Updated Critical Reading Worksheet

Thanks to everyone who commented on the last version of my close reading worksheet, now re-named a critical reading worksheet after it turned out that “close reading” is its own specific kind of thing, and tweaked a bit in response to suggestions from lots of people. In particular, I’ve added some questions to encourage my students to think about what they’re bringing to the text, and to notice their own reactions to it; and some questions which will hopefully get them thinking about the structure of the text and (where relevant) the argument. I think in future I might try to expand it to give some examples of paragraphs from academic texts which show the kinds of critical engagement that might result from asking each of these different questions, but this is the version I’ll be using in my teaching this year:

Continue reading “Updated Critical Reading Worksheet”

What’s the point of university?

I’m teaching my first Great Christian Thinkers class on Friday, and because it’s meant to be a course that orients my students to their degree as a whole and we’re opening on the theme of ‘What Matters Most?’, we’re going to spend some time thinking about the purpose of university; both what they want to get out of their degree and what a range of other people and institutions might want them to get out of it. I’ve pulled together some short extracts for them to discuss as part of the session, and thought they might be of interest to others: you are welcome to borrow and/or adapt these at will. Continue reading “What’s the point of university?”

A guide to close reading

I’m planning to give my first year undergraduates a worksheet designed to help them engage with the theological and philosophical texts we study during our course. I’ve noticed that a lot of my students struggle to find critical ways into the texts, and I’m hoping that giving them some fairly generic questions to work through will help them find ways in. I’m planning to talk through the list of questions when I hand them out then use them as a basis for some of our seminar discussions over the rest of the semester so that the students can get a handle on how to use them.

Here’s the list of questions I’ve drafted so far; I’d really appreciate any comments/suggestions/wisdom gleaned from other people’s teaching experience, and of course you’re welcome to appropriate these for yourself if they look like they’d help you in your own teaching:

Continue reading “A guide to close reading”

Gender, Sexuality and the Bible syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for the course I’m teaching this semester on Gender, Sexuality and the Bible. I’ve now finished the module handbook and am pretty excited about teaching it. At my institution we run a bunch of courses for both second and third year undergraduate, which means that everyone sits in on our weekly classes, and then the third year students get additional advanced seminars every other week. I’ve designed the main body of the course to run thematically, ranging across both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament; the advanced seminar will focus in depth on the Song of Songs (special shout out to Jared Beverley whose advice on this was totally invaluable).

The course overview is as follows:

WEEK 1: Introducing the Bible, Gender and Sexuality
WEEK 2: Creating Gender: Eve and Her Daughters
WEEK 2 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Introducing the Song of Songs
WEEK 3: Reproducing Gender: Abraham and His Sons
WEEK 4: Troubling Gender: Bodily Fluids
WEEK 4 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Feminist Readings of the Song of Songs
WEEK 5: Questioning Binary Gender
WEEK 6: Homosexuality? Sodom and Leviticus
WEEK 6 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Constructing Gender in the Song of Songs
WEEK 7: Homosexuality? Sinners and Lovers
WEEK 7 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Queering the Song of Songs
WEEK 8: ALTERNATIVE ENRICHMENT WEEK
WEEK 9: Marriage
WEEK 10: The Bible and Sexual Violence
WEEK 10 ADVANCED SEMINAR: Troubling Desire in the Song of Songs
WEEK 11: Sex Work and the Bible
WEEK 12: Oral exams

You can take a look at the complete module handbook here.

Great Christian Thinkers Syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for my Great Christian Thinkers course. It’s taken me a lot of work to figure out how to balance all the different elements I needed to incorporate: how to make it interesting to philosophers and theologians, how to balance introducing Augustine with introducing key concepts and problematics in Christian theology with taking my students through some basic study and essay writing skills. But I think I’ve cracked it, and am really excited to teach the course. I’ve decided to frame the course as a whole around Phillip Goodchild’s claim that that if, pace Plotinus, philosophy is ‘what matters most’, then what matters most is suffering. The course as a whole, then, is designed to take the students through key primary and secondary texts that will help them to write a formative essay on the topic: ‘Why and how does suffering matter in the work of Augustine?’ and because those essays will be due before the final class of the semester, we’ll spend that last class on a class debate which will give us a chance to talk about whether or not Augustine can help us in answering the question ‘what matters most?’ for ourselves. Then in Semester 2 we’ll spend time going through a range of key Christian thinkers (I’m still figuring out how to construct that canon) with an eye to how they deal with the question of suffering and what matters most.

I’m hoping that the focus on suffering will give us an interesting and focused way into the major themes of both Augustine’s work and Christian thought more broadly, so the course is structured as follows:

WEEK 1: What Matters Most
WEEK 2: Augustine, Theology, and the Problem of Suffering
WEEK 3: God, Evil and the Nature of Suffering
WEEK 4: The Fall
WEEK 5: Free to Suffer?
WEEK 6: The Devil
WEEK 7: ENRICHMENT WEEK
WEEK 8: Suffering Desire, Desiring Suffering
WEEK 9: Suffering and the Ethics of Sacrifice
WEEK 10: Political Suffering: A Tale of Two Cities
WEEK 11: Political Suffering: War
WEEK 12: What Matters Most?

Here’s the complete module handbook, with weekly readings and overviews of what ground I hope to cover in each class.

Marxism without Marxists

Reading over some of my old work on the theme of divine and revolutionary violence in Žižek today it struck me how odd it is that although his discussion of these themes relies very heavily on Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, whose discussion of the different forms of violence revolves around the different forms of strike and the different types of state repression of strikes, nowhere in Žižek’s own work does he mention the strike as a form of political action. Probably the closest he comes is in his repeated invocation of Bartleby the Scrivener’s one-man strike which, despite Žižek’s repeated appeal to its political efficacy, results not in any general transformation of Bartleby’s workplace but simply the reordering of precisely the same system in a different location – that is to say, Bartleby fails to effect any meaningful change because while he as an individual worker in an individual office refuses to work or to leave the building, there remain plenty of other workers and other offices. The only form of collective action Žižek seems able to imagine is totally spontaneous and unorganised  – the fictional refusal of the characters in Saramago’s Seeing to fill out their ballots, various riots which always, on Žižek’s reading, emerge out of nowhere – or organised around a single charismatic leader – here Gandhi is one of Žižek’s favoured examples, and again he focuses on classically liberal terrain, ‘consumer boycotts’. When he writes about the organised political action of the demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown he can’t recognise the role of collective organising at work, describing them in the face of evidence to the contrary as ‘“irrational” violent demonstrations with no concrete programmatic demands, sustained by just a vague call for justice’, and comparing them to divine violence in Benjamin’s sense as ‘means without ends, not part of a long-term strategy’ – suggesting that he doesn’t really understand the idea of the general strike which is so central to Benjamin’s discussion. As his use of Benjamin indicates, it’s clearly not that Žižek doesn’t read the work of actually existing Marxists, though he’s much less interested in Marxists in general than he is in Lacanians and Hegelians. But it’s a striking lacuna in his work, and more generally indicative of his limitations as a political theorist, especially of his inability to imagine the use of deliberate and organised collective action.

Help me plan an introduction to Augustine-and-essay-writing

I’ve inherited a first year course called ‘Great Christian Thinkers’, which has two parts: in one semester the idea is to help students understand what’s expected of them in the transition from school to university (high school to school, maybe, in US parlance?) by going through the process of writing an essay about Augustine together over the course of a semester. The idea is to do a mixture of practical and theoretical introductions both to academic work and to Augustine as a foundational figure for Western thought. The second half of the course will look at a range of important Christian thinkers, hopefully applying some of the lessons of semester 1 to the texts we’re reading; I need to work out at some point who I want to include in my canon, but have a little longer to make those decisions so am putting that on the back burner for now.

I’ll have a mixture of theology and philosophy students in my class, so need to try to pitch the classes in a way that will appeal to both. I’m hoping to find some fun exercises to make some basic study and essay-writing skills interesting, and to somehow balance giving the students an introduction to Augustine and some of the secondary literature on Augustine with trying to think about some of the fundamental questions they’ll want to bring to the texts they read over the course of their degree (what’s the role of gender in the text? What are the basic metaphors and how do they shape the argument? What key binaries are at work and where do they start to collapse? What’s the relationship between the social and historical context and the texts we’re reading?) So I’m looking for general advice and suggestions, but especially helpful would be:

  • any recommendations on books, activities or guides covering basic study and essay writing skills
  • your favourite Augustine texts (that are suitable for first year undergrads), both primary and secondary
  • any ideas about things you wish *your* students had learnt early on in their degree