What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Shannon Trosper Schorey

In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here.

by Shannon Trosper Schorey

As a researcher I am positioned at the intersection of religion, science, and media studies – a balancing act constructed through my interest in how information technologies and religion are wrapped up in fascinating and unexpected ways. My courses generally extend upon this work by asking the students to think together about how both words (language, categories) and things (technologies, materials) construct, maintain, and restructure social worlds.

My freshman-level course RELI 135: Technology, the Self, and Ethical Problems is designed to get students to think about this research question primarily by way of the field of religion and media. I have found that scholarship about religion and media is rife with particularly great examples demonstrating how differently scholars have perceived of the separation between subjects and objects, language and phenomena, agency and determinism, structures and escape. Because of the long-standing cultural tradition of responding to technological advance via utopian or dystopian rhetoric, religion and media also allows me to work with students in real time to identify how tropes in Western religious history and thought have stretched out over what might be otherwise read as secular realms. This allows us to follow Asad’s challenge to think more critically about how and when cultures divide the “religious” from the “secular,” and what is at stake in each division, for the rest of the semester.

This is the course description:

This course serves as an introduction to the academic study of religion as well as the methodological and theoretical approaches of Cultural Studies and Science and Technology Studies (STS).

The first half of the course will ask: What is religion? What is technology? We will focus on different ways to conceptualize religion, agency, technological determinism, politics, materiality, and the secular. What is at stake in each of these analytics? Who gets to decide?

The last half of the course will survey case studies that work to 1) orient students to the contemporary state of the field of media and religion, and 2) provide an opportunity to “test out” the major theories covered in the first half of the semester. Each week we will come to the question of ethics via the negotiation of enlightenment values and their critiques.

The narrative of the course was designed to lead students through major issues in the study of religion, media, and science by way of thinking about radical entanglement and social constructionism. This allows me to bypass the superficial treatment of religion and science as “non-overlapping magisteria” and gives the students a crash course in both cultural studies/critical theory and science and technology studies, with the goal of rooting the discourses, practices, and (contested) categories of religion and science into their cultural and historical locations.

While I have written elsewhere about some of my choices for assigned reading, what really makes the course take root is pairing the theoretical and philosophical texts with case studies drawn from movies, songs, popular culture, the news, and campus life. Although I incorporate case studies in a variety of different ways, a favorite method is the very excellent “In the News” assignment I’ve adapted from Randall Styers’ RELI 138: Religious Freedom course. Briefly, this assignment asks students to identify a theme, question, or problematic posed by the course in a contemporary news piece and then asks the student to use the resources of the course to respond accordingly. Because my course is about 160+ students smaller (I average 30 students for RELI 135, whereas RELI 138 is a large lecture hall course), I’ve modified the assignment from a research paper into a series of 5-minute case study presentations. For the case studies I ask that students look at any case study of their choosing (from the news or not) and evaluate it according to the perspective of two different authors we have already covered in the class. I ask the students to identify three distinct things those authors might privilege, critique, or respond to if they were presented with the case study today. Then the student is asked to craft a research question reflective of those authors – whether that is to push against, extend, or use them in some other way. The class as a whole spends a few minutes playing with possible responses to the presenter, which often gives us a chance to organically clarify and remind ourselves of difficult passages and concepts from previous lectures in the light of new material.

I have students sign up for presentations after week 5, once we have a foundation of authors beneath our feet, and from there on out the class will start with one or two students talking about how the class is directly relevant to issues in the world today. This makes the students excited to proliferate connections between the class and their own lives, re-affirms to them that what they think and what they learn matters, and functions as an ongoing review session that does far more to solidify the major concepts in their minds than hours upon hours of lecturing could ever do.

Although my class is directed at freshman level undergraduates, I firmly believe that incorporating such case study and workshop materials empowers students to play with theory and philosophy in a wonderfully rewarding way that encourages critical curiosity, rather than rote mastery.

Shannon Trosper Schorey is a doctoral candidate in the Religious Studies Department at UNC Chapel Hill. Her dissertation, “The Internet is Holy,” investigates discourses of religion and secularism in Silicon Valley.

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