Monday, January 2, 2017

Some More Thoughts––Lots More––On Greek Pedagogy

Dave Black posted some invaluable comments on his blog at 10:54 am on Dec. 8th, 2016. To repeat the cries of Rod Decker, I can't link to Dave's post so I'm left with just reproducing his words here. Not a problem though. What Dave writes is really interesting when it comes to biblical language instruction. It's something that I am very, very, very interested in. I think we have to rethink biblical language instruction, especially in seminal studies. First, let's give you what Dave wrote on his blog. After that, I'll offer some thoughts of my own.

[Begin Dave's post] 
The Greek teacher in me had to smile when I saw this quote today:
“Pupils don’t like ancient Greek classes. They think it’s tiresome and useless,” one high school teacher told AFP.
Now, should you be reflecting back on your seminary days and your own New Testament Greek classes, think again. The complaint actually comes from modern Greek-speaking students who are frustrated with their classes in ancient Greek. The essay is called Debate over Teaching of Ancient Greek. You see, in modern Greece, there are actually two kinds of Greek: Kathareveusa (ancient) and Demotike (modern). Reminds me of when I lived in Basel. We all spoke High German in the classroom, but as soon as you stepped into the hallway everyone began speaking their ancient dialect (Swiss German). Yes, things could get confusing in very short order. Which is why I eventually bought a Basel-German grammar and taught myself how to speak the local patois.
The late Rod Decker once had an interesting post about Greek pedagogy. Strangely enough, he quoted yours truly. Why, Dave Black actually thinks that the onus lies on the student as to whether or not they will master New Testament Greek! Nowadays, everything about teaching is up for grabs: pronunciation (The Great Pronunciation Debate), methodology, the use of electronic tools in the classroom, etc. As far as I'm concerned, all of this discussion is good and healthy for our discipline. I have no doubt we all have something to learn from each other. I'm no expert in Greek pedagogy, but if there's one thing I wish I could teach every fledging Greek professor it would be this: Connect. Orient your teaching to the students in the room. We––and I say we because I am a teacher too––need to understand what expectations our students bring to the classroom. Somehow we need to learn how to connect the new to the familiar. Somehow we need to learn how to move beyond cramming facts into students' heads and instead turn them into independent learners and thinkers. All of this sounds like common sense, but it is so difficult to put into practice. The usual step seminaries take is to hire "experts" in the field and then set them loose to display their deep knowledge of the subject––thus putting students to sleep and leaving them with nothing but a shallow acquaintance with the subject matter. What would happen if, instead of simply asking students to translate and parse on their final exam, we asked them to read a passage of New Testament Greek and then explain its contents in a way that normal people could understand it? How about making every exam cumulative, with only the last one counting? How about getting students involved from the get-go in discussing disputed texts from the New Testament? (One example I use: when Paul says we all partake from "one loaf of bread" during the Lord's Supper [1 Cor. 10:16-17], was he serious? You mean the early church didn't have thumb-sized crackers when they observed "The Lord's Snack"?) There are three dimensions to learning––thought, behavior, and affect––and each is essential for meaningful teaching and learning. Sadly, most of us who teach Greek have had very little training in pedagogy. We simply default to the way our own Greek teachers taught us. On the other hand, I must say that all of the best practices I use in my own teaching I saw modeled by one of my professors either at Biola or Talbot. In that sense, Christian education is likeness education: We become like our teacher (for good or for ill). But certainly we can all do better than simply asking our students to absorb information and then regurgitate it. I for one am very excited about the current debate over Greek pedagogy. The focus is on how to obtain the most from our students. Somehow we need to learn to integrate our learning objectives into our students' lives and experiences. If you would, dear researcher, please show me (among other things):
How the best teachers connect content with real-world practice.
What the best teachers expect of their pupils.
How we teachers can learn more about teaching.
How we can write syllabi that emphasize what students can do and not merely know.
In the meantime, fellow teachers, we need to get focused on the right thing. In tennis, nobody looks at the net. In golf, nobody looks at the sand trap. Is it possible, do you think, that we teachers are so fixated on the problem that we are missing the goal we want to achieve?
[End Dave's post]

Now you see why I posted it, right? There's a lot here. It got my mind turning even more than it usually is (no wise cracks, please!).

Dave pointed out how he taught himself German. I can point to my own journey into the world of Spanish. I had a lot of motivation. I really got serious with Spanish after God saved me and I realized there was a Spanish-speaking community right down the street from where I lived and no one was reaching out to the people that lived there with the gospel. We had to change that. Literally 85 percent of the community was hispanic. There were somewhere around three hundred apartments there. And no one was going there on a regular basis to build relationships with the people, meet real needs and show people what Jesus showed us by giving his life up for our sins, and explaining to them the significance of what Jesus did on the cross. When I moved down to Honduras I suddenly had another really important reason to carry my !Aprenda español ahora! textbook and a book with 500 Spanish verbs conjugated (one per page) with me and practice every chance I got. I had met this amazing––and I mean absolutely amazing!––Honduran girl who loved Jesus. She spoke English, better than I spoke Spanish, so there wasn't as much of an issue there. But I wanted to communicate with her family. And I wanted my communication with Lesly, who I would marry three years later, to be the absolute best that it could. I wanted to know her. I wanted her to know me. And knowing people that way, just like knowing texts, requires that kind of knowledge. The more you know the more barriers to enjoying that relationship get removed and the more snares that could potentially trip you up become avoidable. So I wanted to be able to communicate with Lesly and her family. There was that and I wanted to talk to the millions of people that were literally right outside my front door. I went from an apartment complex down the street from my home in North Carolina to one of the most densely populated cities in the Western Hemisphere. I had plenty of reason to kick my studies into overdrive.

Had it been exclusively up to some Spanish class, the truth is I probably wouldn't have learned Spanish. Classes unfortunately don't always offer the best motivations for students. The motivation for me to learn Spanish came as a need arose. And I had to realize that the need was "worth it" if I was going to pour hours and hours and hours into learning this language. Hours of reading, a million mistakes, lots of chuckles at my expense, some unfortunate blunders when speaking to people (I have a hundred stories!). It had to be worth it. I think this is one of the biggest failures in seminary. We could put this on the student, and for many I think it should be. But as a professor I'm also thinking I need to do some introspection. Do I show my students a need that is "worth it" all? Almost every Greek prof can quote the "kissing the bride through a veil" quote and the fifteen or so other quotes that get reprinted in a bunch of blogs each year and usually, at least three or four, in each new beginning Greek grammar. I love those quotes. They motivate me. They make sense. But for some reason or another, most people walk out of their Greek classes (and many more their Hebrew classes), hit play on their iPhones or iPods, and crank up Alice Cooper's "School's Out," figuratively speaking. I'm surprised no one has rewritten the words yet. Maybe Weird Al can help those students out on his next album. Until then . . . here's my best go at it:
". . .
No more parsing, no more vocab,
No more Greek prof's scolding looks,
We got no class, we got no grammars, 
We ain't got no morphology, 
We can't even think of a periphrastic imperfect,   
. . ."
(Hey, it's easier since even Alice Cooper doesn't rhyme.)

Something happens, seriously. Something happens when most of these students finish their biblical language courses. I'm sure I don't have a firm enough grasp of what's going on. I wish I did, but I don't. Still, we're trying to address this issue. Students ought to learn to use Greek and Hebrew despite having the worst language professor; and shame on students when they don't learn to use the languages and have a professor as skilled and gifted as Dave Black.

When Dave says "connect," I know exactly what he's talking about. Not because I connect better than anyone else or better than most, but because I sat in Dave's classes. Dave connected with me. I was never challenged more in any other class––academically or spiritually. I was pushed. And I was corrected. Permit me one tangent: Students do say incorrect things in class, and professors ought to point those things out in class. We learn more from what we get wrong than what we get right. And I've sat through a bunch of classes where it felt like students could say whatever they wanted without the slightest challenge for them to articulate how they arrived at such a belief. That's a recipe for a hollow education, I promise you that. But like I said, Dave's classes challenged me immensely. I prepared harder and better in those classes because more was expected of me. (I know, we should do all things to the glory of God, as if working for God not for men.)

If learning Hebrew and Greek are really that invaluable to exegesis and expository teaching, then an onus lies on the student. But I must also ask, "What onus lies on the professor?" And heads of Bible departments must ask, "What onus lies on our department" And those who lead seminaries must ask, "What onus lies on our seminary?" Everyone has some responsibility. I'm now at the place where I think seminaries owe it to their students to measure outcomes, not just student perception of the biblical languages or superficial markers like "Do you use Greek regularly in ministry? ––Check yes or no." Biblical language professors have an obligation to make a case for their method given the context of their language courses in the scope, sequence, and quantity of courses required at their seminaries. If the majority of students are required to take no more than two courses in a given language, then saying we cover exegesis in third semester Hebrew is unacceptable. The majority of students will not sign up for that third semester. Even that begs the question, "Why?" One of the reasons why I have appreciated reading material from proponents of what's called the Living Language Approach is they acknowledge the issue. That's a big first step. And that's about the most I have in common with that approach to biblical language instruction. Most people––though we lack the hard evidence to back such a statement up––don't use Greek or Hebrew after they get out of seminary . . . despite the fact that, in many cases, they are spending upwards of five, six, and even seven thousand dollars on instruction in the languages. Incredible, isn't it? Most language professors will admit this. Even James Romm, Professor of Classics at Bard College, lamented this last year at this time in the New York Times (see here).

My favorite quote in Dave's post is this: "Somehow we need to learn how to move beyond cramming facts into students' heads and instead turn them into independent learners and thinkers." He's so right. And this extends far beyond biblical language instruction. Our seminaries would be a zillion times better if we all traveled down this path in every single course in every single department. And you know what? Our churches would be a zillion times better too. By the way, churches are, in part, educational communities. Sadly, I bet most of the parents in our local churches would opt against sending their children to a school that was as effective as most local churches. We need to teach people how to think and to think apart from us teachers. My hypothesis is most people don't use Greek after seminary because they never got past the "producing from scratch an ambiguous translation" stage and the "cramming facts" stage in their Greek courses. They never got to see that it's "worth it" and they were never shown that they could really begin to put Greek into practice with an incomplete knowledge of Greek. I'm hoping something can change. I want more people using Greek in their studies of the New Testament. I want more people using Hebrew in their studies of the Old Testament. I want more students to view language courses as invaluable, not just because their language profs told them it was, but because they have truly tasted and seen. To taste and see, I'm convinced, requires not just a persistence and diligence on the part of the student, but also a shake-up in the world of biblical language instruction. Thirty-two weeks of memorizing vocab, paradigms, and categories while creating ambiguous translations for homework is not necessarily the best we can do. If there is a better way, I think we need to be on a quest to find it.

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