Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Grading Papers Christopher Lasch Style

I decided to try and finish a book a week this summer in a bid to make my way through some of the books I acquired over the years because they were important (or free), but never completed. Some, like my copy of Gadamer's Truth and Method, I started and eventually re-shelved in despair.

The goal makes short books especially attractive. (I included Margaret de Heer's Science: A Discovery in Comics, a library book my daughter enjoyed.)

This brings me to Christopher Lasch's delightful Plain Style: A Guide to Written English, almost half of which is an introduction by Stewart Weaver that places Lasch's guide in the context of his political thought:
"No mere pedant's primer, Plain Style is itself something of an essay in cultural criticism, a political treatise even, by one for whom directness, clarity, and honesty of expression were, no less than for George Orwell, essential to the living spirit of democracy" (3-4).
In Lasch instructions on usage give way to asides about the scholarly profession:
"Remember that disinterested inquiry--the ideal of scholarship--refers not to investigations conducted in a state of apathy or indifference but to a pursuit of truth so intense that it refuses to allow personal whim or inclination to interfere with the determination to follow an idea wherever it may lead. Disinterested inquiry signifies a refusal to indulge in wishful thinking." (p. 98, s.v. "disinterested")
Perhaps my favourite Lasch quote comes from the introduction in an excerpt from Lasch's feedback on a student paper:
"In most examples of bad writing in student papers, I can puzzle out the thought and suggest better ways of expressing it. Here I am completely baffled--not just by this particular sentence but by practically every other sentence in your paper. The grade reflects my belief that you've done a good deal of reading, struggled to understand it, and tackled a very hard subject, furthermore. Still, it is a generous grade. In a way, there's no basis for a grade at all, since I have no idea what you're trying to say. It's as if words had taken flight into an airy realm of their own where they no longer refer recognizably to things or ideas but just kind of mix and mingle and rub shoulders with each other in a friendly kind of just us folks and abstract terribly with jargon and heavy academic, to which makes no difference how you arrange, to read backwards and if you read from the middle it doesn't seem to matter." (22)

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Killing Trees

While I admire those who can deliver brilliant lectures or lead class discussion without any written aids, I don't aspire to their example. The presence or absence of notes is, in my view, no sure sign of teaching effectiveness. Notes are not an instructor's training wheels to be abandoned when a teacher can ride without them. Nor need they be a constraint.
Depending on how many times I have taught the course, the notes become more of a prop than a constant reference, a security blanket, if you will, that gives me freedom to innovate and be present in class, focused on reaching and engaging my students without being distracted by the fear of losing my place or missing something crucial.

My usual practice has been to print off a new set of notes before each class, and to mark them up lightly as part of my final class prep. If I have taught the course before, I glance at my marginal annotations from the previous iteration before finalizing the latest version.

Inevitably, end-of-term haste means that the new binder of notes gets added to the old. Over time the paper adds up. As I cleaned my office this summer, the detritus of more than a decade's worth of teaching filled a recycle bin and led to a glut of empty binders.

The experience was motivation enough to look around for alternatives. If I had $700 USD to spare, I would be inclined to abandon paper altogether and switch over to Sony's newest Digital Paper solution, where "writing and drawing feel as natural as on real paper":

The only downside to the Sony DPT-RP1 is the price tag. Since money does not grow on trees, I expect to stick with real paper for the time being.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Book of Common Prayer and Bible Literacy

I recently stumbled across a 450-year-old "Through the Bible in a Year" reading plan in the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer
"The Psalter shall be read through once every Month, as it is there appointed, both for Morning and Evening Prayer. ... The Old Testament is appointed for the first Lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer, so as the most part thereof will be read every year once, as in the Kalendar is appointed. The New Testament is appointed for the second Lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer, and shall be read over orderly every year thrice, besides the Epistles and Gospels; except the Apocalyps, out of which there are only certain proper Lessons appointed upon divers Feasts."  (pp. 23-24)

The list of daily lectionary readings in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was taken over more-or-less unchanged from the first 1549 edition. The plan omits the book of Revelation, the subject of controversy in post-Reformation England, and parts of the Old Testament, but makes up for it by reading through the Psalter once every 30-day month and the rest of the New Testament three times in the year. The result is a schedule that is more rigorous than most contemporary Bible reading plans, and, I suspect, significantly more than is expected of churchgoers in most evangelical churches today.

How widely this plan was adopted is another question. For most people in 17th-century England, church consisted of the morning and evening prayer services--Matins and Evensong--but only on Sundays. Most people would not have owned a copy of the prayer book, and most churches did not offer daily services. John Spur notes that "the rector of Clayworth in Nottinghamshire thought himself conspicuously pious when he resolved to read prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays during Lent."*

Nevertheless, the plan had an impact. To take one famous example, the community established by Nicholas Ferrar at Little Gidding "read the regular daily offices of the Book of Common Prayer, including the recital every day of the complete Psalter."** According to Hannibal Hamlin's fine Oxford Handbook article on "Reading the Bible in Tudor England," "apparently many did follow the Prayer Book's 'order howe the Psalter is appointed to be read'" each month. If the BCP's annual reading plan for the whole Bible did not catch on as widely, that may have been because there were other more popular alternatives: "Daily reading of the rest of the Bible was a common practice, but readers could either decide on their own reading plan or follow one of the many available in print."***

Indeed, the BCP's daily lectionary is in many respects characteristic of the dedication to lay Bible reading that both contributed to and resulted from the Protestant Reformation. As a result, as Hamlin puts it, "the Bible permeated almost every nook and cranny of sixteenth-century culture."***

Perhaps there is something to be learned here by Protestant churches today who lay claim to the heritage of the Reformation. Why not take a lead from a 16th-century church willing to instruct its members to read through the Bible every year? I submit that the practice of Bible reading says more about the authority of Scripture than any doctrinal statement.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Some News

Last month we received word that Tenyia has been awarded a full scholarship to do a PhD in history at the University of Cambridge. Briercrest has agreed to my request for a temporary leave of absence* so we can move to England as a family for a couple years. This is a dream come true for both of us, and we are thrilled and grateful for the opportunity!

Thankfully, our daughter is excited about the adventure as well. Even before we found out we were going, she had made a shortlist of castles to visit. (Any guesses about what Pontefract, Berkeley and the Tower of London have in common?) Also on our travel itinerary, thanks to S., is a visit to the Isle of Man to look for Manx cats.

My main responsibility during our time away will be to step up my house-husband game so that Tenyia can concentrate on her writing, but I also plan to rent a desk in the Biblical Studies library at Tyndale House, where we will be staying. So while Tenyia works on her thesis and S. is in primary school, I hope to make progress on some writing projects of my own.

*Although my leave of absence begins in August, I will be back in Caronport in October to teach a one-week modular course on the book of Romans.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Fish out of Water: A Parable for the End of Hebrew

Imagine a fish swimming in a sea of Hebrew. The sea is rough, it takes a lot of hard swimming to get to the other side, and the fish can’t wait to get there. Finally, there is land in sight. The fish leaves the deep water, races through the shallows, and with a flying leap lands on a nice sandy beach. The fish lies there, gills flapping contentedly. In a short while, the fish is dead. Don’t be that fish. Stay in the water.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Announcing the 2018 Israel Study Tour

I am happy to announce that Briercrest College and Seminary is planning a study tour to Israel in the spring of 2018. The 13-day trip will be hosted by my colleague, Dr. Wes Olmstead, and led in Israel by Yoni Gerrish, the director of JCF Biblical Study Tours. We know from past experience on our 2009 and 2011 study tours that Yoni is an outstanding guide.

The tour will begin in the south of Israel with stops in Beersheba and Eilat on the Red Sea, as well as several hikes, including one through the Zin Canyon pictured on your left. The group will then progress north along the Dead Sea, and then across to the Mediterranean Sea, before settling in for several nights at a Kibbutz Hotel on the Sea of Galilee, as a base for day trips around the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. (For those who like swimming, this means you will have the chance to swim in the Red Sea, Dead Sea, Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee.) After touring Israel from south to north, the final four days will be based out of Jerusalem.

For more information, including a more detailed itinerary, see the tour website:

If you are in the Caronport area, please plan to attend our information meeting this Wednesday, April 5, at 6:30 p.m. in Room 144.

The trip will be a fantastic experience, and I was very much looking forward to going along. Something else has come up for our family, however, about which I may say more in due course. (Update: More here)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Ten-Year Blog Anniversary

Ten years ago today I published the first entry on גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב. I initially conceived of it as a commonplace book, and took pride in the fact that the blog with an obscure Hebrew name went entirely unnoticed by the wider world.

In time my initial blog description gave way to the quote from Robert Frost that still appears in the sidebar:
But yield who will to their separation, / My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight. / Only where love and need are one, / And the work is play for mortal stakes, / Is the deed ever really done / For Heaven and the future's sakes.
At its best, what I post here represents the meeting of my avocation and vocation--with an emphasis on the former. I do like readers, of course, but have neither the time nor the energy to cultivate a particular audience. Nor is the blog an extension of my day job. What gets said in this writing space appears when I have something to say on any number of mostly Biblical-Studies-related topics, and when saying it either fits in with an active writing project or feels like a break from my day-to-day routine.

At some point early on I articulated to myself a principle of self-censorship that I admit I have not always followed successfully: Say positive things.

And somewhere along the line I decided to prioritize embodied life over virtual reality, a decision I don't regret. A glance at my blog archive indicates when this change occurred: During its first four years, the blog averaged over 100 posts / year. In 2011, that number dropped to 65. Between 2012-2016 the average was in the low 30's.

10 years, 697 posts, and 300,000+ hits later, there is no shortage of topics I would like to blog and write about. At the beginning of the year, I pinned this advice by Jay Parini on my office bulletin board:
  • Don’t stop. You have to write a lot to get better at writing.
  • Write every day. If you must, get up early. An hour each day is enough. Write, revise, and write some more. And don’t hesitate to use those weird little gaps in the day. I often have huge luck with a spare 20 minutes.
  • Don’t fuss. Don’t think you have to be at your desk in a quiet place.
  • If you stick to your writing, it will stick to you. 
I look at it occasionally and smile. Unless the hours I spend crafting notes for a new course this semester count as "writing," Parini's counsel goes wholly unheeded--except on Friday mornings, when you can find t. and me at an undisclosed location in Moose Jaw, laptops open, sipping coffee, and picking away at our respective writing projects.