To Ban or Not To Ban (Technology in the Classroom)?

Lately it seems as if the dawn of each new semester brings with it an opinion piece on laptop/smartphone/tablet/tech policies in the classroom. The most recent one that I’m aware of ran a couple days ago in the New York Times (here). Its title (“Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom”) leaves no doubt as to the author’s position on the matter: screens are not welcome, and for a number of reasons.

Pieces like this ignite numerous fires whenever they post. On the one
hand, you 70959205have those who claim that on the whole students are more effective learners when technology is absent. And this is true, for the most part; there are a number of studies that support the conclusion that we learn better when we are not distracted by a screen.

Yet on the other hand there are many who claim that a blanket ban on technology is draconian, uncreative, and problematic pedagogy. To note but one example: What about students with documented learning challenges who have learned to use their laptops to take notes more efficiently? The author of the article linked above addresses this group of students, actually. He refers to them as “medical exemptions,” and these “exemptions” are, presumably, allowed to use their laptops (or similar) in class. Basically: if you are using a laptop in class, it is because you have some flavor of learning disability. This puts some students in an awkward position, to say the least, and it amounts to an enormous breach of privacy.

Truth be told, I’ve gone back and forth on my technology policies for years, and I’m still unconvinced as to what the best solution is. I understand the rationale for banning it, for allowing it, and even for encouraging it. I’ve done all of these things, and each brings different results: some good, some bad, and some just, well, different.

My current policy is to permit technology as long as it does not distract me or others. My students are adults, so I try to treat them as such. Do some students get sucked into social media and fail to pay attention? Sure. And because they are adults they will also experience the real consequence of not doing well in the course.

But in my experience, many students use their technology in positive ways, to take notes, to look up words that are unfamiliar to them, etc. Most, I think, occupy a middle ground between diligence and distraction. These students might take notes by hand but occasionally pull out their phones to check in on the outside world. I do the same thing in faculty meetings (sshhh), so I can’t in good conscience be too hard on this group.

Another reason I’ve chosen to permit technology in my classrooms is that I find enforcement of a strict ban to be itself distracting and problematic. Most of my classes have between twenty and thirty students in them, and if I stop what we are doing every time I see a phone, it disrupts the flow of things. It punishes students who are following the rules. But there’s also the far more central issue (noted above) of students who use laptops or comparable devices because of learning difficulties. Students should be allowed and encouraged to use the tools that they need in class without fear of judgement from their peers.

All this being said, I make every effort to discourage students from using their devices purely for distraction’s sake. And I don’t do this by giving them a rule, but by giving them a break (a literal one). During longer classes (more than one hour), I let students take a five-minute respite at the midpoint so that they can check their phones, go to the restroom, or talk with their neighbor. I started this last semester and it seems to have been successful. More than a few remarked to me at the end of the semester that they were less antsy to check their phones or open Facebook on their laptops because they knew they would have an opportunity to do so before too long.

I also try to break up the content of class so that it’s not just me yammering on at the front of the room. If I had to listen to me talk for an extended period of time, I would try and distract myself as well. I’ve found that moving away from traditional lecture and more towards discussion-based and interactive class sessions encourages students to be more engaged and attentive to what’s going on around them. And technology can be an enormous help here. Put students into groups and have them use their devices to find artwork or news articles. Allow students to “live tweet” class discussions using a special hashtag so that others can revisit the conversation later. Find ways to incorporate technology into your classes in ways that show students how to use it productively, and not just as a diversion. When students are more engaged and attentive, they are less likely to seek distraction.

Of course, the dreaded “laptop culture” that develops in some classes is a reality, and it can be an enormous problem. Classes form distinct personalities over the course of the semester (many would say these personalities are cemented in the first few meetings), and I’ve had at least one in which electronic devices became toxic to the learning environment. Screens everywhere, and none of them displaying anything relevant. In this class I opted to ban electronic devices at midterm; I’m not convinced that it was the right decision (for all the reasons noted above), but it certainly woke the students up and changed our trajectory for the better. Looking back on that experience, I’m inclined to think that a discussion about what it means to be “present” in the room might have worked just as well. After all, a huge part of what we do in the classroom is help students learn how to learn. And a huge part of helping them learn how to learn is helping them learn how to use the tools available to them, and to do so appropriately.

I’m still experimenting with technology in the classroom, and as I said above, I go back and forth regarding its merits (or lack thereof). At the end of the day, I do think that it is an issue that needs to be addressed with a degree of complexity far greater than just “ban it.” Simply telling students that screens are not allowed is in many ways the equivalent of “abstinence only” sex-ed: it doesn’t work, and it often encourages the type of behavior that you are trying to prevent.

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Teaching Biblical Archaeology and Numismatics

Teaching Biblical Archaeology in a classroom is, in many ways, a superficial exercise. You can learn a lot about methodology and this or that artifact or site, of course, but there is no substitute for actually “getting your hands dirty.” With this in mind, I thought it might be good to start my Biblical Archaeology course this semester with a hands-on exercise to help students understand one facet of material culture: numismatics, or the study of currency.

I brought in a few small baggies of old United States coinage ranging in date fromimg_3397 the 1840s to the 1980s. In my younger days I was into coin collecting, so I had a pretty good selection of vintage coins on hand (see image). But you could easily do this exercise with a handful of random change from a gas station.

When class started I split students into pairs. Each pair got a bag of coins and some instructions:

Empty the contents of your bag onto the desk, and arrange the artifacts you find in chronological order, oldest to newest. Examine these coins carefully, and on a sheet of paper, make a list of all the symbols that you find. Which symbols appear most often? Which appear least often? What “story” do these coins tell?

I gave them about ten or fifteen minutes to work, and then we reassembled for discussion. Overall I was quite pleased with what they found.

Their lists of symbols were impressive, all groups noting such prominent imagery as the eagle, stars, olive branch, arrows, shield, etc. And when I asked them about the “story” that these coins tell, they were eager to share some of the anecdotes that many of us learned as children.

6791The eagle on the back of the Kennedy Half Dollar, for example, has an olive branch in its right talon and a bundle of arrows in its left, and it gazes in the direction of the olive branch. If the olive branch symbolizes peace, and the arrows symbolize war, then the fact that the eagle faces the olive branch suggests that we value peace more than we do war. Yet the fact that he retains his grasp of the arrows suggests that we are also capable of violence.

Nearly every student had heard this “story” growing up. I asked them if they considered it to be “true”? Some nodded, but most shook their heads. One student noted that because our country has spent more years at war than we have at peace, our history would suggest that our preference is actually the opposite of the eagle’s. This astute observation gave us an opportunity to talk about coinage as propaganda, as something that instills and creates a sense of identity even more than it reflects it. That is to say that the symbols on our coins shape how we understand ourselves, and they frequently do so in ways that are incongruous with actual reality.

I also spent some time underlining the contextual nature of symbols. Nearly every group in the class noted, for example, that when there are stars on United States currency, there are frequently thirteen of them. When asked why, students respond almost instinctively: Because there were thirteen original colonies. If you asked a student in Europe that same question, they probably won’t have as quick of an answer. This is not because they’re stupid, but because the “thirteen original colonies” aren’t part of their narrative. And this is one of the many reasons why interpreting ancient coinage can be difficult. The “narrative” that is reflected, built up, and reshaped by numismatic symbols is frequently patchy and, in some cases, altogether foreign to us. So, when we interpret ancient symbols, we often do so with a degree of educated guesswork.

The payoff of this exercise for the remainder of the semester was enormous. Whenever we encountered talk of ancient symbolism in our readings, our discussion of US currency often served as a helpful, clarifying touchpoint. And students frequently brought up examples from this session as illustrations in their writing assignments and in class. A slightly modified version of the exercise proved valuable in my (introductory) Literature of the Bible course, where we spoke about such symbols before covering the Apocalypse of John.

Thanks for reading, and if you use this exercise, please let me know how it goes!

I Made a Bible Bot: How and Why?

I’ve long been fascinated by Twitter bots — those seemingly-autonomous bits of
programming that retweet, follow, compose and respond to messages, etc. Truth be told, I’ve always wanted a bot, but since I have little to no knowledge of coding/programming language, I always assumed that creating my own was just a pipe dream. Turns out I was wrong.

In this post I’d like to first introduce you to my bot and then I’ll tell you how I made it.

After experimenting with a few different iterations over the weekend, I launched a “Bible bot” that is currently alive and well in cyberspace, tweeting its little digital heart out and gathering followers (an impressive amount so far, actually). What is it tweeting, you ask? For the most part, just gibberish that it puts together at random from the text of the King James Bible. But occasionally it comes up with something that (unbeknownst to it, of course) is really pretty clever. Here are a few examples:

I’m not sure what, if anything, I will do to hone or improve the bot in the future. It is currently doing exactly what it was designed to do, namely, amuse people in general and me in particular. It’s only been live for a few days now, so I suppose we shall see what the future holds for it.

So how did I set it up?

From start to finish, the process was actually much easier than I thought it would be, mostly because I found someone else who had already done the “heavy lifting.” That someone is Zach Whalen, an Associate Professor of English, Linguistics, and Communication at the University of Mary Washington.

Thanks to a push in the right direction from another of my Twitter pals, I stumbled upon a helpful post on Zach’s blog where he walks you through creating a Twitter bot using a Google spreadsheet that he designed. (Note that this sheet will only allow you to create a bot that posts; if you are interested in building a bot that can retweet, respond to tweets, or follow accounts, you will need to look elsewhere.) Zach’s post is remarkably clear and detailed, so I will refrain from reproducing a step-by-step here (if I can follow it, then trust me, so can you). All you need to get started is a Twitter account for your bot and a Google account for the spreadsheet.

After the initial linking up of the spreadsheet with Twitter (which can be a tad tricky, but stick with it), there are only a couple of parameters to set: frequency of posting and “data sheet.” Frequency is straightforward: how often do you want your bot to post? Every hour? Twice per hour? Once per day? Etc. “Data sheet” refers, essentially, to how you want your bot to compose its tweets.

lfmU5E0pThere are a few different options in this data sheet category, all of which are useful depending on your goals. I chose the “markov” option, meaning that my bot uses an algorithm to generate random text from a supplied body of text. The supplied body of text can be anything. The spreadsheet comes with the full text of Sense and Sensibility so that you can experiment before copying and pasting in your own text.

The text you supply the markov algorithm can be pretty much anything (I think). Because my bot is a Bible bot, my text is the Bible — King James translation. I chose King James for two reasons: 1) because I thought (rightly) that it would be funnier; and 2) because I found the King James Bible in spreadsheet form online, which meant that I could copy and paste the whole thing in about twenty minutes. Win.

With all of the text inputted, I set my bot to post a new tweet every thirty minutes (every fifteen minutes strikes me as excessive, and I got impatient having to wait an hour to see new content) and hit “start.” The results so far have been quite amusing.

And that’s why and how I made a Bible Twitter bot! Follow (or just observe) it on Twitter by clicking here.

And follow me by clicking here!

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 3)

This post is part of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the posts from Week 1 and Week 2!

This week students read Chapter 2 in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. This chapter–Jesus: The Story of the Kingdom–is arguably one of the most difficult in the book. Its vocabulary is complex and technical, and certain portions of the chapter presume a fairly sophisticated knowledge of ancient and modern christological controversies. That being said, the chapter’s thesis is relatively clear throughout: the story of Jesus is itself a social ethic that forms the community of those who would claim to follow him. Or as Hauerwas puts it:

There can be no separation of christology from ecclesiology, that is, Jesus from the church. The truthfulness of Jesus creates and is known by the kind of community his story should form.

I was impressed with how well the class handled this difficult chapter of an already difficult book. There were certainly some questions, but they were the right kinds of questions. The word cloud below was compiled from their essays. When I shared it on Facebook last week, one of my colleagues commented: “That’s a great Hauerwasian word cloud. You’re teaching a class full of resident aliens.” I agree, and I am proud of the progress they are making!

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 1.00.20 PM

As a means of exploring some of Hauerwas’s claims in this chapter, we watched Jesus of Montreal (1989), a classic Canadian film about a group of actors who write and perform a controversial passion play. If you can get past the bad perms, mullets, and seemingly-endless guitar solo montages, Jesus of Montreal is a remarkable take on the life and person of Jesus. Throughout this film the actor who plays Jesus in the passion play mirrors many of the stories of Jesus in his life. The actors he recruits, for example, are all found to be working at undesirable jobs – one is employed as a voiceover actor for pornographic films. His calling them from these jobs is supposed to resemble Jesus’ calling of the disciples. At one point, the actor who plays Jesus becomes agitated at the way an actress is being treated at an audition, and he begins flipping over tables and lighting stands and drives everyone out of the auditorium. This is a not-so-sutle reference to the so-called Temple Tantrum that features so prominently in the canonical gospels. At the end of the film the actor dies, and his friends allow the doctors to harvest his organs. His body becomes a source of life for others.

This is the most overtly religious film we have watched up to this point, and student reactions to it were mixed. Discussion after the film touched on a number of issues, one of those being the film’s extremely negative portrayal of the church or anything that would resemble organized religion. The Catholic priest who sponsors the passion play is a hypocrite who for years has been breaking his vow of celibacy, and at the end of the play when the actors are encouraged to start an acting company to honor their deceased leader, they are encouraged to do so by a lawyer who clearly is meant to represent a sort of Satan figure. The implication is clear: “Jesus = good; church = evil.”

This undercurrent provided interesting fodder for discussion, especially in light of the weight that Hauerwas puts on the church as the community formed by the story of Jesus. Hauerwas would argue that the church as it exists today does not look as it should, of course, but this is quite different than claiming it to be evil, inspired by some sort of demonic force.

Even in light of these tensions, I think students found the film to be a helpful (if slightly literalistic) illustration of what Hauerwas means when he speaks of a community that is formed by the story of Jesus.

Hauerwas Goes to the Movies (Week 2)

This is the second post of a series on teaching religion in film using the work of Stanley Hauerwas. For helpful background, please see the first post from last week!

This week students came to class having read Chapter One in Hauerwas’s A Community of Character. In this chapter he outlines his “10 Theses Toward the Reform of Christian Social Ethics” in which he argues for the centrality of narrative to Christian social ethics and the formation of a community (the church) that can exist in a way that is faithful to the story of Jesus. “The primary social task of the church,” he maintains, “is to be itself–that is, a people who have been formed by a story that provides them with the skills for negotiating the danger of this existence, trusting in God’s promise of redemption” (10).

Hauerwas is not an easy read, and I was impressed by the number of students who seemed able to navigate this material with little to no difficulty (I should note, by the way, that of the twenty six students currently enrolled in the class, only a small handful are religion majors; most are taking this course as an elective or to fulfill a religion requirement in the core liberal arts curriculum). One student made the astute observation that what Hauerwas seems to be doing in this chapter is advocating for a sort of “secret clubhouse” mentality among Christians. While I noted that he would likely not want to frame the matter in those terms, I think he would at least agree with the sentiment: the church is a distinctive community that certainly exists within the world, but that exists as an alternative to much of what the world has to offer. And this distinctiveness is one of the things that makes the church the church.

Below is a word cloud that I generated from the first crop of essays (FYI – I will remove the word “Hauerwas” from future clouds):

Screen Shot 2016-01-18 at 2.02.23 PM

One of the things that students either loved or hated about this chapter was Hauerwas’s use of Watership Down to illustrate what he means by the role of narrative in the formation of communities. I think many were thrown off by the fact that the characters in Watership Down are rabbits – they thought this silly and not particularly fitting for a sophisticated theological treatise. Others just didn’t think that the stories did much to illustrate his point. Some loved the analogy, however. I only discovered about two days before the class started that Watership Down was made into a film. I’ve not had a chance to get a copy of it yet, but I will be interested in taking a look at it as a possible starting point for future classes.

After our discussion at the start of class, we watched Big Fish (2003), a wonderful film that illustrates the profound power that stories can have in the construction of one’s worldview. I gave the students a few questions to think about as they watched: When we talk about the importance of narrative/stories in the formation of our worldview, to what extent is it essential for these stories to be “true” stories What do we even mean when we talk about a story being “true”? Does this mean that it has to have happened in exactly the way that it’s told? And finally, I asked them to pay special attention to the role that mythology plays in this particular film.

Our discussion after the credits rolled was short (class only lasts so long) but fruitful. Students seemed to really enjoy the film, and one commented that it helped her to understand what Hauerwas had been arguing in the chapter they read for that week. I was pleased that she said this (without my prompting!) because that is, in fact, the goal of the class: read a difficult theological text and use film as a medium to better understand that text. Two weeks in and we are on the right track!

I’m a bit late posting this, and I plan on having my reflections on Week 3 up in the next few days.

Reflections on a First Semester of Full-Time Teaching

No one can prepare you for your first full-time teaching position. You might think that the two classes per semester that you taught during graduate school have done the job — well, those and the numerous books on pedagogy, productivity, and time management that you’ve read in the past year. These things will help, but they are insufficient; nothing can accurately convey the madness of one’s first semester teaching full time. But perspectives on the madness can be helpful, hence this post.

1) Workload

The first thing about full-time teaching that will shock you is the workload. In graduate school you likely became accustomed to teaching one, maybe two classes per semester. In your first full-time teaching post you will probably be teaching three or four. The difference in time spent preparing material for these courses is minimal. How much more time does it really take to prepare a lecture/discussion for three sections of one class instead of just two? The truly noticeable change will come not with the number of classes you will be teaching, but with your grading responsibilities. And this, at least in part, will be self inflicted.

Remember how, for various reasons, you assigned three essays per semester to those classes you taught in graduate school? Yeah, you are going to do that again in your first full-time teaching position. And when you do, you will do so with the memory of having thirty, forty, or even fifty papers at once that you had to grade. You will remember that this was annoying, but that you got through it without much difficulty. The problem is that if you are teaching four classes per semester (and you probably will be, assuming the statistics are correct), you are going to be grading upwards of one hundred papers at a time at several times per semester. And there is an enormous difference between fifty papers and one hundred papers when it comes time to grade them.

As you draw near the end of the semester you might rethink your writing assignments. Dropping the number of essays from three to two means that you will have one hundred less essays per semester to grade. Your students will thank you not only because they have to write less, but because you will also be less cranky overall.

2) Subject Matter

Another thing that may throw you during your first semester of full-time teaching is the subject matter you will be responsible for. As a graduate student you aimed to discover a niche in your field that needed to be explored in greater depth or from a different angle. Your job was to become a specialist, and to focus on your niche as if nothing else came close in terms of importance. But your first teaching gig will almost certainly not be tailored to your hyper-focused research agenda. Your first teaching gig will likely require you to be a generalist and to teach at least one course that is outside of your area. Some will be familiar with this challenge from teaching general education requirements as graduate students or as adjuncts. Others will have to learn from experience.

If you teach at a small college (as I do) where virtually every faculty member teaches something outside of their primary research area, you will probably hear the following refrain during your first semester: “All you have to do is stay one class ahead.” Essentially what this means is that you are learning much of the material along with your students; you are doing all of the readings that they are doing, and in some cases you have to do some pretty heavy research to make sure that you are prepared. Granted, you have the tools and categories that your students don’t, but the process can be thoroughly exhausting, and it can easily consume most or even all of that time that you optimistically set aside for “research.” The good news is that it doesn’t last forever; you will start your second semester more prepared than you were for your first, or at least that is the hope.

3) Faculty commitments

I would remiss if I failed to mention the expectations that colleges have of faculty. I am lucky because the college I work at doesn’t really allow faculty to take on committee or advising responsibilities in their first year. But even aside from these responsibilities, my plate is still filled each week with meetings of various sorts: faculty and school meetings, learning community meetings, obligatory lunch meetings, etc. These are certainly nothing to complain about if you like the people you work with (and I do!), but they are time consuming nonetheless!

A seasoned professor in my doctoral program used to remark to new students, “Your graduate school years will be the best years of your life, and you will look back on them fondly because how much free time you had.” Of course, we all assumed she was joking. I mean, how could she be serious? Surely she had forgotten about the stresses of being a graduate student. After a semester of teaching full time I can tell you that she was neither joking nor naïve — teaching full time is serious business, and it does cause one to look back on one’s graduate school years with a certain fondness and yearning for “the good ol’ days.” But at the end of the day it is like any form of employment that is largely self-structured and self-motivated — learning how to manage and divide one’s time is at least half the battle.

Paper Extensions and Death, or: Leave Grandma Out of It

Most of my students would be shocked to hear how many of their classmates’ relatives, friends, and acquaintances die in the days before papers are due. These dangerous points in the semester bring car accidents, hospital visits, possibly life-threatening illnesses (e.g., flesh-eating virus, bot flies, ebola), anxiety attacks, printer/hard drive malfunctions/explosions, etc. Enrollment in one of my classes over the past year almost guaranteed—at least statistically—that you, your entire family, and in fact all whom you hold dear were in for a dangerous ride that may kill at least one of you. And chances of death almost always increase dramatically in the weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break.

Because nearly all reports of carnage arrive via e-mail within 24 hours before a paper or some other important assignment is due, and because every report includes a request for an extension on that assignment, it’s easy to see what’s happening. One of the frustrating things for professors (at least for me) is that these types of requests are difficult to refuse. What if someone’s grandmother did pass away? What if your student was in a car accident? What if your student does suffer from anxiety issues? No one wants to be the professor who asks for a death certificate and then receives one along with a nasty letter filled with accusations of insensitivity. And no one wants to charge a student with faking an anxiety disorder and then discover, after the student has been talked down off the roof of the library by the campus police, that the student was telling the truth.

Some professors demand proof when they receive one of these seemingly fantastic excuses for not getting a paper in on time, but I am not one of them. It’s not because I am naïve or non-confrontational; it’s because I’ve concluded that extensions don’t make papers better. Students who are going to write a bad or mediocre paper aren’t going to miraculously crank out a good one with an extra week’s worth of time. And the student who worked hard on her paper and got it in on time would have written a good paper regardless of how much time she had. This is why I don’t worry about identifying “legitimate” excuses in a veritable sea of illegitimate ones; because I am unconvinced that an extended due date provides any sort of advantage. The data would suggest, in fact, that extensions most often yield lower scoring papers, not higher ones.

At the end of the semester I find myself longing not for these requests to go away—although that would be perfectly fine—but for my students to be candid with me. This spring I received nine pleas for extensions on the final paper: four grandparents and one friend dead (all in one day), a friend in the hospital, one car accident, and two illnesses (one life-threatening and one minor but still “the sucks”). I responded to each of them in the same way: I’m sorry for what you must be going through…please get your paper to me by the end of the semester so I have time to grade it before everything is due. As I typed these words over and over I kept thinking, Why won’t you just admit that you need an extension because you are busy and because you don’t budget your time well?

God knows that I empathize with the student who feels that there are not enough hours in the day. I understand feeling as though your professors are loading you up with work just for the heck of it, and that all of them have somehow collaborated to ensure that all of your papers are due on the same day. I get it because I have been a student. The rest of your professors should get it because all of them have also, at one point in their lives, been students. And any professor who says they have never missed a deadline is lying (sorry to throw us all under the bus with that one). We have all needed to ask for an extension in one form or another. We all miss deadlines on occasion.

The point of all this is not to suggest that students should request more extensions or that professors are obligated to grant every request that they receive; policies are policies, and you should make every effort to abide by the rules of the class that you have chosen to be a part of. What I am suggesting is that if you find yourself in need of an extension for whatever reason, attempt to be honest rather than to deceive. Instead of killing off friends and family members because you didn’t finish a paper on time, why not at least try the truth?

My reasoning is simple: as a group (I am talking to students now), you are horrible liars. As individuals you aren’t bad (some are better than others), but you aren’t asking for extensions as individuals; you are asking for them alongside others from your classes. And you are all using the same over-the-top excuses, which gives you away. So why not distinguish yourself from the falsely bereaved? When you need more time, for whatever reason, ask your professor for it. Worst case? She or he will refuse, at which point you have no choice but to finish your work on time. Best case? She or he will know, like you, what it is to be busy, and, inspired by your honesty, will grant your request.

But regardless of what happens, the honest path is ultimately the winning one, for it keeps your integrity intact and your grandmother alive.