Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Catching Up on Things: History 111 Fall 2010

Sorry for being offline for the past two weeks. This past month, just in time for our string of three day Jewish holidays, I moved back to Columbus and started teaching again at Ohio State. On top of all this I did not have an internet connection at my apartment until last night. (While I might miss New York and Silver Spring, what I am paying for my half of a two bedroom apartment goes a long way to making up for things.) I hope to be back posting on a regular basis, though likely a little less often than earlier in the year.

So to get things back on track, I would like to invite everyone on board my new teaching experiment. For this quarter I decided to run my History 111 class as a book club. Instead of using one textbook and doing a survey of European history from antiquity up until the Enlightenment, we will be doing a series of shorter books on specific topics. Ideally I would like to do secondary sources, but I am open to doing primary sources and even good historical fiction. While I picked the first book, Bart Ehrman's Peter, Paul & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, subsequent books are to be picked by the class. We have already voted for the next book, Robert Harris's novel Imperium, which deals with the life of the Roman orator Cicero as told by his servant Tiro. It is similar to Robert Graves' I, Claudius, though it is, I believe, more accessible to a general audience.

I was inspired to do this in part by the wonderful book club I have here in Columbus and in part by my desire to take Alfie Kohn seriously to see what might come about with implementing some of his ideas. (See The Book Club: or How to Destroy School.) If the Alfie Kohn model of education could work anywhere it should be in a college where there is at least some degree of self motivation among students. By allowing students to pick what books we read I am allowing the opportunity to structure the class to suit them. I still will be maintaining graded assignments, including homework. For example, as in previous years, students are supposed to email me a question or comment about the reading before class. (An idea I took from Prof. Louis Feldman.) I then structure my talk around responding to these questions. That being said, this is a rather open ended assignment and serves to further make room for student input.

What attracted me to Ehrman was, one, he writes about the historical Jesus and early Christianity, topics of popular interest. He writes in a balanced fashion which, while not openly hostile to orthodox religious sensibilities does a very effective job at explaining how an academic approach differs from an orthodox one and for its superiority. Two, Ehrman provides an entry into the historical method as he talks his way through texts and how to use them. What Ehrman does to the New Testament is what historians do to all texts, sacred or otherwise. Part of what is subversive about the historical method, a Pandora's Box so to speak, is that it is impossible to accept it partway. If you accept the historical method then you commit yourself to applying it to all texts, the Bible just as much as Julius Caesar. Regardless of how orthodox your eventual conclusions, the moment you agree to subject the Bible to the same cross-examination as any other text you have put a knife into orthodoxy, committing yourself to the Kantian charge of placing everything before the bar of reason. There can be no return to innocent belief.

So this experiment seems to be going well even if I seem to be speaking a lot more than I might have liked. If anyone has book recommendations, please feel free to post them.

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