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Teaching Philosophy Courses Student Comments Awards
Jason Combs

Teaching Philosophy

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Too many important decisions are based on thirty-second commercials or ten-second sound bites. Profound questions too often end with a single Google search. As a society, we need deeper, more well-reasoned engagement with the world. We need higher education. I see higher education as a form of apprenticeship in which students are mentored in open-dialogue and critical engagement. As students study with me, I want them to develop (1) a love for learning, (2) an understanding of the processes through which knowledge is produced, and (3) skills that will allow them to participate confidently in those processes beyond the confines of the classroom. My courses are based on interpreting the ancient texts and history of Christianity and Judaism through traditional historical and literary methods as well as post-colonial, feminist, and other contemporary approaches. Understanding the complex history of these traditions remains important since Jewish and Christian discourse continues to be employed in religious, political, and ethical contexts today. My students discover that situating these traditions in their ancient historical contexts helps to reveal our own historical situatedness and creates space to question our own cultural assumptions. This perspective on teaching ancient religion informs my course design and pedagogy, and it has contributed to my success as an educator.

I teach both introductory and advanced courses in a way that engages students directly with primary and secondary sources in the work of critical inquiry. For instance, some scholars have argued that certain letters in the New Testament were forged—that the person who claimed to be the author did not write them. After introducing this problem in lecture, I assign my students two brief articles with opposing views and require them to write a two-page argumentative essay defending their own perspective. At the next class, students discuss their essays—how they analyzed the arguments, weighed the evidence, and reached their own conclusions. When we discuss the literary relationships among the Gospels, I explain how scholars argue that Mark was written before Matthew and Luke. Then I challenge students to support or critique each part of that argument using passages I assign from those Gospels. Through such exercises, my students begin to see themselves not only as recipients of knowledge but also as participants in the production of knowledge.

My students also explore the contemporary relevance of our studies. In some courses this is accomplished through assignments and class projects. In my introductions to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, students participate in prepared debates on topics including those related to homosexuality, women’s rights, poverty, and violence. In other classes, relevance is woven into the design of the course. For instance, I teach my course on the history of early Christianity through the lens of identity theories. This helps students synthesize the disparate ancient materials, but it also creates space to question the identity politics at play in both ancient and modern culture wars. In my course on Jesus as a historical figure, students not only learn and practice the methods of historical Jesus scholarship, but also critically examine the questions we ask about Jesus and the functions of historical knowledge in modern Western society.

Academic writing is central to my pedagogy. Even when I taught a large lecture course (100-student enrollment cap), I successfully integrated a regular writing component by organizing group assignments. I focus on writing because it remains the primary process through which knowledge is produced, and because it is the best way to evaluate student comprehension and the development of critical thinking and reading skills. To help students develop these essential skills, I continue to experiment with various types of writing activities: prewriting and rewriting assignments, an outline exercise that compelled students to support each of their arguments with evidence, and rubrics that guided students in writing book reviews and peer reviews.

I improve my courses in response to students’ performance and their evaluations of my teaching—when necessary I have created my own midterm or end-of-semester evaluations with questions specific to the course. When students were unable to identify key information in lengthy or dense readings, I prepared Reading Study Guides and assessed comprehension with pop-quizzes based on the study guide questions. When I discovered that students in Birth of Christianity struggled most with understanding the diverse Christian groups from the second century, I later revised the course to include an interactive midterm exam—an activity with individual and group writing components—that helped students consolidate that information. Not only was this midterm exam one of my students’ favorite activities, but these students also showed improved comprehension in their essays on the final exam.

I have worked hard to become a successful instructor and have been honored to receive two teaching awards at UNC. In 2011, I was one of nine selected among faculty and graduate students university-wide to receive the Student Undergraduate Teaching and Staff Award. The SUTASA is awarded once annually “on the basis of demonstrated and consistent teaching excellence, success in positively affecting a broad spectrum of students both in and outside the classroom, and creation of a dynamic learning environment.” The following year, I was one of five awarded UNC’s most prestigious teaching award, the Tanner Award. This award was established “to recognize excellence in inspirational teaching of undergraduate students, particularly first- and second-year students.”

Students have praised my teaching and course design. They describe my enthusiasm for the subject as contagious. Students from diverse backgrounds describe my approach to teaching religion as “unbiased,” “considerate,” and “open-minded.” They say that my course requirements are demanding but they learn a lot, and that my grading is strict but fair An anonymous student from one of my most recent classes summarized her or his experience as follows: “Professor Combs, to put it lightly, taught an amazing class. In my opinion, his course was perfectly balanced in terms of in-class and out-of-class work, and his teaching style was dynamic and engaging. Professor Combs is definitely one of the best teachers I've had at Carolina, hands down.”

In sum, I am passionate about teaching. I mentor my students in the kind of research that I aspire to do, and I help them to understand its relevance. I have experienced some success, and I continue to develop my pedagogy and improve my classes.

Courses

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New Testament: Gospels

New Testament: Acts-Revelation

Book of Mormon

Introduction to the New Testament

Introduction to the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament

Jesus in Myth, Tradition, and History, 30-200CE

Birth of Christianity

Religions of the World

Ethics and Values

Student Comments

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Dynamic Instruction

I found Professor Combs' New Testament class engaging and intellectually stimulating. Though I wish we could have spent more time on who the historical Jesus was, all of the sections of the course were interesting. (Spring 2013 UNC-CH — Introduction to the New Testament)
Jason, you did a fantastic job teaching this course! At first I was disappointed not to be Ehrman's class, but I actually enjoyed the smaller and more discussion-based environment that you facilitated. Thanks for a great semester! (Spring 2013 UNC-CH — Introduction to the New Testament)
Mr. Combs is very engaging and present interesting perspectives with an attitude of enthusiasm. It is evident that he enjoys teaching! The readings were especially relevant. Thank you – I learned a great deal. (Fall 2013 UNC-CH — Birth of Chrisitianity)
I loved coming to lectures, very thought-provoking. … I gained new insight every time I came to class. I learned something or reevaluated my thinking. Lectures and discussions definitely contribute to my understanding of all course material. (Fall 2013 UNC-CH — Birth of Chrisitianity)

Supporting Student Success

He is a very good speaker and is making sure that students do not fail and are aware of the knowledge needed to pass. (Spring 2014 UNCG)
This class had a very good work load and Mr. Combs definitely provided us with the resources necessary to get what we needed out of the class. (Spring 2014 UNCG)
Jason was more organized than the last instructor and spent time to ensure that his students understood the material. (Fall 2013 UNC-CH)
Jason was very approachable and always willing to help. (Summer 2013 UNC-CH)

Writing Improvement

In the beginning of the semester, the outlines were harder than writing an actual paper because of the strict word limit that surrounded the outlines. However, once the outline format began to change, the outlines became way more beneficial. (Spring 2013 UNC-CH — Introduction to the New Testament)
The material is great and Jason is one of the most caring teachers I've come across during my time at Carolina. He forced me to improve my research methods through the difficult outline argument questions. (Spring 2013 UNC-CH — Introduction to the New Testament)

The most helpful and useful assignment was the one page summaries we had to type out for our readings. It really helped me on constructing the book review paper. (Fall 2013 UNC-CH — Birth of Chrisitianity)
His critiques of our papers were helpful and pushed us to adjust our way of viewing the religion many of us grew up in. (Spring 2014 UNCG — Introduction to the New Testament)

Engaging Assignments

I actually wanted to work and found myself enjoying the work. (Spring 2014 UNCG — Introduction to the New Testament)
The strengths include putting the students into groups. I found my group very helpful and fun. (Spring 2014 UNCG — Introduction to the New Testament)
This is one of the few classes I consistently read and did homework for before each class. This was also a class I enjoyed attending for the atmosphere. I felt really motivated to participate and study because I felt like it wasn’t just me that was holding myself accountable. (Fall 2013 UNC-CH — Birth of Chrisitianity)
In this class, I’ve been very engaging and always worked very hard to finish all assignments more than any other class because the lecture and class itself were very interesting. (Fall 2013 UNC-CH — Birth of Chrisitianity)

Awards

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Tanner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, 2012

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

One of five selected university-wide to receive this most distinguished teaching award. Nominated by students, the University Committee on Teaching Awards reviews the nominees, collects additional information from Department Chairs, and recommends five winners to the Chancellor. The Tanner Award was established "to recognize excellence in inspirational teaching of undergraduate students, particularly first- and second-year students."

Awarded 26 April 2012.

Student Undergraduate Teaching and Staff Award 2011 (SUTASA)

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

One of nine selected among faculty and graduate students university-wide for this honor. The SUTASA is awarded once annually "on the basis of demonstrated and consistent teaching excellence, success in positively affecting a broad spectrum of students both in and outside the classroom, and creation of a dynamic learning environment.

Awarded 12 April, 2011.

Certificate - Future Faculty Fellowship Program

Center for Faculty Excellence

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

One of twenty graduate students admitted to this selective professional development program. The Future Faculty Fellowship is an intensive interdisciplinary program designed to prepare graduate students for their future responsibilities in publication, teaching, and service.

Certificate awarded 11 May, 2012.