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How We Think: A Reflection on Biblical Literature and Interdepartmental Learning

Peter Durnan
It was 10 p.m. on the second of July and the bells of Dartmouth College’s Baker Library were chiming.  The three of us were in our third session. Our lofty goal was to ponder why interdepartmental learning matters, and why its pursuit would make Holderness a better school.  More practically our goal was to help Chaplain Joshua Hill design a new interdepartmental course in English and Theology & Religious Studies: The Bible as Literature.
Earlier in the day, Josh opened the bidding: "Why should we even offer an interdepartmental class?" Not a beat before Conor O'Meara replied: "Because that's the way people think."  Conor is Holderness’ utility infielder par excellence.  He has taught Art History, World Religions, Foundations in Modern Society, and  English 10. He ranges, happily and synergistically, among departments. His curiosity defies silos.

Things got lofty pretty quickly that day and night in Hanover.  Words like “spiritual journey” and “epiphany” were spoken in all earnestness.  We agreed to start with results we hoped for — departmental outcomes. In Theology and Religious Studies, the boiled-down version landed on two goals: religious literacy and individual spiritual reflection. Ponder those for a second.  Would you give yourself a check in the mastery box for those two?

In English, we teased out general goals of reading and writing: a couple of carefully-revised essays.  Inclusion of each student’s own experience in at least one of them. As to reading, full engagement with the text seemed to us more important than volume of pages consumed.  From the outset it was evident that students would read just a portion of the Bible. Better for them to engage fully with a smaller portion than less fully with more pages.

We broke and walked to the Salt Hill Pub to watch the US Women’s National Team beat England and advance to the World Cup finals.  We returned to Baker. Josh hoped that our work there, work supported by funds offered in connection with the Holderness Symposium, would provide support to other teachers interested in pursuing interdepartmental work.  As the school ponders full membership in the Mastery Transcript Consortium, our work seemed timely and relevant. Are there learning goals that can be shared among departments? Could classes like The Bible as Literature bridge departments, even tear down some artificial boundaries? Is it possible for a student to choose in which department she earns credit for a course? Surely, we realized, sitting together in animated discussion -- each of us taking turns writing down each other’s points in a shared document -- surely such collegiality had merit in a community like Holderness.

Though unsystematic, Holderness has a robust history of work that reaches across departments.  Years ago Renee Lewis and Janice Dahl devised a ninth grade course that combined history and English into a humanities blend.  Mike Peller and Mike Carrigan combined their math and physics expertise to pioneer AP Calculus-based Physics, a course that is now a robust, two-year sequence.  Most recently, Kelsey Berry and Andrew Sheppe pioneered our two-year combination of AP United States History and AP European History that we call AHoW -- Advanced History of the West.

We broke again for dinner.  Murphy’s on the Green. Back in Baker we lowered our sights and turned our attention to the course itself.  We talked testaments, old and new. Gospels. The vocabulary that the Bible has infused into our language. We talked late into the night and through the morning as we made our way home.

When we presented our work to the faculty at the end of the summer, Josh concluded the presentation by challenging each table to devise a cross-departmental course.  Tables reported out imaginary classes like The Physics of Music. New faculty member Linnea King excited her group with possible courses including cuisine -- and, in fact, she will offer a course of French cuisine and culture as an elective in the language department next year.

Josh taught the course in the first semester. Some students enrolled to earn an English credit, others to fulfill the theology requirement; several signed up because they wanted an opportunity to study the Bible. Josh led his students through readings from Genesis, Jonah, Job, John, and Romans.   His students wrote four long, revised essays. He’ll offer it again next fall.  Perhaps both semesters next year.

There was synergy in our work.  It has helped give shape to conversations about curricular outcomes and cross-departmental initiatives.  For me, it also deepened my friendship with two colleagues whom I respect enormously. There are many reasons to love Holderness.  Joyful collegiality is a big one.
This article was written for The Lamp, Holderness School's journal committed to critical reflection. 

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Holderness School
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