Last week I assigned a group of online students a discussion question that asked them to discuss the influence of Christianity from the point of view of an Emperor of their choice. This is a new approach to this subject, and is based on a course redesign done by a different instructor. My usual approach is to ask them a straightforward question about Christianity in the Empire, or about the fall of the Empire in the West, but this time, I figured that I would just go with this new "standard" to see what happened.
It was... interesting.
Like in any class, whether face-to-face, hybrid, or online this class has a hierarchy of students. Some of them always bring their "A" game. These are the smart, motivated, prepared ones for whom anything less than a great grade and learning the material is not an option. There's a tier of students that are satisfied with a "B" or "C" as long as they don't have to work too hard, and another layer that tries hard, but can only scrape a "B" or "C" from the class. Then there are the folks that procrastinate, aren't prepared for college classes, or just have too much going on to focus on the class to do well. Online classes are a real problem for this last group since they frequent slip through the cracks.
The hierarchy of students was really apparent in this week's discussion about how Roman Emperors might have viewed Christianity. The top tier of students gave their normal performance - they engaged with the material, wrote a bit more than they strictly needed to, provided citations, and talked about Constantine, the cult of the Emperor, and stability in the Empire. The lowest tier, the students that I worry about the most, really struggled with this Discussion, and it showed not only that they didn't read the text or listen to the course lectures (or read them, which is what I would do), but they have only the faintest conception of the timelines for the crucifixion or the rise of Imperial Rome.
This week I saw two big issues: chronology and a misunderstanding of the level of importance that Jesus had in the Empire during his lifetime. Several students seemed to think that Jesus was executed on the Emperor's order because Jesus gathered followers and took attention away from the cult of the Emperor and traditional Roman religion. Others were convinced that Pontius Pilate had Jesus executed for heresy against Roman religion. That last one is probably an issue of interpretation of the Gospels and the textbook, but the first part of that seems to be a result of not understanding the end of the Republic, when we believe Jesus lived, and the assumption that because Christianity is important in our culture now, then, of course, an obscure preacher in Judea was of such importance that Octavian/Augustus was worried about him as a threat to stability.
There's something clearly missing here in the students' preparation before college, in their willingness to do the reading and sit through lectures on their own, but also in the course. I feel as if by not leading them through the material by the nose, my students are missing critical information that they need in order to understand the material and do well on the assignments. The issue for me, is how do I fix my part in this within the context of classes that have a shared design across several instructors? Why do I feel like we're failing students with the current model we have for secondary and higher education?