I’m trying to rethink the ways in which I teach Old Testament introduction and I came up with an assignment that I hope will interest the students:

The Story of Genesis Through the Sistine Chapel

Using the Vatican’s interactive guide and virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, follow the “Central Stories” which depict Michelangelo’s interpretation of Genesis 1-9. Read Genesis 1-9 for yourself and in a two page, double spaced, essay compare and contrast Michelangelo’s interpretation of Genesis 1-9 with your own reading. Students might find it helpful to consult the class textbook for this assignment as well.

Interactive Guide: http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/CSN/CSN_Volta_StCentr.html

Virtual Tour: http://www.vatican.va/various/cappelle/sistina_vr/index.html

I aso made a short video that provides a little introduction to the assignment. Sure it’s cheesy and my dog snores in the background but who says education has be so stuffy? As always, let me know what you think.

Here on awilum.com I am putting together a curated collection of open-access resources to supplement my course on Ancient Near Eastern Culture that I am teaching as part of the Master of Liberal Arts program at Houston Baptist University in the Spring of 2013. Here is a description of the course:

This course will survey the history and culture of the civilizations that inhabited the areas from Iran to Egypt from the Neolithic period (ca. 10,000 BCE) to Alexander the Great (ca. 323 BCE). Topics of study include art, literature, religion, law, politics, geo-political effects of climate change, health care, economics and commerce, war and peace, and women. Special attention will be given to exploring the significance of the study of the ancient world for contemporary society as well as for biblical interpretation.

Starting in January, each week I will post a list of resources that pertain to one of eleven selected topics: art, literature, religion, law, scribal culture, geo-political effects of climate change, health care, economics and commerce, war and peace, and women. The lists will contain links to open-access resources such as interviews, lectures, essays, pictures, and online exhibits. For instance, here is the list for the first topic, art:

Furthermore, each week I will post a short video introducing the topic and the resources provided for it. In the videos I will also suggest ways in which studying these topics as they relate to the ancient world can help us understand more deeply our contemporary society.

Lastly–and I am very excited about this–the course will have a guest lecture by Seth Sanders, author of The Invention of Hebrew and one of the world’s experts on the scribal cultures of the ancient Near East. Dr. Sanders is Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity College, CT. HBU students who are registered in the class will be able to ask questions but anyone is welcome to watch the seminar either live or recorded on my YouTube channel (I will announce the date and time here on this website in January).

We are using three main textbooks for this course: Salima Ikram, Ancient Egypt: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Benjamin Foster and Karen Foster, Civilizations of Ancient Iraq (Princeton University Press, 2009); and David Wengrow, What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East & the Future of the West (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Reading these three books, interacting with the content curated here, as well as viewing Dr. Sanders’s lecture, will provide a substantial introduction to the history and culture of the ancient Near East as well as its significance for better understanding modern civilization. I invite anyone interested in this topic to join us in our studies.

A few days ago I mentioned Duane Smith’s reflections on the beneficial nature of the inherent inefficiencies of education and it struck me that those advocating a radical pogrom of the universities of “unnecessary” subjects, which is almost inevitably a cipher for the humanities, and pushing an agenda of “useful” and “practical” education, which sounds very much like turning universities into very expensive technical colleges, are suggesting a complete revision of what–at its root–education has always been about since the beginning of schooling itself. For instance, take Niek Velduis‘s description of the curriculum of the 4,000 year old schools in Mesopotamia:

The teaching of Sumerian in the Nippur eduba was not guided by the list of skills a future scribe had to master. The lack of attention to Akkadian and the overdose of high-brow Sumerian point in another direction. It seems that handing down the Sumerian language and tradition as completely as possible was considered to be all important. A pupil of the scribal school was introduced to the techniques of writing, but more importantly he was introduced to the heritage of Sumerian writing and Sumerian poetics.1

Now, I am all for revisiting ideas and systems and adapting, changing, and even completely reworking them when we have good reasons for doing so and it is clear that the changes will be for the better. However, when we do this we should be cognizant and upfront with what we are doing. Those advocating a radical repositioning of the educational system seen within the structure of traditional universities–which centers upon teaching people how to think, how to analyze the world and the ideas in it, how to form their own opinions and conclusions, how to generate new ideas, gain a greater appreciation for the previously unknown and different, develop a sense of beauty, form their own identity and ethical vision, and to acquire skills to help them flourish as participants in the world economy and as individual human beings in the global community–and focusing merely upon commoditizing education and reducing its focus to merely utilitarian ends, are casting aside an approach to education that is four millennia old.

Ever since scribal schools sprang up teachers have thought that a vital part of their roles was imparting an ethical vision to their students and helping to form an identity for them that would lead them to serve other humans for the common good. For thousands of years people have known that knowledge is power and educated people have to use their power with circumspection, mercy, justice, competency, and compassion. Over the past few years we have seen what happens when we hand extremely talented but myopic and seemingly ethically numb people the keys to our economy. To take a razor to our universities and slice off “unproductive” departments that, by the way, focus upon the bedrock of western civilization as we know it (Classics) and the country that holds the fate of the Euro and concomitantly the world financial system in its hands (German), is not only foolish but historically blind. Yet, this should come as no surprise because the fields of vision of the people who were until recently guiding the direction of UVa’s board center upon three month increments.

While the UVa scandal is presently in a temporary lull, the overall debate of what a university is and how it should look in the near future is far from over and many of the same trajectories that regents at UVa were pushing are quietly being threatened at other universities.

All this is not to say that universities should not listen to the business community, and even hedge fund moguls, as they adapt to the ever changing demographic, technological, and sociological landscapes of the current future age. They do and they should. However, at the same time, those that hold positions of trust on the boards of these institutions should also be listening to the “inefficient” thinkers and teachers that populate them. Because if they did I’m sure that the history department, or even that completely obscure ancient Near Eastern studies professor, would be very delighted to have a mutually beneficial conversation about how people of the past viewed education so that those in positions of influence might have a more thoughtful and informed ability to formulate a vision for the future.

  1.  Nicolaas Veldhuis, “Elementary Education at Nippur: The Lists of Trees and Wooden Objects” (PhD diss., Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 1997), 82-83. [back]

A couple years ago I curated a collection of open courses that would form a curriculum for a free M.A. in biblical studies for personal study. More courses have come online since then so I’ve updated the entire thing. It’s a really spectacular list of classes taught by John Searle, Christine Hayes, Dale Martin, Shaye Cohen, Miroslav Volf, Tony Blair, and more. Enjoy.

Many people are glowingly describing the new journal, Hebrew Bible and Ancient Israel (HeBAI) and rightly so since it has a stellar editorial board and an impressive list of scholars contributing to the first issue. Furthermore, it fills an interesting niche in which an entire journal is devoted to looking at the history of Israel in relation to biblical and cognate texts. However, what I don’t hear anyone asking is: why is this new journal using a business model from the early 1900′s? Library budgets are already under the gun at most every institution and adding a new journal with an institutional subscription price of 200 euros per year is, in my opinion, not the best idea (but, it is not the worst; at least it is not $667 like the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha or Vetus Testamentum which is 355 euros for an electronic only subscription).

Why is it that it must cost this much? There are many other new, peer-reviewed outlets that have free dissemination such as the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures and SBL’s Ancient Near East Monograph series. These ventures are underwritten by institutions so I understand that a self-standing journal must pay for things such as typesetting and the like. But should it really cost 200 euros to do this? There are other journals, such as the Bulletin for Biblical Research, (full disclosure: I am on the editorial board) which have a cost of $65 dollars for institutional subscriptions. I don’t know what kind of editorial services HeBAI will offer but BBR does the peer-review process, type-setting, even close proof-reading and checking citations to make sure they are accurate (which many other journals with far higher subscription prices don’t do), and dissemination all for $65.

Lastly, do we really need another journal? Is the space in other journals already packed cheek and jowl with indispensable articles that desperately deserve to see the light of day? Every scholar I talk with laments the fact that secondary literature in every speciality has exploded to almost unwieldy levels. Do we really need another journal to add to this existing problem or would tighter scrutiny of submissions and greater selectivity be better in the long run?

On one level I join many others in warmly welcoming this new journal yet on the other I think it may illustrate and contribute to some of the problems of the educational-industrial complex.

What do you think?

David Carr has an interesting piece in the NYT concerning a CNN journalist who was suspended over a Twitter post which got me to thinking about the implications of this event for those in higher education. Academics are all over the board with respect to social media like Facebook, Twitter, and personal blogs or websites. Some scholars don’t have an online presence at all while some (like me) have electronic footprints that zig zag all over the place. Furthermore, on an institutional level there is great diversity–some schools are ambivalent about social media while others practically make a Facebook account a condition for further employment because they see it as a recruiting tool.

Let me tell you a little about my experience with this stuff and then I’ll list a few ideas how I think social media can compliment scholarly activity.

I started this blog years ago upon the advice of the Chief Creative Officer of an ad agency I employed. I had just started my PhD and wanted a way to differentiate myself and get my name out there. It was a great idea and at the time I had no idea how it would help me. I’ve met tons of really great people and fantastic scholars through the blog and through these connections I’ve been asked to join publishing projects, editorial boards, received recommendation letters for various academic endeavors, and a university president even read my blog and offered me a job because it. I joined Facebook a few years later and then I just signed up for a Twitter account a few weeks ago. Facebook has built similar relationships as did my blog except I keep up with people much more regularly on it. These tools are not just silly little things that time wasters use–they are platforms that have vastly helped my professional career and have given me opportunities and relationships that I would never have had otherwise. Think of it as a professional meeting that instead of convening four days a year is always on 24/7 365 days a year (You don’t go to SBL and AOS for the papers do you? You go for the coffee breaks in between and during sessions and for the dinners and nights on the town after they are over.)

But, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. I’ve stepped into hot water on several occasions. Most of the time it has been inadvertent–I’ve posted a joke and because tone of voice doesn’t come across in text it has been taken the wrong way. Sometimes people do a cursory reading of a post and think I’m saying something I’m not. On a couple of occasions I have purposely caused a controversy. I think that one of the roles, maybe even the role, of a scholar is to tell the truth, at least as well as one understands it at any rate. And, sometimes power structures don’t like the truth. It comes with the territory, especially if you engage in biblical studies as I do. But, if you’re a scholar and no one is upset at you you probably aren’t doing your job.

In any case, some of these more unfortunate instances were caused, at least as I see it, from different expectations concerning what communication should look like in different mediums. Here is how I picture it:

  • Peer reviewed material whether in electronic or dead tree form. This is the most formal style of writing in which I have to conform to the expectations of the guild. Furthermore, it means that journal articles must be boring (I’ve actually had a referee say an essay was too fun to read) and books are not boring per se but vanilla. Primarily I try to develop new ideas and put them into fully supported and persuasive packages.
  • Blog. For the most part, I keep this space focused on stuff that is professionally relevant. However, the tone is more casual, I use hyperbole to make a point, and occasionally I interject some attempts at humor. Here I try out new ideas that I’m still batting around, pass through information or links that might interest other scholars, and get people to think in fairly substantial yet often more amorphous ways.
  • Facebook and Twitter. This is a complete blend between my personal and professional life. I do two things on this space. 90% of my posts here are merely intended to make people laugh. Life has its challenges and we can all use a smile once a day and this is my gift to you (I try at least). The remaining 10% is mainly me trying get people to think, often through farce and sarcasm–like Jonathan Swift but not as profound.
Now, I totally get what Carr is saying in his piece regarding the fact that we all have to be thoughtful about how we engage in social media and we don’t get an unrestricted pass when we say something stupid or hurtful and claim, but, hey, I was racist on Facebook so no biggie. Organizations hire people and people in turn reflect upon organization so don’t be surprised if your employer gets upset if you say something boneheaded.
Yet, please don’t let this danger prevent you from being funny, thoughtful, and provocative. I have read plenty of completely boring blogs and Facebook and Twitter feeds. And you know what I do with them? I ignore them and so does most everyone else. And, if you’re the author of these bland passthroughs of nothingness you are wasting your time and they are not helping you professionally at all. People just assume that you’re boring.
Also, I don’t separate my “personal” interactions from my “professional” ones–they are all the same to me (and to Keith Ferrazzi where I developed this idea). So, in one minute on Facebook I am joking with someone about their kids and the next we are talking about Akkadian or Hebrew. But, this is how life is. I interact with *people* not with robots who I use only for their knowledge of a particular subject. Again, there is fear that employers may not like your personality if it comes through in social media but if you teach your personality is a *huge* part of the classroom experience. I joke a lot and don’t take myself too seriously on Facebook and guess what, I’m the same way in the classroom–this is probably one of the reasons why I have really incredible student evaluations; who likes sitting for hours in front of an uptight boring person who thinks too highly of him or herself?
So, I’ll pause here and in the next post I’ll try to give some more detailed ways in which scholars can use social media to complement more traditional aspects of their work and build their professional network.

Even after he published Prufrock and The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot continued to work his day job at a bank. The new volume of his letters reveals his financial anxieties and his unexpected attitude towards work and writing.

From 1917 until 1925, T.S. Eliot worked in a bank. A simple, declarative sentence, a biographical fact.

via A Peaceful, But Very Interesting Pursuit – The Rumpus.net.

A Nobel Prize winning poet continuing his day job (until he landed an editorial job) even after acclaim. Interesting issues to think through for many who are pursuing or have completed PhDs in biblical and ANE fields as the job market gets increasingly tight…

Open Culture has curated a list of 40 free philosophy courses. They all look interesting but here is a selection that look particularly relevant to those who follow this blog:

  • Ancient and Medieval Philosophy iTunes Video - Web Video – David O’Connor, Notre Dame
  • Ancient Philosophy – iTunes – David Ebrey, UC Berkeley
  • Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love - iTunes Video - Web Video – Professor David O’Connor, Notre Dame
  • Philosophy of Language – iTunes – John Searle, UC Berkeley
  • The Nature of Mind – iTunes – John Joseph Campbell, UC Berkeley
  • The Secular and The Sacred – Web Site – Sean Dorrance Kelly, Harvard
  • Theory of Meaning – iTunes Audio – iTunes Video – John Joseph Campbell
  • Thucydides – Web Site - Leo Strauss, U Chicago
  • Truth & Subjectivity/The Culture Of The Self – Web Site – Michel Foucault, UC Berkeley