August 27, 2012 by Jason Hood
In addition to church work, I teach a number of graduate and undergraduate courses in Bible and mission. Many of the obstacles in the classroom are similar to the obstacles in the church. And the greatest obstacle of all is the most basic: the ability to read and describe the text and its contents. As difficult as it can be to (say) understand a text in ancient cultural context or engage application in healthy ways, I’d wager that most evangelical students are far better at application than the simpler task of understanding a text.
Ed Sanders has a great piece (it begins on the bottom of the third page) where he reflects on teaching undergraduates:
My earliest worthwhile perception about how to teach was that people do not understand a text after merely reading it through.
In order to address the problem, Sanders required short descriptive papers, not more than 2 pages, in which students were required to describe the topics that appeared more than twice in a short and relatively simple book like 1 Thessalonians. Students would mock the short assignment, then fail to ace it.
N. B.: students didn’t choose their own topics (we all know they would simply find what they already believe is there, whether it’s prominent or not); they actually had to wrestle with the text, engage in close reading, and find the topics that are actually within the text. Sanders cites 1 Thes 4:3-6, 13-17 as examples of passages that were frequently overlooked, simply because students didn’t understand what they were reading. Those shorter papers were followed by a longer version:
The more ambitious effort was to teach undergraduates how to do original exegetical research and write essays. I would always say that if they could write exegesis papers on the NT they could write explanations of anything, and lots of jobs require reading and writing at a high level. My wife’s job was an example that I often cited.
With rare exceptions the students had no idea of how to read a document, pick a topic, study it in the text (not in a reference book), and write about it….
Having no idea of how to study or write, many students turn to plagiarism, which has always been a plague in the educational system. Since the arrival of the Internet plagiarism has become a catastrophic epidemic. [[JH note: of course, since the advent of Google, it's become far, far easier to catch plagiarism.]] Few students are natively dishonest. [[JH note: I thoroughly disagree! We are all dishonest.]] They just don’t know what to do except to find what someone else has written about their topic and copy it down.
Don’t tell publishers, but I agree wholeheartedly with this observation:
I forbade the reading of secondary literature when writing the term paper. Beginning students will bow to authority and will memorize conclusions without ever studying the subject. And then they’ll plagiarize.
Sanders correctly notes the value of studying the Bible in this way:
Merely describing and classifying evidence are important goals. . . . You can’t [I'd say shouldn’t] have a theory about any topic in the humanities unless you systematically analyze the evidence.