FOSOTT (Free and Open Source Old Testament Textbook)

Yesterday Brooke Lester asked his Facebook friends, “I know the answer before I ask, but: Do we have no good, critical, open-access Intro to Old Testament textbooks?”
At the risk of re-repeating myself, This is something that a granting agency (especially one such as FTE or Wabash, for instance), ought to be all over like a cheap suit. Instead, many such agencies prefer to fund events that leave all the game pieces in the same places, but with hors d’oeuvres and name tags. One could do this with no support whatsoever, perhaps as an insurgent step toward breaking into the world of full-time employment, and I know a web site that would be happy to encourage, host, boast about, and generally celebrate the endeavour.
This is how I’d see this happening.
First of all, one would want to square away an array of organisational details such as word count/chapter, shared glossary and terminology, common points of reference (1000 BCE, 722 BCE, 587 BCE, 537 BCE, or whatever other dates or axioms that the first recension of the project would involve), format style, and so on.
Then find authors to cover the whole Old Testament and related introductory, complementary, or whatever-all else chapters you want. Make it clear that the chapters will be published under a CC license (I’d suggest “Attribution/Non-Commerical”) that permits authors to reuse their own work, but that the OT project retains the right to distribute the chapter. If you’re serious about this, I offer to write a chapter on interpretation. method, and history.
Gather all the chapters (“Ha, ha, ha!” laughs the experienced editor-and-deadline-evader). Hammer them into clean, standards-compliant mark-up, and give each chapter a web page. Produce well-designed PDFs of each chapter, and make those available for download. Hey, in a perfect world, you could persuade the authors to record their chapters so you could distribute digital audio (and video — or perhaps, a video abstract of each chapter). So at this point, you have a textbook that’s free to consult as web pages, free to download as PDFs, and (again, ideally) free to listen to/watch in digital media.
Arrange a contract with a PoD publisher to produce paperbacks of the textbook, which you can sell (with agreement from the author/license-holders, of course) with small shares to each author (presumably when sales reach a certain threshold). The authors can update or emend their chapters pretty much as they see fit (make sure there’s a version-number in a colophon in each page/PDF).
Now’s where it gets extra cool. Let everyone know that you will host alternate versions of chapters or supplements as long as they meet the common standards, and format, of the main version. If I like the textbook but think that Lester has botched the chapter on I Kings, I can write an alternate chapter, get it hosted at the FOSOTT site, and other teachers can elect to use my chapter if they prefer. Dissatisfied with the dominance of white male authors (or the relative absence of white male authors)? Add an alternate chapter. Detect misguided theological axe-grinding? Contribute an alternate chapter, or add a supplement. Sense the absence of useful study questions, maps, pictures you took during your summer digging at En-Wherever? Add photos, maps, pencil sketches, diagrams.
Bing, bang, bong, you have an open-source, free as in beer, free-to-reconfigure, free-to-supplement or even -alter (provided you give credit and don’t offer the altered version commercially without the author’s agreement) textbook. And that textbook is now useable anywhere English is read, for free. And that textbook is putting your name(s) in front of students and teachers all over the world, especially in places where they can’t necessarily afford the doorstop hardbacks that the textbook publishers love to charge so much for. And that textbook can easily be kept up-to-date. And if some agency were to fund it (and such funding needn’t even come to very much, in the world of granting — small to moderate honoraria for authors, editorial/production support, and so on), they could slap their name (or a prominent donor’s name) right there on the cover and on every title page: The Soros OT Textbook, or the Omidyar Introduction to the New Testament, or the Rowling History of the Christian Church, or the Buffett Handbook to World Religions or the Jobs Whatever He Wants As Long As It Includes Giving The Editor And Me iPads Book.
Plus, I would bet (if I were permitted to wager) it would change theological and academic publishing pretty dramatically, and it might even help get people a few jobs.

21 thoughts on “FOSOTT (Free and Open Source Old Testament Textbook)

  1. Hi Akma,
    Thanks so much for responding with such care (okay, so I knew you would when I dangled open-access-flavoured bait in your presence on FB).

    Your four ‘graphs after “This is how I’d see this happening” are pretty much what I had had in mind. I especially began with the notion of multiple contributors, because I would like to see a textbook that reflects several perspectives on the shared set of biblical and extra-biblical evidence. I’m of two minds on granting bodies, mostly because I anticipate an initial response of “Who is the senior scholar in charge, youngster?” The questions is whether I really could round up a diverse set of folks who would work up a chapter for the love of the game (hey, we’ve got two licked already, and maybe three given a Twitter response I received).

    Your ‘graphs beginning with “Now here’s where it gets extra cool,” well, they get really extra cool. The possibility of replaceable modules, with a clear set of criteria for such mods, is something I hadn’t thought about and which really goes to the heart of open access: you’re talking about “Intro to OT 2.0” (on analogy, of course, with “Web 2.0”). I once thought similarly about a possible modular set of helps for a biblical Hebrew Grammar, but hadn’t thought about user-generated replacement mods.

    Before fall term begins, I’ll get to writing up a draft of a plan and reaching some possible initial contributors.

  2. If you think of a granting agency that operates across continents, I’d be more than happy to serve as PI (on the basis of my technology/open access/hermeneutics/biblical credentials, obviously I’m no Alttestamentler); Glasgow wants us all to be attracting grants anyway. And who knows, I might be able to stir up a few contributors over here.
    And once an OT textbook proves the viability of the concept, the sky’s the limit to what we could do next. In the meantime, remember that iPads are the ideal testing/use-case medium for a project such as this.

  3. Make it FOSONTT (Free and Open Source Old and New Testament Textbook) instead and I am game to contribute.

    I particularly like the fact that you thought of the provision of alternative chapters, for all sorts of reasons.

    The wiki-base that one comment suggests is also fine with me, though I am less keen on the formatting restrictions this implies. On the other hand, those very restrictions help make the thing look more uniform, so there’s swings and roundabouts.

    I am teaching a NT introduction course at present, with hardly any time for preparation since I am filling in for a person who had to cancel at the last moment. The institution I am helping out (next door to my own) has next to no resources apart from access to the internet, and so I experience the need for open source (or at least freely accessible) material very keenly.

  4. excellent idea. I can immediately see the potential for FOSMT – free and open source missiology texts.



  5. Just a couple of points:

    1 – I’m interested in this idea and in how the same method could be used for congregational materials.

    2 – I suspect that branding and design are more important to a project like this than for a conventionally written work.

    3 – I wonder whether it might be possible to think of more fluid funding models. The top down grant awarding funding model does sometimes work for open source, but there are other ways of doing things. For example, why not think about applying the Deanspace/Obama style of funding to this – lots of small donations/grants from individuals. For example, I’d put up £50 to support a project like this from my regular giving. How many others would you need to complete the project. 200 such people would provide £10,000 which must at least get a project like this off the ground. How long would it take to find 200 such funders. Using a model like this would probably need the project to be subdivided into streams – authoring, design, funding, promotion, (maybe translation too) with a project leader for each one.

    The open source model of distribution and the wide-based small donor funding model may sit uneasily with the ways that model universities function. That may not be to their benefit.

  6. Super point, Kelvin. There’s no earthly reason that individual chapters/essays/whatever might not be underwritten by regular non-foundation sources. “The Book of Genesis, brought to you by Hepzibah and Adoniram MacGillivray,” or “The Book of Nahum, brought to you by Eighth Baptist Church of Kensington,” or “Introduction to II Kings brought to you by Garrett Evangelical Seminary,” or whatever.
    The brilliant and wonderful Suw Charman just raised more than $4,000 for Argleton, her mixed-media craft-novella-puzzle story via Kickstarter. Brooke, Kelvin, anyone else who’s interested: do you want to start ball-parking a rough draft of costs, rewards, and possible means of funding? One needn’t use Kickstarter itself; one might, for instance, trust the accounting of a reliable church, or find some other escrow agent.

  7. @Mark: Hi Mark, I just sent you a Friend request, and the permanent URL for my FB profile is:

    @Chuck: Thanks for the great list. BTW, we met once at a dinner around 2001-2, but somehow I’d missed that you’d been blogging. Glad to find it now.

    @Kelvin and Akma: wow, that’s a lot to take in. For materials marketed directly to the churches and churchpeople qua churchpeople, it sounds right on. For an Old Testament introduction written for a larger audience (as is a Coogan, or a Collins), it *could* work, as long as folks understood that what they were contributing to is not a “narrowly” confessional enterprise. (In other words, that what they are underwriting is not a “Bible study” of the kind they may know).

    Consider the recent kerfluffle in SBL about Ron Hendel’s piece, concerning the role, in SBL, of scholarship that grounds its claims in private revelation or confessional dogma, rather than in publicly-available evidence.
    In this climate, I envision an Intro to OT that clearly invites a readership spanning the secular, the undergraduate, the seminary, and the churches insofar as they consent to the “academic biblical studies” approach.

    The issue, then, would be how to communicate clearly the intent of the work and that contributions are given without strings attached except completion of the work. The “grass-roots” model works insofar as contributors know that they’re contributing to something that has already decided what it is, and that they’re not “stockholders with voting shares.” In practice, this might be tricky to communicate to congregations, compared to a seminary or other academic bodies.

    (I have a very specific two-part goal for this project: One, that it be non-confessional in its method and claims, in the way I describe above; Two, that the writing contributors represent as diverse a social background as possible. Until now, Intros by non-white-men-folk have been written as “supplements” to standard historical-critical Intros, with the latter written by the white men; I’d like to see an historical-and-literary-critical Intro with a diverse authorship. Obviously, other open-access Intros might have other goals.)

    This all said, there’s no reason not to talk about costs and rewards. I am also drafting a list of possible contributors to invite, and will plan to have some private conversations along those lines.

    Once I have a prospectus written up (August looks like a good time), I’ll have something concrete I can point to that delimits what I have in mind, but the above gives you the idea.

  8. Hi AKMA,
    What a fantastic idea! The Divinity Student Council would gladly contribute to this project…
    Look forward to catching up at the start of the new semester.
    Take care,

  9. This sounds like a great idea.

    As I read it through, the only think I had to offer is that if you are wanting to get funding, either from granting agencies or small donations one of the first things that you’ll need to do is find a safe place to put it and a group of people whom people will trust with their money to oversee it. Money is always such a pain!

  10. I’ve been thinking of quite a few questions that the idea of this project raises. Most of them are about value.

    The idea of a textbook where you can rewrite and swap a chapter you don’t like is certainly fascinating. However, doesn’t that make it the slowest wiki in town? I’m not saying that would necessarily be a bad thing. Perhaps a slow wiki movement would be an interesting parallel to the slow food movement.

    What gives a textbook value? – that’s the thing that I’m thinking most about. Is it the author, the editor or the readers. Perhaps value is not the word – kudos might be better.

    Forgive me for asking, but is the idea of a textbook one which is sustainable longterm anyway?

    Finally, just to note another funding model, which would be to build courses based on the free materials and sell the courses whilst giving away the texts.

    Or just sell the validation of the courses.

    It is surprising that the Open University is not doing this kind of thing. (Or maybe they are and I don’t know it). They’ve effectively given away some teaching materials right from the beginning whilst charging for others and for tutoring and examinations.

    Also, just to note in passing that kickstarter is quite US centric and needs a US bank account for a project to function. seems to be more international – don’t know whether it is suitable.

    It seems to me that might usefully host the software required to get the project going. There are probably quite a few different ways of doing it.

    Note that there is a useful list of project management tools here:

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