Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ten Observations about Teaching and Academia

By Tommy Carrico
Florida State University

Sometimes, an instructor is afforded a great amount of leeway when designing a course – reading schedules, assignments, course descriptions, and policies are all left up to her.  Other times, the syllabus comes pre-prepared with all of these policies, procedures, and reading lists: the instructor’s task is to teach a course that someone else has designed.  In the former situation, the instructor is able to structure the readings, assignments, and flow of the course according to her research interests, style of argumentation, and the learning goals of the course.  In the latter, while it may seem that the instructor is not afforded these opportunities, I have found that teaching a pre-prepared syllabus provides a unique opportunity to examine academic discourse more generally.  Rather than viewing this type of teaching assignment as unduly restrictive, I would recommend using the construction of a body of knowledge as a theoretical grounding point to tie various elements of the course together.  This is, in many ways, an approach that scholars are (or should be) quite familiar with:

      1. The instructor/scholar is presented with a unified body of material;

      2. This unified body of material may have been divided into sub-sections based on any number of categorizations (thematic, chronological, etc.), necessitating that the instructor

      3. Identify some kind of unifying principle, thesis, or logic to this body of material and its subdivisions,

      4. Assess the strengths and weaknesses of this body’s unity,

      5. Draw attention to the processes by which this material and its subdivisions are presented as related and unified,

      6. Make an argument based on this body of material, introducing “outside” material as necessary, in order to

      7. Challenge the presuppositions of the material itself as well as its unification, in order to

      8. Come to a clearer conception of the production of bodies of knowledge as well as their internal strains/contradictions, in order to

      9. Render elements of these bodies (in fact, the bodies themselves) contingent and, therefore, challengeable, in order to

      10. Begin the project of re-structuring, expanding, or pruning particular commonplace categories or bodies of material presented as unified.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Asking the Right Questions

By Adam T. Miller

I’ve been teaching an accelerated online course in religious studies for a little over a year now (thanks, Doug!), and have had some time to get certain parts of my course–the discussion forums in particular–how I want them. But I’m always looking to improve, so I want to do a bit of crowdsourcing here. After providing my current discussion forum prompts, I will humbly request feedback from my comrades in the business of teaching courses in religious studies–ideally those familiar with (to one degree or another) the works in question. I am looking for better ways to frame the questions so as to elicit better responses–for if there’s anything I’ve learned from teaching, it’s that it’s all about asking the right questions.

So, here goes nothing…Hopefully this turns out to be a good idea.

Week 1: Approaching Religion Academically

Having read “Studying Religion: Laying the Groundwork” by Craig Martin, I want you to explain in mostly your own words the following: (1) Functionalism, (2) The hermeneutics of suspicion, (3) Methodological atheism, (4) The difference between methodological atheism and atheism, and (5) Martin’s reasons for promoting methodological atheism in the academic study of religion.

Week 2: Social Constructionism

Having read Craig Martin’s “How Society Works: Classification,” I want you (1) to explain social constructionism in mostly your own words (Hint: it’s a theory about the relationship between language and the social world; pay close attention to his discussion of classification/categorization), and (2) to explain why Martin treats religion as a social construct.

Week 3: Socialization, Naturalization, and Religion

Having read “How Society Works: Structure” by Craig Martin, I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the process of socialization, (2) the meaning of the word naturalization, and (3) the role religion plays in the naturalization of socially constructed realities (for example: social roles, norms of behavior, social orders/hierarchies).

Week 4: Habitus

Having read “How Society Works: Habitus” by Craig Martin, I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concept of habitus, and (2) the relationship between habitus and religion.

(Think about these questions in formulating your response: What is the root word of habitus? How does habitus relate to socialization and naturalization? How does habitus function—that is, what does it do? How do we acquire habitus? What role does socioeconomic status play in the acquisition of habitus? Does religion provide its own unique habitus? Is religion just one ingredient in a habitus, broadly conceived?)

Week 5: Legitimation

Having read Craig Martin’s “How Religion Works: Legitimation,” I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concept of legitimation and (2) the relationship between legitimation and religion.

(In formulating your response, it will be helpful to think about and use Martin’s discussion of cultural tools and toolboxes.)

Week 6: Authority and Projection

Having read Craig Martin’s “How Religion Works: Authority,” I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concepts of authority and projection, and (2) the relationship between the two concepts and religion. (Hint: It will be helpful to explain the types of authority, as well as the circle diagram.)

Week 7: Authenticity

Having read Craig Martin’s “How Religion Works: Authenticity,” I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concept of authenticity as it relates to religion, and (2) how Martin thinks scholars of religion should interpret authenticity claims (Two hints: (a) He does not argue that scholars should take all authenticity claims as true, and (b) His position has to do with the construction, maintenance, and modification of social groups.)

Week 8: Redescription and Social Formation (see note below)

Having read Russell McCutcheon’s “Redescribing ‘Religion’ as Social Formation: Toward a Social Theory of Religion,” I want you to explain in mostly your own words (1) the concept of redescription, (2) the concept of social formation, and (3) how religion can be redescribed as a social formation.

As you see, my students read Martin’s Critical Introduction almost in its entirety, and I have them finish up with the second chapter of McCutcheon’s Critics Not Caretakers. This is my first time using the McCutcheon piece, so who knows whether they’ll be able to dig into it. But I think after reading Martin for several weeks, they will hopefully find the piece accessible.

I am open to any comments, suggestions, criticism, or corrections. All I ask is that you keep in mind that this is an online course, and that it is only eight weeks long. My sincere thanks in advance to anyone who takes the time to read and share some thoughts.

A quick note as of 11 October:

This post initially appeared on 30 September, during the seventh week of my eight-week course. My term has since come to end, so I wanted to share a few words about how my students did with the McCutcheon reading/forum.

To put it very briefly, I’d say over half of my students had a very difficult time with it. Many of them found it to be way over their heads (a reaction I anticipated), but also had a hard time uncovering what McCutcheon meant by redescription and social formation (something I did not anticipate, at least not to this degree). That said, there were a handful of students who did pretty well, and an even smaller handful whose posts were truly impressive. Those who did well on this forum, however, were those who had done very well on all previous forums.

In the interest of some kind of fairness (and to alleviate my mild sense of guilt for making them my guinea pigs), I decided to give full credit to everyone who took a legitimate stab at responding to the prompt (making sure to privately recognize the excellent responses, of course).

I’m pretty sure I have to go back to the drawing board for my last week of class. At the moment, I plan to do what I’ve written about doing elsewhere (a post, I should note, written just before the beginning of the term in question here), and have them formulate a critique of Kessler’s Elephant Principle. But, with all that said, I’m still open to any suggestions regarding the Week 8 prompt given above.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

“To suffer for doing what is right”: The Social Functions of Martyrological Language

By Tara Baldrick-Morrone

*This blog originally appeared on the History of Christianity Blog.

When I teach sections on Christianity in my Introduction to World Religions course, I spend a good amount of time on getting my students to think about martyrdom. I do this not only for my own research interests, but because martyrological language plays a large role in the cultural history of Christianity. Oftentimes, the students get caught up in the blood-and-guts portion of the stories; however, my goal in having them look at such stories is to get them to think about how language works. More specifically, though, I want them to see how language serves particular functions, such as how labels are used by groups in order to legitimate their position, for example, or how those used by so-called outsiders (scholars, other groups, etc.) might serve to determine whether the group is (or is not) a “true” example of a particular tradition.

This semester, I created a writing assignment that would get at this very issue: students had to analyze texts that are written in favor of as well as against a specific group. One of the groups that they could choose to write about is the Army of God, an anti-abortion activist group that advocates the killing of doctors in order to prevent them from performing abortions. The pro-Army of God text I selected is a letter from Paul Hill, a loosely affiliated member who was executed in Florida for the 1994 murders of Dr. John Britton and his bodyguard, James Barrett. In the letter, Hill does not explicitly use certain labels to characterize the Army of God (in fact, he does not even mention the group); instead, he alludes to ideas like martyrdom with statements indicating that “[i]t is a great privilege to suffer for doing what is right.” Hill is not the only anti-abortion activist to draw on this notion of martyrdom; in fact, the allusion to martyrdom is prevalent in the anti-abortion movements of the 1980s and 1990s. I would argue that these allusions are best seen in the rhetoric and literature coming from Randall Terry and his group known as Operation Rescue.

Operation Rescue emerged in 1986 in a stated attempt to get “the church” involved in the anti-abortion movement. Doing so, according to Randall Terry, would make Christians realize their sin of bloodguiltiness, which had been committed through their lack of response to the issue of “abortion-on-demand.” Addressing the guilt Christians had because of their indifference was of the utmost importance, for if Operation Rescue were to accomplish its goal of abolishing abortion, Christians would have to be willing to redeem themselves. In a 1989 recruitment video, Terry stresses this point when speaking to protesters: “We are not going down there as the heroes. We are going down there in a spirit of repentance. We are guilty; the blood is on our hands. We’re fifteen years late … We are more guilty than the police when they take us away because the police are not called to be the salt of the earth. We are.” In Terry’s mind, Christians had to come together on this issue, as “only those with warriors’ hearts c[ould] turn the nation around.” These warriors, according to Terry, would be “disciplined, willing to sacrifice, and ready to die.”

The choice of thinking of themselves as warriors who are ready and willing to die, i.e., the use of martyrological language, serves to legitimate Operation Rescue (as well as the Army of God and Paul Hill) in terms of their identities. This martyrological language functions to position them in a much larger formation of civil disobedience and Christian martyrdom. This is done explicitly by Terry in Operation Rescue’s 1988 “handbook” when he draws on the martyrdom of Polycarp, the second-century bishop from Smyrna who was killed for his refusal to renounce Christ and swear to the Roman emperor. More importantly, not only does he reach back to this story from antiquity, but the source he cites from is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which, by recounting numerous martyrdoms, constructs a trajectory of Christian martyrdom that spans from the early church period to Protestant martyrs in the sixteenth century.

Elizabeth Castelli’s work on martyrdom and memory in antiquity is useful for thinking about Operation Rescue because, as she argues, “the memory work done by early Christians on the historical experience of persecution and martyrdom was a form of culture making.” Christian identity became “indelibly marked by the collective memory of the religious suffering of others.” In this same vein, then, groups like Operation Rescue use this social memory of early martyrdom to their advantage by arguing that one’s willingness to die lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian in the world. This language also “implies a broader narrative that invokes notions of justice and the right ordering of the cosmos.” Castelli’s point here regarding the “right ordering” of things situates martyrdom in antiquity as a series of conflicts over order between the subjugated (Christians) and the powerful (Roman authorities). Thinking about the function of martyrological language as a way for a group to contest the current order of the world–as fellow CH blogger Jenny Collins-Elliott did earlier this week–is appropriate for thinking about Operation Rescue, as their acts of “martyrdom” sought to overturn the current state that the world was in, namely, the legalization of abortion. Although modern Christian groups are not the minorities they once were, the use of martyrological language attempts to create ties to the past so that the present can be portrayed as being part of a continuous historical narrative.