Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Syllabus tip for bible classes

I'd like to share a tip that I picked up from a colleague who teaches on sensitive subjects like homosexuality, transgender issues, etc. In order to inform the enrolled students about the content of the course and the critical perspective of the instructor, he puts in his syllabus a section he calls "Course Contract." He gave me a copy, which I have modified and use regularly for all of my courses that deal with bible.

It has helped tremendously in terms of officially signaling to the students that the course is not about contemporary hermeneutics or "bible study." It also gives me the opportunity right off the bat to talk about the differences between doctrinal study and historical study. I include here an example from my syllabus this semester. Feel free to use it or modify it if you think it will be useful for your own classes.
Course Contract
This course does not approach the bible from a faith or doctrinal perspective. By signing up for this course and accepting the conditions of this syllabus, you are agreeing to participate in open class discussions of the bible from a historical and critically-informed perspective. If you are especially uncomfortable or unwilling to think openly and critically about the bible in the context of the modern study of religion, I encourage you not to take the course. It is crucial that you understand this, since by accepting this syllabus and signing up for The New Testament and Christian Origins, you are entering an academic contract and intellectual community whose basic rules of engagement and discourse are fundamentally different from those you may be familiar with. Put differently, the discussions and ideas of this course and its readings are in no way bound by the authority or wishes of any religious community or individual, and the success of this course will depend largely, if not entirely, on how open and comfortable you are with studying biblical materials as a historian. By remaining in this course and accepting this syllabus, you are expressing your understanding of and agreement with these fundamental, non-negotiable conditions of intellectual freedom and critical engagement.


Nick Kiger said...

My favorite undergraduate professor Dr. Glenna Jackson always started her classes with the quote, "You don't have to believe it, but you have to understand it." I always liked that approach although I tended to agree with her anyway.

Christopher Heard said...

In my case, a "contract" would be awkward, since my course is required. The students can't just drop and go somewhere else. But I do give a little attention on the first day to the distinction between "devotional" and "academic" study, and make it clear that we're doing academic study in my class.