My most successful courses are those in which I manage to render unfamiliar that which is familiar. A good example is my "Introduction to the Hebrew Bible." Students who take this course invariably enter the course with some presuppositions about the Bible and/ or the deity who figures as one of its central characters, deriving from religious education or simply reflecting general cultural assertions (positive or negative) about the Bible. I love creating the conditions in which these comfortable presuppositions are challenged, dissolved, and ultimately replaced by a more profound understanding of the complex, multifaceted, and multivocal nature of the text. The intellectual and personal excitement this generates in students is palpable.
In general, I think that any course that centers on the study of religious texts will succeed to the degree that the students come to see that they cannot exempt religious texts from the kind of loving scrutiny, wrestling, and pummeling with which we favor every other kind of text in our world. When approaching religious texts, many students put on kid gloves while others, animated by an iconoclastic fervor, treat them dismissively and derisively. I hope that in my Bible course and other text-based courses, students learn to transcend these dichotomies so as to encounter and struggle with the texts in all their rich complexity—their grandeur, their banality, their pathos, their self-contradiction, and, surprisingly enough, their profound humor (a feature students so often miss).
My least successful course was a general survey of the Ancient Near East taught at the very beginning of my career. Although I tried to make the lectures as interesting as possible, it seemed to me that the course fell flat—it lacked the sparkle, intellectual energy, and excitement that are such important elements of good teaching. As I thought about why this might be the case, I realized that it was because I did not have—and therefore did not convey to my students—a good account of why what I was teaching mattered. In preparing a new course now, I think long and hard about why what I am teaching matters. This has an influence not only on what I choose to teach but on the energy and excitement with which I present it.