Monday, September 7, 2020

Ready or not, here we go

"This will be the most difficult period of our careers. But this is what it takes to live and work during a natural disaster. And we are the lucky ones." - Stan Yoshinobu, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education 

"This is definitely the most demanding and stressful period of preparation for a semester that I have ever had." - Alan Jacobs, Baylor University  
"Due to social distancing requirements & classroom sizes, my 3 courses of 25-28 students have become 6 hybrid courses of half that size. I'm essentially managing the logistics of 6 hybrid courses, & even as a very organized prof teaching courses I've done before this is an astonishing amount of work. It's what I need to do right now, and I'm thankful for a job that I love at an institution I love. But wow, we faculty need a serious break and some appreciation for all this. If you are faculty & still planning courses, do what you can to find ways to make things even a little easier on yourself this term, especially when the emotional support our students need will demand a lot from us--much more than usual, from what I'm already seeing." - Jessica Coblentz, St. Mary's College, Indiana  
"Reducing burnout in what might be an entirely new teaching environment should be on everyone’s mind." - Lance Piantaggini (MagisterP) 
As I anticipate the beginning of fall semester classes tomorrow, there is much to be grateful for: Briercrest College is located in a rural area that has not suffered a significant Covid outbreak. The college has worked hard to develop a solid plan that will follow provincial guidelines. And we have students who are eager to return to the classroom. 

From the academic side of things, the plan is to run two seven-week terms in the fall semester, with a combination of daily 45-min tutorials and asynchronous video lectures that we record in advance. To meet physical distancing requirements, large classes are divided into multiple sections. The intensive format means less time for grading and for class prep during the term itself. In my experience, the process of preparing, recording, editing, and uploading video lectures at least doubles the time I would normally spend preparing for and delivering a conventional lecture. Even with the summer to prepare, it won't be easy for faculty members to pull this off. 

My course assignment for the fall looks like (1) Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, a one-week modular class in the seminary (two weeks ago on Zoom), (2) two sections of Jewish Backgrounds in the first term (including another 18 of a projected 24 video lectures that I have yet to record), and (3) two sections of Biblical Hebrew taught as a living language in the second, fortunately with extra face-to-face class time instead of video lectures.

My semester theme is the chorus from this Bruce Cockburn song:

"Under the Mercy and I'm Okay."

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

On Relearning Aramaic via Syriac

I will leave communication about Briercrest’s plans for on-campus course delivery this fall to official channels, and say only that if I knew what was coming, studying Syriac and Targumic Aramaic during parts of May and June would not have made it onto my summer agenda. But last September, when I agreed to supervise a student’s Aramaic independent study, I thought it would be fun to take yet another stab at learning this third biblical language. Since we both had had some previous exposure to biblical Aramaic, I proposed a more oblique approach that would, I hoped, be more successful than my two previous attempts. 

Instead of using Frederick Greenspahn’s conventional Introduction to Aramaic textbook, which I have worked through twice before, we spent the first three weeks or so listening to the recordings in Niek Arentsen and Jordash Kiffiak’s Living Christian Aramaic (Syriac), and the next four completing the exercises and readings in Thomas Lambdin & John Huehnergard’s free online Introduction to the Aramaic of Targum Onqelos. 

Living Christian Aramaic appears to use the same pictures as the Biblical Language Center's other picture lessons products, and it is equally effective. I'll admit that I found the recordings--authentic as they may be--a little grating, but I can still hear  in my head. 

If you have worked with Lambdin's Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, you know what to expect from Lambdin & Huehnergard's Aramaic primer: bare-bones grammar notes, paradigms, and exercises in classic grammar-translation style. About a dozen chapters in the pace seems to pick up. The second half of the book introduces a dizzying array of new paradigms too fast to assimilate. Although I don't like the approach, I found the written exercises--even adding vowel pointing--to be effective and well-designed. The book ends with the text of Targum Onqelos on Genesis 12-16. If you have done the exercises, you can read the Targum. 

Despite major differences between these two language streams, beginning with oral Syriac helped me secure some of the vocabulary and basic syntactical patterns of Targumic Aramaic, and Targumic Aramaic is, in turn, quite close to the Biblical Aramaic of Daniel. As a bonus, I felt comfortable making my way through Targum Onqelos and confident that I could do the same with other Aramaic Targumim--at least when I finished the book. Once I relearn the Estrangelo Syriac script, I should be able to at least dabble in the Syriac Peshitta versions of both Old and New Testaments. Learning a completely foreign script also helped me appreciate what it must be like for my students to learn the Hebrew alphabet!

I will probably agree to supervise another Aramaic independent study in the future, should the opportunity arise, because I confess I am not doing the one thing needed to retain Aramaic, which is to use it. If I may be allowed an excuse, Aramaic has been crowded out by Hebrew. More on that, perhaps, in another post.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

A Twenty-Year Anniversary

Summer Ulpan at the Hebrew University

Twenty years ago this month, I landed in Israel for a year of study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The trip fulfilled a dream I had had since high school, and remains without question the most significant year of my adult life personally and academically (so far). It also continues to shape my teaching, especially "Jewish Backgrounds to Early Christianity" and Biblical Hebrew--both courses I am set to teach again this fall.

In retrospect, I could lament my failure to take full advantage of the opportunities I had in Jerusalem as well as the missed opportunities to foster friendships and develop professional networks in the years since. But my overwhelming response is gratitude for the generosity and hospitality I repeatedly encountered: the professors in Canada who went out of their way to connect me with scholars they knew in Jerusalem, the invitations to attend synagogue and participate in Shabbat dinners, the visits in Palestinian and Arab-Israeli homes, and the conversations with Christian friends in Jerusalem and elsewhere who helped sustain my faith by letting me know it is okay to live with unanswered questions.

I could go on at length, but since this blog is not an acknowledgements page I want to reflect for a minute on why the memories from that year are still so vivid, why the learning was so intense.

August 15, 2000
 (1) Context had something to do with it: Who can forget reading Thackeray's translation of Josephus's Jewish War on daily bus trips past the Temple Mount? 

  (2) But so did kindness. One of many illustrations I could mention: The argument of a certain 1997 monograph may have stuck in my head anyway. (It's a good book!) But I can assure you it is lodged there more firmly because one morning in Jerusalem its author took me out for coffee. 

When I remember Jerusalem twenty years later, one of the first things that comes to mind is the generosity of friends and scholars, whose names I won't mention here, as well as the kindness of others, whose names I have now forgotten. The least I can do is try to pay it forward. 

(There is another reason why I remember 2000-2001 Jerusalem so vividly, but that is a topic--and an anniversary--for another occasion.)

Friday, July 17, 2020

Introduction to Biblical Interpretation

I'm not big on personal mission statements--unless the quote from Robert Frost in my sidebar counts: 
"My object in living is to unite / My avocation and my vocation / As my two eyes make one in sight."   
But if I were forced to articulate what makes me tick, what gets me up in the morning, it would have something to do with helping students read the Bible carefully and profitably, and helping students experience why it matters. That's why I'm committed to teaching Greek and Hebrew as effectively as I can, and that's why I'm looking forward to teaching a one-week Introduction to Biblical Interpretation modular course at Briercrest Seminary at the end of August. The full syllabus is here, if anyone is interested. 

The course will be offered over Zoom, so you can take it from the comfort of your living room. All you'd need is an internet connection. No travel required.  

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Samuel Sandmel on Making Many Books

"A lover of scholarship must in our days wonder if the explosion of learning has not yielded a superabundance. So great a flow has there been of books and essays that no one can keep up with it, as the honest scholar admits. The superabundance in part is marked both by an immense quantity of repetitive writings on the same general subject, and also by articles, some enlightening, but some confused and confusing, on minor points, marked by special theories ingeniously designed to solve the unsolvable." (vii)

"There is no ready cure in our time for the demands of specialization which tend to restrict broad study. Hence, only one who has had the privilege of not years, but decades of study can partially escape from a preoccupation with only a single area of the several here dealt with. Even such a person cannot achieve fullest mastery in all this variety. If I were to set forth a claim of some tolerable mastery, it would be in Bible (Old Testament0, in hellenistic Judaism, and in New Testament. I am experienced in Rabbinic literature, but am by no means an unqualified expert; I have studied and taught the Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but make no claim of special eminence. The full mastery of all these literatures, and of the scholarly writings about them, are beyond what one man can achieve in the normal span of a single life. I have dared to hope that where expertise has eluded me, responsible competency has not." (viii-ix)

From the preface to Samuel Sandmel's Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).

Sunday, May 31, 2020

John Donne on Pentecost

"But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. This day is this Scripture fulfilled in your ears, saith our Saviour Christ, having read for his text, that place of Esay, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. And that day which we celebrate now, was another Scripture fulfilled in their ears, and in their eyes too; for all Christ's promises are Scripture; they have all the infallibility of Scripture; and Christ had promised, that that spirit which was upon him, when he preached, should also be shed upon all his apostles. And upon this day he performed that promise, when, They being all with one accord, in one place, there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and filled the house, and there appeared unto them cloven tongues, like as of fire, and it sate upon each of them, and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost. And this very particular day, in which we now commemorate, and celebrate that performance of Christ's promise, in that mission of the Holy Ghost upon the apostles, are all these Scriptures performed again, in our ears, and eyes, and in our hearts; for in all those congregations that meet this day, to this purpose, every preacher hath so much of this unction (which unction is Christ) upon him, as that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and hath anointed him to that service; and every congregation, and every good person in the congregation, hath so much of the apostle upon him, as that he feels this Spirit of the Lord, this Holy Ghost, as he is this cloven tongue, that sets one stem in his ear, and the other in his heart, one stem in his faith, and the other in his manners, one stem in his present obedience, and another in his perseverance, one to rectify him in the errors of life, another to establish him in the agonies of death; for the Holy Ghost, as he is a cloven tongue, opens as a compass, that reaches over all our map, over all our world, from our east to our west, from our birth to our death, from our cradle to our grave, and directs us for all things, to all persons, in all places, and at all times." - John Donne, Sermon XXVI, Preached at St. Paul's upon Whitsunday, 1627.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Reflections on Teaching Ancient Greek as a Living Language 3: Endnotes

Back in January I posted an initial report on Briercrest’s first Intensive Koiné Greek Semester: five immersive courses in a 15-week fall semester, beginning from scratch and culminating in the Greek text of the Gospel of Mark. As I mentioned in that post, the semester was distinguished by its intensive five-days-a-week format and by our approach to teaching Ancient Greek in Ancient Greek as a living language.

Here at last is a follow-up post with a little more detail about what we did in class, our influences, and the resources we used.

The Classroom

The Intensive Semester would not have succeeded the way it did without the outstanding contribution of our three student interns. With five co-teachers, we were able to give attention to each student in a class of about 25 students, and to provide much more active and more engaging learning experiences than we would otherwise have been able to do. In addition to active instruction, role-playing, and “Total Physical Response” exercises from the front of the class, we were able to break into stations with different teachers leading different activities (including WAYK), and to work together in table groups with a different teacher assigned to each table each day. Five co-teachers also meant that we could share tutorial responsibilities in the afternoons after a full morning of class.

About half the class had already taken a semester-based version of the first two courses the previous year, and sat in on the first six weeks for review. Their enthusiasm and basic familiarity with the language helped the brand new students get up to speed.


Other contributions were less obvious to students, but no less important. The field of active ancient Greek language instruction is changing so rapidly it might not have been possible to offer an intensive semester of Ancient Greek by immersion ten years ago. In any case, we could not have pulled it off without help from others under whom we have studied and whose recently-developed resources we employed.

My colleague, Wes Olmstead, who both organized the Greek semester and shouldered most of the teaching and lesson planning, spent much of the summer of 2019 learning under Christophe Rico at Polis Institute courses in the United States.

In an earlier post I mentioned attending one of the Biblical Language Center's Greek Fluency Workshops in the summer of 2012. Almost a decade later, I can see the formative impact of these workshops (2011-2013) on the growing movement of people involved in living Greek language instruction. The teachers the summer I attended included Randall Buth, Jordash Kiffiak and Ben Kantor. (BLC's plans to restart the workshops in 2020 have moved online, which may make them more accessible. Highly recommended!)

Bryn Olmstead picked up the idea of Greek fluency and ran with it farther than I imagined possible. Although Bryn and Felicia were not physically present to help teach the course, they did a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes throughout the semester, most notably by preparing incredibly effective Keynote slides. Bryn informs me that their contribution was heavily indebted to his teacher, Gonzalo Jerez Sánchez: “Much of what we produced is simply creative adaptation of what we learned from him for your particular situation at Briercrest.”


It is no coincidence that several of our influences reappear as authors and creators of resources we used.

Much of Koiné Greek I, the first course in the series, was built around:
(1) The Biblical Language Center’s Living Koiné Greek: Foundations “Picture Lessons.”
(2) Jordash Kiffiak's Omilein videos and a pre-publication draft of his workbook, which is designed to be used alongside the BLC “Picture Lessons.”
In my view, Jordash’s ΟΜΙΛΕΙΝ curriculum, with its blend of high-quality TPR videos and a lavishly-illustrated workbook, is currently the best beginning Greek resource available for those who want to lead students through the equivalent of a first semester of Greek using a communicative approach. Jordash now offers online courses through his own ΟΜΙΛΕΙΝ website.
In Koiné Greek II-IV we combined Christophe Rico’s Polis curriculum with the Italian version of the classical Greek textbook, Athenaze:
(3) Christophe Rico, Polis: Speaking Ancient Greek as a Living Language, Level One (Polis Institute Press, 2015).
(4) Balme, Maurice, Gilbert Lawall, Luigi Miraglia, and Tommaso Francesco Bórri. Athenaze: Introduzione al greco antico. Parte I. 2d ed. Montella, Avellino: Accademia Vivarium Novum, 2018. (Why the Italian Athenaze you ask? Consider these answers.)
(5) We also used audio resources produced by Gonzalo Jerez Sánchez of Classics at Home.
(6) As an additional source of comprehensible input in class, we dipped into Seumas MacDonald’s Lingua Graeca per se Illustrata (LGPSI), which provided the inspiration for the map at the beginning of this post.
In these three courses (Koiné Greek II-IV), we made it through chapter 15 of Athenaze, all of Polis Level One, and part of a pre-publication draft of Polis 2.

Our task in Koiné Greek V was to read and talk about the Gospel of Mark in Greek.
(7) Ben Kantor's excellent Koiné Greek Gospel of Mark video was a tremendous help:

By the end of the semester, I had the repeated experience of sitting around a table with students who were helping me explain the Greek text of Mark to each other in Greek. What more could you ask for?

(Note: This is the third in a series of posts on last fall’s Intensive Greek Semester. You can read the first two here and here.)