|Computers & Texts No. 15
Dr James Davila
University of St. Andrews
'The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha' was taught at the University of St. Andrews during Spring Semester this year, using a combination of Web pages, standard seminars, and an international email discussion group. James Davila reports on his own experiences and those of his students of employing this approach to teaching.
The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha are a grab-bag of ancient works that imitate books of the Hebrew Bible, draw their inspiration from these books, or in some cases (such as parts of the Book of Enoch) narrowly missed being included in the biblical canon. The imaginary visions and adventures of the antediluvian patriarch Enoch and other biblical characters including Moses, Ezra, and Ezekiel, fill the pages of this motley corpus, alongside books and oracles attributed to pagan sages such as Ahiqar and the Sibyl. I cannot help thinking that some of the composers, who often wrote elaborate narratives describing otherworldly journeys and tours of celestial realms, would be pleased to know that their prophecies and proverbs now have a place in that strange, multidimensional hyperspace we call the Internet.
Although the Pseudepigrapha have received serious scholarly study since the eighteenth century, it has only been in the last generation that the critical importance of these texts for understanding the biblical world and the world of late antiquity has been fully recognized, and as a result the scholarly output on the corpus has burgeoned. My new course module DI3216, 'The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha', which I taught for the first time in the Spring Semester of 1997 at the Divinity School of the University of St. Andrews, is one of the few undergraduate survey courses entirely devoted to this literature. But apart from content, this module was on the cutting edge in another way. As far as I can determine, it was the first undergraduate humanities course in Britain to be taught both as a regular seminar and as an international discussion list on the Internet, complete with supporting World Wide Web pages.
The course met twice a week for one hour and each session was (or sometimes two sessions were) devoted to a single Pseudepigraphic text. Eight undergraduates and one postgraduate registered for the course. Two or three doctoral students in our program also sat in on many of the realtime meetings, and one of them wrote a paper for the course that was distributed online. I lectured for the first three weeks and occasionally thereafter; otherwise the class sessions focussed on discussion of previously circulated seminar papers written by students. Drawing on models provided by electronic courses taught by Jim O'Donnell and Robert Kraft at the University of Pennsylvania, I set up the online component of the module with two main elements. First, an electronic discussion list (email@example.com) was created, using Majordomo as the platform, and was advertised internationally on related lists. Subscription was open to anyone who wished to join, although all subscribers were given a copy of the list's 'Community Rule' (on which more below) and informed that by remaining subscribed they were agreeing to abide by its provisions. Academic credit was available only to St. Andrews students registered for the course. The list was open for discussion from the beginning of February until the end of May.
The second element was a set of Web pages for the module that included a course syllabus, instructions for joining the otpseud list and accessing the Majordomo archive, a copy of the Community Rule, an annotated basic bibliography for texts covered in the module, and links to related Web pages. As the course progressed, the full text of my online lectures, along with abstracts of student essays, and guest lectures by outside scholars, were added to the pages.
Fig. 1. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha taught on the Web at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~www_sd/otpseud.html
My own experiences and the feedback I have received from the listmembers and students indicate that the course was quite successful. At times the students felt a little overwhelmed both by the new and often very strange subject matter, and by their first intensive introduction to cyberspace. (One wrote in the end of term evaluation that 'online discussion virtually doubled the amount of reading to be done!') Nonetheless they indicated that they found the module fascinating, enjoyed the Internet discussion group, and appreciated the depth of detail permitted by the online lectures.
A vast range of people joined the list, including scholars, undergraduate and postgraduate students, interested laypeople, and at least one adult Sunday School group that built its weekly lesson around the subject matter of the course! The majority of the roughly 190 subscribers were located in the United States, along with a good number in Britain and many in other countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, the Netherlands, Norway, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and Venezuela. A number of the participants commented publicly or privately that they appreciated being introduced to the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha and that they found the discussions provocative and informative.
One area that remains a challenge is getting the students who are registered for the course to participate more in the online discussions. I feel strongly that an open international discussion group is a far better introduction to cyberspace for my students than a closed list restricted to the class, even though the experience can be a baptism by fire for some of them. Each student posted a summary of his or her class essay onto the list, but otherwise the registered students were fairly quiet. Given that their work and comments were being read and discussed by specialists all over the world, their rectitude was understandable, but I am still working on finding ways to encourage more student participation. Nonetheless, the online conversation often informed and enriched the discussions in the bi-weekly realtime meetings, so the Internet component was still an important element of the course taught at St. Andrews.
Another challenge for this sort of online course is maintaining order on an unmoderated list with open subscriptions. My experience on the steering committee for the Ioudaios-L discussion group served me in good stead here. The key to managing an unmoderated list is the Community Rule (a title borrowed from the Dead Sea Scrolls by Ioudaios-L, which I borrowed in turn). Inevitably subscribers will show up who insist on posting inappropriate messages, or who are abusive. Scholarly lists that deal with religious texts seem especially fated to attract occasional cranks or zealous proponents of sectarian ideologies. Both Ioudaios-L and the Ancient Near East list had to be shut down and rethought because of this sort of disruption, although happily, both are back online again at present. (Incidentally, the Community Rules for otpseud, Ioudaios-L, and ANE were composed by the respective listowners in close dialogue with one another, so you will notice many similarities between them). It is extremely important to clarify in a list's Community Rule the purpose and audience of the list (in the case of otpseud, it was a scholarly list aimed at specialists and serious students), the appropriate tone for postings (courteous, relevant, and proofread), inappropriate topics for discussion (for otpseud: sectarian, political, fringe, and commericial messages), and the penalty for persistent or egregious violation of the rules (for otpseud: permanent expulsion from the list). Listmembers should be informed that remaining subscribed to the list after receiving the Community Rule indicates that they agree to abide by its conditions and to accept the listowner's interpretation of those conditions. Clear communication at the very beginning will eliminate many potential misunderstandings and will place the listowner on solid moral and legal ground should it become necessary to discipline violators. For the record, I did have to expel one disruptive subscriber from otpseud, so all this preparation was far from just an academic exercise.
Another issue to keep an eye on is the question of international copyright laws, and the contents of Web sites one links to one's own pages. Potentially, this is a legal minefield, so I chose to be very conservative and link only to sites containing texts that I was sure were in the public domain according to British law. In the process of choosing I found one excellent site in the United States that held material in the public domain according to U.S. law but which was still under copyright in Britain. I doubt very much that there would have been any trouble had I linked the otpseud Web page to it (I did not) but until there are clear international laws governing such questions for the World Wide Web, discretion is the better part of valour.
Finally, a word about email servers. Listserv has many advantages over Majordomo: some chores that have to be carried out manually on Majordomo are done automatically by Listserv. Listserv also provides digests without the owner having to create and maintain a second list. But Majordomo has one advantage that is often decisive: it is free. Listserv, on the other hand, is quite expensive. If you intend to open up a discussion list and your institution already has Listserv (or your can persuade the powers-that-be to subscribe), then by all means use it. But until many more university courses are being offered on the Internet, most institutions will not find it worthwhile to invest in Listserv, and we will have to get along with Majordomo, which is perfectly servicable, if sometimes less convenient. Our Head of User Services for the Information Technology Services at St. Andrews, Dr. John Henderson, installed our Majordomo system for me and did the technical administration for the list for the first three-quarters of the module, but I took over the technical side for the last month. I am no computer wizard, so if I can do it, anyone reading this article can.
The otpseud list of 1997 was just a beginning, a prototype for what I hope will be many more online courses at the University of St. Andrews. The list is currently on hiatus, but will be revived in the spring of 1999 when I teach DI3216 again. The tentative focus for that session is Pseudepigraphic texts composed and transmitted in Greek.
In the interim I am working on a still more ambitious online project for 1998. In the Spring Semester of next year I will teach an honours course at St. Andrews called 'Divine Mediator Figures in the Biblical World', DI3217. This module will examine traditions in the biblical and parabiblical literature about divine, divinized, and exalted figures who served as mediators between God and human beings. These figures might include angels such as Michael and Gabriel, deified people such as Enoch and Melchizedek, and powerful prophets or magicians such as Moses, Solomon, and the Sibyl. The focus will be on biblical and Jewish tradition in the Second Temple period (c. 586 B.C. to 70 A.D.), but with a continual eye to the larger context of the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds from the second millennium B.C. to Late Antiquity. Each seminar will concentrate on a particular figure, drawing on texts as diverse as the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Pseudepigrapha, the Coptic Gnostic literature, and Greco-Roman philosophy and magic (all read in English translations). The overarching concern of the module is to further our understanding of the cultural matrix that gave rise to the veneration of Jesus and to New Testament christology. The last seminar will be devoted to the topic of Jesus as a divine mediator.
Once again, World Wide Web pages and an international electronic discussion group will be built around the course, but this time the course and its accoutrements will serve as a prologue to a conference to be held on 13-17 June, 1998, at the University of St. Andrews (organized by myself and Carey Newman, Research Professor of New Testament at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky). The International Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus will gather a team of roughly fifteen to eighteen scholars from around the world to explore the historical and cultural matrix in ancient Palestine and the Mediterranean in which Christianity developed, concentrating especially on religious and philosophical traditions about mediation between the divine and human realms. Paper presentations and formal responses are by invitation only, but attendance and group discussion are open to all interested scholars. The focus will be on the origins of christology in the first century and its relation to Jewish monotheism, but attention will also be given to relevant biblical, Jewish, and Greco-Roman traditions in the Persian and Hellenistic/Roman periods (c. 539 B.C. to A.D. 200). The goal is to gain a better understanding of the cultural background in which early Christianity grappled with the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Abstracts of the papers will be posted in advance on the Mediator Figures Web pages and I hope that many of the presenters and delegates will join the list while the course is being taught. The whole enterprise will weave together traditional pedagogical and scholarly methods with cutting-edge electronic communications, to create a model for a new kind of academic discourse in the twenty-first century.
You can access the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Web page at: http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~www_sd/otpseud.html. As I mentioned above, the otpseud mailing list is currently inactive, but you can still subscribe to it in order to receive periodic updates on the Mediator Figures course and the conference by sending the message 'subscribe otpseud' (without quotation marks) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sometime in autumn 1997 I will create the mediators discussion list and anyone who remains subscribed to otpseud will be put on the mediators list automatically (as of early July 1997, almost everyone who subscribed to the otpseud list when it was active has kept the subscription in anticipation of the Mediator Figures course). I hope to see you there too!
[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]
Computers & Texts 15 (1997), p.8 Not to be republished in any form
without the author's permission.
HTML Author: Sarah Porter
Document Created: 8 September 1997
The URL of this document is http://info.ox.ac.uk/ctitext/publish/comtxt/ct15/davila.html