On Teaching: “Making the Study of Religion, Culture, and History Matter”

My classrooms are collaborative spaces where students can test ideas, practice their abilities for independent critical thinking, and challenge—and transform—how they think about themselves, their communities, and their world. Students in my classes encounter questions about ancient history and reflect upon what this means for their present lives. Bringing history to life by reading primary sources (in their original languages, when possible), and incorporating images of material and visual culture in class, students come to a better understanding of the academic study of religion, Biblical Studies, and Classics. They come to realize how the past is not the same thing as history—that history is not some objective reality “out there” to be discovered but is instead the product of historians, who themselves are always influenced by their own historical circumstances. They learn that history is not written in stone and that it is more complicated than the general public usually believes. They learn that history matters and is about real people who loved and hated, succeeded and failed, triumphed and suffered just like people today.

My approach to teaching emphasizes three practical, student-centered goals: to analyze primary sources in a critical yet charitable manner; to teach practical, transferable skills through oral communication, analytical writing, and active reading; and to show why religion, culture, and history matter. When combined and fully integrated, these aims prepare my students to actively and critically intervene in their own environment—whether in their own lives, their communities, or the broader world.

My classroom persona is more akin to a fellow learner or coach than a traditional lecturer. Together, students and I practice the close reading of primary sources, informed by a modest amount of cultural theory. Students address questions like: What is a text? Does the meaning of a text lie in the intention(s) of the author or perhaps in the earliest readers’ understanding of it? What is the role of the modern reader in the creation of textual meaning? Can texts have more than one authoritative meaning?

As a strong proponent of interdisciplinary research, I encourage my students to be intellectually promiscuous. Students are invited to bring their personal interests, experiences, and expertise into conversation with the class topics. For example, if an English major in the class wants to study biblical allusions in Victorian literature, or if a Sociology major wants to practice the methods of their discipline as they relate to the course topics, I will help them to frame their research questions, select primary sources, and begin compiling a bibliography. Through close reading, critical discussions, and creative assignments, my students explore ideas, texts, practices, and bodies that may not make sense to them. In every class session, students engage a variety of primary sources and academic perspectives. Reading prescriptive ritual texts such as Leviticus 1–7 provide an occasion for students to think about the centrality of ritual practice and sacrifice—rather than belief—in ancient Near Eastern Israelite religion. Studying the apostle Paul’s rhetoric of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians anchors discussions about competing ancient theories of the human body, health, disease, and gender in the Greco-Roman world. Plato’s depiction of Socrates as a “slave of the gods” reveals the complex representations of enslaved persons and constructions of “freedom” in the Hellenic culture of Classical Athens.

On the first day of class, my students get a sense of what we will be doing throughout the semester. In my “Introduction to the New Testament,” for example, students perform what researchers in the study of teaching and learning call a “naïve task.” I have students first pair up and thoroughly introduce themselves. After a few minutes, one of them faces the front of the classroom while the other turns around to face the back. Students facing the front read a text from Genesis 16 and 21—the story of Abraham’s two wives, Sarah and Hagar. After reading the text to themselves, they describe the story to their backward-facing partner. Without fail, students give a rather literal description of the story to their partner. Afterward, I tell the class how Paul described this story in his letter to the Galatians—that the story from Genesis is not a straightforward account of Abrahams’ two wives, but is actually a divine oracle concerning the true identity of the Judean god’s chosen people. Through this exercise, students discover for themselves the linguistic problem of textual interpretation. They realize that context changes the meaning of texts and that texts possess neither inherent nor stable meanings. From this exercise, students begin to understand that no reading is ideologically innocent or purely objective—a major theme in all my courses.

My students receive guidance throughout the writing process—emphasizing the value of outlines, notes, selecting and narrowing a topic, appropriate use of sources, and revision. I provide this processual approach because students are more likely to learn from guidance and feedback during the drafting and revising stage than from comments on a finished product at the end of the semester. I explain that writing is often a difficult, nonlinear activity, and I encourage students to see writing as a process—not a product—of learning, for discovering what they know and don’t know. In addition to discussing the main steps of the research and writing process, I share my own experiences with writing and from copy-editing to disabuse students from underestimating the time and effort that writing requires. I also make plans to write a new research paper during the same time frame that students use to complete their research papers, thus sharing in the works my students do while holding myself to the same standards and schedule.

In my upper-level courses, students talk about their work in progress in small groups multiple times a semester, thus keeping them accountable, helping them build the habit of a writing schedule, and giving them peer-to-peer feedback. Students use the University of Minnesota Assignment Calculator, which divides the writing process into its component parts, sets dates for each step, and provides additional online resources for each task.

In addition to larger research-focused projects, my students also perform brief, ungraded writing assignments. These get students more comfortable with the habit of writing for thinking, improving their understanding, and becoming self-reflective learners. These tasks range from students’ application of a course concept to their own experience to expressing an opinion about a current controversy in the field. I frequently ask students to write what they know about a topic before we discuss it together in class. Other times, students write responses to a few guiding questions at the start of class to help them either review material previously covered or to test their recall from the assigned readings. I also frequently conclude class by having students write for two minutes to summarize the key themes of the day’s discussion and to identify which concept(s) remain confusing to them. One of the main goals for teaching writing in my courses is for students to become information literate—including the ability to evaluate information critically and to use information appropriately and effectively to accomplish a specific purpose.

Students in my classes learn why religion, culture, and history matter and why they remain relevant to their lives. By tying the past to contemporary events through the news, broader cultural trends, or podcasts, students experience history as an ongoing process with very real stakes involved. For example, students learn about the controversies surrounding the recently opened Museum of the Bible near the National Mall in D. C., which allows us to discuss questions of forgery, the antiquities black market, and who owns the past using real-world examples. Students, therefore, see how archaeological remains and representations of the past still matter in our (post)modern world.

Language courses not only help students develop skills in reading and translating ancient texts in their original languages, but they also serve as environments that help bring these ancient texts/languages to life for students. Language acquisition involves many hours of intense study of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax, but I would be remiss if I do not make the process more exciting, engaging, and enticing to students—especially at the introductory level. Students in my intermediate language courses gain additional practice by applying what they learned in previous classes toward reading texts in their original language. They learn how to navigate the standard lexica and standard grammar books in the field (whether Greek, Latin, or Coptic), in order to prepare them for success in advanced language courses and in their own research. For example, I brought to life Greek language and drama as an instructor for Intermediate Classical Greek. In this class, something as distant as Euripides’s Bacchae had resonance for contemporary questions of authoritarianism, gender, and new/minority religions.

My goal is for students to come away from my courses with a passion for the subject in light of their experiences with the materials they read, a sense of disciplinary literacy so they can maintain a critical and reflective stance toward the subject matter for the rest of their lives, an understanding of how the disciplines of Religious Studies and ancient history matter in other contexts, and an eye for the bigger picture—that the skills and habits they encounter in my courses allow them to engage in thoughtful citizenship throughout their lives.

Becoming an effective teacher involves constant learning, adjustment, and reflection. During my Ph.D. training, I completed the graduate certificate program in college teaching and learning through the Center for Teaching Excellence at Rice. Through a curriculum that included coursework, peer teaching reviews, and professionalization workshops, this certificate program trains educators who are both informed about the scholarship on teaching and learning and self-reflexive about their own teaching. I incorporate evidence-based strategies in order to teach the debates and controversies within Religious Studies, Biblical Studies, and Classics—in both their ancient and contemporary contexts—and in ways that will remain with students long after they leave my classroom.

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