Monday, December 15, 2014

Teaching Theory in the Introductory Classroom

This is another installment in 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 is a reflection from one of the participants.

By Pat McCullough

My Religion 101 course presents me with a bit of a dilemma. At UCLA, the “101” actually signals an upper division course. The course is not really a general introduction to the study of religion, highlighting foundational methods and broad themes—we don’t have one of those. Rather, the course (“History of the Study of Religion”) surveys the theorists who have influenced the academic study of religion. Since we are on the quarter system, I have only ten weeks to play around with.

So, it’s a 10-week introductory course at an upper-division level focusing on theorists without any more general introductory course leading them in. I don’t want to bring the students into our list of dead white guys cold, so I need to provide a framework . . . and one that fits in 10 weeks. J. Z. Smith’s “less is more” pedagogical challenge haunts me.

Setting the Framework. One of the key questions we address in the course is: what is religion? We start the first week with the intro and first chapter to Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion (a decent, accessible overview to the historical invention of the category) and Craig Martin’s first chapter in his Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. On the whole, the students are really drawn in by the issues of definition and categorization that these readings raise. Then we apply what we’ve learned to a comparison between Geertz’s and Lincoln’s definitions. This issue of the category of “religion,” then, permeates our analysis as we go.

I also present them with a dichotomy that gives them a narrative of controversy (to add a bit of excitement to the course): the “essentialists” vs. the “reductionists.” I present these as two “camps” that battle over “religion” language. We talk about how these two camps utilize certain terms to claim their territory or attack the other camp.

After this first-week framework, I give them the rest of Craig Martin so that they know what a contemporary, critical approach to the study of religion looks like. (This is what I wish they had before walking into my class.) Also, I know that we’ll spend the majority of the quarter reading Pals, whose approach to the study of religion differs considerably from mine. I want them to have a resource that helps them make sense of Pals’ perspective (more on this later). This takes up weeks two and three. As fun and revolutionary as Craig’s book is, I feel like it’s too much reading not directly on the topic at hand. I may work on choosing just two chapters.

Also, throughout the entire class, we have “case studies.” This year, we talked about Hobby Lobby, the Quebec charter, the intro to Carolyn Chen’s Getting Saved in America, 12 Years a Slave, the intro to Kathryn Lofton’s Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (that was so much fun), Christian Zionism, and Richard Madsen on Buddha’s Light Mountain. We do this because I think we’d all get bored out of our minds talking theory for theory’s sake all quarter.

Choosing the “Canon.” Not everyone has to set a canon in their introductory religion courses, but it seems to me that a course on the “history of the study of religion” is necessarily canonical. I need to decide who is in and who is out. My choices thus far have been fairly traditional, with just a little bit of extra flavor towards the end. I use Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion as the main text, supplemented by Deal and Beal’s Theory for Religious Studies and the glossary of scholars in Russell McCutcheon’s Studying Religion. I use Pals because the reading is the most accessible presentation. I use McCutcheon and Deal and Beal because I find Pals’ bias too much to bear at points. For Pals, Freud, Durkheim, and Marx are the enemies and Eliade is the clear hero:

Reductionist explanations, even in the less militantly antireligious form developed by Durkheim, tend to be so fundamentally opposed to the normal stance of faith that it is hard to see how believers could abide them without discomfort. . . . Behind the scenes, then, it is apparent that personal commitments have played at the very least a strong motivating role in the development of modern theories of religion. To those who, like Freud and Marx, have written from a personal stance of antipathy toward religion, aggressive reductionism seems only natural and right. To those who, like Eliade, have been moved by sympathy with the religious perspective, it can only be misguided and mistaken. (316–7, emphasis mine)

Thus, I pit Pals against McCutcheon as representatives of our “essentialist” and “reductionist” camps—highlighting how these often function as pejorative labels. So, these disagreements become pedagogically useful.

I use 6 out of 8 theorists from Pals: Freud, Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Eliade, and Geertz. I add Althusser and Foucault. We also get Bourdieu via Craig’s book. Nine theorists: all white, all dead, one gay, one wife murderer.

This brings me to the canon question: who represents the history of the study of religion? Fundamentally, it seems to me that there are two approaches to this: theories of religion (see Pals’ title) and theory for religious studies (see Deal and Beal). One is a review of theorists who have said something about “religion” and the other affects the way that we do religious studies. At times, we deal with this distinction in a single theorist: Marx, for example, said some stuff about “religion” that’s worth unpacking, but that’s certainly not where his influence ends in the academic study of religion. Foucault said some stuff about “religion” that I don’t really think matters all that much (sorry, Jeremy Carrette!), but he’s offered some analytical tools that have revolutionized the field.

My primary textbook largely sets the agenda for me: I do mostly theories of religion, which I think is reasonable. There’s a problem, though. It kills me that all the theorists are dead white guys. I have several important female scholars in the case studies (Lofton, Mahmood, Sullivan, others), but they don’t function as part of the “canon.” These women are not available to the students when they choose a theorist to write about in their final paper. (I never used the term “canon” in class, even though it is effectively a canon.)

I finish the class with a reading that would have been impossible to start with, but is a wonderful way to tie all the loose ends together and bring us back to the overall framework: chapters 1 and 6 of Arnal and McCutcheon’s The Sacred Is the Profane. Closing out the course, it reviews just about all the theorists we discussed and pushes the students to take categorical considerations even more seriously.

Changes for Next Year: Less Is More; Difference Is Better. I’m going to be soliciting feedback from students on how best to do this, but I will be making changes to cut down on the reading and to reduce the white-male-ness of the course-canonized theorists. My gut tells me I will chop our Craig Martin reading, as I mentioned, to free up a week, and to switch out some theorists. Right now, I’m thinking I could reasonably nix Freud and Weber (and maybe Althusser), changing them up with Mary Douglas, Judith Butler, and Talal Asad (we already talk about Asad quite a bit). I’m certainly open to suggestions on theorists. The best canons are flexible canons.

Also, I’m wondering if there’s some way to reduce Pals. Ultimately, even though it is fun to teach against the text, I do long for a single “History of the Study of Religion” textbook that does what I want it to do—and with shorter chapters. I imagine a mix between Pals and Deal and Beal, with a sprinkling of Martin’s “Intro” and Nongbri. I can juggle the current combination in teachable ways, but it feels like too much.

That said, I have watched my students progress through the class in astounding ways. It was challenging for them, I know, but I’m confident they can handle pretty much anything another humanities or social science course might throw at them after this.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Part I: 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.

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;

2. I also want students to understand that theory is everywhere – not only in classrooms or textbooks, and;

3. 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.

2. 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.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Notes on the film ‘Teenage’

By Adam T. Miller
University of Chicago

In "Redescribing ‘Religion and…’ Film: Teaching the Insider/Outsider Problem," Russell McCutcheon writes: "What makes a particular film a candidate for [religious studies] courses…is usually limited to whether it addresses such grand issues as suffering and evil or such supposedly enduring human values as forgiveness and love." But if our classes are about "cultivating historical, cultural analysis of complex human behaviors and institutions," not uncritically reproducing the understanding of religion our students often already have, then perhaps we ought to choose films more suited to our ends.

It is with this suggestion in mind that I bring to the table for consideration Teenage, a film ostensibly having very little to do with the study of religion. Using archival footage and diaries of youngsters living in the United States, England, and Germany between the late nineteenth century and the years immediately following the conclusion of World War II, the 2013 film documents the birth of the teenager. Watch the trailer below:

Although the film could probably be used to raise a few different sets of questions, I’d like to focus on how it might help students in introductory classes begin to think critically about the categories we employ.

Using an example seemingly inconsequential relative to the seemingly ever-serious topic of religion, the film introduces social constructionism and the genealogical method–it traces the development of the category "teenager" (thereby implying that teenagers [as we conceive them today] have not existed in all times and places), and shows how the category has connotations unique and directly related to its development.

"But," the objection goes, "haven’t there always been people whose bodies have revolved around the sun thirteen to nineteen times (or, if you fancy a longer view of adolescence and young-adulthood, twelve [or so] to twenty-five [or so] times)?" Sure there have. But people with this level of solar-systemic experience–not all of them, of course–were only recently afforded the rights, privileges, and responsibilities (or lack thereof) we today associate with being a teenager. Prior to this gradual bestowal, children became adults as soon as they were able to work. There was no in-between stage characterized by voluntary/optional work, increased (albeit still limited) self-determination, and surplus time for leisure and "self-discovery". Conceptualized in this way, we can’t sensibly talk about teenagers in contexts prior to the industrial revolution (not to mention some contemporary contexts). But if we take the word and give it a new, limited sense for the purposes of conversation and/or analysis (e.g., if we restrict our usage of the term to refer to people whose bodies have revolved around a certain number of times), such silence is no longer necessary.

Like the category "teenager," the category "religion" has a traceable history, and it carries connotations today unique and directly related to its development. As Jonathan Z. Smith notes in "Religion, Religions, Religious," the etymology of the word "religion" is complex, but it gradually came to be employed by Euro-Americans (often in colonial contexts) to describe "human thought and action, most frequently in terms of belief and norms of behavior." In other words, the word became an anthropological category. And, as Craig Martin writes in the second chapter of A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion, "[t]he categories we use are almost always directly related to our human interests." Discussing the human interests that lead to the advent of teenagers as we know them (e.g., the desire to do away with child labor) could be a useful entry point to a discussion of the same with regard to religion. And though perhaps a bit meandering, loosening up the meaning of "teenager" may help students to understand why it is important to begin with theories and definitions when studying religion.

On a related note, the way in which the film seems to disregard empirical differences among its subjects (whose situations and identifications, both self-imposed and otherwise, vary drastically in some instances) in favor of an abstracted essence is reminiscent of the way in which some religious studies scholars (not to mention most students, at least initially) think about religion. The following words from the film’s website illustrate this suppression of difference: "Whether in America, England, or Germany, whether party-crazed Flappers or hip Swing Kids, zealous Nazi Youth or frenzied Sub-Debs, it didn’t matter – this was a new idea of how people come of age. They were all ‘Teenagers.'" The fact that the swing kids defined themselves in direct opposition to the Hitler youth, for example, is inconsequential–or, so the film suggests. But is it really? Can these differences be so easily brushed aside? Regardless of where one lands with regard to this particular question, I think working through it–in conjunction with the first chapter ofA Critical Introduction–could open up avenues for discussion about how colloquial uses of words like "religion" group together dissimilar things and not everyone is in agreement about what should count as "religion"–the end goal again being to get students to see the need for up-front talk of theory and definition.

*This post originally appeared on the author's blog.