Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom

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This is another installment in an ongoing series of posts in a collaborative effort between the Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blogs. On November 23, 2014, approximately 20 scholars of religion, from grad students to more seasoned professors, participated in a NAASR workshop in San Diego, CA on the question of how to introduce theory in an introductory religious studies class. Participants were divided into three groups addressing: 1) who/which theorists to include; 2) what data should be included, and; 3) where should theory come into play (e.g., at the start, middle, or end?). What follows is a reflection from one of the participants.

by Pat McCullough

My Religion 101 course presents me with a bit of a dilemma. At UCLA, the “101” actually signals an upper division course. The course is not really a general introduction to the study of religion, highlighting foundational methods and broad themes—we don’t have one of those. Rather, the course (“History of the Study of Religion”) surveys the theorists who have influenced the academic study of religion. Since we are on the quarter system, I have only ten weeks to play around with.

So, it’s a 10-week introductory course at an upper-division level focusing on theorists without any more general introductory course leading them in. I don’t want to bring the students into our list of dead white guys cold, so I need to provide a framework . . . and one that fits in 10 weeks. J. Z. Smith’s “less is more” pedagogical challenge haunts me.

Setting the Framework. One of the key questions we address in the course is: what is religion? We start the first week with the intro and first chapter to Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion (a decent, accessible overview to the historical invention of the category) and Craig Martin’s first chapter in his Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. On the whole, the students are really drawn in by the issues of definition and categorization that these readings raise. Then we apply what we’ve learned to a comparison between Geertz’s and Lincoln’s definitions. This issue of the category of “religion,” then, permeates our analysis as we go.

I also present them with a dichotomy that gives them a narrative of controversy (to add a bit of excitement to the course): the “essentialists” vs. the “reductionists.” I present these as two “camps” that battle over “religion” language. We talk about how these two camps utilize certain terms to claim their territory or attack the other camp.

After this first-week framework, I give them the rest of Craig Martin so that they know what a contemporary, critical approach to the study of religion looks like. (This is what I wish they had before walking into my class.) Also, I know that we’ll spend the majority of the quarter reading Pals, whose approach to the study of religion differs considerably from mine. I want them to have a resource that helps them make sense of Pals’ perspective (more on this later). This takes up weeks two and three. As fun and revolutionary as Craig’s book is, I feel like it’s too much reading not directly on the topic at hand. I may work on choosing just two chapters.

Also, throughout the entire class, we have “case studies.” This year, we talked about Hobby Lobby, the Quebec charter, the intro to Carolyn Chen’s Getting Saved in America12 Years a Slave, the intro to Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (that was so much fun), Christian Zionism, and Richard Madsen on Buddha’s Light Mountain. We do this because I think we’d all get bored out of our minds talking theory for theory’s sake all quarter.

Choosing the “Canon.” Not everyone has to set a canon in their introductory religion courses, but it seems to me that a course on the “history of the study of religion” is necessarily canonical. I need to decide who is in and who is out. My choices thus far have been fairly traditional, with just a little bit of extra flavor towards the end. I use Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion as the main text, supplemented by Deal and Beal’s Theory for Religious Studies and the glossary of scholars in Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion. I use Pals because the reading is the most accessible presentation. I use McCutcheon and Deal and Beal because I find Pals’ bias too much to bear at points. For Pals, Freud, Durkheim, and Marx are the enemies and Eliade is the clear hero:

Reductionist explanations, even in the less militantly antireligious form developed by Durkheim, tend to be so fundamentally opposed to the normal stance of faith that it is hard to see how believers could abide them without discomfort. . . . Behind the scenes, then, it is apparent that personal commitments have played at the very least a strong motivating role in the development of modern theories of religion. To those who, like Freud and Marx, have written from a personal stance of antipathy toward religion, aggressive reductionism seems only natural and right. To those who, like Eliade, have been moved by sympathy with the religious perspective, it can only be misguided and mistaken. (316–7, emphasis mine)

Thus, I pit Pals against McCutcheon as representatives of our “essentialist” and “reductionist” camps—highlighting how these often function as pejorative labels. So, these disagreements become pedagogically useful.

I use 6 out of 8 theorists from Pals: Freud, Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Eliade, and Geertz. I add Althusser and Foucault. We also get Bourdieu via Craig Martin’s book. Nine theorists: all white, all dead, one gay, one wife murderer.

This brings me to the canon question: who represents the history of the study of religion? Fundamentally, it seems to me that there are two approaches to this: theories of religion (see Pals’ title) and theory for religious studies (see Deal and Beal). One is a review of theorists who have said something about “religion” and the other affects the way that we do religious studies. At times, we deal with this distinction in a single theorist: Marx, for example, said some stuff about “religion” that’s worth unpacking, but that’s certainly not where his influence ends in the academic study of religion. Foucault said some stuff about “religion” that I don’t really think matters all that much (sorry, Jeremy Carrette!), but he’s offered some analytical tools that have revolutionized the field.

My primary textbook largely sets the agenda for me: I do mostly theories of religion, which I think is reasonable. There’s a problem, though. It kills me that all the theorists are dead white guys. I have several important female scholars in the case studies (Lofton, Mahmood, Sullivan, others), but they don’t function as part of the “canon.” These women are not available to the students when they choose a theorist to write about in their final paper. (I never used the term “canon” in class, even though it is effectively a canon.)

I finish the class with a reading that would have been impossible to start with, but is a wonderful way to tie all the loose ends together and bring us back to the overall framework: chapters 1 and 6 of Arnal and McCutcheon’s The Sacred Is the Profane. Closing out the course, it reviews just about all the theorists we discussed and pushes the students to take categorical considerations even more seriously.

Changes for Next Year: Less Is More; Difference Is Better. I’m going to be soliciting feedback from students on how best to do this, but I will be making changes to cut down on the reading and to reduce the white-male-ness of the course-canonized theorists. My gut tells me I will chop our Craig Martin reading, as I mentioned, to free up a week, and to switch out some theorists. Right now, I’m thinking I could reasonably nix Freud and Weber (and maybe Althusser), changing them up with Mary Douglas, Judith Butler, and Talal Asad (we already talk about Asad quite a bit). I’m certainly open to suggestions on theorists. The best canons are flexible canons.

Also, I’m wondering if there’s some way to reduce Pals. Ultimately, even though it is fun to teach against the text, I do long for a single “History of the Study of Religion” textbook that does what I want it to do—and with shorter chapters. I imagine a mix between Pals and Deal and Beal, with a sprinkling of Martin’s “Intro” and Nongbri. I can juggle the current combination in teachable ways, but it feels like too much.

That said, I have watched my students progress through the class in astounding ways. It was challenging for them, I know, but I’m confident they can handle pretty much anything another humanities or social science course might throw at them after this.

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