Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom, Part 1


This is part of 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 are reflections from two of the participants.

by Ian Cuthbertson

PhD Candidate, Queen’s University

I organize my full-year introductory course as an introduction to the academic study of religion. Enrollment is typically between 150 and 175 and most of the students are first-year students who have never taken a religious studies course.

I have three main goals for the course.

  1. In April, I want students to understand that religion is not a straightforward ‘object’ of study and that the usual ease with which we determine what is, or isn’t, religion obscures the ways this seemingly obvious designation varies according to the contexts (temporal, geographical, cultural, etc.) and motives of the individuals who employ that designation;
  1. I also want students to understand that theory is everywhere – not only in classrooms or textbooks, and;
  1. I want students to understand that theory isn’t something that is applied to an object, but that theory actually determines the boundaries of the ‘object’ under scrutiny. Additional details concerning the course and my plan for achieving these goals can be found here.

I would like to address two themes that came up at the workshop this November: 1. The value of using everyday seemingly mundane reality as data in introductory courses and, 2. The importance of cultivating what might be described as an attitudinal or affective change in students.

  1. Making the Usual Unusual

Last week I solicited student feedback for the first half of my course and one recurring complaint concerned how little time we spent ‘actually learning about religion.’ The problem, I think, is that while I want to discuss problems surrounding the category ‘religion,’ students expect to learn interesting facts about various religions. I think this is a problem for three reasons. First, it reinforces the notion that there are religions in the world that, while different, all share some common irreducible core that sets them apart from other aspects of human culture (economics, politics, etc.). Second, I think it reinforces the notion that the study of religion involves learning what religious people (Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc.) believe or do – as if these identities are straightforward, static, and universal. Third, I think it obscures the fact that the study of religion should involve not only exploring their (exotic, unusual) beliefs practices, texts, etc., but also our (seemingly unproblematic) categories and acts of classification.

Several strategies for shifting the focus away from the contents of various religions and toward problems of classification came up in the workshop but I want to focus on one strategy I hope to implement next term. In the second term we approach ‘religion’ from the standpoint of practice rather than of belief. One assignment I like requires students to visit and report on a religious ritual. Last year I expanded the assignment to include any kind of ritual (a football game, say) but left it at that. This year, in light of the workshop, I want to modify the assignment so that students observing (apparently) religious rituals are paired with students observing (apparently) non-religious rituals. While the first half of the assignment will remain the same, I will add a new component in which students read and discuss their partner’s work and then report on this exchange. In this way the data for the assignment is no longer the (seemingly unusual) religious ritual or the (seemingly ordinary) non-religious ritual but rather the process of studying ritual as religion or studying ritual as non-religion. I’m still thinking about how best to make this interesting for students, but I think it might help dispel the idea that religion is radically different from other domains of human activity and encourage students to become curious about their own distinctions between what is and isn’t religion.

  1. Cultivating Confidence

I don’t remember what I learned in my first year classes and I don’t expect that my students will remember much of what they learn in my class either. The one thing I do remember from my very first religion class at Mount Allison University is being asked the question “what is religion?” I don’t know how I responded, but I can clearly recall the dawning realization that this was actually a difficult question that would require some serious thought. I became curious, in other words, and remain curious today.

Cultivating this sort of curiosity is one of my priorities as an instructor and this desire to affect change in the ways students think was a central theme of the workshop. While we disagreed as to how best to describe this change (affective? attitudinal?), we seemed to agree that what really mattered was the development of critical faculties and curiosity rather than the acquisition of particular bits of information or the mastery of particular theoretical approaches.

One thing I would like to add to this discussion is the importance of cultivating confidence in first-year students. Theory is complicated and theorists’ writing can be obscure and intimidating. I want my students to feel as though they are able to engage with theory, even if they have not yet developed anything close to a complete understanding. There is a fine line, I think, between cultivating confidence and settling for sloppy or incomplete arguments – and I don’t always know where to draw that line. But I think that confidence is necessary for the development of the kind of active inquisitiveness or curiosity we value.

by Martha Smith Roberts

PhD Candidate, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara

This workshop created a space for discussion of theory, method, and course goals in relation to larger critical understandings of religion and religious studies. My group, which included Matthew King, Rebekka King, and Ken Estey discussed the question of when/where to use theory in an introductory course. And, like the other groups (discussing the who and what) our conclusion was that there is no single correct answer. However, what became clear in our discussion was that context is key. Whether organizing a course thematically or chronologically, theoretical structures, questions, and ideas must be contextualized and connected to content throughout the course. Matthew King discussed an approach that begins by introducing traditional categories/theories of religion then offers critiques of those definitions (including postcolonialism, feminism, and secularism). Rebekka King discussed a thematic approach based on traditional concepts of religion (like creed, code, cultus, community) that provides students with critical theory and case studies to problematize each concept. In both of these examples, they emphasized the need for critiques and content that give students a way to understand and “speak back” to dominant theories.

The larger group discussion on who to include and what data is useful for this project was also a conversation on context. The questions that I found were perhaps left unanswered were those of alternative knowledges that could be a useful tool for both contextualizing and critiquing dominant theories of religion. Introduction to Religion courses are often theory-centered, and the traditional theorists and theories (like those in Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion) can be paired with their critics so that, for example, students read both Geertz and Asad (other suggested critical texts and authors were Craig Martin, Russell McCutcheon, and J.Z. Smith). However, our discussion left me wondering about theories that challenge the narratives of religion from other angles that students might find both relevant and empowering.

In an Introduction to American Religions course, for example, the frames shift; theory is not my content in the same way it is in a method and theory course. And the narrative we are challenging is one that students can perhaps more clearly see that they have a stake in. We discuss the construction of dominant narratives of American religion: consensus, conflict, and combinative histories that reveal power dynamics of which religions “count” in particular historical contexts. We look at the ways in which categories like diversity, pluralism, and tolerance are used to create American religion as inclusive, even as many are excluded. Alternative narratives reveal the cracks and fissures of those dominant constructions. Reading theory from women and people of color like Charles Long, Ron Takaki, Khyati Joshi, Jane Iwamura, bell hooks, and Robert Allen Warrior, among others, is a powerful way to disrupt white, Protestant, hetero-patriarchal theories of religion.

The workshop made me consider how to incorporate these ideas as I write a syllabus for a method and theory class. Disrupting, decentering, and complicating the categories and definitions of religion can happen in a variety of ways. For me, giving students different models for “speaking back” not only introduces the possibilities of new forms and languages of critique, but also encourages students to see how it is that our socially constructed identities inform our critiques in very real ways.

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