Friday, January 05, 2007

Sketching a (Provisional) Methodology

Jim Faulconer and I discussed the various ways in which we might conduct this experimental e-seminar (list-servs, discussion boards, blogs) and settled on the idea of using a blog (remarkably like this one) that would be publicly readable but not open to public comment. We hope that this will allow us to do several things simultaneously: (1) generate some interest and buzz for what we're doing and the way that we're doing it (feel free to contact me by email if, as an outside reader, you'd like to express any interest or ask any questions), (2) preserve a public record of our work, and (3) avoid having our relatively narrow and tightly focused discussion sidetracked by well-meaning third parties.

The first step, then, was to select a topic and come up with a short list of key texts. We chose 'Reading Abraham' as our topic and selected Genesis 11-25, Abraham 1-5, Soren Kierkegaard's Fear & Trembling, and Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death as our texts. We plan to read each in their entirety and hope to do so with unusual care.

The second step was to formulate a couple of key, general questions to guide the weekly discussions and structure the common report we plan to compose at the conclusion of the seminar. The four general questions (also visible in the sidebar) are:

(1) If Abraham is the paradigm of fidelity to God, then what are the essential elements of this faithful relationship?

(2) What can Abraham's relationship with God tell us about the nature and possibility of theology?

(3) How do our family relationships shape our fidelity to God and, potentially, the kind of theology we pursue?

(4) Finally, in light of the above, what is unique about a Mormon understanding of Abraham?

The third step was to develop a way to structure and orient the weekly discussions. We began by dividing the proposed reading material into weekly segments over six+ months (the reading schedule is also visible in the sidebar).

Each week a different member of the seminar is assigned to lead the week's discussion. That week's discussion leader is responsible for formulating a particular, narrow question that directly concerns the week's reading.

The discussion leader then composes an initial post that opens the discussion by: (1) sharing their specific question about the reading, (2) offering a brief explanation of how they think answering this question may contribute to answering one of the more general questions that interests us, and (3) sketching any additional sub-questions about particular verses they feel might be helpful for opening up the discussion. The week's discussion is then carried out in the comments section of this initial post.

At the week's close, the discussion leader formulates an additional post that briefly summarizes the group's answers that developed over the course of the week (noting points of consensus and, possibly, dissenting opinions) and tries especially to explicitly apply the week's findings to answering one or more of our four general questions.

This methodology is, of course, entirely provisional and may require some adaptation on the fly. I worry, in particular, that this format might be too restrictive - but (at least for now) I worry more that we might not get anywhere without some relatively strict discipline. Again, we'll see what happens and suggestions are always welcome.


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