Martien A. Halvorson-Taylor / Religious Studies

A Standing Date

A college friend recently disclosed that the best advice that he had received from a professor was this: Make a standing date with a piece of art. Visit it regularly, contemplate it, and sit with it. Try to hold off putting your impressions into words too quickly; sit with it some more, ruminate, and then let’s talk about it. My friend, whom I can honestly say takes seriously “the life of the mind,” points to this exercise—the slow and unpressured contemplation of works of art, first on his own and then in easy conversation with his professor—as deepening his intellectual life and integrating the personal with the academic; in short, the exercise was fuel for his lifelong commitment to learning and teaching.

My dream would be to replicate this experience for my students at UVa and to participate in it with them; but instead of a standing date with a piece of art, I would like to invite students to have a standing date with the stories of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). Often surprising, replete with hidden turns, and achingly beautiful, the Hebrew Bible has certainly been the source of my own abiding intellectual interest and curiosity. But I return to it not just because of its historical and literary dimensions; more than that, I am continually delighted to discover the timeless questions that it articulates and the complex characters that it depicts. Its stories give voice to the basic existential issues that students—that we all—wonder about: the nature of human relationships, the joys and sorrows of family bonds, the limits of human existence, and the vicissitudes of such human emotions as jealousy, rivalry, ambition, and fear. And it gives voice to these issues through a remarkable variety of characters—characters complex and multifarious enough to be worthy of a standing date. Why did David do the things that he did? What did Abraham lose and gain through his many trials? Why did Queen Esther change her mind and intervene to save her people? What does it mean to live in exile, separated from our center? These are the kinds of basic questions about human existence that the Hebrew Bible raises.

I would like to use this “assignment”—a standing date with the stories of the Hebrew Bible—as a way of encouraging and cultivating the spirit of inquiry, one of the underpinnings of a richer undergraduate experience and adulthood. As an exercise, “the standing date” encourages a model for learning beyond the classroom. It privileges students’ capacities and keeps the anxiety to perform for “a good grade” in check. It reinforces the rewards that come from good conversation partners and strengthens communal ties. And, finally, it would allow me the chance to connect with my students on a deeper intellectual level, in a setting without the constraints of a formal course.

The Specifics: Over the course of a month, the students and I would (on our own) read one short narrative in the Bible—for example, either the story of Abraham and Sarah, the story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah, the story of Joseph in Egypt, the story of Moses in Egypt, the story of Ruth in Bethlehem, the story of young David, the story of David the King, or the story of Esther in Persia. Each of these narratives is about 15 pages long and reads as a complete short story. And then I’d ask us to read the story again at least once more. At the end of the month, we would gather for a dinner at my home, which is several short blocks from grounds, and we would discuss the story at hand. I would communicate clearly to the students that this is not an exercise in faith development, but rather an opportunity to wrestle with the issues and questions that the text itself is raising.

Participants: Each fall, I teach an introductory lecture course of almost 200 students, who reflect the diversity of the university. Inviting past students, many of whom have already come to my office hours to raise these issues, would be an obvious place to start. I would also solicit students who have not yet taken my or other courses in my department; drawing students with eclectic majors and interests would only enrich the conversation. I would further like to include one other UVa faculty or staff member, from outside my own department, to serve as an additional interlocutor.

Frequency: I would like to organize 10 such dinners over the course of the year, one every four weeks. I would have 15 students, myself, and one faculty or staff member. Students could sign up for one session or more, depending on their interests.

Costs: Reading materials ($50/session) and dinner ($250/session) x 10 sessions = $3,000.