Translating Book, Translating Online Bible Education

Over at a proximate bible, my friend and colleague, Michael Hemenway, has recently written something very interesting and helpful regarding the media cultural shift currently affecting Bible/book technology. I’ll quote just a few snippets, but you really ought to read the whole thing. It is an unfinished work, publicly displayed in its current state on purpose (a welcome look behind the curtain of academic workflow and production). There is a lot in Michael’s project to dig into, but what I am particularly interested in right now is how portable his work is for online theological education. This is, of course, wholly unsurprising: Michael currently serves at the Iliff School of Theology as Director of Academic & Information Technology. He is passionate about the possibilities of online education and, in the three years of our friendship, his passion has proved contagious.

Hemenway sets up his project like this: just as print technology is on the wane and books are in the transition from print to digital media, so, too, is the Bible:

Book is undergoing a major media transition as print wanes in its dominance and the internet and mobile devices transform our reading habits. With the ever entangled histories of bible and book, this emerging media age and its transformation of reading practices begs us to imagine bible as an anarchic interface, a space of contact where meaning is produced without the reign of an original.

This first bit—about the media transition of Bible and book from print to digital technologies—is especially pertinent to theological education. Just as print Bibles are giving way to digital ones (just try to eat a biblical Kindle, Ezekiel), theological education is shifting from brick-and-mortar to digital classrooms. Many of my colleagues lament this media shift in theological education. Brought up in the brick-and-mortar classroom, I share some of their concerns. But Michael gives us something to think about: media culture is shifting and “the original” media form—of the Bible or the brick-and-mortar classroom—need not dictate every future possibility for interface and engagement. The future is open; positively anarchic, even. Opportunities abound.

In a recent post over at the Digital Pedagogy Lab, Martha Burtis explores some of these opportunities as she considers the near-limitless potential of the Internet juxtaposed with the frustration of online education platforms. The best line in the whole essay expresses the excitement of possibility alongside the user-unfriendliness of certain Learning Management Software (LMS):

Most importantly, how could we not, in fact, see it as our job to shape this new medium [the Internet] and to help the rest of the world understand what it could do? As a platform for transformational teaching? As a space for public research and dissemination of knowledge? As a place for collaboration on scales never seen before?

And yet. Blackboard.

“And yet. Blackboard,” indeed. She could’ve lamented Moodle, even Canvas, just as easily.

Burtis’s piece and the interface in which it is presented, coupled with Hemenway’s plea that we “imagine bible as an anarchic interface,” though, gives me great hope that online education in the humanities (theological or otherwise) is not the swansong of a dying field but, rather, the invitation to reimagine text and education. There’s freedom in anarchy, despite the risk. Take, for example, the elegant user interface for Burtis’s essay:

DigitalPedagogies Page

(Click to enlarge)

Note the commentary interface here. Users may directly and publicly highlight the text (no annotation) as well as highlight and comment on the text in a side-bar. This interface seems borrowed from word processing software editorial features. When my professor comments on my papers, she usually does so digitally: highlighting the text, which then links up to a commentary side-bar on the right. GoogleDocs, MS Word, and Adobe Acrobat have this functionality; most pages on the Internet do not.

Most essays and blogs feature reader commentary in a separate bank below the main post. See, for example, the comments space on this blog entry: you have to scroll to the bottom of the piece, leaving it “behind,” and say your piece in a separate thread, unconnected to the text of this post. If you wish to take me to task on a specific point, you must copy-and-paste the quote, lifting it out of its native context, and then (finally) have your say. The same goes, I think, for most LMS discussion forums. To comment on a person’s post or a primary text, the user must copy-and-paste or use the forum’s quotation function, which is a somewhat fancier way of doing the same thing. I think that this kind of threaded discussion, especially for the teaching of primary texts like the Bible, is hopelessly outmoded.

But what if we looked to Hemenway and Burtis and worked to actively shape LMS interfaces for transformational teaching of biblical texts in our new and emergent digital media culture milieu? Imagine if we pillaged the user interface of the Digital Pedagogy Lab for use in online discussion forums? If, in a class on Romans, we loaded in the primary text reading for that week and gave students the opportunity to annotate the text based on their own insights, questions, and gleanings from secondary readings?

Most threaded forums I’ve participated in, as student or instructor, have been needlessly wordy and interfacially complex. To comment on Romans 3:1-8 in a threaded forum, students must make the choice to either (a) simply cite Rom 3:1-8, with the expectation that other users will look up the text (in print? online?); (b) link to an online edition like this; or (c) copy-and-paste the passage into their initial post. Users must then juggle screens and/or media (a printed Bible on the desk next to the tablet she is using to post). Their commentary is then about Romans but, if you’ll permit me some play with our prepositions, it’s not really on Romans. Romans is somewhere else, disconnected from the student’s comments.

Importantly, too, this sort of interface would free students up from the burden of writing and reading too-long comments. The side-bar annotation/commentary interface is nimble in ways that the bottom-of-the-page comment thread is not. User interaction can be broken up into smaller bits, creating more “surface area” and points of contact between text, students, and instructor.

It seems to me that digital media, among many other things, gives us the opportunity to bring primary text and student engagement closer together. To riff on Hemenway’s dissertation title, this sort of pedagogical practice would render a (more) proximate Bible: a Bible in closer proximity to student engagement through the emergent interfacial possibilities of digital media culture. I’m excited. This should be fun.

I’ll let Hemenway have (nearly) the last word:


In light of this process of material media translation as palimpsest, remembering bible’s rich media history will provide a helpful context and data for imagining how bible might be practiced as interface amidst the changing reading dispositions of our emerging media age. The material media translation of book from manuscript page to mobile screen already has and will continue to shape our reading practices.

I hope the “material media translation” of Bible and classroom continues to shape our teaching practices as well.