the Holy Spirit, that transforms our inclinations from death-fearing servitude to sin into life-embracing freedom for godly action in the world.
   In all this, I applaud the trajectory of Kirk’s interpretation of Jesus and Paul (and particularly in Chapter Five, where Kirk treats the topic of inclusivity — but that’s not my chapter to discuss). I would argue with him on points of detail here and there, but these would be the sorts of argument that we might conduct convivially over a pint of Chip 71 or Cart Blanche, or perhaps one of Kirk’s own home brews. Kirk speaks from a vision informed by Hays and Gorman, adopting the trope of ‘discipleship as playing/improvising a role in the divine drama’ popularised by Wright (pioneered by Lash and Young, redeployed by Vanhoozer, and focussed into ethical principle by Wells), yet with a voice of his own. Kirk’s Jesus Have I Loved… exemplifies the best sort of New Testament theologising in current scholarship — richly grounded in (critical) appropriation of Scripture, remaining recognisably close to Scripture’s own words, arranged so as to reveal a persuasive greater coherence.
   So compelling a depiction of Jesus’s and Paul’s narrative understanding of the gospel, though, inescapably raises weighty questions. Kirk devotes particular time to one in particular: how does a servant of the ‘upside-down’ gospel approach leading, or teaching, or decision-making? Kirk astutely points to the risk of performative contradiction for the teacher who persuasively lectures (or ‘writes’) about the self-denying humility of cruciformity — what if the book becomes a best-seller? What if the acclaim that accompanies an insightful ministry of scholarship impels all people to speak well of you? (And, conversely, how do we distinguish the disagreeable prophet from the just plain disagreeable person, the lowly leader from the crummy leader?) Kirk confesses to being haunted by Paul’s gospel as he lectures through 2 Corinthians, and one can readily sympathise with his plight — but is it too much to ask that he dwell a bit longer on how his readers might cultivate a spirit of humbleness that eschews the culturally-prominent markers of financial, occupational, and ‘reputational’ success?
   Kirk also draws all threads of the theological narrative to their convergence at the cross; fair enough, for it would take a foolhardy critic to question the centrality of the cross for contemporary theology (especially in a chapter with a well-known epigraph from Dietrich Bonhoeffer). At the same time, since Jesus and Paul both draw so richly on the precedents and the sensibilities of the Old Testament, I’d have welcomed a stronger sense that the narratives in question don’t just begin at Matthew 1:1. To be clear, Kirk’s earlier chapters make strong narrative connections with the Old Testament — the point here is that dominical and Pauline narrative ethics draw strength from their continuity with the characters and teaching of the Old Testament, in a way that this chapter’s focus on the Old Testament as represented just by the abstract concept of ‘law’ or by the Ten Commandments short-changes. The narrative that Jesus inherits and passes along to his disciples (transformed, yet recognisably ‘the same’ in theologically important ways) is more deeply understood as it engages the broad swath of stories that precede Jesus’s advent. That additional depth and richness would well serve Kirk’s purposes in this chapter, if he invoked it.
   Finally, Kirk’s focal emphasis on the cross also provoked me — perhaps counterproductively — to wonder. At the risk of a serious misstep, which I would earnestly recant if proven — Is the cross itself the central, defining characteristic of the paradigm that Kirk (and Gorman, and their numerous admirable forebears) identify? In this chapter, the cross sometimes seemed to figure more importantly than the imperishable vindication that followed it, a little as though the resurrection were an afterthought. Make no mistake: I’m not soft-pedalling the cross, but wondering how truly it captures the ‘and resurrection’ good news if we refer continually to ‘cruciformity’, ‘the cross’, and so on. My concern derives from having thought more and more recently that the relation of the good news of Jesus to the character of holiness, wisdom, and purity adumbrated in the Old Testament can be deflected by accenting the characteristics of suffering. The point of the good news in this regard, after all, is not that we should look forward to misery, or that we should seek out persecution, or that only someone who has been scarred by abuse can understand the gospel; rather, the point is that God’s power for life, for justice, for restoration and harmony, all are greater than the obstacles that sin and death set before them. This is actually a harder teaching for me than the centrality of the cross, because the former version of the cross can modulate into an abstraction, a figure, a generality — whereas the latter requires that I regard my own impending death as no more worrisome than a cold, requires me to regard my financial instability as relatively inconsequential in light of the depth of the riches of God’s glory. Does abstract-metaphorical invocation of ‘the cross’ sometimes serve, ironically, to screen from us the daunting prospect of actually living in the way that Kirk shows Paul to be teaching?
   It takes a provocative thinker to push a reader as far as Kirk has pushed me, especially since I started the book so sympathetic to Kirk’s own vision. For such a vivid treatment of the true power of resurrection life, and the transformation in ourselves that it would call forth if only we could let it, Daniel Kirk should be (humbly) applauded. And now, I’m about ready for that pint.
(The foregoing is my contribution to the Jesus Have I Loved, But Paul? blog tour, organised on behalf of Daniel’s book by Baker Academic. Yesterday, the tour stopped at James McGrath’s place and Jamie Arpin-Ricci’s; the tour continues tomorrow with contributions from Tripp Fuller and Jim West.)


Since I arrived here at Glasgow, I’ve been very good about keeping a written diary (= US ‘calendar’, ‘appointment book’). I was never this good with a PalmPilot, nor (surprisingly) with any Apple software solution (even though I always carry a smartphone and often my iPad). On the other hand, for these two-plus years, I’ve had my diary with me almost every working day.
I noticed that just now, when I was writing in some events that I might possibly want to attend despite my being on research leave (that is, ‘Pump Out Publications for REF Leave’). With so few scheduled meetings and appointments this winter/spring/summer, I may lose the habit of keeping an up-to-date calendar; it’s easy for me to tell myself that I’ll remember this or that date, or to not-look at my diary in the morning to make sure my day is clear. I’d like to stay timely and responsible, but… we’ll see.

Back to Work

Well, a three-day hiatus is not a good thing, but at least I’m preventing it becoming a longer gap. Right now I’m working on a contribution to Daniel Kirk’s blog book tour in support of Jesus Have I Loved — But Paul? — I’ll cover Chapter Four on Thursday, and gearing up to make the manuscript-completion push for the long-in-the-making James commentary. After that, I’ll turn to essays on hermeneutics, returning to topics that I’ve written about here in the past; I have four or five on my mind, and I’ll try to blog about them as I write (so as to gain the benefit of my sharp-minded friends, to enlist such affirmation as I can, and perhaps to forestall some predictable criticism).
I like Daniel’s book a lot, despite the title. His general argument will ring familiar to students who’ve heard me lecture through Paul; we take different angles on some nuances, but the broad outlines are harmonious with one another. Once I get my formal contribution done, I may develop some of my quibbles further over here — but the overriding message I want to send is, ‘Great book, marvellous for congregational study or for student reading — very lucid, and very sound’.

New Year, New Inbox

I ordinarily scorn the gesture of declaring inbox bankruptcy — simply writing off any pending email obligations and starting with a fresh, new, empty inbox — but I anticipate humbling myself and admitting that I don’t have time or energy to comb through both my home (gmail) inbox and my work ( inbox, pull out the lonely important messages from the oceans of notifications, semi-spam, and so on, and square away my debts in the most responsible way possible.
If I owe you an email, I suggest sending me a reminder early next week, by which time I will no longer be curled up in the foetal position at the sight of my overflowing mail client window. If I don’t owe you an email, you may contact me in the future, more confident that I’ll actually be able to pay due attention to your words.

Checking In

Today has been pretty uneventful, but I’m not going to take that as an excuse to not-blog, since I’m still working up the habit of blogging as often as possible. To the end of reporting something rather than nothing, then, I will note that we got Margaret new lenses for her glasses this morning (her eyes have been changing, and she experienced a vitreal event this winter that aggravated her sense that her vision was blurred). When we stopped at our regular café, S’mug, we were greeted by Stewart at the table next to ours — someone we hadn’t met before, but who recognised me from my Foursquare avatar (the pixelated Diesel Sweeties-style image of me) and from our email communication relative to his doing some web design work for Trinity College.
More important than any of that, though, today was actually clear and sunny in Glasgow! Just when one might have been beginning to doubt that it was possible, we had a few hours of lovely, crisp daylight — then sunset around 3:00. But it was a start.

From The Past

Edward Tufte started a thread in his columns about warning signs, their semiotics, and the explicit messages they bear. He teases and provokes as usual, and draws on some well-known phrases to illustrate his points. Sometimes he incorporates the originators of the phrases in the titles of his prints — hence, Stevie Smith, Not Waving But Drowning — but other times not; presumably, the titles without authors’ names suggest that the attribution may be apocryphal, or public-domain proverbial, or perhapps that Tufte isn’t quite certain he has the attribution correct.
Friends with long memories, or battle-scarred former students of mine, will recognise with appreciation one of the ‘philosophical warning signs’ he prepared:
It's More Complicated Than That warning sign
Tufte assigns this image neither title nor source. While it’s virtually certain that someone said it before me, I’d just like to put down a flag here to say that I was applauding Doc Searls’s use of a more verbose version back in 2002, on the basis of long-standing use of my more lapidary ‘It’s more complicated than that’ in lectures from the beginning of my teaching work in 1990. So let the record show that the short form of the ‘complicated’ axiom goes back at least to me, if not further.

Blow Ye Winds

OK, I missed yesterday, but I have remembered — at the last minute — to put something in my blog today. Since I’m still getting the back into the swing of it, I’ll keep to the superficial observation that, Yes, it has been extraordinarily windy today (gusts reached over 100 mph in Edinburgh, and Glasgow lost chimney pits, roof tiles, stone railings, trees, and more). The BBC slideshow gives a good idea of the weather.

On the local news cut-ins to BBC Breakfast, the camera showing the view of the Clydefor background green-screen shots was shaking while the presenter read the stories. That lent credence to her warnings about high winds! The Clyde was driven over its banks at high tide, and all in all we withstood a sore bluster.