Further Beyond Binary

Bear with me on this.
This morning I was thinking about the Bible courses I taught this fall, in which I put a particularly heavy emphasis on students’ getting a handle on what we used to call “the text itself.” That is, instead of inculcating someone’s particular (correct) perspective on Romans or John, we read through the documents and paid attention to what we noticed about them. Now, it goes wihtout saying that I exercised guiding force in that reading, so they were exposed to my own perspective on these books — but that influence (a) was more gentle than coercive (plenty of students did not end up parroting the points I think most illuminating in these cases) and (b) was not encoded in a syllabus that cites published sources (which tends to convey the sense that these interpretive readings constitute a para-canonical authority). It’s a lot easier to argue with me than with an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature.
In directing the classes toward close reading of the subject texts, I gave a relatively light apparatus of secondary sources in the syllabus. That feels awkward for a card-carrying Biblical Expert, but I didn’t want to send students the message that “Goodacre is the definitive authority on this passage,” or “Davila and Bird have staked out the two rival positions on this.” For one thing, such assignments tend to collaborate with a cultural proclivity to choose up sides and cheer for your heroes and hiss the villains. Further, there aren’t so very many well-written essays on biblical interpretation as one would think; our journals tend toward the dessicated, ponderous, and opaque (especially when read by outsiders — but I’ve heard plenty of my colleagues bemoan the onerous responsibility of reading essays in our leading journals). But most important, the greater the emphasis my syllabus puts on secondary reading, the stronger the message it sends to students that “reading the New Testament itself is not as important as reading these interpretive essays.”
A secondary-readings-heavy syllabus effects this misplaced emphasis for several reasons. Think about a student who struggles with a demanding academic schedule: they have already read Luke (or 1 Corinthians or whatever) at least once, and they’re acquainted with it from readings in church, Bible devotionals, and other indirect exposure. If they expect to have trouble completing their readings for a given week, what will be the highest priority, re-reading Luke, or reading (for the first time) the essay that explains the correct way to understand the text you’ve already read? If even a small proportion of students place priority on the secondary readings, that will affect the discourse of the class significantly (and my experience suggests that many students will skip over the biblical reading altogether in order to make at least one try at the interpretive supplements). The mere presence of these entries in the syllabus tempts students to infer that the assigned essays constitute a definitive interpretive guide to the primary text (so why re-read the chapters from Luke, if the essay by Fowl will tell you what you need to know about them?). All these forces are amplified by the widespread assumption that textual interpretation is an exercise in decoding, in arriving at the something obscure and exotic that’s more important than what was written.
Now, lest I be accused of anti-theoretical, anti-scholarly know-nothingism, permit me to stipulate that I love the sort of interpretive reasoning that my profession generates. But I suspect that part of the culture war over “they don’t read Shakespeare any more” and “they substitute jargon for close reading” involves a similar phenomenon in the literary fields — we profs assign heavy doses of provocative theoretical and interpretive readings that tend to overshadow the texts that classes ostensibly should be studying. Students impress us by manipulating the theoretical apparatus cleverly. The structure of instruction and rewards tends to favor this; it’s not a particular vice of the partisans of theory, since a similar thing happens in resolutely non-theoretical biblical-studies classes, where clever technical-critical gestures signify students’ excellence. (One side effect of this phenomenon is that it tends to advance technically-clever students more rapidly and prominently than it does students who are patient close readers. It doesn’t eliminate one in favor of the other, but the ecology supports the technical-critical proficiency more vigorously than the plain reader.)
So I don’t want to argue that either element of academic interpretive study should eclipse the other. It’s another instance of the metabinary “both/but” situation I wrote about four years ago. Students should spend more energy in close, sensitive examination of the texts they study, and they benefit from theoretical, technical understanding of what’s going on. But in a situation where curricula permit less and less room for learning by marination, teachers need to attend to tactics and practices that communicate to students more than just one of the easy messages (“the text itself” or “technical mastery”).

Shoe Fly, Don’t Bother Him

This incident brings to mind so many impressions. First, the Iraqi journalist has a good arm with admirable accuracy; some big-league teams could use a middle reliever that good. Second, I notice that al-Maliki actually reached out to deflect the second shoe; that Iraqi president didn’t cut and run from the threatening footgear, but daringly confronted it head on (or “foot on,” or “hand on”). Third, will presidential security now require that journalists who cover the White House go barefoot? Fourth, would those shoes have been able to get on an American airplane? Fifth, how come the security detail seemed so blasé about catching this perp? It seemed as though everyone was just standing around thinking, “Yeah, well, he’ll only be the president for a few more days, no big deal.”
Guess they were waiting for the other shoe to drop.
By the way, I’m available to appoint a senator from Illinois, with no trace of partisan allegiance or financial interest. I’m not even an Illinois resident. Problem solved.


Grading, transporting test-taker/actor to the other two vertices of the Research Triangle, church, more grading, etc.
I’ve been thinking about the intersection of societal fantasies about the economy, life and death, and the suppression of criticism — but I don’t have brain-space for them to develop. Plus, I have an essay to write about social media and religion.

C-Word Update

Fortunately for me, cholesterol is one of those things you can’t just conveniently check for yourself (as would be the case for heart rate or weight) — so I’m insulated from the temptation obsessively to check to see how much progress I’m making. Not that I would have made much in a week anyway, of course.
But I did attempt some push-ups this morning, Dave, and also some sit-ups. They wouldn’t have satisfied drill sergeant, nor even a blind gym teacher, but it’s a start. I’ll explore various alternative forms of oatmeal (including Margaret’s suggestion), and will check up on dietary information about the possible acceptability of cheese. And the family will consult on the ethical implications of a vegetarian taking fish oil. And walking more is definitely on the horizon — something we keep discussing, but haven’t gotten around to.
Oh, and Dave, thanks again for Between Here and Gone; the title track came around on my capacious iPod while I was grading papers this morning (using my late father’s old fountain pen), and I was touched. Thank you.

Plus, It’s Raining

I remember back in the halcyon days of blogging, when we participated in lengthy back-and-forths about the unique transparency of the blog genre, about letting it all hang out in full view of the thousands of readers, and about how authentic a blog had to be. I always hewed to the line that blogging can be self-revelatory, but it need not be, and subsequent events suggest that sometimes people are better advised to hold back some of what’s on their minds.
For my part, I’ve held back a fair amount. Readers know that I’m looking for a job, and am frustrated and anxious about it, but I’ve withheld a lot of backstory to those frustrations and anxieties. As they accumulate, it gets harder to not just cut loose with an impassioned self-justifying memoir of the past months — but even if it makes me “inauthentic” when I maintain a moderately calm tone in my prose, that inauthenticity paradoxically bespeaks the kind of guy I am. More times than I can count, my father told me the chreia about the occasion when Epictetus’s angry master punished him by twisting his arm. “If you twist it further, it will break,” the slave said. When his master did indeed break his arm, Epictetus allegedly pointed out, “I told you so.” My dad prized that kind of Stoic self-control; I don’t buy in as unabashedly as he did, but nonetheless that ideal shaped me (and Stoic ethics and the Gospel do converge and diverge in an intriguing ideological arabesque). Whatever may be the case for others, I don’t commend the truth by spilling my guts.
Plus, it’s been raining for the past couple of days.
More positively, the campus shuttle driver pointed out that any December day when the temperature breaks sixty is a gift. And the woman at Famous Haircuts who once (accidentally) whacked me on the head with a hair dryer ran out of the store to catch me and introduce me to a crowd of others to whom she was telling the story. So there’s blessing and sharing, too, in the midst of rain and cares.

The “C” Word

I thought to blog about this yesterday, but the power of denial and stalling successfully interposed a day’s shilly-shallying: my LDL cholesterol is too high, and I need to make some changes. It’s not extraordinarily high, probably just moderate by late-middle-aged American male standards, but it’s too high, and I ought to do something about it.
During the past few stressful years, I’ve succumbed to two bad habits: one, I’ve allowed myself to become increasingly sedentary; and two, I have increased my consumption of fats (especially cheese). So steps one and two for lowering my nasty LDL cholesterol are cutting back on cheese and other high-cholesterol fats (unfortunately, I’m already a vegetarian so I have no meats to eliminate), and developing a more exercise-friendly daily life.
Over at Facebook, friends have suggested oatmeal (ugh, but I’ll try it), olive oil (check), garlic (check plus), red wine (check plus plus plus), bacon (see “vegetarian” above), beer (that’s a new one on me), and aspirin (OK by me, jujst haven’t bought any yet). Pippa devoted herself to scouring Kroger for no-cholesterol groceries for me. But now, having said it in public, I kinda have to do something about it.

My Name Is Jane D.

Somebody — let’s call her “Jane Doe,” since I don’t want anyone to have even more trouble with the Department of Homeland Security — some hypothetical person, let”s just say, might commute to and from two major metropolitan airports every week. Since we’re imagining her, let’s imagine a tendency toward motion sickness, such that she’s a lot more comfortable sitting by a window.
Now let’s (hypothetically) say that the last few times she’s traveled, she’s been unable to check in online to ensure a window seat. She might, one may imagine, contact the airline directly; if she were so to do, perhaps the ticketing/reservations people would tell her that they can’t do anything for her. They might direct her to the customer relations staff. So, suppose that she did that; maybe the customer relations staff would say, “We can’t help you either; it’s a Transportation Security Administration issue.”
Mind you, this commuter — let’s pretend she has a nice, non-threatening vocation; maybe she’s a theology professor — has no attribute that would ordinarily associate her with those who endanger air safety (unless they’re afraid that she might throw up on someone, in which case it would be in their interest to let her reserve a seat by a window). So now, Professor Doe can’t check in early enough to get a window seat, and she can’t negotiate with the airline because some security machine has presumably identified her as a risky traveler. She would probably do what TSA wants: fax them copies of her passport, driver’s license, dental records, show size, favorite colors, and so on, and wait for the bureaucratic digestive process to emit a letter telling the airline that she’s okay.
In the meantime, she will have flown many more times. Without a reserved window seat. Slightly nauseous. Her competitive streak stymied.
Now, in what respect is the world made a safer place by preventing Professor Doe from sitting beside a window? And, do you really want to sit next to her? If you don’t, contact me, and I’ll talk to you about the plane routes that she hypothetically takes twice a week, and you can try to avoid her — though you’ll probably get seated before her, so she may sit next to you whether you like it or not. Send a letter to your congressional representatives.

Holy Advent!

How did it get to be the second Sunday of Advent already? Around here, we’re just regaining our footing after a demanding journey-plus-sickness, and the end of semester (with concomitant exam preparation and grading) looms in front of us. We have done almost no gift shopping, have no plan for sending holiday cards, most of our friends don’t know what address to send a card to anyway (so we won’t receive the cards they do send until after they’ve been forwarded, perhaps multiple times). And then, I have to keep my schedule open for the upcoming confirmation hearings….

Making It Official

Since it has become all the buzz in Washingtonian circles after Joe Biden and I were seen in close proximity over the holiday, I suppose I ought to admit that I am available (if nominated) to serve as Pres. Obama’s Secretary of Education. I could use a job, and Margaret seems likely to have a Beltway-area teaching gig for next year.
That’s my campaign slogan, by the way: “There are plenty of abler candidates, but I need a job more!”