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March 2, 2000

ON TEACHING: H. David Brumble

It's Tuesday at 4:45 p.m. and H. David Brumble is fidgeting in his chair. Jiggling his foot. Rising to pace across his 5th floor Cathedral of Learning office.

"I always get antsy about an hour before class," the English professor confides. "I'm itching to get down there and get started because I've got all of this stuff I want to talk about."

One hour later, downstairs in a 3rd floor Cathedral classroom, a visibly happier Brumble is talking to his "The Bible as Literature" class about Baal worship. Specifically, the question of why the ancient Hebrews kept backsliding into worship of the Semitic bull god when their own Yahweh was all-powerful — and jealous. Even wise King Solomon, in his dotage, set up altars to Baal, Brumble points out.

How come?

A young woman in the back of the class asks: Was it mere coincidence that Baal was a god of fertility and virility, and Solomon was…well…getting up in years?

"Oh, that's good!" Brumble exclaims, beaming. "I'd love to think that! I mean, when you've got 600 wives and 300 concubines, you need all the help you can get."

Brumble suggests some other explanations for the Baal cult's persistence. Unlike Yahweh, Baal was undemanding (no commandments, no kosher rules), easy to visualize (he took the form of a bull, symbolizing power and potency) and could be worshipped anywhere (no need to travel to Jerusalem for a sacrifice to Baal).

"Farmers and nomads, especially, wanted the services of a good, immediate fertility god," Brumble explains.

Brumble, winner of a 1987 Chancellor's Distinguished Teaching Award, says his major advantages as a veteran teacher are simply the reading and traveling he's done since joining the Pitt faculty in 1970. "I'm able to make connections now that I wouldn't have been able to make 20 or 30 years ago."

He illustrates this point in class, first by likening ancient, backyard Baal shrines to the black phallic stones found today on farms in India. Farmers rub the stones with clarified butter in the hope that their offerings will help to bring rain.

Later, Brumble compares self-mutilation among Baal priests to practices among Taiwanese and Native American shamans. Later still, he demonstrates the spinning dance of whirling dervishes in modern Turkey, drawing parallels with the Baal priests' ecstatic dancing.

Brumble has seen dervishes and shamans firsthand. He's sailed around the world as academic dean on two Semester at Sea voyages and plans to sail as a faculty member on this summer's voyage. He wrote an award-winning book about autobiographies of Native Americans, including some legendary shamans. His next book will examine warrior cultures, from South Seas tribes to Southern California street gangs.

Last year, Brumble started teaching a warrior cultures course, but his favorite courses remain "The Bible as Literature" and another large-enrollment undergraduate class, "Introduction to Shakespeare."

"Obviously, many people have strong feelings about the Bible and how it ought to be understood," Brumble says. "Yet, when we get in the classroom we're able to talk about the Bible without rancor. I mean, I'd be surprised if someone hasn't been offended by something that's been said along the way, but in the 15 years I've been teaching 'The Bible as Literature' I've never had an unpleasant exchange in a class. I feel a real sense of gratitude to my students for this."

Brumble deserves some credit as well. He forestalls theological squabbles by focusing on the Bible's literary qualities: the book's poetry and narratives, its allegories and metaphors. Unlike an archeologist or a religious studies professor, Brumble doesn't question whether Biblical figures such as King David actually existed. What interests Brumble and his class is David's role as a literary character.

Teaching Shakespeare entails less risk of offending students — "although, 'Othello' and 'The Merchant of Venice' are likely to raise some touchy issues" of race and religion, Brumble notes.

As a full professor, Brumble could avoid teaching introductory courses. But he prefers them. "I really enjoy working with beginning college students," he says. "I like getting them enthused about Shakespeare, about the Bible as a literary work. I like to watch students at the beginnings of their careers and sort of watch over them as they go through college. Whether or not I have them again for class, I try to make myself available to advise them about their writing, or about study abroad opportunities, or about courses they should take."

Brumble punctuates classroom discussions by asking questions — harmless, rhetorical ones — of non-participating students. "Eddie, you okay with that?" he might inquire, after announcing the next topic. "Drew, any questions burning in your bosom?" This practice may startle the daydreaming students who get singled out, but it also encourages them to participate.

Another Brumble trademark is the 7 1/2-minute break midway through his evening classes, rather than the traditional 15 minutes. "Students seldom complain about it," he says, shrugging. "I have an abhorrence of wasting time, and there's usually so much ground I want to cover.

"I try to start and end class precisely on schedule, and I don't allow myself to stop and tell jokes along the way. If funny things arise, then funny things arise, and that's great. Some instructors believe you must tell jokes and funny stories to keep a class's attention, but I disagree.

"When I go into the classroom," Brumble declares, "I just assume that my students are going to be as interested in the material as I am, and I'm seldom disappointed."

Brumble's own enthusiasm for the material is infectious. In swift succession he mimes, chuckles, grimaces, teases, flatters, cajoles and practically wrings responses from his classes. "Can you believe this?" he will ask, after sharing a choice morsel of Biblical scandal. "Isn't this neat?" And Brumble never talks down to hisstudents, some of them still teenagers.

"Jezebel," he announces at the start of a class. "Who was she?"

"The wife of King Ahab," a young woman timidly volunteers.

"Nice person?"

"No," the student replies, laughing.

"No!" Brumble agrees. "Bad person!" And the discussion commences of Jezebel's role and how misogynist prejudice may have darkened the way the Bible depicts her.

For feedback on his teaching, Brumble asks students to write anonymous mid-term reviews. After tallying their comments, Brumble reports back to his students. "Okay, four of you said this…" he'll say, and proceed to paraphrase their criticisms.

"I don't know that I've discovered any secrets of teaching," Brumble reflects after a class, "but one difference in my teaching today compared with 20 or 30 years ago is that I prepare more systematically now. I think the main secret of teaching, if you want to call it that, is to be responsible. You don't miss classes. You don't come late to classes. You come prepared. You get papers back on time.

"Occasionally, for whatever reason, you come to class not as well-prepared as you ought to be, and it's a miserable, miserable feeling. I feel bad for days after something like that."

Brumble envisions himself continuing to teach after he retires as a full-time faculty member. "Oh, yeah," he says, emphatically. "One gets tired of committee work, but it's hard to imagine getting tired of teaching."

Brumble's daughter once accused him of experiencing things in order to tell about them later — arguably, one sign of a career teacher. "That's the way I am with reading as well as teaching," he says. "Right now, for example, I'm really enjoying reading about Bolivia in preparation for an academic trip I'm taking there with students in May. Part of the kick of doing the reading is knowing, I'm going to get to tell people about Bolivia!"

— Bruce Steele

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