Saturday, August 15, 2009
I was asked in a tutorial this week about resources for students who want to explore the background to Bible passages.

In the class we talked particularly about two sorts of tool Dictionaries and Commentaries. In this post I will focus first on the sorts of task for which different tools are useful, then in a later post I'll describe different sorts of tool found under the each of the two headings: Dictionaries and Commentaries.
Photo by fmckinlay

Different tools for different tasks

For preference one does not dig a trench with a fork, but equally if one is breaking up clods a fork is more effective than a spade.

Bible dictionaries (a catch all term for encyclopedic works that relate to the Bible - not actually dictionaries at all) are really useful to get a quick fix on a person, place, object, activity, custom etc. in the context of Ancient Israel or the world of the Eastern Mediterranean under the Romans. That is if you have a term that needs explaining they are great to give you a quick fix of "background" information.
An example of a "Bible Dictionary"

So, if you are reading Ezekiel 26 you probably realise that Tyre is a place rather than a round rubber tube, but you may want to know more... Likewise in Ruth there is mention a few times that Boaz is a "kinsman" (your translation may vary) and in chapter three Boaz explains that there is "another kinsman more closely related than [he]" (Ruth 3:12). This clearly is more than a matter of "what sort of cousin are you?" it is important to the book. To read Ruth sensibly you need to know more. Bible dictionaries exist to serve such needs.

[In the Ruth example you will meet a frustration known to dictionary aficionados as "hide and seek", most Bible dictionaries will not have a convenient entry headed "Kinsman", this case is particularly hard, and to find the information you were after you may need to spot that older translations speak of him as a "redeemer". Looking up that word may finally enable you to strike gold!]
An example of a commentary
Commentaries work differently they are not organised (like a dictionary) by terms, but follow through the Bible text in order. In a commentary you look up the passage you are studying and all the information provided is conveniently presented together in one place. A commentary will also, usually, conveniently discuss not only things that get entries in Bible dictionaries, but also the wording and literary working of the passage. This convenience, however, comes at a price :( Commentaries are organised around the commentator's idea of what the passage means. They are like railways, if you wanrt to get where they are going they are fast and convenient. Like railways they are less useful if you have a different destination in view ;)

So on the whole avoid consulting commentaries as long as you can. The more you work at a text before reading one the more chance you have of arriving at a destination determined by the text that is different from the one the commentator recommends ;)

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Thursday, January 08, 2009
  Textbook purchases
Amazon have what look like great deals on textbooks, any purchased from this link will not only get you their best prices, but also make a small contribution to the costs of the Hypertext Bible Dictionary and Commentary project.

NB: The link and the offers vanish like Cinderella's coach at midnight in the Amazon on St Valentine's Day (Feb 14th). So use it now!

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008
  Exam technique
It's almost the exam season down here, so here are links to my series on Exam technique for anyone who is interested ;)

Photo Jack Hynes

An exam is like a military campaign, first comes the strategy, so the first post deals with how to plan your campaignHow to pass exams: Part One: Revision it covers issues like selecting topics to revise and preparing notes (rather than just writing down everything). Working with others is an important way to focus and sharpen your revision (by collaborating you get more bang for your buck, or more % for your hours) so take a quick look at How to pass exams: Part Two: Collaborative Revision and then even if you are not naturally sociable get working in a team and talking to others with the same exam as you.

You won't need it now, but as the "big day" gets nearer you might want to read up on how to best prepare and actually site the exam ;) that's covered in: How to sit exams

I'd say "Good luck!" except as the advert said (before Banks had other things to worry about than annoying us with adverts) "Luck has nothing (or at least as little as you can arrange) to do with it!"

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Thursday, October 09, 2008
  Fun with footnotes
The NZ Journal of History style guide is mandated for essays in the History department at the University of Auckland. An excellent student [declaration of interest: she is my daughter, <brag>her brother not long ago got first class honours from the same department </brag>] and I cannot make sense of one section. It reads:
Print all page numbers up to and including 99 in full, e.g. 16–18, 94–99; for 100 and upwards use the least number of figures, e.g. 322–30, 522–3; but write 116–18, not 116–8; 210–11, not 210–1 (where confusion might otherwise arise).
Now most of this makes perfect sense, "Print all page numbers up to and including 99 in full, e.g. 16–18, 94–99" gotcha "for 100 and upwards use the least number of figures, e.g. 322–30, 522–3;" gotcha, "but write 116–18, not 116–8; 210–11, not 210–1 (where confusion might otherwise arise)" UH? What confusion might arise if I wrote 116-8? because from their own previous example if it was 116-128 I would have written 116-28.

Now I admit the bright student and I are mathematically or scientifically minded, not really arty types, but where pray NZJH is your confusion?

If you are an arty type and can explain the cases to us so we can understand we'd be delighted :)

[Incidentally anyone who thinks footnotes and bibliography are not really fun should watch this short video ;) ]

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Thursday, June 05, 2008
  Backup Zotero!
For those who have not backed up their Zotero databases. Zotero is brilliant, but one feature it needs is an easy way to backup the data. No one wants to have to recreate the database for a whole thesis or book! Till the wonderful people who program Zotero get that fixed here's how to DIY a backup (with a video for those who like to SEE how:
In "Documents and Settings" under "Application Data" and hidden under "Mozilla" in the "Firefox/Profiles" directory is one for "Zotero" just COPY that to a CD or memory stick and you are safe(r).

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008
  Backup Zotero!
For those who have not backed up their Zotero databases. Zotero is brilliant, but one feature it needs is an easy way to backup the data. No one wants to have to recreate the database for a whole thesis or book! Till the wonderful people who program Zotero get that fixed here's how to DIY a backup (with a video for those who like to SEE how:
In "Documents and Settings" under "Application Data" and hidden under "Mozilla" in the "Firefox/Profiles" directory is one for "Zotero" just COPY that to a CD or memory stick and you are safe(r).

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Monday, May 05, 2008
  Zotero: Adding journal articles from EBSCO
When you search for a journal article using an EBSCO database no little Zotero icon appears in the location bar, however there is an "export button". If that is not clear watch the little video!

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Saturday, May 03, 2008
  Citation Nazis get U2?
If you write, as a student or academic (and you do not yet use Zotero) this is one video you MUST watch, and if it amuses you please pass it on!

By the way, for David (when he returns from lazing on the beach!) there is a mobile version, it is just over 1/2 the size of the WMV, but I'm showing the Flash version above (so Mac users can watch it ;-) which is 3x the size of the WMV or 6 times the 3GP...

What can I say to excuse this arrant sales pitch for Zotero? Well, it is Saturday, so I'm unwinding, or possibly coming undone ;-0

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Saturday, October 27, 2007
  How to sit exams
OK, at last its time, all the preparation and revision done (well almost all that's going to get done anyway ;-) the exam is tomorrow... What is left to do?

Photo David HC

  1. Prepare your survival kit:
    • two pens
    • two pencils (if it's an exam for which you have to draw graphs or whatever a sharpener too)
    • eraser
    • ruler
    • the essential damp face cloth in a transparent plastic bag to wipe your hands - they get sweaty in exams and to cool your fevered brow and neck. It is astonishing how refreshed you'll feel and how much more cool and calm too ;-)
    • Tictacs or if you are like me and 3 hours is too long between coffees caffeine tablets (but do NOT take too many, or you will swallow too many, NOT a good look!

    Photo Jack Hynes

  2. Before the exam:
    • plan how you will get there, if it is by public transport make sure you get an earlier bus or train, if by car allow extra time for parking - you do not want to arrive flustered in a hurry
    • the best advice comes from the famous Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy - Don't Panic!
    • really, do not panic, however bad it seems, you will survive, and if you keep calm pass with a better grade than you expect or deserve ;-)
  3. During the exam:
  4. Photo Mr.Tea

    • you planned how much time to allow for reading the paper and planning your answers (probably about 15mins, maybe 30mins for a 3 hour exam) and how long for each answer (30 mins?) write down the timetable - if you don't write it, you won't stick to it!
    • read the questions - SLOWLY - work out what they mean (really mean) you are NOT going to write a brain dump "all I know about..."
    • mark the questions you will answer
    • write headings for your answers - you can easily add more headings (the ones you forget now) later - but if they are written on the pages that count you already have some marks
    • sit back, stretch - hands locked behind head stretch your back and look at the ceiling, relax, do it again, wriggle a bit - this sounds daft, but you'll be surprised how calm it makes you feel, and calm is your friend ;-)
    • keep to the timetable, be ruthless, and start the next question
    • take regular breaks, use the cloth, do the stretch, relax, noticed how funny and worried everyone else looks - remember you are calm!
    • If (despite the timetable, and my advice above) the 15 minute warning comes before you have finished, try to fill out the headings that are left with some key points each... that way you can get most of the marks...

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007
  How to pass exams: Part Two: Collaborative Revision
Stephen (in an email) reminded me of one major area I left out of the previous post, collaborative revision. Sharing the load, sharing expertise, the wisdom of crowds... all the advantages of "2.0" and "open" can be claimed for collaborative revision. Stephen's experience and mine were very similar. A small group (mine was four of us) planned our revision together, shared out the topics and each prepared notes on one. We then pooled these and each made our own copy (with our own additions and changes) to the sheets the others had prepared. This process meant we talked through what was on the sheets and why, how the different parts worked together... in short we gave ourselves a revision tutorial.

Photo SamGrover

The key things are:
  • keep the group small so there is real accountability and commitment
  • process the notes others prepare - if you just use them 'as is' you will learn much less and it won't stick, revision is 'about' integrating knowledge into a system not merely cramming 'facts'
  • keep talking - the more you talk the notes through together the better

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Sunday, October 14, 2007
  How to pass exams: Part One: Revision
For years I sat exams, my school had exams three times a year, and I did two separate "first degrees", since then I've spent most of my life setting exams for others to sit! So now it is time to write the definitive "How to pass exams" series ;-) Warning: this post only covers exams in Arts-type subjects, with a small number of essay-type questions, for advice on multi-choice and short answer exams and for science exams look elsewhere.

Photo from Jez

In this first part I'll cover revision, the next post will cover the exam itself. (I covered "How to avoid reading books" in a previous post...)

Stage One: Select topics

  • Do NOT try to revise everything - that might be good for you, even great for your future usefulness to an employer ;-) but it won't help much with passing the exam!
  • Identify likely topics: make a list of the topics that the exam is likely to cover. At this stage you are aiming for a longish list, but not one that includes unlikely topics. Sometimes you will even be told the topics the exam covers, if not try to identify the most important topics from what was covered in the classes and the required readings. The "learning outcomes" (or whatever your institution calls them) may help you identify topics also...
  • Select the topics you will prepare. You want a list about 60% longer than the number of questions in the exam (to allow for bets that don't win), so for a 4 question exam you need a list of 6-7 likely topics, choose the most "important" first.

Noddy GuideTM
Is my name for a short simple summary of a subject or topic.
A good noddy guide will be:
- brief,
- simple but
- complete
Ideally, however, it will be written by a real scholar - avoid people with an axe to grind!
For smaller subjects, and for topics, subject "dictionaries" and "encyclopedias" are often a good source (e.g. in Bible the Anchor Bible Dictionary contains thousands of topic level noddy guides it also has quite a few subject level guides).

Stage Two: Prepare notes

Choose a noddy guide, it is worth spending some time to get the right one - ideally you will do this during the term (but I was seldom that organised ;-). The goal of this stage is to prepare a page or two about each topic, how you do this is up to you, as is what you include, but aim to cover the topic thoroughly - check this against your "noddy guide". Finding a good noddy guide for the topic is a real help, it may well also suggest ways to organise the material and headings.

Double check that you have all the most important information and ideas on these sheets.

Now, having gathered the material, reduce each topic to notes that cover at most one sheet. Do NOT use full sentences and connected paragraphs, but bullet points and headings that summarise the essentials.

Photo from CraigBoney

Another good approach is to divide your pages for the initial notes into two-thirds and one third, then to use the bottom one third to prepare a draft of the one page notes. If you do it this way it is still a good idea to copy the final brief notes onto a separate page.

Stage Three: Read and re-read

Now you read and reread both sets of notes... As "the day" gets near focus on the short notes - you can even take these with you to the exam room door (opinions differ, some people, like me, prefer to cram to the last minute, others like my wife prefer to have a rest in the hours just before the exam - I take my rest the day before that gives a longer rest ;-) but find the pattern that suits you) some institutions expect this and have a waste bin near the door, if not just place them in a corner and if need be retrieve them after the exam.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007
  How to avoid reading books
Good students avoid reading books. To explain this I need to start by describing how average students read, so you will understand what I mean.

Many of us try to read wrong

The average student faced with a book reads it. They begin at the beginning (or more likely at chapter one - which as we shall see is never the right place to start), and slowly - but only sometimes surely - plough through until with a sigh they finish the chapter. Little information and few ideas are retained, the words have mysteriously passed from eye to brain, only to drain out through the pores of the skin to be join the other lost words in linguistic limbo. Such reading is the next best thing to useless. That is time spent in "uselessness" would have been invested more wisely, for wasted time often pays a surprising dividend, time spent reading this way seldom does!

Having described how one ought not to read books, and hinted at why, let's think about how to avoid reading books. The aim of the smart student is to read as little as possible but gain the maximum intellectual benefit from what one reads.

I've always been a slow reader, I try to cope by "reading smarter".

One way I do this is to "waste time" overviewing something before reading it:

Contents list

Even if it is only chapter titles, this page or two should give you a fair idea of what the book is about and how it is organised - a few moments (1mo is shorter than 1min but much longer than 10secs) spent well on the contents list means you can already make intelligent guesses about where to find what, and even join a conversation about the book without sounding totally stupid.

At this stage, if you glance at the foreword (that's the bit before the first chapter - it often tells you what the author though their book was about, and so is often vital reading!) - and the conclusion (yes like detective stories serious textbooks demand you read the ending early on!) you should be able to write a summary of the book in a few sentences - this is a skill worth practising for when you become a teacher, because then with all that marking you will no longer have the luxury of actually reading books ;-)

Go on, write the summary down! At the very worst you can look back at it later and shake your head over how naive you were before you understood the full complexity of the topic ;-)


Look first at beginnings, endings and headings to try to get an idea of what the each chapter is about and how the different parts fit in.

Then skip through the material, not actually "reading" but reading a bit here and there to firm up your idea of what it is about and where it is going. By now you should be able to join a conversation about the chapter and sound like you read it!

Essential "reading"
: they say a picture is worth 1000 words (1Kw in metric measures), well it is true a well chosen picture is worth 1Kw, though badly chosen pictures are worth-less (however, they are fun to look at, so worth wasting time on ;-) charts, tables and diagrams are usually (even when badly done) worth at least 1Kw - so spend time on them!

The right way to read is much like the way we "read" the newspaper or a magazine!

At this stage you should be able to write a brief summary of the chapter - yes, just like you did for the book earlier.

Important "bits"

Then read carefully the bits that you think matter most. Seldom (using this approach) will you actually "read" all of a chapter, but you will get a good idea of what is in it - often better than if you had scanned each of the words!

I find if I try to read page by page that it goes in my eyes and out my ears. If I try to read that way page after page it is all forgotten five minutes after I scanned the page. Such reading is a waste of time - don't do it!

Sometimes with this scheme you will end up reading nearly everything twice - but it will be a chapter or book that really matters. Sometimes you will end up not reading some pages at all - but you will know where they are if you need them "one day"!

In summary

Do a survey of the book, or chapter (much as suggested above - playing about till you know what it contains, and where things are) then actually read carefully the "bits" that matter to you.

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