Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom


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. For previous posts, see here and here.

Matthew King: I don’t think a method and theory 101 course should claim to help students think more deeply about religion. By design, as we all know, such a course de-naturalizes the category of religion and turns instead to working with its histories, its locations, and power-laden functions. Our 101 course about method and theory in religious studies actually deals with histories of colonial encounter, imperialism, and the like. Those same moments of encounter, those same moments that birthed new lexicons of human difference amongst Western Europeans are the very moments that birthed our own academic inquiries into the topic (like history and anthropology). So, 101 classrooms, 101 students and the university itself are implicated already in the power-laden histories of thinking (or ‘knowing’) human difference; of which ‘religion’ is just one organizing concept alongside ‘culture’. What remains is a category unbound and a group of students already implicated.

I think that the method and theory 101 course should actually proceed from this point. Our students must be encouraged to consider the implications of typologies of difference and be encouraged to speak back …. It’s useful to go through the process using religion as an example. To that end, I prefer students read a group of founding figures (usually Taylor & Frazer, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, James, Marx & Engels, Mauss) and then more contemporary critics (the feminist critique, the ecological critique, the post-colonial critique, etc.). Student reading and lectures thus focus on so many ‘conversations’ (open to student rejoinders) rather than a ‘canon’ (closed to such rejoinders).

For those reasons, for the sake of garnering some excitement (and not stepping back from some strategic hyperbole) I usually suggest at the start of my 101 courses that the study of religion is not a discipline but a critical field of inquiry. Thinking about how we think about religion (and human difference more broadly) is political, as others on this list know well. I prefer my lower division students to leave my courses seeing theory as the way they organize their own thinking about such difference. To that end, our workshop conversations on scaffolding, and on limiting the field of theory we introduce in the interest of depth, has been immensely helpful.

One question remains for me after our dialogue (one which could bring us all into conversation once again?): How to keep any continuity between method and theory 101 and the other sorts of introductory courses we teach. How do we avoid leaving critical reflections on method and theory in a silo? In other words, how can we even evoke those same driving questions when we turn next semester (with some of the same students) to an Introduction to Buddhism, and struggle to do anything other than reify one other blueprint of religious difference?

Lauren Horn Griffin: In addition to being more thoughtful about the choices I make in critiquing various theories, one idea that emerged for me during our workshop concerns course (and even department) structure. Group One discussed a few textbooks, pointing out the benefits and drawbacks of each. The workshop-wide discussion continued to critique the theorists themselves as well as the presentations of those theorists in the textbooks. Of course, in a class like this whose entire driving question is “what is religion?” there is going to be a breakdown between primary and secondary sources, as each text becomes our “data.” But I began to wonder, is there a constructive element here, or is our work in a course like this necessarily and solely deconstructive?

Like many of us, I structured my theory and methods class around problematizing the definition of religion, starting with the question “what is religion?” and continuing throughout the course to help students expose these categories as artificially constructed. As we encounter and disrupt various theories, students see that any definition is socially constructed, restrictive, and possibly harmful. Also, considering explicitly the “methods” side of the course, I promoted the idea that we would use religion as an angle of vision from which to explore the types of questions asked by disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. So the course could also give students a taste of those disciplines as well as an introduction to the ways in which people have thought about and approached religion. This helps students see that certain approaches, questions, and sources make certain answers possible, thus creating their own objects of study. Since the group was pretty unanimous in deciding that it doesn’t matter what theorist or method we include as long as we are constantly disrupting them and exposing the ways in which they construct the category, perhaps the main takeaway here is to be more aware about which scholars we are choosing as “disrupters” and how we/they choose to disrupt. I realized in new ways after our discussion that our choices are powerful, and I need to be more purposeful with those choices and more explicit in my defense of those choices.

But as I thought about the discussions during our workshop, I also kept returning to the question of course structure. Do we continue to cover various theories and methods and then expose the problems created by them, or should we structure our classes completely differently? Are we in danger of reinforcing the ideas we are trying to disrupt by keeping this structure and using their vocabulary? Should a “theory and methods” course even be offered as a stand-alone course, since all courses necessarily involve both theory and content? Furthermore, should we be restructuring our course offerings and departments so that our job is not always to disrupt and critique the structure of our own courses and departments, or is this as it should be?

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