In the spring of 1992, I taught a lecture course on “Introduction to New Testament” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to a class of 300. By the end of the drop-add period the enrollment was down to 263. This was normal attrition, and had nothing–or, probably, mostly nothing–to do with me or with the fact that, as a Jew who was normally tasked with teaching UNC’s courses on Judaism, I had undertaken to instruct a few hundred mostly Christian students in the evangelical South about their own Scripture.
It wasn’t the first time I pinch-hit for the UNC Religious Studies Department’s New Testament specialist. It was the first time, however, that I’d done so in the way I’m about to describe, with the success I’m about to describe.
I turned 70 a few weeks ago, and it’s the time of people’s lives when they look back on what those lives have been, what memories they’re happy with and which ones they’re inclined to regret. This is a memory I’m glad to recall. In some ways, I think that course was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
To begin with, it was a “lecture” course only by administrative classification. By the early 90s, about 15 years into my teaching career, I’d come to dislike and distrust lecturing. I’d fallen under the influence of Dr. Ed Neal, then director of the UNC Center for Teaching and Learning, one of whose slogans (posted on a sign in his office) was: “Talk Less – Teach More.”
What Ed helped me realize was that students can’t listen to and absorb a 50-minute lecture. Nobody can. (The limit of effective attention, apparently, is something like 15 minutes.) He taught me that students won’t remember what you say. They will remember, however, what they say, the realizations they come up with when actively engaged in the learning process. And what they read and discuss with each other is more effective fodder for that process than a professor’s talk.
And so I embarked on what a few years earlier I would have told you couldn’t be done: to teach an interactive course with 263 students.
Most courses that size work this way: The professor lectures to the whole group twice a week–say, Monday and Wednesday. Then the group is broken into smaller “recitation sections” of 25-30, meeting (say) Thursday or Friday, where teaching assistants answer the students’ questions about the readings and the lectures.
I decided to turn this model on its end.
The recitations, I decided, would be the pivots of the course. TA’s and students would work together on a problem I had set for the week. Pick a story about Jesus, for example, and figure out how the different versions in the different Gospels are most likely to have related to each other. Or: find a simple, catchy sentence to summarize each of Paul’s letters, to set that letter apart from all the others.
Then, in the next week’s Monday/Wednesday sessions–not “lectures”; I called them “assemblies” instead–representatives of the recitations would present what they’d come up with, and we’d all discuss the problem together.
That way, even in the big group, students would talk and not passively listen. In the recitations, they would shape their own ideas and not passively question. The Ed Neal principle was my guide. What I thought about the New Testament and its issues was of small importance. What counted was what they thought, engaging with the New Testament writings on their own.
That way it helped–a lot–that I was an outsider, an unconverted Jew. I’ll explain why in a moment.
For my plan to fly, I needed two things. I needed a first-rate team of TAs–and I got them. After 25 years I vividly remember C.W. and Pamela, Mark and Leo, and I think of them fondly and often.
I also needed to pour many hours into preparing, long before the course began. The students would get their input, the information they needed to form their opinions, not from anything I would say but from what they would read: the New Testament books themselves, and a textbook that I’d chosen to guide their understanding and provoke their reactions. For all of these I prepared study guides–the terms they had to know, the questions they had to be able to answer if they were to say they’d really understood what they’d read.
The textbook I picked was Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament. I picked it, as I remember telling an audience of religious-studies professors at a conference, because it smelled good. It was the work of a man who had thought through the issues on his own and spoke his views in plain language, even when they bucked the conventional wisdom. That was exactly what I wanted the students to do.
It helped that Johnson’s religious views were so different from mine. He was a devout Catholic who saw the essence of the New Testament in the transformation worked on the concepts and categories of the Jewish Torah by the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think the students were a bit shaken up by my having picked a textbook with whose fundamental views I was in such disagreement. (Several asked the TA’s: is Johnson Jewish?) “Shaken up” was exactly what I wanted them to be.
By 1992, as I approached my 20th year of university teaching, I’d evolved the philosophy that we who taught about religion had two tasks to perform with our students. One was to shake them up. The other was to build them up.
We were always good at the first of these. In my early years of teaching at UNC, I felt pleasure when students told me, “Before I took religion courses, I was sure of what I believed. Now I don’t know what to believe.” Pleasure–partly because it meant that my colleagues and I were having some impact. But also because I thought that uncertainty and doubt, about what after all are doubtful and uncertain matters, were healthy states for the human mind.
As the years passed, I came to question this. It’s easy to tear down, hard to build up. If you teach a student, Everything you thought you knew about God, the world, and human life is probably wrong; what you choose to do with that is not my affair–are you doing her any favors? Is what she’s getting from you really an education?
As the student increases his knowledge of the religious issues he once thought settled, his tide of faith goes out. That’s natural and wholesome. But somehow, at some time, it has to go back in if he’s to live in this world. What will it consist of?
Will you put, in place of the pseudo-certainties he came in with, your own pseudo-certainties? (You don’t know any better than your student does whether God exists, or if He exists what He wants from us.) That’s not teaching. That’s brainwashing.
Talk less, Ed Neal impressed upon us profs. Teach more.
I realized as I prepared the first class for my New Testament intro: I wouldn’t have to do anything at all to shake up the students. The very fact that there I was, an unconverted Jew teaching the Christian Bible, was shake-up enough. My TAs and I could spend all our energies on build-up.
Which meant: providing the students with time set aside for reading the New Testament writings. With tools to help them form their own opinions of what they read. And with a safe space in which they could freely discuss those opinions, with the assurance that nobody would rebuke them or make fun of them or call them names.
(“Safe spaces” have become a controversial topic in academia since I retired. What I mean by a “safe space” is not, I think, what is now meant by it. I was never interested in creating spaces where students could be “safe” from hearing their beliefs challenged–that’s the exact opposite of what I wanted. What I intended was a space where they knew themselves to be “safe” from personal disparagement, no matter how heretical or out-of-the-box, how orthodox or fundamentalist, their ideas were. And where they granted the same safety to others.)
I remember one “assembly,” near the beginning of the semester, where we spoke about what the students wanted to get from the course. Many of them wanted to know: what about the miracles of Jesus described in the Gospels? Could we believe in them?
I said: “The Gospels say Jesus walked on water. People can’t walk on water. Therefore Jesus couldn’t have walked on water.”
Then I said: “That’s my answer. Does it satisfy you?”
The response, from every corner of the auditorium where we met, was a very loud “NO!!!!”
I said: “Then you need to find answers that will satisfy you. Our work together is to give you the equipment you need to do that. So let’s get started.”
I think I added: you can’t get the answers from me. My answers won’t work for you. You need your own. Or words to that effect.
After all, I was Jewish, a fact of which I reminded them every week or so.
Over the next few months, they read the New Testament from Matthew to Revelation. They read it well, engaged with it well. I know that from their exams, and from listening to them in the recitation sections. (I forgot to mention: I sat in on each section once, taught each section once.)
It wasn’t the way I would have engaged with those texts, but who cares? That wasn’t the point.
On the last day of class, when I finished speaking, there was applause. I stepped back, gestured to the four TAs to come to the front of the stage while I stood behind them. Which they did; and the applause turned thunderous. It went on for quite a long time. I can’t think of many moments I remember with more pride.
by David Halperin
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