Tuesday, February 20, 2018

How do you Teach a Course on Ancient Religions?

Vaia Touna
University of Alabama

In the Fall of 2017 I proposed a new introductory course on ancient religions that I will teach for the first time in the Fall of 2018. Among the objectives of the course is to introduce students to different “ancient religions” but most importantly to introduce them to those recent scholarly debates which have been very critical on using the term “religion” to describe the ancient world, given that there is no equivalent term in those societies. So, although it may sound like a straightforward course to teach there are several issues that I had to think about.

There are different positions on how one should approach the topic. On the one hand, there are those who suggest that students need to have enough descriptive information about a specific culture before they start thinking critically about issues of definition, classification, description, etc. On the other hand, there are those who suggest that having students think critically about the concepts we are using to describe the ancient world should be the starting point. Although I think that there is value in both positions, one should also take into account the students who will attend the class. Most likely they’ll be first year students who are not necessarily majoring in Religious Studies, and who take the class to fulfill their humanities requirements and therefore not likely to take another class in the field. I want those students not only to learn something about the ancient cultures that we will be looking at but also acquire some knowledge and skill that will be transferable to the other courses they are taking.

And I think that, in the case of my new course, that skill has something to do with self-consciousness.

So the question is how do you teach a course on ancient religions when there has been so much critique over the anachronistic use of religion to describe features of the ancient world? It’s a critique that sometimes meets with a sincere anxiety from scholars who study ancient religions and who therefore understand such a position to undermine their work.

Despite everyone’s agreement (whether one is a religious studies scholar, classicist, historian, anthropologist, etc.) that religion was not the same in the ancient world, at least in the way that we understand religion today, both the term religion and its application to describe ancient societies persist. Every year numerous books and articles, on some ancient religion or its aspects (i.e., myths, rituals, etc.) see the light of publishing, and most of the times they uncritically use the term religion. That alone begs for a course on “ancient religions.”

So, despite the fact that I belong to those scholars who have been critical on the use of the term “religion” to describe the ancient world, I still think there is great value in teaching a course on “ancient religions,” but with a certain shift of approach—a shift that provides an opportunity to draw tools and assumptions to our students’ attention. So it’s a course that will not examine what is ancient religion but why, when, and by who religion became a tool to describe and analyze the ancient world and towards what effect.

Instead of describing the various elements that are often considered to imply, explicitly or implicitly, religion (namely myths and rituals), as a general introduction to the academic study of ancient religions the course will first examine how scholars defined “ancient religion” and then how they were able to understand ancient cultures (from ancient Greece, to Rome, to Egypt, to Mesopotamia, etc.) by means of that descriptor. The course will focus in detail on the problem of defining ancient religion, and the practical implications (that is, social, economic, political) of defining it in this or that way.

So, although it will be an experiment (and something to report on again in a future post) I hope students will learn that the same analytical and critical skills—such as an awareness of how we do what we do—that can be applied in other courses. And I also hope they’ll be on the look out on the effects of describing cultures (whether near or far both in time and space) with our particular concepts.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Teaching Discourse Analysis as a Practical Tool

Tenzan Eaghll
College of Religious Studies, Mahidol University

This semester I am teaching half a PhD seminar on ‘Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Religion.’ I am sharing the seminar with one of my colleagues and my half of the course is titled ‘Discourse Analysis.’ I chose the topic of discourse analysis over a myriad of other possible options because it seems to me like the elemental contemporary approach to the study of religion. It doesn’t matter what a students area of specialty or their methodological preferences, if they don’t know how to perform a basic discursive analysis of a particular topic they will not be able to understand the current gaps in the field or situate their work in relation to other scholarship. Admittedly, there are many other contemporary approaches that might be more flashy and exciting to cover, but without discourse analysis a student can’t weigh the significance of any literature within the field. After all, discourse analysis is more than a mere literary review of a particular topic―it doesn’t simply list previous scholarship on a particular issue―but is an analysis of how the central categories of any topic have been defined, classified, compared, and interpreted. It lays bare the intellectual and contextual scaffolding of concepts, and in my opinion, is a practical research tool that every graduate student―regardless of whether their primary methodology is abstract philosophy, ethnography, or even one of the hard sciences―should learn to do effectively.

To look at discourse means to look at both the object of analysis, the text, culture, speech under study, as well as the way in which the scholarly analysis itself is put into discourse. Tim Murphy, The Guide, p. 396

The primary text for the seminar is The Guide to the Study of Religion, edited by Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon. I chose this text for two reasons: it is the only handbook for the study of religion with an actual chapter on ‘Discourse,’ and because the first four chapters of this volume are specifically titled ‘Definition,’ ‘Classification,’ ‘Comparison,’ and ‘Interpretation,’ respectively. Of course, the subject analyzed in these latter chapters is ‘religion,’ so the authors are not discussing discourse analysis in general, but the chapters provide students with specific examples of how to perform discourse analysis in relation to these four critical categories, which makes them perfect for the class.

The objective for the class is largely practical. Although teaching this subject inevitably requires me to discuss some discourse theory and the way that French thinkers like Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault have influenced scholarship in religious studies, my primary goal is to get students to apply discourse analysis in their own research. I want each student to use the chapters from The Guide as a springboard to think about how the central categories from their own areas of study have been defined, classified, compared, and interpreted in previous scholarship. Each week the students are required to read one of the aforementioned chapters beforehand, and then we use the class time to discuss the underlying logic/progression of the authors argument and how it applies to their own proposed thesis topics. This not only gives the students specific examples of how to interrogate ‘religion,’ but provides them with the kind of questions they need to ask when doing research. For instance, Will Arnal’s chapter on ‘Definition’ teaches them to not only think about different ways their topic has been defined by scholars, but to expose the underlying tensions and assumptions hidden within these definitions. And J.Z. Smith’s article on ‘Classification’ encourages them to think not only about how their area of study has been classified internally as a system of knowledge (i.e. what sort of things and actions get classified as ‘Buddhism’, ‘ritual,’ etc.) but objectively in relation to other systems of knowledge (i.e. how has ‘Buddhism’ or ‘Hinduism’ been classified in relation to other ‘religions’).

In this manner, I am not using the class to read selections from the history of discourse theory or even to read lengthy genealogical works by religious studies scholars. The goal of the class is not to turn the students into post-structuralists or devoted discourse theorists. In fact, I don’t even care if the students agree with some of the theoretical conclusions of the chapters we read together from The Guide. Rather, my goal is simply to teach the basic questions of discourse analysis and to provide a class where the students can critically apply these questions in their own research areas. It is for this reason that I have purposively made the readings in the class rather light―after all, assigning one chapter a week isn’t exactly heavy PhD reading―because I want the students to spend most of their study time actively applying discourse analysis. To this end, the students assignment each week is not to write a response paper―which is the typical grad school weekly task―but to actively use the tools learned in each chapter to research how their topic has been defined, classified, compared, and interpreted, and then to share their findings during class discussion. The end result of this process for each student will hopefully be an extensive bibliography of previous scholarship on their respective topics that they can use to write the final paper for the class. Of course, I am also hopeful that they use this research to write their dissertation proposals, introductions, and chapters, but that will be up to them and their supervisors.

In sum, I think there is immense value in teaching discourse analysis as a practical tool for all graduate students, regardless of their primary research methodology. I think discourse analysis should actually be a required course for all religious studies graduate students―and perhaps even the humanities and human sciences in general. Though I am personally a fan of discourse theory and all the insights that come with it, I don’t think it is necessary for us to turn students into lovers of Barthes and Foucault to get them to think critically about the various discourses and analytical categories being used in the field, and it is the latter capacity that will have a real impact upon their research.