Killam winner a testament to teaching innovation

Ehud Ben Zvi has made his mark in the world of ancient history by reading between the lines. While scholars throughout the centuries have spent their lives deciphering the hallowed religious text of

3 October 2008

Ehud Ben Zvi has made his mark in the world of ancient history by reading between the lines.

While scholars throughout the centuries have spent their lives deciphering the hallowed religious text of the Hebrew Scriptures, Ben Zvi has distinguished himself by analyzing different versions of the same stories in various books, using the commonalities to establish the cultural climate of those times.

Recently awarded one of the U of A's highest distinctions, the Killam professorship, Ben Zvi has garnered a reputation among his colleagues from around the world for his innovation in Bible studies, research and for continually pushing teaching practices into the modern age.

He has held many renowned positions over his career, such as president of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies and vice-president of the Pacific Northwest American Academy of Religon/Society of Biblical Literature, and has also designed the U of A's master's-level religious studies program.

The U of A professor of history and classics may be an expert in studying the past, but he has a rich history of his own, initially starting off in biochemstry before deciding to pursue his strongest interest, history.

"I began taking courses towards a BA at the Open University of Israel. Most of the courses I took dealt with ancient Israelite/Jewish history," Ben Zvi said of his time living in Tel Aviv. "When I completed my BA degree, it became clear to me that I would like to try to pursue a career change."

From there he enrolled in a MA program in Jewish history with a focus on ancient Israelite history. Ben Zvi explained that his thesis on the period of Assyrian hegemony over Israel brought him "a keen awareness of the importance of careful analysis of the biblical texts for the historical traces that they may contain."

After obtaining his PhD in Religious Studies at Emory University, he accepted a job offer at the U of A.

In addition to having published seven books, editing or co-editing six books and numerous essays and articles, Ben Zvi has also pursued notable electronic endeavours in his area of expertise.

He has been called a pioneer in providing extensive web resources for students, for which he won the 2000 Norman W. Wagner Technology Award of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies.

"In the early-'90s, Terry Butler (deceased director of research computing in the Faculty of Arts at the U of A) and I began exploring the use of the Internet for teaching and research in my area," said Ben Zvi about creating the online Journal of Hebrew Scriptures. "I was aware at the time that open-access scholarly journals were needed and that the development of the Internet provided us for the first time in history a chance to develop that access."

By the mid-'90s, Ben Zvi launched the journal.

"[During] the first years we worked hard to establish the journal and to overcome a sense within the academic world that e-journals are less respected than printed ones, but this battle seems to have been won for the most part," said Ben Zvi, who is still the general editor of the publication and an advocator of open-access journals in general.

"Electronic journals can publish articles much faster than printed journals and thus increase the density of the type of scholarly interaction that is central to the creation of new knowledge," he said.

One practice Ben Zvi has become known for are the face-to-face personal discussions he has with his students.

"I am convinced that learning critical skills is the very centre of an education in arts," he explained. "A major critical skill is the ability to evaluate not only the works of others, but also our own work in a realistic manner. [Students'] ability to conduct a realistic and responsible self-evaluation of their work is at least as important-and in my opinion, far more important for them in the long term-than any externally imposed evaluation."

Ben Zvi's colleague of nine years, director and professor of the U of A's religious studies program, Willi Braun, agrees that Ben Zvi's demanding style of instruction produces knowledgeable students who go on to do doctoral work in top-tier universities.

"In his teaching, as in his research and service to the university, I consider Professor Ben Zvi among the best and rarest," said Braun. "For him, teaching is not a sideline activity in the least, as one might dare to suspect when one considers his prodigious, high-level publication level. On the contrary, he devotes as much careful thought, dedication and learning to teaching as he does to everything else he does."

While Ben Zvi is deeply honoured to join the distinguished ranks of the Killam community, he isn't using the award as an excuse to bask in past glories. Instead, he is eager to continue developing his contribution to his area of study.

"I think that both the study of ancient history, including ancient Israelite history and the study of ancient religions, which is a subset of ancient history, will continue to develop more and more along inter- and cross-disciplinary boundaries," said Ben Zvi. "This is a very welcome development."

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