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Teaching Writing While Standing on One Foot
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
This book is an invitation, and is itself a somewhat circuitous reflection on teaching and learning. Directed at writing teachers, much of Danberg’s advice applies to teaching in general, and not just because faculty teach forms of writing in class. The title borrows an image from a famous rabbinic story in which Rabbi Hillel was asked by a nonbeliever to teach the whole of Torah in the time the nonbeliever could stand on one foot. “That which is hateful to you do not do to others,” Hillel instructed, “The rest is commentary; go and learn it” (13). Danberg reminds us that standing on one foot is a posture of instability, the position of both teachers and learners. He encourages teachers to remember their own difficulties in learning. Following Rosenzweig, Danberg suggests that Hillel did not mean “the rest is only commentary… To know Torah is to know the lesson, but also to participate in an ongoing conversation… into the lesson’s value” (14). Students often seek facts, principles, or methods that they can then apply, but good teachers are able to set them on a path of lifelong inquiry. A series of autobiographical vignettes in prose and poetry, the book is punctuated by reflection prompts, or “commentary.”
The author employs several metaphors, but cooking images dominate. A good cook has learned not just to follow a recipe but knows how to see the possibility of a meal in the ingredients on hand; a good cook knows what a dish needs and when it is done. The implied parallel perhaps works best with the craft of writing but the larger point is about what Danberg calls “enfolded knowledge.” Teaching involves confronting the tension “between what we must tell students and what they can only know for themselves” (71).
He offers a compelling description of his own learning disability – his struggles, the strategies he developed, and how teachers reacted to him along the way (47). Danberg laments that schools often define gifts narrowly and he suggests the following exercise: “Spend a couple of days observing the people around you and see how many gifts you can identify… Think of yourself as a zoologist whose great pleasure it is to wait for a butterfly they’ve never seen before” (58). Later, he describes class as “an invitation to inhabit forms of attention and attunement, patterns of caution and regard… If all goes well, it is no more mysterious than the heart and mind, that tangle we are always entangled in” (73).
Danberg invokes the kabbalistic concept of tzimtzum, the contraction of the divine making space for creation. (This comes in a piece entitled “Four Principles and a Fifth” – but I counted six!). A good teacher knows when to get out of the way in order to make space for learning: “You can shape the problems and anticipate the obstacles. You can decide what a student encounters and the time it takes. But in the end, you simply must get out of the way, and leave them to do the work of learning” (98-99).
Reading this book is a bit like ruminating on a Zen koan. Danberg contradicts himself and revels in paradox. The bizarre organization and genre shifts can be frustrating. This is a quirky book, but one with many moments of glittering insight into the difficult joys of learning and teaching.
Expressing Theology: A Guide to Writing Theology that Readers Want to Read
Date Reviewed: June 16, 2016
Jonathan Roach and Gricel Dominguez helpfully remind us that theological writing should be beautiful, compelling, and engaging, but I am not quite sure that I am ready to join their writing revolution. Expressing Theology addresses a broad audience. Epistles to undergraduate students in theology, graduate students, dissertation writers, and “authors in training” dot the text. And the book certainly offers sound advice to writers of theology at any stage in their careers.
Chapters five through seven fill the writers toolbox. Here the reader finds the usual contents of a writing primer. Roach and Dominguez introduce the writing process and discuss each step along the way: from drafting to writing techniques, to grammar, and the all-important revision and editing stages. I like that advice from Strunk and White is mixed with wisdom from Gustavo Gutiérrez and examples come from Martin Luther King Jr. and Qoheleth. Perhaps the best things about these chapters are the pacing and style. The authors move through these technical pieces without becoming nearly as dry as many writing guides.
The more expressly theological material comes in chapters one through four. I think the authors are really smart to begin talking about engaged theology with a chapter on the writer’s identity and location. Writers are encouraged to own their unique perspectives and to write out of their own experiences. The section on sources somewhat predictably uses an only slightly modified version of Wesley’s quadrilateral, but it is not unhelpful. The chapter on audience prescribes writing theology as a conversation rather than a preachment and I could not agree with this sentiment more.
I am convinced! Theological writing should be beautiful and compelling. But I remain a little wary of the revolution that Roach and Dominguez have asked me to join. Throughout the text, the authors attack abstract and “boring” theology as they often repeat the mantra, “keep your feet on the ground.” The theologians among those most often cited are Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, and Thomas Merton, all of whom are beautiful writers to be sure and certainly theologians of a sort, but not really shapers of the history of thinking about God. Of course, I do not want to advocate that theology be ungrounded, but I repeatedly wondered if the sort of exacting, often dense, and sometimes technical theology that I read and write would be excised in this revolution. As I read Expressing Theology, I remembered myself reading Tillich and Whitehead for the first time and pondering the world anew as I read sentence by sentence at a painfully slow pace. I thought of Rosemary Radford Ruether so meticulously uprooting essentialisms and utopias, page after page. I relived the moment that tears came to my eyes, when after two hundred pages of groundwork, Jürgen Moltmann declared “Ecce Deus! Behold God on the cross!” (Moltmann, The Crucified God [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993] 205) as God became the godforsaken. I hope that Roach and Dominguez would agree that these too are beautiful and compelling theologies. Perhaps their advice will lead some authors to engaging, elegant, yet complex and careful writing like these.
Making Sense in Religious Studies A Student's Guide to Research and Writing, 2nd Edition
Date Reviewed: March 14, 2016
This second edition, like the first, is part of a series of volumes directed towards beginning college students. Margot Northey is the first author of each volume, including the eighth edition of the general Making Sense: A Student’s Guide to Research and Writing, and there is considerable overlap among the different volumes that focus on specific subject areas. Distinctive to this book is a short chapter, “Getting to Know Religious Studies,” and the incorporation of examples from the study of religion into many of the other nineteen chapters. Nonetheless, the focus is primarily on those general processes of thinking and self-expression that are common to many college courses. Because it does not focus narrowly on a specific area of the undergraduate study of religion, this book could easily be recommended, or even required, reading in virtually any course. Some instructors might find some of the advice to be too elementary, but there is helpful material for almost any student, including chapters on “Common Errors in Grammar and Usage,” “Punctuation,” and “Misused Words and Phrases,” as well as a glossary. Since scholarship on religion uses a variety of ways of documenting research, the chapter that outlines the requirements of the Chicago, MLA, and APA systems of reference and charts the differences among them could be especially helpful to beginning students.
Throughout the book, the authors urge students to think of themselves as “engaged learners” who aim to make the most of their education by taking careful notes, seeking out their teachers, preparing for writing assignments well in advance, and using feedback on their work to identify both strengths on which they can capitalize and weaknesses that need to be remedied. Consequently, the portrait of the ideal students to whom the book is addressed may strike some as insufficiently tempered by the harsh realities of sporadic attendance, bored indifference, and atrocious time management with which so many teachers in higher education are familiar. Nevertheless, the authors offer concrete advice and some step-by-step procedures that can help any student move towards becoming the type of engaged learner that they envisage and who many would love to have in their classes.
The focus of this volume is squarely on writing, with more than half of the chapters devoted to some aspect of the writing process, including writing essays (with a separate chapter on comparative essays), writing book reports and book and article reviews, writing essays for tests, and “Writing with Style.” Complementary chapters address finding and using appropriate sources and documenting them properly. Although the book briefly discusses reading religious texts, teachers who are looking for guidelines about how to introduce students to the kind of careful, patient, analytical reading of texts, objects, films, field observations, and other sources frequently used in the study of religion will need to look elsewhere. Nonetheless, this is a book that could be helpful to many teachers of religious studies.
Uncommonly Good Ideas: Teaching Writing in the Common Core Era
Date Reviewed: January 18, 2016
Invoking the name of the “Common Core” effort to establish national K-12 educational standards in its title, this is not a text directed primarily at college educators. It is important to ask, therefore, whether the authors’ approach is broad enough to answer the needs of the college classroom and whether their approach to teaching writing is of any use to the professor of theology or religious studies. The answer is “yes” to both.
In an effort to “mine the gold” in the Common Core writing standards, Murphy and Smith identify six big ideas: teaching writing as a process, integrating the language arts, extending the range of student writing, spiraling and scaffolding, and collaborating. The emphasis on writing as process informs their entire project and the other themes are treated in individual chapters. Preparation for the book included conversations with “dozens of teachers,” with some “college teachers in the mix” (7).
The second chapter provides a sample lesson plan and commentary designed to integrate the language arts; that is, reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Among the chapter’s helpful charts is a list of “strategies for writing with specifics” including “details,” “examples,” and “active verbs” (23). One can imagine a professor drawing from this list when helping a student enhance vague writing. Ideas for building student vocabularies and building community are equally transferable to the college environment. The third chapter takes on the challenge of extending the range of writing and acknowledges the difficulty students have when transitioning from descriptive to argumentative essays. With vignettes, ideas for writing exercises, and samples of student writing, the authors are able to provide some insight into the ways students struggle and how one might build bridges to help. In a particularly thoughtful college-level example, the professor has her students read exemplar restaurant reviews and collaboratively design a grading rubric based on the effective strategies observed in these reviews before writing their own.
The fourth chapter examines how the pedagogical practices of spiraling and scaffolding produce better writers. By spiraling, the authors mean revisiting key concepts repeatedly at different layers of complexity. By scaffolding, they mean any temporary practice exercises or assistance intended to sharpen students’ skills. Within a list of examples is the suggestion that students spend some class time focusing on a single quote that supports their argument and assessing how to connect it to their own ideas. Reflecting on collaboration, the fifth chapter describes student-to-student, teacher-to-student, and teacher-to-teacher collaborative strategies. Drawing on the theme of collegiality, the authors use their final chapter to consider how teachers can best produce positive institutional change. This is the principle of the book as a whole: effective teaching practices should be sought among effective teachers.
This slim volume will be of great interest to college educators. It provides meaningful insight into the struggles students experience when transitioning from high school to college writing and practical advice on how to help.
Reading, Writing, and Discussing at the Graduate Level A Guidebook for International Students
Date Reviewed: January 18, 2016
Reading, Writing, and Discussing at the Graduate Level A Guidebook for International Students by Rina Kim, Lillie R. Ablert, and Hang Gyun Sihn is a new resource for graduate international students and those who work with them in the academic setting. The three authors come from diverse personal and academic backgrounds and draw from their experiences as international students themselves and from working with international students in developing this text. They provide a guidebook for students who are proficient in English but struggle to understand the “academic culture and norms in the United States” (ix).
Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of graduate level work; academic reading, in-class discussions, writing assignments, preparing oral presentations, and developing relationships with classmates and professors. The authors do a good job of stating the limited scope of their effort. They recognize that the text is not going to provide a comprehensive primer on academic writing or research, but they point out common ways in which international students are derailed in their efforts because they misunderstand expectations. Throughout the text, the authors draw on informal conversations they have had with students to illustrate common perspectives or misunderstandings. The scenarios they highlight help to clarify issues and suggest ways of moving forward. These scenarios provide some of the most helpful insights in the book.
International students may find chapter two on “Engaging in Academic Discussions” and chapter five on “Developing Social and Academic Relationships” to be the most helpful because they discuss at length ways to build confidence and helpful hints for anticipating the atmosphere of classroom interactions in the United States. The most effective aspects of each chapter are the ways in which the authors show how perspectives and expectations differ even in basic items such as how reading lists are arranged in a syllabus or clarifying the expectation to write in your own words. The subtle nuances of the academic culture of the United States are dealt with in a relaxed manner, encouraging students to ask questions or seek help when necessary.
The text does assume a high level of reading proficiency. This is stated clearly by the authors, but the writing might be too complex for the students who are seeking the type of assistance the book covers. Although the main audience is the international student, this book is probably more helpful for faculty members who are beginning to teach international students. The informal scenarios that are scattered throughout the book provide a helpful window into the mind of the international student. Faculty members or other mentors will find this text helpful as they shape assignments, engage international students in classroom discussions, and articulate expectations.