Tuesday, April 26, 2016

What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 2

Words matter.[i] When I began to understand deconstruction as a method, I felt like I no longer knew how to speak (I’m still figuring it out). In this sense, I see pedagogy as teaching one not simply how (and not what!) to think but also how to write and speak. I understand critical religion pedagogies as teaching one how to speak and write in ways that are more conscious of the social dimensions (context and implications) of what one reproduces through discursive citation (of concepts and sources). Even then, as my supervisor is fond of saying, “if it’s difficult to step out of the box, it’s even more difficult to keep from falling back into it!”
The discourse on religion coming from a critical theory of religion or a critical religious perspective as offered in the editorials, appears to (or prefers to) remain within the ‘religion’ box without questioning how it came to be or whether it really ‘is.’ The claims made in the CRR pieces under discussion cite and enact ‘religion’ in a performative sense, bringing it into being and reproducing it, manifesting constructions and constructing manifestations. Using the term ‘enacts’ perhaps applies to all scholarship, if to differing degrees: “‘enactment’ can, in general, be understood as a less conscious and willed dimension of reproducing social and political categories.”[ii]
However, as McCutcheon points out in his Theses on Professionalization, “teaching and research are complementary activities, inasmuch as teaching, somewhat like publication, constitutes the dissemination of information gained by means of prior research.” Additionally, “The performative… is always pedagogical, and the pedagogical is always political.”[iii] Scholarship by its very nature performs or enacts a pedagogical performance that doesn’t simply stop at the end of the page.
The CRR editorial asks, “Is it time to find new ways to unmask the processes through which we position our own intellectual tasks?” Absolutely (sort of). For the most part, that’s what scholars who deconstruct and historicize the category and the study of religion aim to do, whether for their own purposes or for the intellectual satisfaction of taking things apart - that would depend on the scholar and the project, and similar scrutiny may certainly be applied to their work. Deconstructing ‘religion’ only to reconstruct it over again but ‘better’ would defeat the purpose of “unmasking” the processes through which ‘religion’ comes to be constituted as an object of study and critique in the first place.
One caveat, ending on the “unmasking” metaphor: I rather doubt that there is something really real, reachable, and readable under the mask, either within scholarship or with respect to that which scholars claim to study - something to be taken prima facie or at face value. The assumption that there are forms of religion, religions, the religious, research, scholarship, and pedagogy that should be taken at face value that can be “unmasked” is perhaps one of the fallacies of constant (re)construction built upon on ambiguous conceptual categories. There will always be cracks in the foundation - unknown, unacknowledged, unrealized, perspectives and interests, waiting in the wings to (re)construct again (and again, and again).
Deconstruction can be used to take ‘religion’ apart not only to rearrange the social features that contribute to the constitution of religion, but also to question how it is that those features came to ‘be’ and to be arranged in the first place. Critical (religion) pedagogies in the study of religion destabilize the ‘givens’ of the field in order to offer new perspectives. Fostering an awareness of the perspectives and aims of a particular approach teaches students not simply to parrot one approach or another, but to evaluate each for the work that it does both on and off the page.

[i] Anecdote: As an early, avid reader who often read words before ever speaking them, words, word usage, and wordplay has always fascinated me. As a young adult, I paid a large chunk of cash to become certified as an ESL instructor. I ended up never using it, at first due to circumstance but afterwards because teaching someone how to communicate seemed like a loaded responsibility. I try to still bring that awareness into my own work and pedagogy.
[ii]Ahmed, “Interview with Judith Butler,” 2.
[iii]Denzin, Lincoln, and Smith, Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, xi.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What’s in a name, a name rearranged? Part 1

By Stacie A. Swain

Recently I wrote a response to an editorial in Critical Research on Religion (CRR).The editorial debates a ‘critical religion’ versus a ‘critical theory of religion’ approach. An earlier piece briefly mentioned in the editorial (and in my post) asks, “Can a religious approach be critical?” and the answer from the CRR editorial board, in short, is “yes.” I’d like to muse on these thoughts a little more by pointing out that we now have three word combinations to consider when we think of what a ‘critical’ approach may entail with respect to ‘religion’:

1) A critical religion approach
2) A critical theory of religion
3) A critical religious approach

What distinguishes the first from the latter two is the contention that, as Willi Braun states, “religion does not exist; all that exists for our study are people who do things that we [or they] classify as “religious.”[i] In contrast, the latter two take for granted that there is something identifiable called ‘religion’ and that one can have the quality of being ‘religious.’ Here we have two claims (similarly named, but rearranged), presuming that #3 above is subsumed within #2. The two claims in question regard:

a)      theory that is critical of what gets classified as ‘religion’ as an object of study;
b)      a critical theory of an object of study classified as ‘religion.’

The pedagogical implications of the two approaches in question can be elucidated by considering not only such wordplay, but also the aims that they claim to work towards and how they do so. The aims of CRR state that, “our goal is not to be pro-religion or anti-religion but to understand religions in both their positive and negative manifestations.”[ii] The authors of the editorial, “suggest a more social scientific construction of the category of religion… It need not have one agreed upon universal definition, since we think such a definition is impossible, but may contain multiple definitions (after all, words have more than one meaning) derived from some common characteristics of the world’s religions.”[iii]
When thinking about teaching this approach, it would entail defining the “category of religion” according to “the world’s religions” (i.e. defining religion by referring to religions).This is, to borrow a nice turn of phrase from Tomoko Masuzawa, “intricately intrareferential.”[iv] If one invokes ‘religion’ enough then it will (seem to) appear, much like the phantasm of ‘Bloody Mary’might as one stares into the bathroom mirror; then, you study what has been invoked as if ‘it’ has always been there, and even though you’re alone in the room, as if you had nothing to do with placing ‘it’ there and naming ‘it.’ From this I gather that a critical theory of religion entails a critical approach to something given to be already and always existing, origins mystified in the processes of construction.
The editorial in question particularly critiques critical religion as having a solely deconstructive approach. To reiterate a quote that appeared in my last post: “scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests… the critique needs to have a goal. It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it.”[v]A critical theory of religion then, can perhaps be described as constructive criticism – this approach claims to construct something called religion in a ‘better’ way, using criticism to build upwards upon a foundational concept called ‘religion.’ For if it is a “positive manifestation” then it is to be praised, and if it is a “negative manifestation,” then it is to be improved. This is done according to the “values” quoted above.
The above requires the admission that what has been constructed and classified (or classified and constructed) as ‘religion,’ has been constructed badly in the first place and continues to be. This is where the question of “values” and a progressive narrative comes in – one must have a pre-established notion of ‘good religion’ and ‘bad religion’ if one is to reconstruct it. But good or bad according to whom and in what context? In a pedagogy of a critical theory of religion, does one teach values to students, values beyond those of responsible and rigorous scholarship? Is there a line separating pedagogy from personal and/or institutional ideologies? If not, is there some mechanism in place to ensure full disclosure of that ideology and the potential interests it may serve, or serve to disguise?
In contrast and speaking generally, a critical religion approach is critical of the category of religion and those forms of scholarship that uncritically perpetuate narratives of the good, the bad, and the ugly ‘religion.’[vi]A deconstructive pedagogy might include examining the productive power of these (loaded) narratives in order to draw attention to construction, context, aims, and social implications. In the Twitterverse, it appears that undergraduate students in Alabama are doing just this with respect to ideology and the media. One student concludes a report on the exclusionary politics of news media: “Recognizing how a narrative is being built is an important facet of learning to deconstruct. Through deconstruction, we take nothing on face value, and contemplate why and how things are being represented.”
Thus, what are the implications of the way that CRR represents a critical theory of religion? What are some other representation of a ‘critical’ approach? For example, there’s Matt Sheedy’s recent take over at the Bulletin: “The critical scholar does not merely cast judgments based on an affective and political aversion to the group or practice in question, but attempts to make what seems strange familiar and poses questions rather than providing concrete answers or value judgments.” I would add that the ‘familiar’ be made strange, as well.

[i]This is in “Introducing Religion,” in Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith, unfortunately I only have an electronic copy of the chapter in question at the moment, and don’t know the page number in the book.
[ii]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 4.
[iv]Speaking of both religion and culture, Masuzawa, “Culture,” 82.
[v]Goldstein, King, and Boyarin, “Critical Theory of Religion vs. Critical Religion,” 6.
[vi] For a more thorough discussion of what ‘critical religion’ is or isn’t according to specific scholars, consult the sources within the editorials discussed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Response to: “Critical theory of religion vs. critical religion”

*This blog originally appeared on Stacie A. Swain's Blog

By Stacie A. Swain,

Earlier today, I read the editorial “Critical theory of religion vs. critical religion” in Critical Research on Religion, 2016, Vol. 4(1) 3–7, by Warren S. Goldstein, Rebekka King, and Jonathan Boyarin.

To give a brief background, from what I gather, since the inception of the journal there has been debate around what exactly ‘critical’ means when it comes to the study of what we’re classifying as ‘religion.’ The triple-authored editorial characterizes three scholars (Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Craig Martin) as representing the “critical religion” approach, then makes an argument for the approach that the three editorial authors represent, that of a “critical theory of religion” (and, why it is different and presumably better than the other).

After reading the editorial, I had some thoughts of my own – perhaps we can continue the rule of three, and have three graduate students weigh in? – and as my thoughts were getting rather lengthy, I decided to post them here as opposed to in a Facebook comment. I would be delighted if anyone has a response, and would like to preface my comments with the admission that they’re shamelessly self-reflexive with respect to my own situatedness and my chosen master’s research project, a working-out-loud of my own positioning and approach. And, I haven’t read the work, except perhaps briefly, of the editorial’s authors, so take my critique with a grain of salt.The particular strand of thought that I want to pull out is:

As it stands, the approach of critical religion is solely deconstructive and not constructive; it does not build anything… It must not only deconstruct but it must construct something better beyond it. It is only through the use of values and ideals that this can be done. (Pages 4 and 6)

While now you can see why I used the term “better” above, I’d like to discuss some important points with respect to (re)construction, who gets to do it, and according to whose values and ideals (or interests?). For example, I’m studying the category of religion in reference to Indigenous peoples in Canada, and deconstructing the politics attendant upon its use (by the state). Part of that deconstruction is patently pointing out that it’s not my place to construct a “better” state, but to contribute to making space for more often excluded voices to fill; not refilling that space with my own (privileged) voice, which would reproduce what I critique. As a result, I consciously draw upon Indigenous voices that outline similar interests (and sometimes sources, but I’m not sure about values) and do offer what they see as progressive constructions. I see that as possibly (but not necessarily, because I have critical doubts about my own positive influence), contributing to a discourse on social change – IF anyone wants to use my work for their own purposes, or even if it just makes someone (anyone) think twice about a statement or event.

So, while of course I’m situated/implicated, with the model that I use – that of critical religion, if that isn’t clear yet – I’m also not actively constructing a model to replace what I’ve just attempted to take apart. However, isn’t that still ‘constructive’ in a sense that is precluded by the above quote? Perhaps in a less imperialistic way, at least in this particular context? I find that a critical religion approach allows me to mitigate to some extent the fact that I am non-Indigenous and thus in the context of this literature a settler, and the social implications attendant upon accepting that as an identity claim.

In an academic context, I don’t see it as my place to decide, define, and thus impose and reproduce values and ideals either of or upon those social actors and contexts that I claim to study. This is in part because I am aware that I myself am imbricated in a social and institutional context in which certain values and ideals are often assumed, and privileged. It would therefore undermine my academic interests and yes goals, to presume to construct a new world on top of possible others. The extent to which this strategic attempt at self-effacement might apply (and work) would likely change from person to person, project to project, context to context.

As the editorial states, “[critical religion] is based on a suspicion of universal values and an attempt to socially locate them as interests. Identifying such social loci is essential.” This leads me to venture that the real issue at stake between the two positions that the editorial presents, is “social progress” according to whom, and the assumption of universal values within scholarship as well as outside of it – something “better” or “beyond.” Others prefer to describe and/or acknowledge these presumed values and ideals as another layer of interests, context-specific and socially situated, and equally open to critique.

I quote, but add italics for emphasis: “Yet, scholarship only becomes critical when it uses values to critique sets of social actors and their particular interests. It can only be counter-hegemonic when it reveals particular interests hidden behind proclaimed universal values.”
Indeed, but with the caveat that I am also suspicious of those values claimed in the first sentence.

Before concluding, I’d like to address one final and related point, and bring a third voice into the discourses represented here by the two sets of three. The editorial above can be supplemented by two posts on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion Blog, that recount a social media conversation between several of the scholars above and a few others. You can read part one, and part two. At the end, Craig Martin notes that he finds, “the voices of women in our discussion conspicuous by their absence.” And while Rebekka King is an author of the editorial above and I by no means wish to discount her voice by failing to note that, I am both adding my piece (above) and want to selectively quote another woman from outside of this debate.

While I confess that some of it is beyond me at this point in the semester (at least I can count this editorial towards my literature review, which I should be working on!), I find sections of a post on Sarah Ahmed’s blog relevant, and compelling:

The promise of the universal is what conceals the very failure of the universal to be universal. …the universal as pure or empty form, as abstraction from something or anything in particular. But remember: abstraction is an activity. To abstract is to drag away. The very effort to drag the universal away from the particular is what makes the promise of the universal a particular promise; a promise that seems empty enough to be filled by anyone is how a promise evokes someone. It is the emptiness of the promise that is the form of the universal; it is how the universal takes form around some bodies that do not have to transform themselves to enter the room kept open by the universal. 
And: no matter how convincing feminist and anti-racist critiques of universalism (of how the white man becomes the universal subject) universalism seems to come back up, right up, straight and upright, very quickly. I have also called this mechanism a “spring back mechanism.” An order is quickly e-established because the effort to transform that order becomes too exhausting. Universalism: when you push against it, you become pushy. 
Back to the same thing. 
Same old, same old.

And I think that I’ll end on that suggestive note, and add that I am very open to critique and response – I’m a newcomer in the room and I’m not exhausted yet.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Homo Religiosus?

*This post originally appeared in MARGINALIA

By Thomas J. Whitley

In 1704, Peter Kolb travelled to the Cape of Good Hope in his capacity as an astronomer and mathematician. Though he was largely regarded as failure because of his penchant for smoking and drinking, he used his time there to write an ethnography of the area’s Khoikhoi natives. The Khoikhoi had been of great interest to Europeans since the Dutch East India Company had set up a station there in 1652. Prior to Kolb’s arrival, though, the Khoikhoi were understood as an utterly primitive people who lacked any religion. Kolb almost immediately decided that this theory was “rubbish.” Just look at them, Kolb implored in his writings. Their actions were obviously religious to Kolb:
In their Customs and Institutions they cannot be said to resemble any People besides the Jews and the Old Troglodytes. They resemble the Jews in their Offerings, the Regulation of their Chief Festivals by the New and Full Moon, and in their Withdrawing at certain Times from their Wives. They agree with that People in abstaining from certain Sorts of Good; in particular, Swine’s Flesh, which hardly any of ‘em will taste. At a certain Age, they undergo a Sort of Circumcision. And Women are excluded the Secret and Management of certain Affairs, much as they are among the Jews. And in several other Customs to the Hottentots [Khoikhoi] agree with that People.*

Kolb “discovered” religion among the Khoikhoi by employing a rhetoric of similarity. Kolb already knew what counted as “religion” and needed only to find similarities between the Khoikhoi and the Jews and “Old Troglodytes.” Kolb’s thesis was a stark reversal of how the Khoikhoi had previously been viewed by Europeans and how they would later be viewed. Once the relationship between Europeans and the Khoikhoi was no longer economically beneficial to the Europeans, the Khoikhoi were suddenly again a group with no religion.

Fast forward three centuries and we are again discovering “religion” and “spirituality” among a group where it’s never before been thought to exist: animals.

This hypothesis was renewed recently after the publication of a paper in Nature that details how some chimpanzees engage in a practice whereby they throw the same stones at the same trees repeatedly. As Barbara J. King is quick to note, the paper’s authors do not call this action spiritual or religious. Rather they say that it is “superficially similar” to activities performed by humans at “sacred” trees. It did not take long for the snow ball to grow and for publications to begin asking if we had found evidence of religion among chimpanzees. This was no doubt in part due to one of the study’s authors freely suggesting as much in a post about the article.

The question seems natural enough to many people. As Jane Goodall asked of Tanzanian chimpanzees who threw rocks at a waterfall and then sat and looked at it, “why wouldn’t they also have feelings of some kind of spirituality?” What is striking in Barbara King’s well-written piece for the Atlantic is the way in which so many scientists engage in acts of comparison to either suggest or claim outright that animals are, like humans, religious.

In his interview with King, Donovan Schaefer, author of Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, said:
People will always debate what is and isn’t sacred, what counts and what doesn’t count as religious. But if we encountered a group of humans who returned to the same trees over and over and performed the same inexplicable action near them and didn’t seem to have any practical reason to do so, there would be lots of people who would interpret it through the prism of religion.

Schaefer is one such person. But for such acts of comparison to lead to the “discovery” of religion in animals, we must first harbor ideas about what counts as religion in humans and then project these onto our subjects. For Schaefer that includes repetitive actions that aren’t “practical.” For Jane Goodall feelings of awe and wonder are prerequisites for “spirituality.”

Yet, that we see “religion” or “spirituality” in animals says more about us than it does about them. King agrees:
I’m uneasy with making 1:1 comparisons between the meaning of human behaviors performed at trees in the forest and similar chimpanzee behaviors performed there. After all, even if we unbind religion from language, texts, and beliefs – as I think we should – isn’t it incredibly anthropocentric of us to expect other species to think and feel the way we do?

Yes, it is. But what King has missed here is that seeing “human behaviors performed at trees” as “religious” deserves just as much attention. In other words, seeing religion in humans should give us just as much pause as seeing religion in animals. For neither is a given and both call for analysis of the act of identification.

Peter Kolb’s focus on practice allowed him to favorably compare the Khoikhoi with Jews and thereby “discover” their “religion.” Jane Goodall’s focus on awe and wonder allowed her to see “spirituality” among chimpanzees. Donovan Schaefer’s focus on actions that are repetitive and impractical (to him) allowed him to see “religion” among certain animals. Had Kolb, Goodall, or Schaefer harbored a conception of “religion” that took faith or belief to be the essential component, as do many modern religious people, they would not have been able to see “religion” among the Khoikhoi or among chimpanzees.

If we have found religion or spirituality in animals, it is only because we have put it there. The world is not ours to discover, it is ours to create.

*Peter Kolb, The Present State of the Cape of Good Hope: Or, A Particular Account of the Several Nations of the Hottentots: Their Religion, Government, Laws, Customs, Ceremonies, and Opinions: Their Art of War, Professions, Language, Genesis, etc., trans. Mr. Medley (London: W. Innys, 1731), as quoted in Brent Nongbri, Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 115.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Foucault, On Writing (Excerpt)

Claude Bonnefoy: How do you experience the activity of writing?

Michel Foucault: When I write, I always have something in mind. At the same time, I always address something that’s outside myself, an object, a domain that can be described, grammar or seventeenth-century political economy, or the experience of madness throughout the classical period. And yet, that object, that domain, I don’t get the impression that I’m describing it at all, of placing myself in a position of receptivity to what it says, of translating with words on paper and with a certain style a certain representation I’ve created of what I’m trying to describe.

Earlier, I said that I’m trying to reveal the distance I have, that we have to these things; my writing is the discovery of that distance. I’d add that, in one sense, my head is empty when I begin to write, even though my mind is always directed toward a specific object. Obviously, that means that, for me, writing is an exhausting activity, very difficult, filled with anxiety. I’m always afraid of messing up; naturally, I mess up, I fail all the time. This means that what encourages me to write isn’t so much the discovery or certainty of a certain relationship, of a certain truth, but rather the feeling I have of a certain kind of writing, a certain mode of operation of my writing, a certain style that will bring that distance into focus.

For example, one day in Madrid, I had been fascinated by Velázquez’s Las Meninas. I’d been looking at the painting for a long time, just like that, without thinking about talking about it someday, much less of describing it—which at the time would have seemed derisive and ridiculous. And then one day, I don’t recall how, without having looked at it since, without even having looked at a reproduction, I had this urge to write about the painting from memory, to describe what was in it. As soon as I tried to describe it, a certain coloration of language, a certain rhythm, a certain form of analysis, especially, gave me the impression, the near certainty—false, perhaps—that I had found exactly the right language by which the distance between ourselves and the classical philosophy of representation and classical ideas of order and resemblance could come into focus and be evaluated. That’s how I began to write The Order of Things. For that book I used material I had gathered in the preceding years almost at random, without knowing what I would do with it, with no certainty about the possibility of ever writing an essay. In a way it was like examining a kind of inert material, an abandoned garden of some sort, an unusable expanse, which I surveyed the way I imagine the sculptor of old, the sculptor of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, might contemplate, might touch the block of marble he didn’t yet know what to do with.

Excerpt from: Michel Foucault, Speech Begins after Death, In Conversation with Claude Bonnefoy, ed. by Philippe Artières and trans. by Robert Bononno (Minnesota: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013), pp. 78-81.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Diversity is Not Enough (Harvard's Concealed Theology)

By Tenzan Eaghll

Did you catch the article that was making the rounds on Facebook last month about a new free online course on religion being offered by Harvard's Divinity School? The course seeks to improve tolerance and understanding about religion by improving religious literacy. Titled "Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures," the course includes six classes on different topics and will be followed by more specific courses on Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism.

Although the course pretends to be theoretically innovative, it is actually just a repackaging of the old "seven dimensions" model established by Ninian Smart. For starters, the website states that, "The study of religion is the study of a rich and fascinating dimension of human experience that includes but goes well beyond beliefs and ritual practices."  Just like Smart, who identified religion as a unique aspect of human experience and claimed that it has various social dimensions that can be studied cross-culturally, the course designers at Harvard have provided an empirical basis for studying non-empirical phenomena. They have preserved the confessional approach to religious education in a scientific language.

The core objectives of the course are to teach learners that (1) religions are internally diverse, (2) how they evolve and change through time, and (3) how religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience. It is important to note how they never actually interrogate the meaning of  "religion, " but merely pass the buck, so to speak, and suggest that religion is produced by a series of dimensions that are defined as religious. Here is the YouTube advertisement for the course:

Notice how they simultaneously suggest that religions do not function in isolation from their political, economic, and cultural contexts,  yet still claim that it is impossible to understand a culture without considering its religious dimensions? This classic phenomenological move attempts to define religion by mundane acts like belief and ritual practice, while simultaneously isolating something that goes well beyond them. 

Of course, by incorporating the social and material elements into their definition of religion, courses like this are certainly an improvement upon a purely theological analysis of the subject, but by failing to submit the category itself to analysis they continue to present religion as sui generis. After all, if "religion and culture" are inseparable, how are they able to refer to religion as something unique that exceeds the limits of human practice?

I would suggest that this attempt to contextualize religion while also preserving its unique qualities is a value laden approach to the subject that does not help us to the understand the complexity of the world we live in, but merely functions as a theological tool to separate religion from other aspects of culture. In the vein of Smart, what the course designers at Harvard seek to create is a "federalism of tolerance" by concealing a theological agenda in a secular guise. The idea that religion is a unique phenomenon distinct from other aspects of culture, such as music or philosophy, is a theological claim that prioritizes religious experience. Simply diversifying the forms of religion and its plurality in history does not correct the misunderstanding about religion. Diversity is not enough. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes

*This post originally appeared in Jeff Noonan: Interventions and Evocations

1. Teaching at the university level is not a practice of communicating or transferring information but awakening in students a desire to think by revealing to them the questionability of things. The desire to think is awakened in students if the teacher is able to reveal the importance of the discipline as a way of exposing to question established “solutions” to fundamental problems of human experience, thought, activity, relationship, and organization. Teaching does not instruct or transmit information, it embodies and exemplifies the commitment to thinking.

2. True teaching is thus a practice, a performance of cognitive freedom which awakens in students a sense of their own cognitive freedom. Both are rooted in the most remarkable power of the brain: not to simulate, not to sense, not to tabulate, not to infer, but to co-constitute the objective world of which it is an active part. In thinking we do not just passively register the world, we transform it by making it the object of thought, i.e, an object that can be questioned and changed.  To think is thus to cancel the alien objectivity of the world and to become a subject, an active force helping to shape the order of things.

3. All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives. This result is very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations. To love to think is identical to feel and be moved by the need to question: the given structure of knowledge in the discipline, its application to the problem-domain of human life that the discipline ranges over, the overarching structures of human social life within which the discipline or subject matter has its place, and the overall problems of life as a mortal, finite being. To love to think means to remain alive to the questionability of things in all these domains.

4. Thus, the person who loves to think is critically minded. The critically minded person is not an undisciplined skeptic, but one who can detect contradictions between principle and practice, and between principles and the values to which they purportedly lead as means. Critical thinking is not the ability to solve problems within the established parameters of social, economic, political, aesthetic, and intellectual-scientific life. Change is impossible if all that people can do is apply the given rules mindlessly. If the problem lies with the established rules (and fundamental problems in any field always concern the established rules), then confining critical thinking to “problem solving” always serves the status quo (i.e., repeats the cause of the problem as the solution).

5. Every class in which the love of thinking is cultivated must be a class in which the interaction between teacher and students lives through the collective effort to open to question a purportedly settled issue, to see how these solutions came to be, what alternatives they excluded, and what alternatives might be better (as well as what constitutes a “better” solution).  Of course, learning to love to think is always developed in relation to a specific subject-matter and definite methodologies. However, these elements of learning are always means to the real end: awakening and cultivating the love of thinking. Learning outcomes confuse the ends (thinking) with the means (content and skills) and set out to measure how well the students are mastering the content and the methods.

6. Learning outcomes are justified as proof of a new concern within the university with the quality of teaching and student learning. In reality, they are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking.  Ironically, the passive, consumeristic attitude that learning outcomes encourage in students works against students becoming motivated to learn even the skills and the information that the learning outcomes prioritize.

7. While they are often sold to faculty as means to improve teaching and better serve the interests of students, what they in fact achieve is a narrowing of the scope and aims of classroom interaction to skilling and information transfer. (See further, Furedi, Frank. (2012). “The Unhappiness Principle,” Times Literary Supplement, November 29th, 2012; Stefan Collini, Who Are the Spongers Now? London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No.2, January 21, 2016). Skills and information acquisition (that which the learning outcomes try to specify and enforce) are not, however, ends, but only means of opening up the discipline (and the world) to question. Nothing will kill student engagement faster than drilling them on information or skills. The really valuable learning happens when the dialectic of question and answer, problem, provisional solution, and then deeper problem excites students sufficiently that they start to want to follow the emergent thread of ideas wherever it leads, because they start to feel themselves actively contributing to that direction.

8. As metrics, they are either redundant (doing nothing but state the obvious, i.e., that a class on Greek philosophy will cover Greek philosophy, and a class that involves essay writing will enable students to learn how to write essays), or useless (if what they aim to measure is something like love of thinking, which is an inner disposition and not subject to quantitative measure). In their belief that only that which measurable is real, defenders of learning outcomes show themselves to be another example of a society-wide cognitive derangement that confuses the value of practices and relationships and activities with their measurable aspects (the “externalist fallacy,” John McMurtry, “What Is Good, What is Bad, The Value of All Values Across Time, Places, and Theories,” Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1, EOLSS Publishers, 2011, p. 269).

9. That which can be measured is “customer satisfaction.” Even if they are never explicitly justified in these terms, it is clear that when thought within the context of society-wide changes to public institutions and attacks on public sector workers (which include professors in Canada), learning outcomes presuppose and reinforce a consumeristic attitude towards education. They present the purpose of pursuing a course of study as the purchase of a defined set of skills and circumscribed body of information which can then be used as a marketing pitch to future employers. Learning outcomes submerge the love of thinking in bureaucratic objectification of the learner as a customer, a passive recipient of closed and pre-packaged material.

 10. Hence, there is no clear pedagogical value to learning outcomes. If there is no pedagogical value how are we to understand the current fad? As part of the attack on the professional autonomy of professors because it constitutes a barrier to the imposition of market discipline on universities. (See, for example, Jonker, Linda, and Hicks, Martin. (2014). Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario;  Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (2012). “Post-secondary Education,” Deem, Rosemary, Hilyard, Sam, Reed, Mike. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Mangerialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bruneau, William. (2000). “Shall We Perform or Shall We Be Free? The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers To Canada’s Colleges and Universities. James L. Turk, ed., Toronto: Lorimer; Massy, William F, and Zemsky, Robert. “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.” If professors are allowed to define their own terms of work (legitimated by appeal to academic freedom and professional autonomy) they escape the discipline of market forces to which other workers are subjected. This allows them to extract rents in the form of higher wages, and it also constitutes a barrier to “higher productivity” (more graduates produced per unit input of academic labour). Learning outcomes are only one aspect of this broader political-economic assault on academic labour, but the motivation behind them—whatever their institutional supporters might say—cannot be understood outside of this context.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Learning Curve: Reflections on Early Career Teaching

*This post is part of a series in which professors reflect on the practical lessons they have learned in the transition from graduate school to employment.

I was fortunate to receive many opportunities to teach as a graduate student at the University of Toronto, so that when I went on the job market, I didn’t have to write my teaching statements on the basis of what I would do but rather on what I had done. In fact, I suspect that what set me apart among many other applicants for position was my diverse teaching experiences. In brief, I’ve been teaching since 2011 at four different universities and colleges; two have been public universities in the United States, one a public university in Canada, and one a private liberal arts college in the United States. I’ve guest-lectured in classes at a variety of other institutions. My research specialization is in early Christianity, but like most professors, I’ve also taught more general courses such as Judaism, Christianity, & Islam and Introduction to Religious Studies. My observations about early career teaching for this blog post are thus drawn from a range of students, courses, administrative settings, and campus climates.

My first observation after these few years is that students really want a professor who is an expert in their field. It’s 2016; my students know how to use Wikipedia if they want to get the basics on a topic. What they want in a professor is someone who is trained to assess the information they encounter in such sources and who can help them understand where it comes from. They want, for instance, someone to help them evaluate the recent blog post about religion that they read on CNN. They want someone who can take one look at a website they have been consulting and observe, “This is run by an evangelical group which explains why they evince beliefs X, Y, and Z.” They want someone who, when asked where the New Testament comes from, will tell them immediately that the earliest list of the 27 canonical books comes from a guy called Athanasius in the year 367 C.E. They want you for your expertise. This is often a challenge to remember, because the job market will try to generalize you. Most institutions are hiring you not to teach the one highly specialized course that fits perfectly with your dissertation topic, but also to teach introductory classes in a broader core humanities curriculum. These are crucially important courses to have, of course, but students and their parents are hoping for experts and for the immediacy of expert knowledge in the classroom.

We all acknowledge that humanities professors should instill oft-lauded “critical thinking” in our students. My sense from job interviews is that people on search committees hear this platitude all the time—“I encourage critical thinking in my classes”—and they’d rather hear what you’re really going to do in order to help students acquire these skills. This is certainly one of my goals when teaching students to read ancient texts in my courses. I encourage them to ask whose perspective the text is framed from, why such a text might be written, whom it benefits, etc. But students also need the specialized historical, sociological, political, and other data to make for the strongest analysis. Let me illustrate. Consider the Book of Daniel. When I encourage my students to “think critically” about such a text, we ask above all about its presentation: what argument is the text making? Whose interests are served by such a text? What is the purpose of such a text?In theory, students can do this kind of analysis in an intellectual vacuum, and it’s probably a valuable exercise to muse about such nebulous questions. But in reality, the best teachers are going to be those who provide them with the data to make solid conclusions with their critical thinking skills. In this case, the Book of Daniel can be made sense of by realizing that it was clearly written under the rule of Greek kings who succeeded Alexander the Great and notably not during the Babylonian Exile when it claims to have been penned. As many will know, you can come to this conclusion about the Book of Daniel if you have a strong background in ancient Near Eastern history. Armed with that, students are now in a position to contribute to the production and assessment of knowledge, not just “ask questions” à la Glenn Beck or some other talking head. This ensures that “critical thinking” doesn’t just operate in an ill-defined space but rather can be focused and honed in a constructive way. Upon reflection, it is thus our expertise that makes the classroom a disciplined place.

Expertise in our areas of study makes it so that when a job advertisement is posted for someone in, for instance, Christian Origins, any random person with reasonable analytical skills is not able to get an interview. Many people already have trouble imagining Religious Studies scholars as specialists—as evidenced by some of my colleagues who have served on search committees and have been the recipients of applications by interested lay people who think they would like to take a stab at teaching a religion course. So, while “critical thinking” is a great skill for us to have and for us to impart to our students, it is not an end in and of itself. It is a skill set that we cultivate and apply to our area of expertise—which, for most of us, requires historical background, critical theory, language study, and the like.

But our expertise in content should not dominate the classroom, which brings me to my second realization about early career teaching: students are not always bringing the technical skills to our classes that we might have hoped—through no fault of their own. We thus have to pick up the slack in many of our courses, even though we are theoretically only responsible for covering a certain content area. One of the best tactics that I’ve incorporated into my courses this year are narrowly focused assignments to help develop certain technical writing skills. That is, I structure my courses to build in skills, not just content. For instance, in my Ancient Christian Gospels course, I’ve set assigned four days to do writing workshops. The students range from freshmen to seniors; some are great at writing, while some still need work. I’ve decided that I can sacrifice a few days of content to focus on such tasks as how to summarize ancient texts, how to use ancient texts for an argument, and how to compare ancient texts with respect to a wider analytical theme. These routine skills that I and others in my field take for granted are completely foreign for some students, and I think it’s important to take the time to explain how to approach such tasks in the most basic way. For those familiar with it, it’s old hat and amounts to an easy A. For those unfamiliar, it might be one of the only focused times to develop such skills in their college experience.

Arguably, the most important thing I’ve learned is that the ethos of the college or university that you’re teaching in determines what you can do in the classroom, and this is mostly out of your control. For instance, I encountered some exceptionally bright students at the University of Toronto, yet they were among ~85,000 other undergraduates who found their ways into Religious Studies courses. I’d have about 40 students in each class, and those who showed up were routinely prepared and interested. I didn’t have an attendance policy, because my students are adults who are juggling work, other courses, sometimes families—and their Religious Studies course might not be their top priority. That’s fine. But it means that I couldn’t count on having all 40 people at each class, which determined how I covered the material and engaged with students. Now at Rhodes College (a private, residential liberal arts college), the ethos is very different. My courses are capped at 18 students. I can count on almost all students attending classes regularly and being prepared (and when they’re absent, they frequently send detailed and apologetic emails explaining their absence). Group work—which I rarely did before coming to Rhodes—is always productive in the classroom. One campus climate is not necessarily better than the other. There’s something to be said for an in-depth lecture that’s chock full of information and given by a specialist at a research-intensive university, but there’s also value in smaller, face-to-face, organic exploration of the material. Some of the best advice for folks on the job market is thus to really understand the differences among various institutions to which they apply and know how to adapt teaching styles appropriately.

Finally, what I’ve also discovered is that my students are really interesting young people, especially when they want to be at college and they are truly excited to learn (as opposed to being present to get this or that credential to get a good job one day). They do cool stuff and have innovative ideas—whether they know it or not. This has encouraged me to have a more dynamic relationship with my students. Instead of having a rigid sense of all the material that I have to cover every semester, I tweak my classes based on how students—whose opinions I greatly respect—react. I ask them which topics have made the most (or the least) sense to them and what sorts of assessments they find the most useful. Granted, I don’t let them run the show, but because they are, on the whole, dedicated and insightful people, their feedback goes a long way in helping me develop my courses and be a more effective teacher.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Interview with the Author: Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power

                                                       Link to book excerpt

Interview with Donovan Schaefer

What is the main argument in this book?

There’s an implicit bias in the humanities toward seeing human beings as primarily driven by the grid of their thoughts. My suggestion is that we need to replace this with a more interactionist picture that sees thoughts as embedded in our bodies. And more specifically, we need to think of bodies as guided by networks of affect as the sources of actions, thoughts, and values. The project of the book is to bring Michel Foucault’s “analytics of power” into direct conversation with affect theory, showing how the landscape of affects is one and the same as the landscape of power. This is what I call the animality of affect—the way that we’re moved by forces that precede language.

I was at a seminar a few months ago where we started talking about the category of charisma and, through the mystical alchemy of academic conversations, got onto the subject of the charisma of babies. We were discussing why it is that people find infants so fascinating and compelling. One of the participants said “People love babies because they represent the future.” That’s what the book pushes back on. Concepts are part of the tissue of forces that produce our actions, beliefs, and desires, but they aren’t fundamental. Rather a grid of cognitively arranged conceptual propositions, the pushes and pulls of power are more animal, shaped by affects before ideas.

What motivated your work?

I was reading a lot of affect theory and trying to find threads that would tie it together. I was also reading evolutionary theory and working on new approaches to thinking about animality from within the humanities using those resources. I realized that the two projects could be knitted together around the motif of power. At the same time, I was thinking about Elizabeth Grosz’s reading of Darwin as a figure who could transform scholarship in the humanities not by simplifying it—by boiling it down to a few mathematical principles, as sociobiology tried to do—but by complexifying it. For Grosz, this is consonant with the project of thinking past the human exceptionalism that structures the classical humanities. Human exceptionalism is a holdover from a pre-Darwinian, Enlightenment understanding of the world that leads to misguided models of subjectivity. While leaving room for a thick description of human difference, one of the arguments of the book is that affect theory is a way of locating human bodies on a Darwinian continuum of animal species. It then explores the implications of this positioning for religious studies and cultural studies.

What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

Foucault and Donna Haraway are the major background figures on the pure theory side, and J.Z. Smith, Manuel Vásquez, and Aaron S. Gross on the religion side, but the book itself is mostly about telling the story of affect theory in a new way. Within affect theory there’s a divide between two (maybe more) perspectives, which draw on some of the same conceptual resources but push them in different directions. One of the branches is very heavily influenced by Deleuze and tends to have a lot of currency in media theory and poststructuralist philosophy. The other is what Sara Ahmed calls “feminist cultural studies of affect” and is more prominent in postcolonial, queer, and feminist scholarship. 

In the book I relabel them the Deleuzian and phenomenological branches. The Deleuzian branch tends to see affect as a sort of principle of non-structure that is the condition of possibility of experience, but not something you can actually “feel.” The phenomenological branch is more comfortable with the idea that affects have a “shape”—what Eugenie Brinkema would call the “forms of the affects”—and that they enter into the stream of experience. I think that they both have insights to offer the conversation, but the book leans toward the conclusion that to map power in its specificity, we need to move beyond the pure Deleuzian approach and recognize that affects shape bodies in different ways at different times and places. So this brings the book closer to theorists like Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Ann Cvetkovich, José Muñoz, Kathleen Stewart, Sharon Holland, Lauren Berlant, and Jonathan Flatley.

How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

From what I’ve heard so far, it’s being used in three main settings: in cultural studies classrooms, in theory and method in the study of religion classrooms, and in animal studies classrooms. Those lines reflect the conversations the book sets out to interact with. I think the first chapter is a good, versatile introduction to affect theory and the analytics of power, and the rest of the book develops some themes within affect theory by drawing out three analytical tools—intransigence, compulsion, and accident. At the same time, it makes an intervention in religious studies, pushing past the linguistic turn and trying to reconsider strands of the RS genealogy in the light of affect theory and the analytics of power. Finally, it adds to a conversation happening right now in animal studies that has been advanced by scholars like Kari Weil, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Jacques Derrida, and Cary Wolfe, which is to explore how an attention to animals compels us to reconsider the framework of the humanities.

Your book has a chapter on pedagogy, a sort of meta-reflection for a class you taught on film. Can you offer any additional thoughts on that chapter? How does it contribute to the book?

Sure. That chapter is about my Religion, Emotion, and Global Cinema class that I taught at Haverford College during my postdoc there, and about the reading of the film Jesus Camp that emerged out of the class discussions. In thinking pedagogy through affect theory, it follows a trail blazed by scholars like Gayatri Spivak, Gail Hamner, Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, and Megan Watkins. In the context of this book, I’m arguing that pedagogy can be understood as a circulation of affects. This is true in the classroom, where information exchange needs to be set against the backdrop of the system of affects that configures how that information resonates with bodies. Simply put, it’s the reason why we have teachers rather than just textbooks. It’s the Good Will Hunting question: Why not just get a library card? It’s because the teacher’s body, as a channel for the affects flowing around words and concepts, makes learning much, much easier for bodies. Teachers curate a field of information by organizing it affectively, training students in what’s interesting and what’s boring, how to sequence ideas for impact, how to probe their own uncertainties and confusions, and how to combine ideas to produce novelty. Because pedagogy shapes subjectivity at levels that exceed the strictly cognitive, I argue, we need to think of it as challenging the binary of public reason and private feelings.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

By using it as a jumping-off point for exploring ways to think about power differently. There’s a growing sense in the academic humanities that we need to move beyond the linguistic turn and describe power as something that always necessarily interlaces with bodies and affects rather than just words and minds. But I’d also say that it’s more than an academic exercise. Looking past the conventional wisdom that human beings are driven by grids of reason (or assuming that what gets called “reason” is always a good thing), attuning yourself to the forces that actually move us, has implications for media, journalism, activism, culture, religion, politics, or whatever else you’re doing where you need to understand humans in all their complexity.

Many thanks for sitting down with Practicum for this interview!