Teaching the Bible in Babylon: Reflections on Joining the Biblical Studies Diaspora
Michael F. Bird
My first SBL conference was Philadelphia 2005, and it was truly an eye-opening experience for someone from outside of North America: the massive book stall, meeting in person scholars whose works I had only read and admired from a distance, the many informative seminars and presentations, and the wonderful sense of collegiality that I enjoyed at the various receptions. This was nothing like my doctoral studies at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. This overload of books, scholars, and seminars was in addition to a recent move that I had made only a few months earlier when my family and I left behind our friends, relatives, and lives in Australia so that I could take a position as a New Testament lecturer in the northern reaches of Scotland. It was a move of hemispheres, a transition from PhD candidate to lecturer, and a change to a very different culture, climate, and lifestyle. Writing and teaching new courses, changing countries, and attending big conferences, all of this left me feeling rather like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I said to myself one day: "We ain't in Brisvegas anymore Mikey-boy!"
Leaving my Australian homeland to take a job in biblical studies in the United Kingdom left me feeling rather like an exile, a stranger in a strange land. This was confirmed to me when I met another Australian expatriate at SBL who also teaches biblical studies abroad. During a conversation, Doug Green of Westminster Theological Seminary formally welcomed me to what he called the "Aussie biblical studies Diaspora." That pretty much summed up what I was thinking and feeling. It has been nearly eighteen months now since we made the sojourn from Australia to Scotland and that has given me enough time to reflect on what it means to teach biblical studies far away from your native habitat and what is it like being part of an academic Diaspora. What follows are a few brief thoughts on this topic for those who are considering whether or not to take a position overseas.
There are many reasons why people apply for and take jobs overseas. For some, the move is for sake of promotion, like someone transferring from the University of Paisley to take up a professorship at Duke University. Some may find more job opportunities abroad than in their own home country (this is particularly true for those of us from the Antipodes). For others, the decision to teach abroad may be part of a missionary or ministerial call. Also, not all shifts are seismic. For instance, the shift from Toronto to Atlanta is not as radical as the move from Durham to Capetown in terms of geographical distance and cultural shift. Either way, unless you are highly motivated and excited about your academic discipline, putting up with the costs of the move, personal and financial, can be difficult to bear.
Those who are considering moving overseas to pursue a career in biblical studies should consider a number of factors. First, it is preferable that you already have a sense of rapport and a good working relationship with your new colleagues. The first friends you make and your first port of call for any help that you might need will probably come from the circle of your academic peers.
Second, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the move, do your homework early and thoroughly. In some countries opening bank accounts, finding health insurance, and enrolling children in schools are not as easy as you might think (I personally think that it is easier to rob a bank than to open a bank account in the UK).
Third, be prepared for cultural challenges and the odd embarrassment. Things such as language and road rules can be day-to-day obstacles in getting on with life. When I first arrived in Scotland I assumed that Hogmonay (New Years eve) was a Scottish meal featuring pork rather than a festive event. For that reason, learn as much as you can about the culture and demographics of where you are going so as to inoculate yourself against any culture shocks (and it might save your pride as well).
Fourth, in order to keep in contact with family and friends back home, take advantage of a variety of technological platforms now available on the Internet and consider setting up a family blog. The Internet has made the world smaller and is a great way to alleviate homesickness.
Fifth, everyone who takes part in the move to another country (spouse, partner, children) may experience a roller coaster of emotions ranging from excitement to grief, so be prepared for that. Your exciting career move may come at great emotional expense to your loved ones.
With that in mind, it is worth mentioning that there are a number of genuine benefits about moving overseas. First, exposure to a different culture can be an enriching experience that furthers one's awareness and understanding of the different facets of human existence. Wherever one goes, there are beautiful parts of the world to be seen, tasted, and enjoyed, and many of these are normally available to tourists for only a brief period — and yet you might find yourself living right beside them (I have the joy of looking out from my classroom to see the rugged hills and purple mountains of the Scottish Highlands).
Second, being a foreigner with a funny accent can be somewhat of a novelty and you may be fortunate enough to get many speaking engagements in local conferences, colleges, and churches because of your somewhat exotic appeal.
Third, in some cases you may experience academic opportunities that you did not otherwise encounter in your homeland. The biblical and theological conferences in Australia and New Zealand were all too few, and so during my first year at the Highland Theological College I went on a "conference frenzy" and attended as many conferences as I could: the British New Testament Conference, Tyndale House Conference, European Association of Biblical Studies, Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference, Society of Biblical Literature, Evangelical Theological Society, Institute for Biblical Research, American Academy of Religion, and Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas. These were all great opportunities for learning, networking, and disseminating my own research. These meetings were also occasions for personal and academic growth on a scale that I would not have otherwise had if I remained in Australia.
Fourth, you will quickly discover that you are not alone and that there are many others who also teach far from their birth place. I found it surprising and encouraging that of the approximately 110 persons who attended the Tyndale House Conference near Manchester in 2005, about eleven or ten percent of the total attendees were Australian, many of whom were resident in the UK at various educational institutions; it was a good reminder that I am not alone in my "academic exile."
Fifth, being part of a different education system with different regulations and procedures can be daunting and frustrating at times. But it widens your perspective on how teaching, learning, and researching can be done and serves to make you a better educator in the long run. As much as the words "Quality Assurance" and "double-blind marking" have become the bane of my administrative existence, I have seen how they lend integrity and safeguards to the standards of education in British institutions.
I have to also mention that being in the classroom can be a whole new experience when you are from another country. For a start, there is what I call the "Shibboleth factor." Just because you speak the same language does not mean that you are necessarily intelligible. Due to my accent and odd vernacular, there have been many instances when I have had to repeat in slow-motion or rephrase what I was saying in order to be comprehensible. The same has been true for me in trying to understand some of my students. I am still unsure as to what the phrase "och aye" actually means. The biggest thing I have learned from my classroom contact time is to be relaxed and to keep the tempo of teaching at a simple pace.
Cultural factors can also impact your teaching style. Scottish Highlanders tend to be very reserved and cautious when they meet outsiders and do not open up towards them immediately. This presented a challenge to my teaching style, which is very interactive and dialogical. I would frequently ask questions in class, not just general open questions, but questions directed at individuals in order to pull them into the discussion. Being put on the spot like that did not go down well with some students; I was perceived as being somewhat bombastic and overbearing. Additionally, the first time it snowed during one of my lessons. I was mesmerized by the sight (coming from the Australian tropics this was absolutely fascinating to me). When I invited my class to pause from the lecture for a few moments to enjoy the view with me, they were less than enthused at the idea of watching snow. Furthermore, being part of a regional college in a tertiary institution that specializes in distance learning means that I have a variety of delivery platforms for teaching students. It is initially odd to teach a class that has ten students in the classroom, three students beaming in via video conferencing, and a further fifteen students participating in the course through online mode. All in all, I have found that it is important not to expect students in your class to behave and act like students back home. The key thing to remember is not necessarily to abandon your own teaching style, but to be fluid and flexible and to adapt your classroom manner to fit with your new environment.
On the whole, I would have to say that my move to Scotland has been highly rewarding and fulfilling on a personal, spiritual, and professional level. My colleagues have been wonderfully supportive, my students are on the whole bright and enthusiastic, the work-load is rigorous but not unbearable, we have made good friends in a local church, and in terms of academic environment I think it safe to say that the east-coast Scotland has probably displaced the Oxford-Cambridge axis as the place to do biblical and theological studies in Europe.
That is not to say that it has been easy: the first six months placed enormous stress on my family and myself. My dear wife found herself in a foreign land, without any friends or family, at home with two small children, initially without a car, most of her possessions in transit on some ocean, and experiencing a winter the likes of she had never seen before.
Twelve months on, we have settled into life in Scotland. That is not say that I don't sometimes pine for the shores of "Zion" where the vegemite is plentiful, where kangaroos roam free, and where haggis is a curiosity rather than a culinary offering. But now we enjoy the cold white Scottish Christmas more than the scorching heat of an Aussie Christmas. Kids are settled into school, my wife has her own life and circle of friends, and I have made friends in the biblical studies guild from Aberdeen to London and found publishing opportunities that I might otherwise not have come across. Although the Highlands of Scotland is my "Babylon," it has gradually become my home as well.
Michael F. Bird, Highland Theological College/UHI Millennium Institute, Dingwall, Scotland
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Citation: Michael F. Bird, " Teaching the Bible in Babylon: Reflections on Joining the Biblical Studies Diaspora," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2007]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=621