I started using creative writing assignments mostly because I felt squeezed pretty thin between professional duty and professional reality. In my opinion, nothing in the world is more important for undergraduates to learn than how to construct an argument in writing, using evidence. As I always tell them, whatever you do in life, writing analytically is a skill you’ll need. At the very least, you will, someday, have to write an email to another person attempting to convince them of something. You might as well practice!
But when you’re a contingent laborer, as I was until this year, and you’re assigning three papers in two of your three classes, and you have roughly a hundred students between them, and no grading help, you will regret your dedication to this principle in such an explicit form. Grading is hard on everybody; it’s time-consuming, it’s anxiety-producing. You wonder if you’re being fair and consistent; you worry about giving struggling students a message that takes the winds out of their sails further. And then there’s the slog of it. Even if all the writing is good, reading 50-100 answers to the same prompt is a bit repetitive. You will long to read something a little more entertaining, at the very least. And if you long for something, one good thing to do is ask for it! So I did.
I still have my students write traditional papers, with theses and arguments and evidence, usually two a semester including the final paper. But one thing I’ve learned is that you lose very little pedagogically by assigning a creative writing project. In this case, I gave my students a number of different options for a creative writing assignment as their second paper out of three. Students could: 1) Write a letter to their grandparents explaining what the class was about and why it’s important. 2) Describe a new adventure of a biblical character from the materials we’ve read. 3) Write a modern version of a narrative in the Bible. 4) Rewrite a biblical story from someone else’s perspective – Sarah’s, or Joab’s, or whoever.
This is what I would call a fun assignment. It’s more fun for them to write; it’s more fun for me to grade. And yet, as I say, I would feel no shame at all defending its pedagogical value in front of any arbiter, be they never so prim. One of the hardest things to do, after learning that the Bible was not written by Moses or God directly, is to think about what it means that these stories were written by human beings with human interests. So, try writing a biblical story, and see what it’s like (2). Another hard thing? Recognizing that the biblical version of the story is not some neutral, universal version of a tradition that all Israelites and Judahites subscribed to all the time. So why don’t you try to see another way someone might tell the story by telling it a different way yourself (4)?
Further my classes are really about how narratives reflect and construct societies. In this case, one of the two classes I assigned this project in is called Ancient Israelite History and Religion, with a greater emphasis on the history than the religion. In the project of reconstructing the history of ancient Israel, however, it’s a bit too easy to think that biblical narratives are valuable where they are accurate, and not so valuable where they are inaccurate. One thing I constantly stress, however, is that stories that are inaccurate in respect to historical details are nevertheless very useful to historians by virtue of revealing historical attitudes and concerns.
So, today, Donald Trump is pretty much always lying about global trade and how lucrative his tariff policies have been and so forth. If future historians used what he said as a basis for how these tariffs were working, they would get it wrong. Yet, in a period very distant from now, these same statements would be very valuable records of the existence of trade on a global scale, and a period in which certain kinds of tariffs were tried. If he lived in Judah in 590 B.C.E., Trump would presumably be lying about the role of the Neo-Babylonian empire in dictating Judahite politics, which would, nevertheless, reveal the possibility of the Neo-Babylonian empire’s involvement in those politics. By having students rewrite an ancient story in the context of the modern world (3), I ask them to reflect on how present attitudes would dictate how the story gets told. This, in turn, pushes them to think about what ancient attitudes shaped the story originally.
My favorite of these prompts turned out to be the letters to grandparents (1) for a wide variety of reasons. The idea here is a simple, tried and true pedagogical technique: we often learn best through teaching. In this case, having to describe what you have learned, in plain language, to someone who is at least imagined to be not too well versed in the topic is a great way of discovering what you learned. But the assignment turned out to be way more than that, in execution. And it was certainly the prompt through which I learned the most.
For one thing, I learned that a lot of grandmas and grandpas do not particularly want their young’uns to learn what scholars think about the Bible. There was a lot of “don’t worry grandma! This class hasn’t made me into a godless heathen!” And listen – I completely get it. My Ph.D. is in biblical studies, and I myself am as secular as a punk rock album. But, I’ve had a lot of occasion to think just who is going to take a class on the Bible in today’s America, especially with its heavy STEM focus? Some people, of course, are just interested for the sake of being interested, but for the majority of my students, they’ve come out of a desire to learn something about a book they have previously related to primarily as a religious text.
Also? A lot of grandmas and grandpas don’t like their kids getting so involved in the humanities. That one sort of surprised me, because I associated the backlash against the humanities with more recent events. But the kids told ‘em, and my little heart swelled with pride: we’re not just learning about a book and a past, we’re learning about all stories, what they are and what they do. We live in a house where the walls and the roofbeams are made of stories, the windows are stories woven thin, the doors open with secret passwords carved out of the ideologies that shape what we remember, and why, and towards what ends.
And, finally, on a personal level, some of these stories were deeply touching. Some of my students, I learned, came to my class in part because they wanted to feel connected to the religious traditions their grandparents knew and loved. They – my students – had known this book, when they were very young, as a source of wisdom, and comfort for someone they loved, and who loved them. What they wanted from me was some way to join that conversation, to give back, to enter that world. Others wondered what their grandmothers and grandfathers would think of the things they were learning, or thought they knew just what their grandparents would say at this or that point made in class. There was so much warmth there, and so much about my students as people I’d never have known otherwise. I’ve never had an assignment to grade that so much made me want to go out there and do my absolute best for these young people with these hidden, complicated lives. One letter to a grandmother who had passed on brought me to tears.
The Bible is, and will likely long continue to be, both building material and building. It’s a treasury of the ancient world, a storehouse in which lie a large percentage of the glittering gems which survived the ancient Levant in any form. And it’s a doorway through which the ancient Levant continues to shape the present, as well as the history of how this heritage has been repeatedly reshaped and by whom. The more ways we engage with it the better, the less dry it appears the better, the more fun we have among its ruins the more interesting it will appear to the students who are our audiences, and for whom we have such high hopes.