Monday, December 11, 2017

Lights, Camera, Action

Russell T. McCutcheon
University of Alabama

I recently posted, over at our Department blog, about a new class assignment that I tried out to end his semester: having students, in groups, make a video in which they somehow dramatize one of the chapters in the new book that Aaron Hughes and I co-edited for Equinox, Religion in 5 Minutes. I know some other people decided to use the book, since it came out just in time for the Fall semester, and so did I too, but I reserved it for the end of the course, and decided that it provided a chance for my students to be a little creative.

The rules were straightforward: (i) there could only be two speaking parts, it needed some sort of narrative arc, and it had to be filmed on campus but everyone in the group had to somehow also appear; (2) it could be no longer than 3 minutes and had to dramatize one of the brief chapters in the book (a volume comprised of scholars answering a wide array of commonsense questions that a non-specialist might have about either religion or the study of religion. And (3) everyone in the group had to play a role in writing the script, scouting a location, filming and editing the video.

Oh, and they had to have credits.

It was a large class—with about 95 students, all receiving a Core curriculum credit (what others might call Gen Ed)—and the students all come from a wide variety of majors (in other words, we only had one REL major in the class). We had about 20 groups taking a couple class days to work on them and then the last day of class was their chance to premier their work. One by one each group went up to the front of the lecture hall, logged into their gmail account or plugged a memory stick into the classroom’s multi-media system, and introduced their video.

What was interesting (apart from the number of times our campus’s stadium appeared or our football team was mentioned—the “Is sports a religion?” question was indeed a popular option), was how I could see bits and pieces of the semester’s work weaving their way throughout what they filmed, e.g., the importance of definition, different ways to go about defining something as worth talking about, the causes for human behavior being not always apparent at first, or a court case we once discussed to illustrate the contestability of all this.

The videos they made were pretty good, and this post is just a sampling (students knew that they also had to turn them in and that their productions might see the light of day); we laughed a fair bit and, watching the faces of the presenters, you could tell that many were rather proud of this thing they had created. Sure, there were some technology glitches (when aren’t there?) but it was probably illuminating for students to see what’s it like when that happens while you’re standing alone on the business end of a podium in front of 100 people. But we also learned a thing or two—such as having a chance to elaborate on a group that tackled the topic of snake handling or another asking what made the bible seem to be a special sort of book.

I’m not sure about the long term effect of the assignment—come to think of it, what content from my own undergrad degree do I recall today? But it did give them a chance to think about, and then practice, talking to someone about religion in a way that’s likely different from how they might have talked about it back in August—back when my main pedagogical goal was to defamiliarize the subject for them. For, unlike most of their other courses, many of our students likely come to their first class in the study of religion already thinking that they’re the expert, since we’re part of a group where being religious (whether one is or not) is a pretty commonsense thing. So getting students to recognize that they’re the experts while simultaneously demonstrating to them the limits of their expertise is, for me, the opening move in a course such as this. I don’t do it by quizzing them on arcane facts from the bible but, instead, by asking them, through a series of either fun or unexpected e.g.s, to entertain that calling this or that religious isn’t a self-evident thing but is, instead, the act of specific groups in specific places and times—all in hopes of piquing their curiosity about how it is that we name and organize our world as we do.

And, judging by the videos that they produced, it seems to have worked.