Teaching a course for the first time is always exciting. It’s rather akin to buying school supplies: clean paper, unopened packs of pens – red of course, “bouquets of newly-sharpened pencils” (bonus points if you recognize the movie quotation), and my personal favorite – Post-it notes. So many possibilities…and everything lives up to its potential.
At the moment, I am putting the final touches on planning my Bible as Literature course for this Fall. There are many reasons I am looking forward to it. For one, I know many of the students as I have had them in previous classes. Several took my Structure and Nature of Language (AKA History of the English Language), which quite possibly was comprised of the most perfect collection of personalities to have in a classroom. Yes, they spoiled me. And, yes, I would be okay if it happens again.
Also, as has been established before, I’m a nerd, and I love the process of building a course from scratch. With this one, there are several challenges. What texts to use? I have gone with the Oxford Study Bible, which has a nice collection of short, manageable essays, and Rober Alter and Frank Kermode’s The Literary Guide to the Bible (LGB). The latter is the text I was taught in college. I loved it then and found it very accessible. It is logically laid out, with sections devoted to each book. I have been going back and forth – and been seeking advice – in order to decide whether to use the LGB essays as the introductions to each Biblical book or to schedule them after the primary readings. I am still waffling on that one.
What material to cover? As a medievalist, the beginning is always self-evident. Context. The first couple of weeks are devoted to historical and cultural background – geography, timelines, Hebrew culture, Greco-Roman history, English translations. After that, it’s “how to read” the Bible, its literary structure and forms, the concept of the canon. THEN, we will get into the Old Testament. Here’s the fun part. What books to choose? So much to read, so little time. Books jumping up and down crying, “Pick me! Pick me! I’m important!” And there’s the “problem” with a book like the Bible. Everything is important, significant, in its own right or it wouldn’t have survived the test of time, translation, interpretation, and religion. In the end, I have chosen: Genesis, Exodus, Job, Psalms, and Song of Songs. And the New Testament: Matthew, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. I had to call in a colleague to validate my choices on these latter three. My rationale – no, I didn’t throw darts as I considered one evening as I was wrestling with the decision – is that they represent different genres of writing as well as key elements of the text and the Christian religion.
What assignments to give? So far, I have gone with my standard for a new course: two essays, two exams, quizzes, and their wiki. I think I will be adding to these basics, however, although I am not sure if they will be “formal” assignments or if I will add “activities.” My students here do better the more interactive the classroom is. The next phase of decision-making is designing these assignments or activities – which is where I personally am like a kid in a candy store (and this is where you ask yourself how many more metaphors and clichés can I possibly include in this post?). It’s one of the creative aspects of being a teacher, and, as I have said before, at this point they all work. The frustration and disappointment – I’ll be positive, or
triumph – come later with the implementation.
These questions are the nuts and bolts of a course. With Bible as Literature in particular, there are other more philosophical issues to address. For instance, the “as Literature” part. To be honest, the Bible is a minefield depending on the preconceptions, misconceptions, and belief systems of the students. The usual advice: demand they take faith out of the equation, that they look at it only as literature, as a text like any other. In theory, this is logical. In practice? This may be asking the impossible. Also, I am not sure I want the students to take faith out of the discussion. Part of studying literature is to consider context, including audience and reader expectations. Perhaps then it is best to ask for objectivity, to encourage stepping back and evaluating the big picture. I am considering opening up the discussion on the first day by examining photos of cathedrals – thinking about the differences between attending church and studying the building’s art and architecture. As an alternative, we have some beautiful churches here in Fitchburg – photos of those would give it local relevance.
As always, suggestions and advice are welcome. For those who read the Bible as a personal holy work, I would be interested in hearing what you would expect or want from a course such as this or what you (dis)liked about a comparable course you have taken.