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 Ian Alexander Cuthbertson
For the last four years I have taught RELS 161: Contemporary Problems in Religion and Culture at Queen’s University. RELS 161 is a large full-year course that usually attracts between 150 and 180 students. I have already written about this course elsewhere but have never described one of the more successful and rewarding components of the course: creative projects.
I first introduced a creative project option, somewhat reluctantly, in 2014. Previously, the final project for the course asked students to observe a ritual and then analyze the ritual using theories and approaches discussed in class. I had considered replacing this project with one that I’ve subsequently used (with mixed results) in a course on religious fundamentalisms that I teach at Dawson College in Montréal. The replacement project I considered asks students to create a single image, infographic, or one minute video that explores and explains a key term or concept from the course to a general audience. But the more I thought about this new project the more worried I became: Could I really require first year students to make images or videos? How would I evaluate these?
I vacillated all summer, writing and re-writing the syllabus as I drew ever closer to September and the start of term. I liked the idea of mobilizing students’ artistic talents but was uncomfortable requiring and potentially evaluating artistic skills that I did not teach in class. I take seriously the dictum that evaluations should only evaluate actual student learning: unless I teach students grammar, grammar should not be something I evaluate in student assignments. A day or two before my syllabus was due I finally decided on a compromise: I kept the ritual analysis project and included an optional creative project.
Basically, the creative project invites students (either individually, or in groups) to demonstrate their mastery of one or more of the course learning objectives however they want to. The format is open. Although I suggest possible project formats (essays, images, videos, short stories, interpretive dance…), students are free to suggest their own. Similarly, there are no set requirements for length or duration. The benefit of this open format is that it allows students complete freedom to imagine new ways of demonstrating learning that match their interests and abilities. The risk is that students will attempt to complete projects that are not feasible, that do not actually demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives, or that I am ill-equipped to evaluate. How, for instance, would I evaluate an interpretive dance? The guidelines for the creative project, which have remained unchanged since I first included it in the course, are structured to address and manage these risks. The creative project option has three components:
Students who decide to pursue the creative project option are asked to submit a formal proposal in February in which they describe their project’s format and size or duration; provide a detailed timeline to show the project can be completed by the April deadline; imagine potential complications that might arise along with solutions to these; explain exactly how their proposed project will demonstrate mastery of course learning objectives; and finally propose how I will evaluate whether or not the project actually demonstrates this. While the proposal is an essential component of the larger project, its real purpose is to structure the face-to-face meeting I have with students to discuss their proposals. In this meeting, the student(s) and I talk about the format and scope of the project and work together to determine whether the proposed project actually fits their interests and goals, whether it is feasible, and whether I will be able to properly evaluate their mastery of course learning objectives. Often, this meeting necessitates partial or complete revisions of the proposed projects as the student(s) and I work together to imagine a project that fits their interests while providing me with material I can effectively evaluate.
The project itself is submitted in April. Given the freedom this option allows, student projects are unique expressions of student engagement with course materials and learning objectives. In the last four years I have received videos, slam poetry presentations, short stories, one act plays, formal research papers, paintings, drawings, poetry, sculptures, musical compositions, and yes… an interpretive dance.
Typically, students submit additional materials that explain their projects and link their work directly to course learning objectives. Sometimes these explanations are brief. But students sometimes surprise me with the attention they pay to these. Grace Hart, for instance, who recorded herself and other dancers interpreting liminality, submitted a recording of the dance piece she choreographed along with a detailed breakdown that tied each movement back to liminality. This breakdown allowed me to evaluate Grace’s understanding and interpretation of liminality rather than the choreography itself. Grace also submitted a hand-written creative journal in which she recorded her artistic choices concerning music, choreography, lighting, and costume along with her rationale for these choices and for the revisions she eventually made.
One week after the projects are submitted, I ask students to submit a short reflection in which they consider whether or not their submitted project met their expectations. Sometimes, when the projects are successful, reflections are cursory. When projects do not turn out as originally planned, reflections provide students with an opportunity to explain how the material they submitted still demonstrates their engagement with and mastery of course learning objectives and allows them to revisit evaluation criteria to ensure I am still able to evaluate the project they actually submit to me.
The creative projects I have received have nearly always been brilliant expressions of student learning. Sometimes, these projects are later presented outside of the classroom. Grace Hart, for instance, submitted her choreography to a peer reviewed blog hosted by the University of Toronto and Kaitlyn Hollander submitted her drawings to a larger exhibition of creative expressions of teaching and learning at Queen’s University. Receiving these projects has been a highlight in my career as an educator. I am routinely amazed by the talent and deep understanding these projects exhibit. Although I was hesitant, at first, to include this option in my syllabus, it has proven to be the most effective and rewarding evaluation situation I have ever used in the classroom. Typically, somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of students choose to submit creative projects. But I suspect that even if the entire class chose the creative project option, I would be eager to meet individually with all 180 students to determine how they might best mobilize their talents and interests to creatively demonstrate their grasp of the key terms, core concepts, and central ideas we explore together in RELS 161. Below are three examples of creative projects I’ve received along with comments from the students who submitted these.
Defining Religion by Kaitlyn Hollander
Kaitlyn’s project consists of three large images, each of which depicts two contrasting definitions of religion. In the image above, Kaitlyn contrasts Freud’s view that religion is the product of psychological needs with the sui generis view that religion involves some special contact with ‘the sacred.’ Her piece is interactive: each separate image is only visible when viewers put on coloured lenses.
I asked Kaitlyn to reflect on her experience completing the creative project in RELS 161:
“Making a creative project for my religion class was exciting, though at times challenging. To start, I thought about what had the most impact on me during the course; how religion cannot be monolithically defined. To my first-year brain, the idea was revolutionary because I learned more broadly that definitions are fluid rather fixed concepts. I spent a great deal of time researching and understanding each scholar’s definition to make sure I could make a piece where both the viewer and myself could clearly understand these definitions. It was wonderful having the opportunity to expand my range of conceptual topics in my fine art work as well as create a piece to display outside the walls of the studio.
Visual Notes for RELS 161 by Rhiannon Allen-Roberts
Rhiannon’s project consists of a very large banner on which she drew interpretations of multiple course topics. The project is a visual map of the entire course. Rhiannon also submitted a detailed explanation of her project that connected the concepts she explored to one another. Below are a few photos of specific segments of the larger whole.
I asked Rhiannon to reflect on her experience as well:
“My experience with the creative project was probably the best academic experience I had in my first year. It really allowed me to engage with the material and that made it personal to me, ensuring that I didn’t just memorize the material but actually learned it. I still find myself referencing topics and readings from that class. It really helped me to understand and engage with the learning material. I’m still really proud of the project and believe it was the most rewarding academic achievement I had in my first year.”
Becoming by Grace Hart
I described Grace’s project above. The video she submitted can be viewed here. I also asked Grace to reflect on her experiences:
I loved doing the creative project. It helped me to engage with the material more that I would have in written format. And I wanted to. To this day, it has been the project that I have been the most passionate and involved in throughout my four years at university. And doing it in first year made all the difference. I thought of university to be this scary, academic institution, but in doing the creative project I was able to put myself into my education and really run with – and looking back now that’s what I would consider what university is supposed to be at every moment but unfortunately under all the readings and essays it doesn’t always get to be.
It was such an effective way to engage with the material. I could still tell you what Liminality Theory means, but still have trouble explaining the neoliberalism, realism and constructivism – and I’m a politics major! It gave me a way to contextualize – and through dance, visualize – the theory in the broader scope of the course. I still struggle to read academic articles and I get nervous speaking up in my fourth-year seminars and but had I been given more opportunities to do creative projects that allowed me to engage with course material in a way that appealed to the way I learn, I think I would have retained much more information from my courses and felt more confident in my understanding of course materials.
I was so proud handing in this project. I worked so hard on it and dedicated so much time and energy to speaking with my professor, doing the research and putting the project together that I felt like I really accomplished something – more than just the A grade that I got. It really motivated me to want to engage with course material in this course and others, and to really take every learning opportunity – academic and otherwise – that university had to offer. I will always remember this course and Professor Cuthbertson for giving me the opportunity to do my creative project, but even more so the drive, commitment and hard work that I put in to this project and how rewarding, both academically and personally, it was to complete.
Ian Alexander Cuthbertson is a Flora Jane Postdoctoral Fellow and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Queen’s University. He is also an instructor in the Humanities department at Dawson College in Montréal.