The everyday spirituality of marking!?

Photo by liber

Back in 2004 on the 15th of November I was also bogged down in marking (is there nothing new under the sun?) so i posted this little gem:

Blame Steve Taylor for this post, that or the end of the year has finally got to me… But Steve’s post “everyday spirituality of ironing” which reads:
| One of the neat things about ironing,
| is the chance to pray for those who wear the clothes,
| in a whole range of life and work situations.
made me think of marking, it’s the boring chore that I do most often. Barbara does the ironing, I do the cooking (and I love cooking, little time to think or pray though – when the flame hits the pot!) I suppose I could pray while mowing, but that does not work as well, I’m no St Francis to pray for the Mynas and the Thrushes, or even the cats that prey on them!

But marking, like the huge pile of exam scripts on my desk right now, that I do lots of, and it is boring (largely, though with the occasional gem) and it needs breaking up… So, I’m going to try praying for each student as I finish their script!

Nice one Steve!

I did, and it worked well for a few years, deepening the experience of marking and enriching my prayer. it works less well now though since Carey (unlike the University) does not always show a student’s picture in the LMS when I upload the mark. I need pictures I can’t recognise who is who as well with just names :(

Here be elephants (part one) struggling students

By English 090 CC-BY-SA-3.0 -, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the interesting results of nearing retirement from Carey is that I find myself becoming more aware of “elephants in the room”. Somehow while I was still counting my remaining teaching at Carey in multiple years they remained, by and large, unnoticed.

In this post I’d like to address the “elephant” of struggling students. Like many, perhaps most, theological institutions in Western traditionally English-speaking countries Carey has an increasing number of students whose origin or previous education have been in non-Western contexts. Some of these students, picked for intelligence and ability, perform excellently. Others, despite their intelligence, diligence and other qualities frankly do not perform well.

Their difficulties are varied, but often some or all of these elements are present:

  • poor command of English, or at least of that strange dialect of English used in the academic world:
    • this sometimes leads to complex sentences with strange (to a native anglophone teacher) word-choices or uses
    • on other occasions it results in a student who fails to understand something, but who the teacher assumes does understand because they can echo the “right” words and phrases (often it is only in more complex situations like a final essay where the misunderstanding becomes clear)
  • some students, believing that education is about the ability to know and repeat certain key information and ideas, will “plagiarise” copying the words or ideas of a perceived authority (which may be a textbook, academic article or item found through googling – for such students are often not well-equipped to judge the quality of material they access)
  • poor quality work produced with good intentions after a hard struggle by the student leads teachers (and not only the erroneously soft-hearted teachers ;) to award a passing grade (just) to work which ought to fail.

Our standard procedures and mechanisms would lead to either a poor pass for a student who should be getting good or excellent results, a mention on the institution’s plaigiarism register, or a fail. Because teachers workloads (in terms of numbers of student-classes and assignments) have roughly doubled in the last twenty years1 we do not have enough time to provide sufficient help to assist the student to overcome their difficulty (or, e.g. in the case of language knowledge, we do not have the skills needed to help).

This situation is not new, but I think it is getting worse. The result is students who receive diplomas but who do not really exhibit the qualities and understanding that the institution’s graduate profile would suggest.

A quarter of a century ago in another place we used to sometimes refer scathingly to certain European and American institution’s habit of granting “African Doctorates”. Such awards, given with the best of motives, do not help the “developing world” or minority cultures. They are dangerous lies!

  1. This is a very rough figure, and is based only on my experience and observations, but I believe is at least approximately representative at least of the situation in NZ. []

I wish I taught physics

Physics professor Joe Redish at the University of Maryland. (Photo: Emily Hanford) from the AmericanRadioWorks post.

I’ve always had a sneaking envy of physics teachers. Their subject comes with such a neat set of well understood and widely agreed (almost universally1 principles and concepts. In biblical studies everything is so frustratingly a matter of (almost always widely) different interpretations and approaches.

But now I have another reason to envy physics teachers. It may have taken all my life as a teacher, and more, but they now have a well-researched body of knowledge that demonstrates that “lectures” are nearly useless at communicating such ideas, and a nearly equally well-researched body of knowledge about how to do the job better :)

Of course, despite all this evidence most physics teachers are (like most biblical studies teachers) too much creatures of habit to actually change, but if I taught physics at least there’d be that body of research.

Take the simple principle that tells us that two metal balls dropped together at the same time will reach the ground at around the same time despite the fact that one weighs twice what the other does. You do know that principle? It’s called gravity, it’s breaking news, some guys called Newton and Galileo have done theoretical and practical research in the field.  Apparently a huge proportion of physics students, even at “good” universities, just don’t “get” it. Despite attending physics lectures and even passing physics exams. And it’s not because either (a) they are all Quantum Mechanics, or (b) because all physicists are thick ;) It is because lectures don’t work. What does work is the way most of us learned most of what we know.

But before I get to that here’s an anecdote from a post on the topic at AmericanRadioWorks:

Redish has been teaching at the University of Maryland since 1970. When he started, he lectured because that’s the way he had been taught. But after a few years in the classroom, Redish was meeting with one of his mentors, a famous physicist named Lewis Elton who had begun doing research on education.

“He asked me, ‘How’s your teaching?'”

Redish told him it was going well, but that he seemed to be most effective with the students “who do really well and are motivated” about physics.

Elton looked at Redish, smiled, and said, “They’re the ones who don’t really need you.”

“That was like an arrow to the breast!” says Redish.

So, what is this approach to education we (almost) all used as students that could revolutionise teaching and learning? It’s simple. I learned most of what I learned from my peers. The rest I got from books and journals, which I read because conversations with my fellow students over coffee had suggested I needed to read up more on a topic. The basic understanding though came from the chatting over coffee.2

For those who like formal technical language3 it is called Peer Instruction, and there is a whole website provided by Monash University dedicated to Peer Instruction in the Humanities. Read it! Or better still chat to your friends about it, here or over a cup of coffee ;)

  1. At least in the metaphorical, not-literal, sense that all physics teachers on earth agree, I can’t be sure those who might perhaps be in other corners of the Universe really do, though i suspect it would be likely ;) []
  2. No wonder I like drinking coffee, I used to tell my students in Africa that at Oxford teachers and students ran on coffee like cars run on petroleum ;) []
  3. Perhaps because it makes things seem reassuringly “academic”. []

Resources and situations: flipping Bible teaching

Photo by aflcio

I realise that in my enthusiasm for the infographic I probably didn’t explain well what I meant in my last post: Flip, this is good.

Teaching on this model would involve groups of students together (and separately) addressing a series of issues or situations (carefully chosen and prepared case studies, or actual situations that come out of their current placements). In preparing responses to these they would be guided to various resources. These might include, but would not be limited to:
  • material prepared by the teacher(s)
    • 5-10 minute videos (often made with presentations with voice over (using a screen capture tool – like CaptureFox)
    • similar length audio segments (where the notes/visual elements were less important
    • short written explanations of key ideas
    • a glossary
  • other material (both self-discovered and linked by the teacher)
    • book chapters
    • journal articles
    • blog posts
    • etc

Note that these resources would need to cover the same sorts of topics as we traditionally think of as the content of our courses, but the list might need some adjustments (in the light of how important/relevant a topic is really for student learning. Since students would discover their “need to know” they would be motivated to learn about arcane topics like intertextuality or the Hebrew verb system.

Many of the “resources” would be the same things (like my 5 Minute Bible podcasts) that I currently point students to when they email me with questions… though some would need preparation, and others might need preparing as the course unfolded.  The same approach would work with distance and onsite students, but in both cases the “class time” would focus on the problem or situation, not on the “content”, developing skills and thinking, and leaving the information to be delivered by less time intensive means.

Flip, this is good

Eddie Fearon (at Hermeneutica) was asking how I’d restructure teaching in Theology/Biblical Studies, I think his concern with my “we’d start with real world situations” suggestion was that the basics of biblical and theological disciplines would get lost. I think this infographic suggests how they could be ensured.
The Flipped Classroom

Created by Knewton and Column Five Media

Of course, you’d have to “flip” more radically than these guys, there wouldn’t be set video (or PPT plus audio, or plain audio etc.) resources “set” for each week, but the situations would be chosen so that over time students would need those 5 minutes on perichoresis or on the meaning and value of Sitz im Leben for formcritical reading or whatever…


Free open-source textbook project: call for participation

A while back a number of us talked about producing a free open-source textbook to the Hebrew Bible/OldTestament/TaNaK/whatever you call it today. Since that first flurry the idea has quietly dropped. However, also since then I find I have one day a week next semester to do with as I please, and even more time next year :)

So, I would like to put some of that time into this project. In order to start this rolling I want to do two things:

  1. Gather a small group to be the editorial team: this group would correspond by email in private and take the final decisions, its members should be established teachers willing to spend at least a little time thinking and planning, and perhaps some more in bursts on editing tasks (though if we could get funding this might largely be outsourced). To nominate yourself or someone else please either comment here or write to me: tim at
  2. Begin and sustain a wider discussion of the parameters of the project: that is I hope the blogging community will contribute criticism and ideas that will inform the editors decisions. I’ll begin this here.

Some items for early decision.


We need to decide the scope of the project, in at least two ways:

  • Do we deal with the Hebrew or Greek canon? (I think this one is easy, put the first priority with the shorter Hebrew canon, and extend to enable a version that includes the rest when contributors permit.)
  • Is the textbook to be sectarian? By “sectarian” I am thinking of sects both religious: Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant…, and scholarly: minimalist, maximalist, etc…   (I think a similar approach might be possible. In the first instance the core chapters would try to take a non-sectarian line, and we might deliberately ask  for a reviewer from different “sects” from the author to ensure at least fairness, if not the mythical “balance”. While, once the basic chapter is written, anyone might add to it a section that suggested how this information becomes a INSERT SECT ADJECTIVE reading.)

There will be issues of size etc. but they can be discussed later.


Since the first suggestion, by Brooke on Facebook and AKMA in his blog, we have been calling this FOSOTT (Free Open-source Old Testament Textbook). While I like the acronym, and the meaning, I am less sure about designating the object of study as “Old Testament”. This is a sectarian description. I am sure different instructors can use different terms for their classes, a simple search and replace would enable one to use different terms throughout. But what name, for this rose we study, should we use in the project title?

Peer review:

Above I have mentioned reviewers, I think this work, in its “canonical” form should be peer-reviewed. As I suggested above I think for a textbook chapter such a review process might help ensure less bias and better balance, while hopefully not stiffling individuality… but I imagine others may think differently.


Like AKMA I think a CC license is the obvious choice, for me too attribution is a minimum. But he preferred non-commercial, and I would go for even greater openness…


Are we thinking text plus pictures, like a conventional print work, or will we build in the possibility of a richer electronic edition with internal and external links, video and sound… (My take is that we ask for a basic text-plus-pictures, but also seek to produce in parallel a richer electronic edition, the “print format” version could include the links to media on the project site in print format.)

Earlier discussion of this idea:

FOSOTT (Free and Open Source Old Testament Textbook)

Open Access Intro to OT

The Shortcomings of Traditional Textbooks in the Digital Age, and Our Invitation

Funding Neopublishing

multiauthor multiple possibility neotextbook

Several posts on this blog (posts in reverse chronological order :(

Open Access, Open Source, and Open Ended Textbooks

I know I have missed bookmarking quite a few contributions, so please let me know and I will add a link to yours :)

Interactive Online Study

Photo by LaMenta3

The always impressive John Hobbins has a fine post “Innovative Methods of Interactive Online Study” outlining the approach he uses in the course on the Bible and its reception, whose sessions he has been regaling us with details for some weeks now. This post is well worth reading by everyone interested in teaching using an online component. My only quibble is with the word “innovative” in the title which to me suggests doing something completely new, while it is precisely the detail of his approach, the precise and useful ways in which he adapts and changes well-established patterns of teaching using discussion forums which are the great strength and value of the post.

It makes me sad that in the coming years I am unlikely to be teaching in this way much and so will have little opportunity to use John’s ideas to refine and tweak my practice. Early retirement seems now a mixed blessing ;)

But if you are developing courses this post and its predecessors listing the resources for his sessions could be a fine stimulus to more creative and effective teaching. John has the same gift for well crafted questions that enabled Brian Smith on his retirement from Carey, teaching using Moodle for the very first time,1 to provoke nearly double the interaction of the next best teacher that year!

  1. As principal he had not had leisure to learn a new medium. []

Encyclopedia of Hebrew terms for tools

What a great resource, and free online instead of expensive dead trees from Brill :)

The כלי Database: Utensils in the Hebrew Bible from Het Oudtestamentisch Werkgezelschap (the Dutch and Flemish society of Old Testament scholars) looks really excellent a great source of information on all those awkward terms that refer to various sorts of tool or implement. Unfortunately the first term I looked up מִזְרָק from Am 6:6 does not appear to have been entered yet :( but the list is already impressively long.

The format is a series of PDF files, which allows the appearance to be controlled, but makes usage somewhat less easy and reuse much less easy compared to XML and CSS, but it will have made production easier :) It is sad that there are few or no illustrations. At a time when images are getting easier to find and permission to use more likely to be freely given. However, entries have a section pointing readers to illustrations in reference works in their library.

In short this seems a really useful tool, and one we can be grateful they are publishing in such an open fashion. It also offers an interesting set of compromises between traditional forms and the new medium. It will be fascinating to see over coming decades how many and which such compromises continue to be made, representing what is culturally important about print. For example in this case the physical layout of print with page and line breaks was deemed significant.

HT: Jim West

Passive students or active learning

One video in particular from Michael Wesch’s Visions Of Students Today 2011 project caught my eye. He asked students to make short videos of education from their perspective, and offer them as an open source resource.

This video caught my attention because it highlights the dangers of leaving students passive and the power of active learning:


For more on Michael see these previous posts: