By bringing my students into contact with the social worlds and religious life of the Mediterranean world from the first century B.C.E to the fifth century C.E., I strive to instill in them an awareness of the role religious practices have in defining social structures, and in the process provide them with a set of tools with which to study religious groups and to think critically about social groups and problems in the modern world.
The following four principles guide my teaching:
Providing Space For Thinking: I believe that the deepest learning occurs when students are given the space to actively engage their objects of study. Consequently I have adopted a conversational pedagogical approach in which I incorporate lecture with class discussions about textual and material evidence and patterns of human behavior. Above all, I stress that ancient people were in many ways much like ourselves—they were real people, with very real struggles, commitments, and experiences. I have found that this approach provides my students with a greater historical texture and thus encourages them to explore, wrestle with, and ask their own questions about faith, scriptural interpretation, and culture.
Developing Research Habits and Analytical Skills: These two goals guide how I structure essay and research assignments. For introductory level courses I provide a set of prompts that not only engages the problems and questions inherent to the study of ancient materials and theology, but also helps the students to develop as academic writers. For lower-level courses, I assign weekly short writing assignments, with the express goal of developing arguments and learning to use evidence from primary texts. In upper-level courses, I work with my students to develop their research questions, and I incorporate benchmark assignments (e.g., research proposals, book reviews, annotated bibliographies, outlines, and draft presentations) into the course schedule to assist them in developing the skills necessary to become mature scholars. With each of these assignments, I provide feedback to help my students refine their questions, address specific complications for their research, and offer additional resources. Because of the conversational nature of this approach, I have observed my students develop progressively more sophisticated projects, and I have witnessed students who struggled with research become more confident in their work.
Encountering the Ancient World: In addition to papers, I incorporate class projects to provide a forum for my students to investigate the complexity of ancient contexts. My students have reenacted sacrifices and funerals, constructed fictional social networks, and composed apocalyptic scenarios. During our discussions following these projects, we have debated the possible reasons and interpretations for particular actions. Some students have even applied the questions raised during our presentations to the rituals and social structures of their own lives.
Applying Learning to the Modern World: Each of my courses is designed to have a larger relevance for my students both within their university careers and in relation to real-world questions. For instance, when discussing the imaginative geographies of the fourth and fifth centuries, I provide examples from their own lives in the form of modern maps, including demographic maps, maps with non-North orientations, and even maps of their own campus. Together we analyze the maps and discuss what appears, and even more what is erased, in the representations. This provides the students a comfortable space to discuss the normative values encoded in the representations of their own lives and has led to productive discussions about the imagined geographies presented by early Christian texts.