We open our Mini-Series: ‘Curriculum as a Site for Social Justice and Anti-Discrimination’ with Anja Klein, Senior Lecturer at the School of Divinity, who reflects on teaching about sensitive materials…
I have the firm belief that we should not underestimate the resilience of our students to deal with sensitive materials. Thus, encouraged by feedback from previous classes, I proposed a new course last term that was designed to deal with sex and gender in the Hebrew Bible (“Adam, Eve, and LGBT+: Sex and Gender in the Hebrew Bible”). For the course description, I chose a quote from Ken Stone, Professor of Bible, Culture and Hermeneutics at Chicago Theological Seminary. I have used it a lot in teaching and knowledge exchange activities, as it offers a succinct entry into the topic: “The Hebrew Bible is sometimes understood as the source of a ‘traditional’ Judaeo-Christian approach to marriage and sexual practice. A comprehensive examination reveals, however, that biblical assumptions about sex, gender, and kinship are complex and internally diverse. Some of these assumptions stand in tension with traditional Jewish and Christian norms for marriage and sexual activity.”
The course was approved with enthusiastic feedback at the Divinity Board of Studies, but it has actually been in the making for some time, springing from numerous discussions with students, colleagues, and friends in different contexts. There were a few warning voices that the course could expose myself to criticism or might open me up for complaints, which could be damaging for myself or the School. I dismissed these views at first, but then was taken aback at how often I had to explain myself. That made me reflect on what is at stake here.
A specific concern was that the title and a significant portion of the course might be offensive to anyone, who holds said traditional views on gender, marriage, and sexuality. I must admit that the title has been chosen deliberately. After years of struggling to enthuse students for courses on “The Literary History of the Prophetic Books”, I have reverted to more catchy titles to fill my courses (it does work …). Moreover, it seems advisable to signpost early on what this course is about and to draw attention to the fact that it will deal with sensitive and often sexually explicit materials. Adam and Eve embody the idea of a reproductive pair like no other, while the label “LGBT+” suggests that the picture is much more diverse.
As to content, I employ a historical-critical approach in research and teaching, meaning that I want the students to discuss what the texts wanted to say in their own times. The question of original meaning is obviously an elusive one, but some interpretations are better established than others, and it is by now widely acknowledged that the biblical texts display a diversity of human erotic practices and views that might differ decidedly from our own. If these views should be considered “offensive”, this needs to be addressed, but it is not a matter of changing the curriculum as these texts are part of biblical literature and represent our subject materials. I do not see why students should not be exposed to them and engage in discussion, if appropriately framed.
Another question that has come up repeatedly is how such a course would remain open and inclusive to students, who hold different views on sexuality and gender. This is an easy one, as the students will not be assessed on their personal views or their sexual orientation, but on their critical engagement with the course materials. In a university setting, everyone should be expected to engage in scholarly discussion on sensitive materials as objectively as possible and regardless of (or better: conscious of) their personal views. That brings me to my own views on the subject, which should only be relevant in as far as I strongly support the University’s commitment to equality and diversity. I also see it as my responsibility to make sure that no student is exposed to criticism of their personal views and that they similarly respect others.
On reflection, what seems to be problematic here is that we are dealing not only with ancient texts, but with materials that are attributed authority in different faith contexts. There are two pitfalls here: First, it would be a misconception, were we to understand the biblical texts as ethical or moral guidance for the present; rather, any claim for authority needs to undergo a critical examination and reflection. More in the scope of the seminar, however, I am passionate that the texts should not be read against their original meaning, being attributed a false authority in present discourse. I want my students to learn that the exegetical findings do not always uphold what we might consider “traditional family values”, but that the texts paint a much more diverse picture of sex and gender. I also try to challenge them in a critical and open way, and encourage them to reflect on their own assumptions about the content and interpretation of the Bible.
Finally, what have I learned from this experience? I have learned that you cannot simply teach about sex and gender as “business as usual”, but that there will always be discussions around personal views or present implications, which need to be moderated carefully. The specific course topics matter to both students and course organiser, which on the other hand is a great starting point for any seminar. For now, I have come up with an introductory slide, which might be helpful to ease concerns and offer reassurance to students, who have chosen to enrol on the course.
I would like to thank all colleagues, who discussed the course and the blog post with me and offered valuable feedback.
Dr Anja Klein is Senior Lecturer for Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and just finished her term as Director of Undergraduate Studies at the School of Divinity (2017–2020). A historical-critical scholar by training, she has recently ventured into the realms of violence, sex, and gender, realising that these topics matter to students (and to staff!).