New Project: “Religion in San Antonio”

This summer, I’m teaching a class called “Religion in San Antonio”. Since I plan on teaching it every other summer, and because I think there needs to be a central resource dedicated to exploring the diversity of San Antonio’s religions, past and present, I’ve created an accompanying website: religioninsanantonio.com!

I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to do with it. It’ll have a blog where I’ll mention books on San Antonio history, share interesting fun facts, spotlight scholars of religion who live and study here, post some book reviews, etc. It’ll have pages dedicated to naming and exploring various religious communities by their broader religion-grouping (e.g. Buddhism; Islam). And then whatever else seems fitting.

Teaching (graduate/doctoral) students to become teachers

When I was working on my PhD it dawned on me that I could go through the whole program without obtaining any teaching experience. Lucky for me, I had come into contact with Ruben Dupertuis of Trinity University here in San Antonio. I reached out to him about being a voluntary TA. He countered with an opportunity to be part of a ‘teaching internship’, which wasn’t a program already in place but something he invented along with the department head of the Religion Department at that time (I think it was Sarah Pinnock). I was able to ‘shadow’ Ruben for a semester and then lead a seminar with him and Chad Spigel for another. I’m confident that this experience played an important role in landing me my current job.

The other day I suggested that people with PhDs should consider the possibility of applying for high school teaching jobs rather than spinning their wheels in the world of adjunction and short-term contracts. I’m not here to kill anyone’s dreams of being a professor at a college or university but at some point realism strikes and it becomes evident that not everyone who is talented and smart enough to find that type of job has an actual job waiting for them. But there’s a problem: when you apply to teach high school, the thing they watch closest is how you function in the classroom. Your CV means little. I was told by one faculty who was interviewing me that they had no doubt about my intellectual capacity or my qualifications with the course material but that high school teachers don’t teach topics, they teach emerging adults, and they just happen to use their area of expertise to do that.

Which leads me to my main point: doctoral programs, if they’re going to continue accepting more students than have jobs waiting for them, need to make them competitive in ways that transcend the market for research professors. In Biblical Studies and theology, the ‘fall back’ for many is the pastorate, but not everyone is qualified for that or even close to a good fit. (I was asked over and over about being a pastor and the older I get the happier I am that I recognize that was not me!)

This is why I was thrilled to Justin Weinberg’s article ‘Course to Teach University Students to Engage Philosophically with High Schoolers’. Weinberg shares how the ‘University of Pennsylvania is offering a course that will teach undergraduates how to teach philosophy to high school students.’ He writes, ‘The course, “Public Philosophy & Civic Engagement,” is one of the university’s “Academically Based Community Service” courses.’ You can read more about it in the article but let me suggest this: a program like this could be very successful if the university students come to a class that is assigned to a high school teacher and that teacher remains present in the room as a coach and to assist with classroom management. Also. I would suggest that the high school teacher be the one who chooses homework assignments, homework loads, and does the grading. But I can imagine a class where four or five different university students (especially doctoral level students) split the actual class time across a semester under a high school teachers coaching and supervision. Even if the university student goes on to grab one of those teaching jobs in higher ed, I guarantee they’ll be better prepared that if they don’t get teaching experience while doing their research or if they only do something like TAing, which doesn’t give you the same responsibilities or opportunities as something like this.

Have a PhD? Looking for employment? What about teaching high schoolers?

Arguably (?), the reliance upon adjuncts by colleges, universities, graduate schools, seminaries, etc., is immoral. I’m not saying it’s immoral to be an adjunct teacher. Nor do I think every institution that uses adjuncts is wrong to do so. But I do see a lot of institutions using adjuncts as a means of ‘cheap labor’. They know they if they can get three adjuncts to teach two classes each for a few thousand dollars per class they can avoid paying one or two people a full wage with benefits, retirement, etc. It’s a business decision because whether or not we like it, education is (has become?) a business.

So, I’ve met immensely talented people who teach on short contracts with no promise of long-term work. They need to take adjunct gigs to have a chance at making it to the ‘big leagues’. Sadly, the acceptance of these gigs reinforces the system, empowers the institutions who are misusing adjuncts, and makes the job market the worst kind of buyers’ market imaginable.

In the fields of Biblical Studies and Religious Studies the statistics are depressing. Browse the SBL career center. Read the AAR’s ‘Employment Trends’. It’s not encouraging.

Interestingly, many people who teach undergraduates have realized that they’re receiving students who don’t know how to do a close reading of a text, or sustained reading, or much reading, period! They can’t contract an argument let alone a full-blown term paper. This means they’re not being prepared at the high school level. That leads me to my point:

What if more people with doctorates chose to work at the high school level?

There’s a trade-off, for sure. You won’t publish as much, if at all. You may not teach in the field that you did your research, especially if your focus was religion and/or theology. But you can be an educator.

This might mean you teach in private school. It might mean you teach in public. It doesn’t have the glory of teaching college or graduate students. You might be asked to lead a club, coach a team, advise students, or a million other tasks that don’t seem to align with your motivations for earning a doctorate, but you’d be educating.

It’s hard work but it’s rewarding and it compensates better than adjuncting.

If you’ve ever thought about teaching at the high school level, and you have questions, feel free to reach out to me. I’ll tell you what I know. I think many people who are willing to go through the hell that is doctoral work do so because they love the life of the mind. You don’t have to lose that if you’re willing to teach students a tad younger than what you imagined originally.

Explaining the blog’s subtitle

What do I mean when I say this blog is about ‘reading the Bible with iGen’? Well, I’m inspired by Jean M. Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthoodand What that Means for the Rest of Us (which has a throw-back, super-long subtitle). This is a book about the generation after the Millennials. Some call this generation ‘Generation Z’ (or ‘Gen Z’). Traditionally, Millennials were born in the early 80s (Twenge says ’81; Pew Research Center says ’80), which, fun fact, makes me one of the oldest Millennials (I was born in ’82). Gen Z or iGen begins in the mid-90s (Twenge says ’95; Pew Research Center says ’97). The reason I like the label iGen is because of Twenge’s rational for giving this name to the emerging generation. ‘they grew up with cell phones, had an Instagram page before they started high school, and do not remember a time before the Internet.’ (p. 2)

Millennials like me became adults at the turn of the millennium. We remember the pre-Internet Era. We used dial-up. Today’s youth don’t know the analog era, only the digital one. The ‘Internet was born’ in 1994, forever changing the world into which they would be born.

I teach religious studies to this generation, specifically high schoolers. So this blog will include my observations on how this generation thinks about religion, reads sacred texts, and other related matters. And I agree with Twenge: the (smart)phone in their pockets has forever altered how humans think and get their information. This means when they want to know about Buddhism, or the Gospel of Luke, or the Hindutva ideology, how will they learn about it…well, my hyperlink tells you how. They’ll look for information online. This can be good but it brings unique challenges. Challenges I want to think through.

Explaining the blog’s name

You may wonder, ‘How did you come up with such a witty blog name?’ Well, let me tell you!

Google-Hermeneutics and Wiki-Exegesis

Hermeneutics is the art (science?) of interpretation. It’s the self-imposed principles we use to help us develop a self-aware reading of a given text. In the Internet Age, someone with minimal knowledge about any given topic will (likely) begin their quest for new knowledge using Google. Of course, this means that Google’s algorithm will have a role in determining the first websites they encounter. As you may have guessed, if I search ‘Who were Adam and Eve?’ it’s improbable that the first website I’ll be offered is a solid, research-grounded, website where a scholar has written something. In fact, when you do this precise search, your first result will be the hive-mind known as Wikipedia. The next few results when I did the search include Britannica.com (not bad), BibleStudyTools.com (ok), MyJewishLearning.com (good), so I’m not saying that Google is a terrible tool and I wish everyone would go to the library instead. What I am saying is that Google had a huge role in determining what someone learns and if the person just wants basic knowledge, then guess what? Wikipedia it is? Therefore, Google-Hermeneutics means that the art of interpreting the Bible (or the Quran or the religious practices of Hindus or the demographics of Buddhists in the United States) is greatly shaped by the power of Google.

Exegesis is the difficult work of trying to extract information from a text. It is when the reader tries to listen to the text on its own terms (whatever that might mean and however that might be possible). This might mean trying to read the text in the language written in originally. Or learning more about the historical-setting wherein the text was shaped. What then is ‘Wiki-Exegesis’? Well, a ‘wiki’, according to Wikipedia (meta!), is ‘a knowledge base website on which users collaboratively modify content and structure directly from the web browser‘. In other words, it is an evolving hive-mind. So, unlike say reading a commentary on the Epistle to the Romans written by Martin Luther a few centuries ago (which has limits to how it can evolve), one might read about the Epistle to the Romans on Wikipedia, where knowledge is always evolving, for better or worse. Also, a Wikipedia entry isn’t necessarily written by scholars of that subject, so you’re getting a variety of voices (again, for better or worse). Therefore, Wiki-Exegesis is how many people ‘interpret’ texts today. They do it collaboratively, hearing many voices that present views that are ever evolving and that come from faceless contributors who we may or may not trust to provide us with accurate information for reasons of which were unsure.

Blogging is Dead. So why this blog?

I used to blog a lot. Too much. Like three entries a day. It was bad for my mental health. It was bad for my interpersonal relationships. So why this blog?

Well, there’s a few reason.

  1. I was notified this week that a paper I proposed for the 2020 Southwest Commission on Religious Studies was accepted. My paper, ‘Reading the Bible with iGen’, will be part of a panel titled ‘Biblical Studies in the Bible Belt: Pedagogy and Best Practices’. The downside? There won’t be projectors provided, and I don’t think I want to print copies for everyone in attendance, so I’ll need a place to upload a copy of my paper so people can read it from their computers/phones while I present.
  2. This is my fourth year teaching religious studies at the high school level. This may be one of the loneliest gigs a high school teacher can obtain because so few high schools offer religious studies course (and for good reason considering the potential First Amendment related quagmires that can arise). I have a couple of colleagues within our school’s Humanities Department but that’s the extent of it. So, this is a place for me to share some thoughts on the intersection of religious studies, biblical studies, pedagogy, and adolescence, and maybe there’ll be a few people out there in the void who will speak back to me!
  3. I think this intersection is under-appreciated and quite interesting. Whether it be the work of people like Benjamin Marcus, a Religious Literacy Specialist with the Religious Freedom Center who has been promoted the C3 Framework as a way to help teachers teach religious studies as part of social studies curriculum; or Linda K. Wertheimer, whose book Faith Ed reports on the challenges teachers face when teaching religion in a public school setting; or Mark A. Chancy, a Professor of Religious Studies, and an accomplished scholar of the Christian New Testament, who has been researching Bible curriculum in public schools; or Andrew Mark Henry, a doctoral student at Boston University who created the ‘Religion for Breakfast’ YouTube channel which makes religious studies topics accessible to a new generation; there are people doing really interesting work and I’d like to share it with others.

So, I won’t blog that frequently. I’ll stay in my lane and on topic. And I won’t get into debates in the comments. This should make this blogging experience a healthier one.