Service-Learning, Biblical Studies, and Resurrecting Flooded Bones in New Orleans
Michael M. Homan
Teaching the Hebrew Bible in post-Katrina New Orleans is a privilege. Many of my students can empathize with Jeremiah having witnessed the destruction of a great city. Like Esther, Ezra, and Daniel, they struggle to maintain their unique culture against the forces of assimilation. They have heard, like the Babylonian exiles, countless prophets explain that tragedy resulted from people’s sins and the sins of their ancestors. And like Haggai and Zechariah, they know how difficult it is to rebuild a city’s damaged infrastructure. My job is to find ways to facilitate these connections; from experience, I have found that Service-Learning is a powerful pedagogical tool when used properly.
Service-Learning is a hot topic on college campuses these days. Proponents claim that it makes course material more meaningful and brings the classroom out of the ivory tower and into the real world. Yet critics often observe that while they clearly see evidence of the “service” component, the “learning” is all too frequently absent. A further complication for the academic discipline of biblical studies is that we tend to focus on worlds that ended thousands of years ago. By contrast, courses in the modern health sciences are easily merged with community health care clinics, just as students in education courses might reach course goals by tutoring K-12 students. There is certainly ample opportunity for pastoral work in the community, but when we try to come up with a solid academic biblical studies course with a Service-Learning component, we often find ourselves a stranger in a strange land.
This semester, in a Prophets and Prophecy course, my students and I teamed up with Save Our Cemeteries. We spent two Saturdays at St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. Consecrated nearly two hundred years ago, this cemetery houses the remains of some of the most famous New Orleanians who ever lived. The above-ground graves and markers are rapidly deteriorating due to many factors, including the flooding after Katrina and general neglect over time. Students, armed with clipboards, forms, outdated and mislabeled cemetery maps, cameras, and pens, set out to record as much data as they could from this historic cemetery. The records we produced, this snapshot in time, will be of use to family members searching for relatives and also to scholars trying to piece together the history of New Orleans. But their work has also proved to be a powerful tool in teaching prophets and prophecy. We centered the project on Ezek 37, where Yahweh symbolically brings dry bones, representing a destroyed house of Israel, back to life. Beyond the one chapter in Ezekiel, students have learned a great deal about important facets of biblical studies, including archaeology, textual redaction, parablepsis, and the markers of cultural identity. Moreover, by examining issues pertaining to theodicy after a Yellow Fever outbreak in New Orleans in 1853, a disease that predominantly devastated the marginalized in society, we have been tracking social-justice themes prevalent in prophets such as Amos and Micah. It has been an enjoyable semester because of the project, and I find myself hungry to learn more about local cemeteries. My enthusiasm for the topic has been contagious, as evident from student feedback.
I confess that when I first implemented a Service-Learning component into my Intro to Biblical Studies course in 2002, there wasn’t much learning taking place, at least there wasn’t much learning that pertained directly to the course goals. I went with my students on two Saturdays to work with Habitat for Humanity. The organization is largely based on a biblical verse (Exod 22:25) that prohibits charging interest, and consequently Habitat makes home ownership more affordable. The best part of these Saturdays was that I really got to know my students. Few things in my experience create bonds stronger than those achieved by swinging hammers in unison on a rooftop. Nevertheless, while students learned how to use tools, it was my assessment that this experience did not increase their ability to think critically about the Bible. So while I remained committed to Service-Learning, I knew there had to be a solution that better fit my course goals in Intro to Biblical Studies.
I began working on a solution with Bart Everson, a multimedia artist at my school’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching. I wanted to find a way in which students would better realize how the material composed by the biblical authors pertained to their own lives and their fields of study. The solution we came up with was that I would decentralize control over the project and have each student come up with an individual Service-Learning project to improve the world, preferably a project that related to their major. During the course of the semester they would design the project, implement it, and write about how the project pertained to course material in a course blog. Overall I have been very happy with the projects designed by 534 students over the past five years. Pre-Pharmacy students have developed projects that inform senior citizens about changes in Medicare plans. Math majors have tutored local high school students. Last summer, my students raised money for the University of Iowa after its campus flooded. Because of these projects, students often ask me to write letters of recommendation for them, as I can document that they developed a project to improve the world focused on their discipline. Also, because the blog is public domain, their writings are published, for better or worse. But what I’m most proud of is that by the end of the semester, students are able to articulate the challenges biblical authors had in trying to improve their own worlds and how this course pertains to their major. And the world, if ever so slightly, is arguably a better place because of their efforts.
Michael M. Homan, Xavier University of Louisiana
Last year SBL held its first session on Service-Learning and Biblical Studies. There is one session and one workshop scheduled for this year’s SBL Annual Meeting in New Orleans. We are also working on a database that collects ideas and syllabi pertaining to Biblical Studies and Service-Learning. For further information on Service-Learning and Biblical Studies at SBL’s Annual Meeting, contact Robert Duke (firstname.lastname@example.org), who has taken a leadership role on this topic.