Teaching Stories

Derek Suderman: A Fish Doesn’t Know It’s in Water

Derek Suderman
Derek Suderman, Religious Studies and Theological Studies, at the Sea of Galilee 

Interviewed by Arifeen Chowdhury, Special Projects (Teaching Stories), CTE. 

In his biblical studies courses at Conrad Grebel University College, Dr. Derek Suderman says his goal is to “make things strange.” He does this because many students enrol in his courses with pre-existing assumptions about the biblical scriptures, whether they are coming from a religious background or not. It can be difficult for them, he says, to recognize the limitations of the world view they have grown up with, just as it’s hard for a fish to realize that it lives in water. But it’s only after doing so that students can start to see the biblical texts more authentically, recognizing the perspective of the unfamiliar ancient cultures that produced them. Interacting with the scriptures in this way “gives students a mirror to look at their own contemporary culture…. they’re confronted with another possibility, an awareness that people haven’t always thought the way we think.”

Suderman believes that this ability to assume alternative perspectives is important in all academic disciplines. Often, he says, the scholars or researchers who make a breakthrough in a discipline are the ones who can step outside of it and place it in a larger context. Being able to see things from someone else’s perspective was also central to Suderman’s work as a Conflict Resolution trainer in Colombia and in penitentiaries with the John Howard Society in Manitoba, prior to coming to Waterloo nine years ago.

Suderman doesn’t use much technology when he teaches. He relies instead on tried-and-true learning activities such as group discussion and think-pair-share. One of his most effective strategies involves role-playing: he identifies an issue embodied in a passage of scripture, and then divides his class into two groups, with each group taking a different side. The wrinkle, though, is that the students can only draw upon arguments and evidence that would have been available to the original biblical writers. This proves to be a great equalizer between students, and also forces them to look at the material from a different perspective than they would have initially.

When Suderman assigns readings in his courses he also provides students with guiding questions so that they read with more purpose and focus. Most of these assigned readings are from primary texts – the Hebrew Bible and New Testament – because he wants students to engage with them directly, rather than merely read what others have said about them. The historical and cultural context for those readings often comes in the form of his lectures.

Hunger Games poster

Helping his students see the relevance of ancient texts is something Suderman does by drawing contemporary analogies. The messianic theme of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, for example, might seem rather remote to students until he points out the same theme in blockbusters such as The Matrix, Hunger Games, and The Lord of the Rings.

Of course none of these teaching strategies and learning activities matter, says Suderman, unless his students – who come from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, and other backgrounds experience the classroom as a safe place, a space where they can ask any question, from any perspective. Judging from comments made by his students – “He will blow your mind with his insights,” “Get ready to have your brain broken, in a good way!” – Suderman is very successful in creating a learning culture where students are eager to be challenged.

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Tip sheets

CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one is a succinct document that conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some of the Teaching Tips that are relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story include the following: