The Lab Kit Series: Online Class, Hands-On Learning

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Students in “The Jewish Jesus” explore writing technology from the time of Christ.

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Lab kits for “The Jewish Jesus” enabled students to explore ancient writing technology. Items pictured are: 1) goose feathers; 2) black ink; 3) bamboo reeds and a snap-off knife; 4) parchment; 5) papyrus. (Photo by Robert Gill) 
8/24/2020
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During the pandemic, Dartmouth faculty and staff have used innovative strategies, such as providing lab kits, to create effective, engaging online courses. To share your experience using hands-on materials in remote or hybrid classes, email aimee.minbiole@dartmouth.edu with the subject line: lab kits

In the age of online everything, Lecturer Deborah Forger used snail mail to transport her class back in time—way back, to when the ability to write was uncommon.

With help from Sarah Smith, the program manager of Dartmouth’s Book Arts Workshop, students in Forger’s course “The Jewish Jesus” received samplers of writing technology used around the time Jesus lived: goatskin parchment, papyrus, and bamboo reed pens. The boxes also included goose feathers and a snap-off knife to make a quill pen, a tool that likely emerged at a later time, says Forger, a postdoctoral scholar in the Jewish Studies Program and a lecturer and research associate.

In class, Forger emphasizes the complicated nature of historical evidence pertaining to ancient figures, and the extraordinary efforts needed to produce such materials.

Becoming a proficient scribe required years of study, and scholars estimate that literacy rates among first-century Jews were somewhere between 3 percent and about 10 percent, she says. “The sorts of things that we take for granted were not common in the ancient world.”

Before trying the materials, students studied their history and how they were made. Forger suggested wetting the papyrus­—made from a plant of the same name—pulling it apart, and then reassembling it. Writing on the parchment and papyrus, some students noticed block lettering worked best, she says, “which is interesting, in terms of Hebrew script.”

Struggling to use the rudimentary pens was a worthwhile exercise, says Sam Selleck ’22, a religion and sociology major. “Since we read so many primary sources in class, it was extremely rewarding to actually experience the process of writing in the past.”

The lab kit for Amari Young ’21 was delayed en route to her Atlanta home, so Forger overnighted the closest approximation available. A self-described hands-on learner, Young used a calligraphy pen—a temporary stand-in for the goose feather model—to sketch her dog, Bella, and copy lines from a favorite song, Reborn, by Kanye West and Kid Cudi.

Because the class can’t visit the Dartmouth Library’s Rauner Special Collections Library, experimenting with the lab kits is as close as they can get to the ancient texts, says Young, an African and African American Studies major. “It centers me and connects me to the history, as much as we can be, I suppose.”

That’s good news for Forger, who tries to offer students a tangible “window into antiquity,” she says, one that aligns with current research. “There’s a lot of work being done right now on the materiality of our ancient extant sources, both in terms of the Bible and the period of Jewish history the course covers.”

Aimee Minbiole can be reached at aimee.minbiole@dartmouth.edu.

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Aimee Minbiole