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5 Things I learned while teaching Exegetical Method for the first time

1. Students need clear instruction to use and clear guidelines for bibliographic format.

This was a hard lesson to learn and one I am still resisting. It bothers me that students in graduate school do not know how to cite sources properly. And, more bothersome is the fact that students will assume they do not have to cite sources unless I tell them explicitly to do so. I want to be able to give students the freedom to use different bibliographic styles (e.g., MLA, Chicago, APA) for two reasons. First, I am assuming they have come to seminary with training in a field or discipline that has its preferred style. I do not see a need to have the students learn yet another model. Plus, and secondly, I realize that, should they venture into the world of publishing, they will encounter several different styles. I see no need to impose on them a particular style now. I’ve learned though that many of the students are not familiar with a style and therefore they welcome even need me to tell them what style to follow. I’ve also accepted that for those who do want to publish imposing a style on them is more “real-world”. Still, the most worrisome issue is that I have to tell them when to use a style at all. In other words, I have to be very explicit and tell them to cite sources, even on short papers. I was taken aback when I received 4-6 page papers on a handful of different critical methods and many students had not cited their sources. I am not even talking about using proper format. I mean, they did not cite at all. Some included a bibliography at the end, but some included nothing. I blame myself somewhat. I described these exercises as general introductions. I wanted them to provide a brief overview, description and analysis of things like rhetorical criticism and ideological criticism. I did not cast the assignment as an in-depth research project. But, I had no idea that some of the students would take that to mean they were not responsible for citing sources. So, I’ve learned to place in my syllabus the very explicit line “You must cite sources on all assignments in which sources are used.”

2. Students need, and really ought to have, a clear grading template.

This one is on me. All of the assignments in the class are writing assignments. Therefore, much of the grading is subjective. I should provide some idea of how much weight I am giving to different parts of the writing assignments. I learned this when a student who had not cited sources (see above) was upset by the number of points I deducted for the faux paus. My initial reaction was along the lines of what I discussed above. I was astonished that the student thought citing sources was not necessary. I could have failed the paper since it officially violated plagiarism policies. However, I realized that this was not an isolated issue and I would have been failing several papers. I also realized that I could have avoided the confrontation had I spelled out more clearly the weightiness of stylistic concerns.  I now have grading rubrics for the larger assignments.

3. Students like to read the Greek text.

It seemed to me that the classes students enjoyed most were those in which we spent the majority of the time reading Greek.  See more below.

4. I feel better when I am prepared.

Duh.  I was prepared for every class.  But, there were some classes for which I was more prepared.  Those classes seemed to go a lot better.  I also learned though that classes seemed to be more productive when time was spent doing stuff with Greek texts rather than describing methods.  Descriptions of methods are easily found in their textbooks.  We can certainly take some time to go over these things in class, but the students were more responsive when we dealt with the text and let the methods come to light as we engage the passages.  What this means for me is a different sort of preparation.  Rather than being able to re-explain the method, which I will need to do, I must have a firm grasp of the texts under consideration.  This is more difficult prep for me, to be honest.  I am more comfortable talking about interpretive methods and hermeneutical conundrums.  But these sorts of discussions are less helpful than actual engagement with biblical text.  Of course methods and hermeneutical perspectives come clearer in engagement with texts and so we ought to be aware of these things as well.  Still, I learned this quarter to be prepared for more engagements with biblical texts.

5. Students want a clear structure for the exegesis paper.

I am not sure how far to go on this.  Part of me wants to provide general guidelines and let them develop their own structure.  Another part of me understands that for some a lot of the anxiety of writing is developing a structure.  What should go where?  I think I will offer some structural suggestions and leave it at that.

In the end I learned that on things stylistic and structural students are coming to the class less prepared than I imagined.  I also learned that students hove more of an enthusiasm for engaging biblical texts than I dreamed.  And, finally I learned that I am always learning better the material itself, but more importantly how to teach.

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4 Comments»

  dave beldman wrote @

Interesting.
I am more of a method guy as well, but I have been thinking about how I have been taught in the past and which courses were the most meaningful. I think the most meaningful was a course I took on 1 Kings in which we engaged in a close reading of the text without any real talk about method (this is not to say that the Prof. was without deliberate methodological approach) or even introductory matters such as date, author, setting, etc.
To a certain extent serious students of the Bible (especially at the graduate level) have to know what commentators are doing when they talk about J,E,P, and D, but do potential pastors really need to know the intricacies of Gunkel’s form criticism of the Psalms and the numerous redactional layers in the Book of the Twelve? Moreover, some of the methods in the academic study of Scripture are showing signs of age. I think when I get around to developing courses I will try to start with the question, “does [fill-in-the-blank] method help students understand the meaning(s) of the text, does it help them interpret the text?”
Certainly one would have to keep in mind the audience. In the research degrees students should be aware of the methods and be able to recognize the assumptions which gird them–to be able to criticize them and learn from them.
Your comment about students not citing their sources is incredible! I think I would give them back and tell them to resubmit with appropriate sourcing.

  Jonathan Bartlett wrote @

As to #1, for short overviews, I can see the student’s issue. If it’s more of a “can you accurately describe what you know” then citing is kind of silly. Most people don’t include citations for tests, either. There is a difference between an attempt at original work and simply restating a few ideas in your own words.

One of my professors has an interesting method for first-year students. He has students submit two versions of a paper. The first one the student is not allowed to do any research for the paper. The second one, the student does research for. Everything in the second paper not in the first one receives a citation.

Of course, it’s sad that people can even get out of high school without knowing how to cite sources, but it’s a current fact of life. I think the biggest problem is that while many classes in high school and college talk about citing sources, few of them talk about why that might be necessary. In fact, this is almost universal in education — teachers rarely are able to discuss why something is important. Especially research papers. Students have no idea why they are important, and yet nothing is said about why this is important for the future.

  Bob Cornwall wrote @

Regarding citations and sources, all depends on the type of paper. If it requires research and sources are used, then some type of citation of sources needs to be included. It can be simple or complex. Having taught church history, I would have students write 4-5 page analyses of primary texts. I expected them to give page numbers for any quotations or summations.

One of the problems I’d have would be extended quotations. A phrase or sentence at most was needed as I’d read the text myself. Of course quotations filled space, but I also graded lower for such papers.

The biggest problem I had, and this was while teaching at Fuller, was getting students to read and think critical. I had many students assume that a critical analysis involved criticizing the writer. Not quite what I had in mind!

  Pat McCullough wrote @

Hey Chris, I love reading your thoughts on teaching. It’s great to think about these things as you are learning them along the way. And good thoughts from your other visitors too. I’ll just mention one specific thing about teaching students (who don’t know) how to cite sources. When I was a freshman in college, my adviser directed us to a page on his website for instructions on citations. It was designed for one particular assignment, but I returned to it several times throughout college. I still have it bookmarked as a matter of fact! You can find it here. Now I have a PDF version of the SBL Handbook that I got on the SBL website for free. To find things, I just do Ctrl+F and search for “Journal article” or an abbreviation or whatever. I think it’s just free for SBL members, but maybe you could take some of the highlights from the handbook and copy and paste them on a page here? Maybe that’ll give students a quick place to turn for reference.


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