Thursday, October 23, 2014

Charles Williams as a conversationalist

I would like to think this is what Paul meant when he said, "Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt":
When I met Charles Williams I had read none of his books; our meetings were few and on business, yet I count them among my most unforgettable and precious experiences. I have met great and good men in whose presence one was conscious of one's own littleness; Charles Williams' effect on me and on others with whom I have spoken was quite different: in his company one felt twice as intelligent and infinitely nicer than, out of it, one knew oneself to be. It wasn't simply that he was a sympathetic listener--he talked a lot and he talked well--but, more than anyone else I have ever known, he gave himself completely to the company that he was in. So many conversations, even good ones, are really several monologues which only now and then and by accident relate to each other, for the talkers are more concerned with their own thoughts than with a living exchange of ideas, but any conversation with Charles Williams, no matter how trivial or impersonal the topic, was a genuine dialogue.

When, later, I began to read his books, I realized why this was so; the basic theme which runs through all of them is a doctrine of exchange and substitution, a way of life by which, it was clear, he himself lived.
W.H. Auden, "Introduction." Page v in Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (New York: Meridian, 1956).

Monday, October 20, 2014

Jordash Kiffiak on Teaching Greek as a Living Language

Autumn 2014
One of the highlights of this fall, in addition to the gorgeous weather, has been the chance to participate in a weekly Greek reading group led by Jordash Kiffiak. The group meets online for 2.5 hours to read and discuss passages from the Greek New Greek.

Jordash describes his experiences learning and teaching Greek in an interview published on Seamus MacDonald's excellent blog. A couple excerpts:
On learning Greek: "Following a second-year classical Greek course, I began memorizing chunks of text from the New Testament for academic and personal interests. This is when I first began to use ancient Greek ... in a way that approached or was living-language usage. Sometimes I would use phrases in the text I had memorised, manipulating them for new contexts. This procedure aided in both memorising text and internalising the language."
On learning outcomes for the reading group of which I am a part: After a 10-week course students can describe in their own words the situation and/or story relevant to the text we have read. For example, they would be able to tell about what happened upon Jesus' return to the Galilee (Luke 4) and what transpired in the synagogue in Nazareth. Or they would be able to describe why Paul is writing to the Philippians and what has taken place where Paul is. They will of course also be able to read the respective text, with comprehension, without recourse to aids. They will also be able to approach similar texts that they have not previously read and follow in large part what is being communicated without turning to dictionaries and the like. Students also will usually be able to describe aspects of their own life, employing concepts and language from the text being studied (again using Luke 4 as an example—where one was born, has grown up, whether one is well known and/or respected there etc.).

Needless to say, Jordash is an outstanding teacher. If you are at all curious about a living approach to teaching ancient languages, the whole interview is well worth your time.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Great teachers and reading

A recurring characteristic of the portraits of "great teachers" in the collection edited by Joseph Epstein is their depth and breadth of knowledge. Consider the following examples:
  • Edmond Wilson on Christian Gauss: "He was wonderful at comparative literature, for his reading had covered the whole of the West--ancient, medieval and modern--and his memory was truly Macaulayan (an adjective sometimes assigned too cheaply). He seemed to be able to summon almost everything he wanted in prose or verse, as if he were taking down the books from the shelf." (6)
  • Sidney Hook on Morris R. Cohen: "If he had read less he surely would have written more, but his reading gave him a stock of information, examples, and anecdotes that made it risky to generalize about anything in a discussion with him." (42)
  • Joseph Gerard Brennan on Harry Austryn Wolfson: "As a student in Wolfson's Aristotle seminar, I sometimes had to look him up in his Widener Library cell, stacked high with books, scrolls, and manuscripts in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic. In Wolfson's own apartment, every available space was packed with books, and sometimes he forgot whether he had stowed a needed volume in the oven or the refrigerator." (57)
  • Lewis S. Feuer on Arthur O. Lovejoy: "[T]here was a mark of the impossible about Lovejoy's historical method. He could preface some observation with the statement "after a lifetime of reading,' but the graduate student, having no such accumulation of memories and notes, felt as helpless as a destroyer ordered to maneuver against a battleship." (127). 
  • George P. Brockway on John William Miller: "In spite of his immersion in the history of philosophy, and although he was awesomely well read in all the humanities and the sciences as well, he was not a scholar in the ordinary sense ..." (159)
  • Jeremy Bernstein on Philipp Frank: "Philipp had almost total recall of everything he had ever learned--to say nothing of entire conversations, some of which had taken place fifty years earlier.... I later discovered that he had a fluent command of French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, and Czech. He also read Persian, Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, and could write in these languages as well." (220-221)
  • John Wain on C.S. Lewis: "During the years when he was growing up, Lewis accepted the study of the Greek and Latin authors as the essential business of his life, and the reading of English authors, of every epoch since the English language made its appearance, as his chief recreation. Nothing that happened to him in his life disturbed this view." (243)
Reading a lot is not the only characteristic of a great teacher, to be sure. You can be learned and a bore. But, in general, great teachers know their stuff.

These descriptions remind me of the comment about painting in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: "You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It's easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That's the way all the experts do it." (293)

Works cited:
Epstein, Joseph, ed. Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers. New York: Basic Books, 1981.
Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Bantam, 1974.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Joseph Epstein on Teaching

"Carried out conscientiously, conducted at a high level, conveyed with proper passion, teaching is an arduous task....[T]here is a sense in which teaching, like opera, is a performing art. Not only must the teacher get up his subject, but he must get it across. There is many a tried, but no true, method for doing this: Socratic teasing, sonorous lecturing, sympathetic discussion; passionate argument, witty exposition, dramatics and other sorts of derring-do; plain power of personal example, main force of intellect, and sometimes even bullying. But these are all matters of technique and vary from one teacher to the next. What all the great teachers appear to have in common is love of their subject, an obvious satisfaction in arousing this love in their students, and an ability to convince them that what they are being taught is deadly serious." - Joseph Epstein, "Introduction" in Joseph Epstein, ed., Masters: Portraits of Great Teachers (New York: Basic Books, 1981), xi-xii.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Zotero Notes

I recently found out two Zotero tips that will save me a lot of time:
  1. To correct capitalization when an entry is imported from, say, Worldcat or Amazon, right click on the title, select "Transform Text" and then "Title Case." HT: Mark Sample.
  2. To keep Zotero from automatically capitalizing German titles in footnotes and bibliographies as if they are English titles, enter "de" under "Language." (For French titles, enter "fr," etc.) HT: Zotero.
  3. Update: A bonus tip: To disable English spell-checking so that foreign-language words aren't highlighted, follow these steps.
To find out more about Zotero and why everyone should use it as their Bibliography manager, see Zotero's home page. My earlier blog posts on Zotero are here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

History 311: Medieval Europe

The Baptism of Clovis

History 311: Medieval Europe 

If you are looking to fill a history elective at Briercrest College this fall, may I recommend HIS311: Medieval Europe? Although I can't help but be a tiny bit biased, I have read the syllabus and talked a lot with the professor about things medieval over the past few months, and I think it will be a great course. You can view the syllabus online here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Law and Faith in Luke-Acts: An Exercise in Stating the Obvious

Any time you study a particular topic you run the risk of skewing its significance. After all, what is central to your thinking must be central to the author you are studying, right? In my study of Luke's understanding of the law of Moses, it has been helpful to step back far enough to notice that although law is important to the narrative argument of Acts, it pales in significance to faith. Consider the following evidence about Jewish Christ-believers and the law:

The early Jewish Jesus movement can be designated as "all those who believe" (Acts 2:44), the "multitude of those who believed" (4:32) or simply as "believers" (5:14). Jewish priests who respond become "obedient to the faith" (6:7), not the law.  Both Jews and Gentiles who join the community are commanded to believe (16:31; cf. 10:43; 19:4; 20:21). By contrast, no passage in Acts enjoins Torah observance on Jews.

Law and faith need not be opposed, as they are in Paul, but this should be clear enough: In Acts faith is a positive requirement for all Christ-believers, while references to the Torah-observance of Jewish Christians are primarily descriptive.