Articles of interest: G.A. Yee, Thinking Intersectionally

I’m going to try to make a habit of writing a few short notes on articles I read that may be interesting to the five or six of you who frequent this blog. These are not reviews. More like recommendations with some key take-aways. I begin with Gale A. Yee’s “Thinking Intersectionally: Gender, Race, Class, and Etceteras of Our Discipline”, JBL 139.1 (2020): 7-26. This article is Yee’s 2019 Presidential Address ‘as the first Asian American and the first woman of color to be elected president of the Society of Biblical Literature’ (p. 7).

What’s the focus?
The focus is on the importance of intersectionality to the field of Biblical Studies. In short, we should recognize different forms of identity—’Race, class, gender, age, ability, nation, ethnicity, and similar categories of analysis’—and how they interact or intersect with one another. Yee applies this to both the discipline of Biblical Studies and the specific passage of 2 Kings 4.1-7.

What did I learn?
A lot. But here are some key takeaways:

  1. Intersectionality is a “justice-oriented approach” (quoting Vivian May) that ‘grew out of movements with a social justice agenda such as those focused on civil rights and women’s rights’ (p. 12).
  2. We must recognize that the alternative to intersectionality risks ignoring the real-life threats to people. For example, Yee talks about how this phrase ‘intersectionality’ was coined by African American lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw to address legal matters. In case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, GM, who hadn’t been hiring Black women, GM argued that they weren’t bias against Black women because they had hired Black men. If the sole focus was of antidiscrimination law’ was race, then GM could be cleared. Likewise, if sex, GM could be cleared because they hired white women. But if an intersectional lens is used, it’s apparent that GM’s discrimination was against Black women, specifically (p. 10).
  3. Whiteness must be a racial category. Too often, whiteness has been set as the ‘universal’ while everything else is ‘a culturally constructed ethnic identity’. But Whiteness is also ‘a culturally constructed ethnic identity’, not a ‘universal’ (p. 13). Pragmatically speaking, we can see this in various articles, books, and commentaries that might just be ‘about the Bible’ if it’s a white, male scholar but if it’s a Black, woman scholar, suddenly it’s an intentional departure from the norm, a niche hermeneutic, but not ‘straight exegesis’. This is misleading, at best.
  4. Yee introduces four ‘domains of power’: structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal. Structural = ‘institutional…legal, economic, educational, and how they reproduce the subordination of peoples over time’ (p. 14). Disciplinary = ‘ideas and practices that characterize hierarchies…legal, criminal, and the police and military’ (pp. 14-15). Hegemonic = ‘ideas, symbols, and ideologies that shape consciousness’ (p. 15). Interpersonal = ‘interactions of people at the day-to-day microlevels of social organization’ (p. 15). Because of these four domains, a person could be the oppressed in one situation (say for gender or sexuality) and oppressive in another (say economically).
  5. Acknowledging these realities will expand our reading of texts. Yee examines 1 Kings 4.1-7 focusing on a variety of social dynamics related to the woman in the story who is a widow: gender, economic, legal, etc. We can miss a lot of presumptions in a text if we’re not intentional. As Yee writes, intersectionality ‘encourages us to think beyond the familiar (and perhaps more entrenched) boundaries of biblical studies to expose the diverse power relations of oppression and uncover subjugated voices that were previously invisible and unheard’ (p. 26).

Recently read: Bremer’s ‘Blessed with Tourists’

Thomas S. Bremer, Blessed with Tourists: The Borderlands of Religion and Tourism in San Antonio (UNC Press, 2004).

Since my summer vacation has been a ‘staycation’ thanks to Covid-19 (and all the Texans who couldn’t be bothered to do the oh-so-difficult task of wearing a face mask in public), I went local for my vacation reading. And yes, you’re allowed to feel sad for me when you realize my ‘vacation’ reading is basically my ‘always’ reading: Religious Studies. I read Thomas S. Bremer’s Blessed with Tourists which may sound like a book only a local could enjoy but it’s much deeper that just a local history. Blessed with Tourists is a fascinating exploration of the intersection between religion—especially pilgrimage—and tourism and how there’s a very thin line between the two.

The book is definitely filled with local history. For people interested in the history of Texas, broadly speaking, or San Antonio, more specifically, Bremer provides an overview throughout. Chapter 1, ‘Destination San Antonio’ and Chapter 2, ‘Alamo City’, provide the reader with a brief history of the Indigenous people of south Texas and the colonial Spain as well as the emergence of Mexico and the ever southward creeping United States.

Chapter 3, ‘Preserving Precious Heritage’ introduces the readers to the major players and events who prevented the Missions from falling into complete disrepair. ‘Chapter 4, ‘Religion at the Fair’ narrates the role of the 1968 world’s fair ‘Hemisfair ’68’ that really put San Antonio (back) on the map, revitalizing tourism and the city’s economy, while contributing the eventual sustaining of the Missions. As someone who has participated in the Interfaith community of modern San Antonio, it’s also fun to read about older forms of Interfaith cooperation in this city.

Chapter 5, ‘Inside the National Park’ examines the tricky ‘church-state’ relationship as the Roman Catholic Church and the National Park Service have had to work together to preserve what is not only ecclesial history but local south Texan history. Who is responsible for what? When does state care for the park risk supporting Christianity? These are important questions that this chapter addresses.

The short conclusion ‘Reburying the Past’ looks at the controversy around the digging up of the bones of Native Americans buried near Mission San Juan and how those bones were restored. These final words remind us that San Antonio is an intersection of cultures: Anglo and Latinx, Indigenous and Spanish, to name a couple.

If you’re interested in San Antonio’s history, or Texas’, this book is an important one. But this book is also relevant for thinking about cities like Rome, Mexico City, or Mecca, where pilgrimage and tourism mix.

Putting religion in its global context (1): What’s wrong with ‘World Religion’?

I’m not vehemently against the label ‘World Religion’ but I was uncomfortable enough with it to petition our school to change the name of our comparative religions course from ‘World Religion’ to ‘Religion in Global Context’. For many, this may seem like petty semantics. I get that. But when you’re obsessed with your area of study, sometimes being petty is necessary for precision, and precision is necessary for educating. Also, I’m convinced I don’t want to just teach ‘World Religion’, as it has been traditionally understood, but religion—that sloppy ‘term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes’ which is not natural but instead a ‘a second-order generic concept that plays the same role in establishing a disciplinary horizon that a concept such as “language” plays in linguistics or “culture” plays in anthropology’ (see Jonathan Z. Smith, ‘Religion, Religions, Religious’, pp. 281-282 in Critical Terms for Religious Studies).

In other words, I want my students to wrestle with how we define ‘religion’, what makes something a ‘religion’, and why we care so much about differentiating ‘religion’ from say ‘culture’, ‘worldview’, ‘philosophy’, etc. Sure, there are pragmatic reasons for this separation, but there’s also been a long history of political reasons for doing so. I know my students don’t know those reasons, but I sensed that the structure of the class—a class that focused mostly on surveying the ‘Great Traditions’ of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Confucianism, and Daoism—lended itself toward being an information dump that undermined other important religions like Sikhism and Shinto while overgeneralizing the unity of say ‘Hinduism’ or ‘Christianity’ as if these are monolithic realities.

I could ramble on about this but the ‘Keeping It 101’ podcast has two episodes that are way more entertaining and insightful than what I can write here, so if you’re wondering about the problems with the label ‘World Religion’, let me invite you to listen to one or both of these episodes:

Next time, I’ll start sharing how I hope to morph my class away from just a survey of the ‘Great Traditions’ and more toward a foundational class for Religious Studies and philosophy of religion that will equip my students to think not only about the ‘Great Traditions’ but all the other traditions as well. And it won’t be as hurried because honestly, teaching a survey of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (and then some years Confucianism and Daoism) is almost impossible to do in a single semester if you want to avoid just providing an ‘info dump’.

Reflections on teaching online: negatives

I’ve talked about my positive experiences teaching an online summer school class. Twice! Now, let me turn to some negatives.

In my previous post, I shared Sam Kary’s ten item list that is aimed to help teachers teach online. There were three things on his list I didn’t do:

5. Use Personalized Learning and Engagement Platforms
7. Use Creativity Apps for Authentic Learning Experiences
8. Publish Work to Foster Class Community

I’m not sure that I need to do these three things. I’ll be thinking about it. I worry regarding 5 and 7 that introducing yet another app or platform to students will be overwhelming. I don’t know that more and more and more technology is the answer. The GSuite is integrated. It covers all the basics.

As regards 8, well, I could open a Blogger blog, or I could ask them to do more assignments where they respond to questions in the Google Classroom Stream. I’ll be thinking on this.

What are some things that didn’t go well from my experience? Here’s a list:

  1. Students who struggle academically really struggle online: Honestly, my grading is basically A-D, pass or fail, based on effort. I don’t grade heavily on ‘right or wrong’ answers. Some things, like dates or names, are either right or wrong. How one interprets a proverb? Not so much. But those students who would struggle to earn a good grade because, well, they just haven’t developed the necessary organization skills to remember when this or that assignment is due, those students struggle even more with online learning. The key is communication with parents. I feel like I did better with this over the summer than I did in the spring. I’ll need to do even better if/when we go online again.
  2. Predicting all the various assumed interpretation of instructions: One of my approaches was to have students work together on some assignments to create a sense of community when everyone has been social distancing for a while. Some students would ‘work together’ by splitting the assignment up: ‘You do the first half; I’ll do the second.’ That’s not what I meant. This seems obvious to me but students are good at getting a lot done efficiently. This is a legitimate approach if efficiency is the goal but not if learning is the goal. So, some instructions need to be even more detailed.
  3. Monitoring cheating: I caught a few people cheating, or cutting corners like the above paragraph narrates, but this doesn’t mean I feel prepared for all the possible ways students can cheat when doing work from home. One key approach is to make sure the types of questions they’re answering in their work are subjective to the person. If you ask questions with one answer, you’ll have students who abuse their friendships to skip work by finding that one answer. But if the answers have to be in their own words, using their own thoughts, and you have rubric guidelines, you can help your students by making it harder to cheat. Of course, this means more time grading because you can’t just do scantron-style checks.
  4. Seeing and involving students during synchronous classes: Google Meet will do grid view if there’s 16 people or less. I had 30 students. As I’ve mentioned, I installed GridView by GitHub into Google Chrome. It worked well for a few days but dragged my computer. Eventually, it has more glitches than it was worth. If you have 15 students or less, Google Meet works well. I prefer Google Meet to Zoom for a million reasons…but the lack of visibility isn’t one of them. Please fix this, Google! If you can’t see them, you can still randomly call on students to participate, but it helps to see who is sitting in front of their computer, who has their camera off, and so forth.

If I think of more negatives, I’ll post about them. These are the ones that came to mind this morning. Again, online teaching was fun. I thought my class was a successful effort. I’m glad I had a chance to do a practice run, because as Texas spirals into this ongoing first wave of Covid-19, I’m not optimistic we’ll be in class for long this fall.

Stanley Spencer’s ‘Christ in the Wilderness’

I’m listening to a lecture (‘Consuming Creatures: The Christian Ethics of Eating Animals) by David Clough through Facebook Live right now. He has mentioned two things that caught my attention. The first is an interpretation of Mark 1.13, which contains the statement that ‘He [Christ] was with the wild animals…’ Clough suggested that this refers to Isaiah 11.1 -9’s Peaceable Kingdom. I had never understood that line, and I’ll have to think about this more, but it’s a marvelous reading that would really impact how I hear Mark 1.14-15, where Jesus (following the arrest of John the Baptist) goes into Galilee ‘proclaiming the good news of God’ which contains the claim ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’

The second is the art series by Stanley Spencer, ‘Christ in the Wilderness’, which may be inspired by Mark 1.13. It’s a beautiful series. And according to Clough, Spencer depicts the animals mentioned in Jesus’ sermons, imagining that he encountered them in the wilderness. Here are some samples:

Christ in the Wilderness—the Scorpion
Christ in the Wilderness—the Hen
Christ in the Wilderness—the Foxes
Christ in the Wilderness—the Lilies

Reflections on online teaching: positives (2)

This morning I ran across a website created by a teacher named Sam Kary: The New EdTech Classroom. He created a resource called ‘How to Teach Remotely: The Ultimate Guide’ which includes ten things that can be done to enhance your online/remote teaching. I browsed through this list and I was happy to see I had done six or seven of the items:

1. Set Up Well-Organized Digital Classrooms
2. Teach Synchronously with Digital Conferencing
3. Provide Instruction Asynchronously with Prerecorded Tutorials
4. Use Hyperdocs to Create Dynamic Independent Studies
6. Make Student Thinking Visible
9. Provide Meaningful Feedback
10. Build Better Connections with Families

Let me explain, quickly, how I did these things. Then I’ll list the things I didn’t do which will serve as a gateway for my next post on negatives.

I used Google Classroom. I made sure that the work was clearly definite by two categories: Classwork and Homework. In the Classwork Stream I organized assignments by their due dates and made sure that their descriptions were the same as they were in our school’s online hub that connects with the Registrar’s Office.

I used Google Meet. I said a bit about this yesterday.

For ‘Homework’, I recorded short instructional videos for each assignment. I would open a Google Meet by myself, record it, and allow that recording to land in my Google Drive. Then I’d share it along with the relevant assignment in Google Classroom.

I’ve been using HyperDocs for over a year. I used Google Docs. As I mentioned yesterday, I require students complete guided notes (I call them ‘Course Guides’). This allows me to link to any videos and/or articles found elsewhere on the web.

Side note: I don’t show videos over Google Meet (and don’t recommend it for Zoom) because it’s too choppy. So, I make sure they have access to the video on YouTube, and then ask them to play it from the Slides/Doc I share with them. I still play the video, muted, so they can see it in Presentation Mode, and get a sense that the class is watching the video ‘together’, but avoids the irritation of trying to watch a video that sounds and looks like it’s skipping.

As concerns ‘making students think visibly’ I had them build things like Solomon’s Temple from household items, video record themselves answering questions, draw comics, create memes, etc.

In spite of having a class of thirty students, and in spite of it being a crash course, I was able to give quick feedback because I had an Assistant Teacher. But I feel confident that when my classes are back down in number, and assignments aren’t due multiple times daily, grading with solid feedback should be easy.

Finally, I sent an email to families multiple times and I used Google Classroom’s option to send a report to guardians about once a week on average. This helped parents keep up with their students work assignments but also helped students see what they had done, not done, and what grades they had received recently.

Ok, to the things I didn’t do:
5. Use Personalized Learning and Engagement Platforms
7. Use Creativity Apps for Authentic Learning Experiences
8. Publish Work to Foster Class Community

I’ll say a bit about this, and some other areas that weren’t successful, next time.

Reflections on online teaching: positives

Last week I finished teaching my first online class where about half of the time was synchronous learning. Normally, summer school classes begin at 8 AM and end at 12 noon for three weeks (60 hours + nightly homework). We weren’t going to ask students to sit in a Google Meet for four straight hours every day, so most days we went from 9-11 AM. A couple of days we went from 8-11 AM (the first and last days). ‘Class’ could end at 11:30 AM if I had them doing a review or breaking out into discussion groups (‘Cohorts’ in my classes).

Where I live—San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas—we’re experiencing a spike on Covid-19 cases. Not only will this impact summer break but I think we need to be ready for the possibility that it will wreck the normality of school not only for the spring semester but even the fall semester. In fact, I worry, but also anticipate, that the academic year will have barely begun when we’re already having to adjust to some form of online learning. That said, I don’t speak in any official capacity. Just my educated guess here.

So, with this in mind, learning from what went well and what didn’t will help me in the fall. And for those of you who are preparing for the wild ride that could be this next school year, I hope some of this insights help.

  1. Guided notes were essential: I use guided notes in class anyway, but guided notes that had to be submitted soon after class, especially using Google Docs, allowed me to check the Doc history to make sure they were working on the assignment in real time and not just asking friends for answers later in the day. Also, the guided notes were extremely scripted. Things I would know to say while teaching in person don’t need to be written down, but when everyone is following along from home, I felt that scripted notes were important.
  2. Creating space for Cohorts to meet was a success: I use Google Meet. I don’t like Zoom but I think it might have more capacity in the area I’m about to describe. Nevertheless, Google Meet was sufficient. I wanted students to have some form of ‘community’. I wanted them to have friends with which they could do assignments. So, about a third of the days I had students continue after main session by going to separate Google Meets for discussions. This meant organizing the class by Cohorts and then choosing Cohort leaders. The responsibility of the Cohort leader was to guide the discussion, record it, and share it with me and the Assistant Teacher. I kept time requirements simple: discuss for 6 minutes; discuss for 10 minutes. Then I listened to the recordings to make sure they stayed on topic for the allotted time.
  3. Collaborative homework assignments were embraced: Usually, I’d show movies/TV in my class so my students can see the Bible-as-visual-art but since we weren’t meeting in person I asked them to buy the films/episodes themselves. In the end, it was cheaper than textbooks. Also, I invited students to participate in ‘watch parties’ where they’d connect on their phones while watching the same movie. The answers to questions about the movies were intended to be very subjective, so I invited them to discuss their answers together, which hopefully got them talking about the movie/TV episode, and furthered their learning.
  4. Not all assignments were traditional: Sure, I had them do a lot of reading/writing during the non-synchronous parts of class, but as mentioned I also had them watch movies/TV and record their observations. I had them build Solomon’s Temple out of items they could find around their house. I had them meet in a Google Meet to record a dramatic reading of the Book of Jonah. Some of the parents who wrote me mentioned this as one of the things about the class they really appreciated. Some families watched the movies/TV together, so that added a new element that could only be done in this format.
  5. Record responses to homework: My students spend a lot of time on YouTube, Tik Tok, and other video-centric websites and apps. So, it’s natural for them to record things. I tried to use this to my advantage. As I mentioned, they recorded their Cohort discussions. They recorded their dramatic reading of Jonah. I had them ‘review’ The Prince of Egypt by doing a video recording and pretending that they were a famous YouTube movie reviewer.

That’s the first list of positives. As I think of more, I’ll share. Also, I’ll share some of the negatives.

Reading the Bible Digitally 2.0

Last December, I shared a new project I was introducing to my students called ‘Reading the Bible Digitally’. It’s the last exercise for students who take my class, ‘The Hebrew Scriptures’ (formerly ‘Old Testament’). I wrote a blog post about it here: ‘Guiding students toward a critical use of Internet resources’.

Well, I have a new, updated version of this project with help from my friend and colleague, Fr. Nate Bostian, who developed the ‘C.L.E.A.R.’ rubric used at the end. Also, since my creation of this project, I found Crash Course’s ‘Navigating Digital Information’ series, which is really helpful. Here’s version 2.0:

The updates don’t change the goal: ‘to teach my students to think critically about the Internet resources they use.’ These students may take another class with me. They may take my class ‘The Christian Scriptures’ giving them access to the Bible again. But at some point, they’ll be on their own, and except for the few who major in religious studies, they’ll rely on the Internet for information about the Bible. I hope this project provides them with some tools to make them discerning readers and researchers.

Recently read: Smith-Christopher’s ‘A Biblical Theology of Exile’

Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, A Biblical Theology of Exile (OBT; Fortress Press, 2002).

‘Biblical Theology’ is a quirky discipline. I’ve seen it abused by E/evangelical theologians who try to bend parts of the Bible to fit nicely with others parts of the Bible when the fit is clearly forced. But when an author engages the Bible’s internal ‘conversation’ while doing ‘Biblical Theology’, that’s something I can support. In fact, I teach my classes ‘The Hebrew Scriptures’ and ‘The Christian Scriptures’ from this approach. And it’s something I’ve seen a related book, David M. Carr’s Holy Resilience, do quite nicely.

Let me begin with where the book was tricky for me. The advocacy of ‘diasporic theology’, or a ‘theology of exile’, is a worthy discipline. My problem is with the voices that have been front-and-center. And they’re voices I admire: Stanley Hauerwas and Walter Brueggemann are the two primary examples. These two stand out in the first chapter, ‘Biblical Theology: On Matters of Methodology’, and the last chapter, ‘Toward a Diaspora Christian Theology: The Theology of Tobit and Daniel Revisited’. I’m not saying that Smith-Christopher centers them. I’m just saying they stand out to me. And I acknowledge that this book is almost twenty years old so I’m saying this from the perspective of the reader. The greatest evidence of the role of time is the positive presentation of John Howard Yoder. Yoder’s legacy has been damaged over the past several years as we’ve learned more about his treatment of women. So, I say all that to say this: as I read this book it had me asking myself what theologians and scholars of color, theologians and scholars from womanist, and feminist, and LGBTQI perspectives, do I need to be reading, if I really want to ponder a diasporic theology, a ‘theology of exile’.

Smith-Christopher recognized this danger when he wrote the book. He quotes Caren Kaplan in warning of ‘a temporarily faddish “tourist” theology’ (p. 196). A theology where we try on diaspora and exile as a philosophical concept while ignoring the real, terrestrial diasporic and exilic experiences of people all over the world. In the age of increasing populations of people who are refugees, this seems to me to be very important.

Also, I wondered about the sort of post-politics approach advocated here. Even my local Mennonite friends seem to be more politically active, in the commonly held sense (voter registration; fighting for policy change) than this book supports. I need to see what the author says now that we are living through the ‘age of Tr*mp’.

But on to the positives, because this was a great book. Let me tell you where my thinking was challenged most rather than giving an overview of a book that’s been available for a while:

  1. How I depict the Persians: I’ve tended to play the Persians off against the Assyrians and Babylonians as the ‘more tolerant’ of the empires, and this is generally true, but chapter 2, ‘Violence and Exegesis: The History of Exile’, especially pp. 34-44 where the Persians are discussed in relation to Ezra and Nehemiah, made me realize that ‘more tolerant’ shouldn’t soften the criticism of the imperialist ideology of the Persians.
  2. How Ezekiel and Jeremiah experienced trauma: The above book by Carr opened my eyes to the role of traumatic experiences in shaping the Bible we have today. Smith-Christopher expanded my thinking on this matter as he discussed how the Books of Lamentations and Ezekiel display the trauma of exile. When we think of the Bible, we need to be careful not to read it through the lens of Christian triumphalism. What has dawned on me over the years is that ‘reading from belo w’ usually leads a person to reading the Bible more clearly.
  3. Jonah’s ‘universalizing’ message: Almost a decade ago, I wondered aloud on an old blog why the Apostle Paul’s letters never reference the Book of Jonah. I’m glad to see that my understanding of Jonah, which is what led me to ponder how perfectly it could fit with Paul’s Gospel, isn’t mine alone. Smith-Christopher sees the Book of Jonah as this author’s attempt at depicting ‘Isaiah’s “light to the nations”‘ in narrative form (see pp. 132-133).
  4. Ezra may not have been less a bigot and more an advocate for his minority culture within an empire: When I read the Book of Ezra, I’m bothered by his command for the Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish women. It sounds bigoted and sectarian. But Smith-Christopher proposes we might want to at least consider Ezra from a different angle. He writes (p. 198), ‘If one speaks, for example, to Native Americans in the United States about adoption of Native children by non-Native families, one quickly finds oneself in the presence of Ezra-like concerns that allow us to appreciate what it means to worry about the very existence and viability of cultural survival.’

There’s so much more I could say but I think this suffices. If you’re interested in how the Babylonian Exile and Jewish Diaspora impacted the shape of the Bible and it’s message, this is an excellent book. Several weeks ago, Erica Mongé-Greer (see my interviews with her on ‘Creation Mythologies’ and ‘Flood Mythologies’) recommended this book to me. So, thank you, Erica! It was a great read.

Google Meeting the Bible Again for the First Time: Days 12-14 of Summer School

I was wrong. I didn’t find the key to grid view using Google Meet. At least not one that works consistently. The extension ‘Grid View’ by GitHub has become increasingly unstable that past few days. It prevented by Assistant Teacher from signing on until she uninstalled it. I used it last a few days ago and it wasn’t a grid but a bunch of slivers stacked on one another. I couldn’t see anything but a few names. Google Meet needs to add this feature as a standard one before the fall.

Otherwise, summer school has been great. I’ll continue to post reflections on the actual content and teaching over the rest of the summer. But I haven’t encountered much that is new regarding the art of online teaching. The first week was the learning curve. I’ve settled into a routine since then.