Professor Takes Scholarly Approach to Christianity

Jennifer Berenson's research concentrated on early Christianity, focusing on Pauline, gospel traditions

"Most people don't realize what it takes to teach at the college level," muses Dr. Jennifer K. Berenson, associate professor of religion at Roanoke College. "Compare teaching, for example, with performing in a play. The actors spend several weeks rehearsing a one- to two-hour play, which they then perform, say, five times. After the final performance, they collapse and get sick. Teachers, on the other hand, have to perform nine hours a week, each time on a different subject."

Berenson, who has been "performing" at Roanoke College since 1996, earned her B.A. in classics at Stanford University and switched to religion for both her M.A. and Ph.D. at Harvard University. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, she has gone on to receive numerous awards including back-to-back Roanoke Faculty Scholar awards, a 2001 Research and Technology Grant from the Society of Biblical Literature and twice the Harvard University Certificate of Distinction in Teaching.

Berenson has concentrated on early Christianity and focused her research on the Pauline and gospel traditions and the religious matrices within which these forms of Christianity developed. She welcomed the chance to step away from her classroom and devote more time to her research through a semester-long sabbatical.

"After six years of full-time teaching, I was sucked dry by the process," she says, chuckling. "The enthusiasm was drained out of me. I would have been crazy not to have taken advantage of the opportunity to do a sabbatical."

Space to Read and Think and Write
Berenson arranged the ideal setting for her work: a carrel in the College library. "The carrel gave me a place detached from my normal office and all its distractions. In that setting, the ideas started to blossom. I would work from eight-thirty a.m. until four p.m. During the morning, I would plow through books. During the afternoon, I would write and revise. It was terrific to have such a solid block of time to work, especially since writing for me is painful, a matter of fits and starts. It's hard work, as I tell my students in the first-year writing class."

The conditions were right; her motivation was high, and the muse was heard. Berenson completed an enormous amount of scholarly work during her one-semester sabbatical:

  • Along with her work colleague Ellen Bradshaw, associate professor of early Christian history and literature at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, Berenson continued editing the essay collection Philostratus's Heroikos: Religion and Cultural Identity in the Third Century C.E.
  • She wrote two articles for that essay collection, which was subsequently published in both hardback and paper-back.
  • She made major progress on an article titled "The Empty Tomb and Narrative Foreshadowing of the Disappearance of Jesus."
  • She worked on several chapters for a new book on an intertextual approach to reading Colossians and Ephesians.
  • She began planning for a Society of Biblical Literature session on heroes, later presented at the group's national conference in San Antonio.

Yet, the returns on Berenson's sabbatical extended well beyond the prodigious scholarly output. "I renewed my own enthusiasm for my work," she says, "and that's so important for effective teaching. If I'm excited about the material, then I can get my students excited about the material."

Berenson's enthusiasm is evident when she describes how she uses On Heroes, the student version of the book Flavius Philostratus: Heroikos in her class in elementary Greek. "Every Friday we use On Heroes as a way to learn more broadly about Greek culture and history and especially about the ancients' belief in the power of their heroes. In addition to revealing great insights on Greek culture and religion, the discussions provide a break from the drudgery of slogging through grammar."

Seizing Yet Another Opportunity
Berenson hopes that her next faculty development project pays equally rewarding dividends. She won a grant from Roanoke College's Undergraduate Research Assistant Program, now in its second year. This innovative grant provides a faculty member with the same student assistant for four straight years. Ten of the College's faculty members received the URAP grant.

Through her grant, which combines both religion and sociology, Berenson and her student research assistant will assess to what extent taking a college course on the Bible affects a student's religious commitment.

"Nobody has studied the impact on religious commitment of learning about the Bible in an academic atmosphere," Berenson says. "We'll also be studying the relationship between how a class is taught and the effect on the outcome.

"I wanted a project where the student would perform real work, not just make photocopies or get coffee," she says. "In this study, the student can provide valuable help at every step of the process, from preparing the surveys to analyzing the results. We'll be surveying students and faculty at other colleges and universities as well as at Roanoke. Because of the extended time frame, we'll be able to follow up after three or four years."

Also, receiving her second faculty research semester grant has helped reduce Berenson's teaching load, freeing up valuable time to plan the project with her student research assistant.

Reflections on Roanoke
Clearly, Roanoke College is committed to sustaining and supporting strong teacher-scholars, for which Berenson is appreciative.

"When I'm in class, it's not a democracy. I have the freedom to teach what I want to teach with no other faculty breathing down my neck," she says. "After all, learning how to present ideas in a way that will excite students is part of the creative scholarship process."

Working with talented peers also feeds Berenson's creative fires. "At Roanoke, I get to associate with a good number of like-minded colleagues with whom I can share the joys and the frustrations of teaching," she says.

Berenson speaks forthrightly of the challenges she faces along with her peers. "Because Roanoke is going through a period of significant change and rising expectations, faculty need tremendous support. It's hard to balance teaching and research, to deal with an e-mail from an editor, say, when you have a student in your office staring you in the face. Finding the right balance requires energy.

"Roanoke has been terrific about giving me support: funding travel for conferences, giving me release time during the year through the Faculty Scholar program, providing me with student research support, and granting me stipends to conduct research in the summer.

"Freedom in the classroom. Great colleagues. Terrific research support," she says. "What else does a scholar need?"

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