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 have the space to wrestle with and ask their own questions of the subject-matter. Therefore, I seek to expose my students to a variety of textual and material evidence so that they can become familiar with the concerns, questions, and social strategies of ancient peoples. In introductory classes I combine lecture, images, and creative exercises to enrich my students’ grasp of essentially foreign cultural landscapes. For smaller classes, especially upper-level and master’s level seminars, I require students to prepare summaries and to lead portions of our discussions. I have found that this practice enables my students to develop a strong grasp of their material and provides them with the foundation for engaged, critical analysis with their peers.
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 engage the problems inherent to the ancient materials or to the study of religion. The initial urge of many students is to find the “right answer” for a question presented to them, but often there is no right answer for the questions we ask. We may know sequences of events or be able to analyze a text, but asking why people act the way they do or how a text functions within a given social context is more difficult, particularly when our evidence is fragmentary. Therefore I encourage my students to puzzle over the problems presented them, to grapple with the gaps and peculiarities of our evidence, and to offer their own conclusions. In upper-level courses, I require my students to develop their own 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. Above all, I stress that ancient people were real people, with real struggles, commitments, and experiences. 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.