Scholarly Labour & the Fantasy of Self-Fulfillment

sean-hannanby Sean Hannan

The work that is currently being done on “emptiness” by the University of Chicago Divinity School’s alumnus of the year, John Corrigan, should provoke serious reflection in any student of religion. His recent chapter on the rhetoric of emptiness as applied to issues of the body raises a number of questions concerning the ways that American Christians, especially, have imbued the seemingly material terminology of “empty” and “full” bodies with much-more-than-material heft. Hitting upon issues ranging from asceticism to mysticism to eroticism, Corrigan offers up a sober yet suggestive selection of sources that incorporate notions of both “emptiness” and “fullness” into discussions of Christian praxis that helped shape American (and not just American) history.

Yet the most salient aspect of “emptiness,” as Corrigan explores it, might be its role in rhetorically re-casting the economic alienation of the labourer in religious (or perhaps pseudo-religious) terms. For someone who studies religion—who in almost every case also happens to be someone who works on religion—this is indeed where the rubber hits the road with the greatest frictional force. Quite often, the work of the student—especially, but not exclusively, the graduate student—is framed not as labour in its purest sense, but rather as a kind of devotional practice. To be sure, referring to the scholarly life as a Weberian “vocation” has a long history; but the devotional tones surrounding postgraduate work in the humanities, social sciences, and especially religious studies can at times reach a fever pitch that would make Max Weber’s ears bleed.

On Corrigan’s account, the religious (or, once again, perhaps pseudo-religious) valorization of work ‘as if for its own sake’ has a long and varied history in Christian discourse. Yet Corrigan’s concerns are primarily modern, and so that is where our focus shall stay. Take, for example, this summary of Thomas Carlyle’s appraisal of the situation in the nineteenth century:

“The latest Gospel in this world is, Know thy work and do it.” For Carlyle, “a man perfects himself by working. . . . The blessed glow of Labour in him, is it not a purifying fire, wherein all poison is burnt up, and of sour smoke itself there is made bright blessed flame! . . . All true work is sacred.” (66)

In the wake of Carlyle and the contemporary Christians he casts as valorizing work for work’s sake, some had reason to pause and consider whether or not such ‘pure work’ deserved to be treated as an ultimate concern. How could the soot-covered, bedraggled workforce of the Gilded Age count as a manifestation of the glory of God? Would the intense extremes of industrialization lay waste to any fading fantasies of the ‘moral value’ of work? These questions rang truest, no doubt, alongside incendiary words like “Pinkerton” and “Haymarket.”

The sobering truth behind such questions continues to resonate in the concerns of labour today. And while it resonates most resoundingly in the fields of manufacturing and material industry, it does not fall silent when we turn to intellectual labour. As students of religion who also work on religion, it is incumbent upon many of us to apply Corrigan’s questions about the ‘spiritualization’ of labour to our own situation. To do so is by no means to diminish the intensity of the industrial exploitation that was the hallmark of the Gilded Age. Rather, it is to suggest that a collective identification of so many of us as labourers can, if executed properly, carve out a new path forward for us as we attempt to understand the dialectic of emptiness and fulfillment in our own working lives.

So how did this rhetoric of “emptiness” and “fulfillment” play out in earlier phases of the moralization of work? Here Corrigan has much to contribute. He argues that “in a Christian ethics that made gradual inroads into the workplace, fulfillment in work comes from losing oneself in work.” (69) Another generation might have cast our daily duties as a form of subtle self-sacrifice, chipping away at our hedonism in the name of the greater good. But this newer ethos implied that work, far from being a voluntary self-emptying, was in fact the medium of fulfillment itself.

Leisure empties; labour fulfills. A less ancient sentiment could hardly be found. Yet it remains remarkably resonant today, especially with those of us who have chosen to labour upon the fertile fields of religion. Laborare est orare: “to work is to pray.” (70) This is the closer to the operative maxim in our era. Could it be the case that cultured leisure (otium), rather than bustling busywork (neg-otium), might more closely model the ideal medium of research? Perhaps—but that is ancient logic, ill-suited to the debates of today.

So what are these ‘debates of today?’ One of the most common asks us whether or not academic work counts as “labour” in the fullest, most impossibly robust sense of the term. This is a question that is not alien to graduate students in the field of religious studies, because it is a question that pertains to graduate students of all stripes. All the recent headway made by organizations like Graduate Students Untied (GSU) at the University of Chicago stands as a testament to this fact.

The core of the question is this: does the fact that graduate students find more-than-economic fulfillment in their work negate the labour-value of that work? In other words: is their work a form of solipsistic self-fulfillment or a display of self-sacrifice in the name of society? Can it not be both? Refraining from offering up some sort of definitive conclusion here, we should at least admit that the dialectic of emptiness-and-fulfillment continues to wield force in ongoing debates about the meaning of student work as labour.

A similar debate has arisen closer to my current academic home in Canada. Just this year, our provincial government passed a bill that (to oversimplify) transformed vague ‘faculty associations’ into full unions with the right to strike. This was less an act of itinerant ideology than it was an attempt to bring our provincial system into legal harmony with certain judgments made by our federal Supreme Court. The result, however, has proven somewhat ideologically explosive.

To some, this is an act of socialist subversion, forcibly transmuting friendly faculty associations into fierce foes of our administrative partners. To others, this is an act of governmental overreach, throwing under-prepared proto-unions into a do-or-die battle with the very administrative bodies tasked with cutting their budgets. To a precious few, this is a fairly neutral bill aimed at bringing a provincial law into harmony with federal standards, however many side-effects it may bring along with it.

Refraining once again from offering any silver-bullet answers, we can at least say that the debate about the nature of academic work lives on. When “we,” as faculty, teach and research, are we not engaged in labour? When “we,” as graduate students, teach and research, are we not likewise engaged in labour? Does this labour, furthermore, take the shape of ascetic self-sacrifice or that of personal fulfillment? Is there no way out of this emptiness-fulfillment dialectic, after all?

The pessimist in us may want to argue that the economic landscape of the academy today is little more than a perverse imitation of the “Gospel of Prosperity” that Corrigan so helpfully categorizes for us in his manuscript. (81) If you ‘do well’—if you are ‘good,’ according to certain circumscribed categories—you will continue to do well. If you placate the deity, it will reward you—not later, but now(-ish). If you ‘do poorly’—again, usually according to deeply obscured metrics—you will continue to do poorly. And who have you, the academic worker, to blame for this situation? “O man, who art thou that repliest against God?” (Rom. 9:20)

We seem to have reached an impasse. If academic work is self-fulfillment, it is its own reward. How then is it “work,” in the socially meaningful sense? If academic work is self-sacrifice, it is perhaps deserving of compensation, but at the same time it loses the seemingly distinctive character of its intellectual vocation. The work of the scholar is either pure self-fulfillment or pure self-emptying. Is there no via media?

Perhaps there could be. There could be if we were willing to dispense with the notion that the emptiness-fulfillment dialectic is one that can be overcome only through individual effort. Time and time again, the current vagaries of the academic job market have proven that the myth of individual exceptionality must be put to rest. It is no longer a question of who “self-fulfills” or “self-empties” to a degree sufficient to deserve just compensation for their labour. Any dream of fulfillment we might still harbour resides not in the atomized unit of our own individual identity as a commodity on the market, but in the collective labour in which we engage together.

We all work on religion together; to most scholars of religion, this is uncontroversial. We all work in the humanities together; to most scholars in the humanities, this too is uncontroversial. Let us all work together to ensure that the following statement becomes just as uncontroversial: we all work together—full stop.

Reading, Reflection

by Robyn Whitaker

s200_robyn-whitakerLately I have taken to interrupting students who begin a sentence with “I feel…” and asking them to rephrase their statement on the basis of argument and evidence. While I’m not trying to convey that feelings are irrelevant, I am attempting to help highly churched seminary students learn to separate their own assumptions and emotions about the biblical text from interpretations that can be argued for on the basis of historical and literary evidence. At least that is what I tell myself. John Corrigan’s Emptiness: Feeling Christian in America has challenged me to think again.

If I’m honest this process of separating emotion from reason is frustrating and I find myself thinking back to a student I taught very early on. On the first day of an Introduction to the New Testament course she described herself as a “feminist, atheist, Jew.” She had never read the New Testament and I found her discovery of it throughout the semester rather delightful. At a superficial level it was easy to think of her as a student free of all that religious bias, a sharp contrast to the clearing of clutter that often has to occur for the highly churched when introducing them to biblical scholarship. Of course, she was no more “free” than the others; her assumptions and experiences of the text were just refreshingly different to me.

Corrigan’s Emptiness talks about the role of emotion in religion and particularly the requirement of emptiness in American Christianity. Whilst he speaks about a particularly American context it is an interesting idea to think with as a teacher of biblical texts. For starters, it has helped me become aware of my own bias as a teacher and some of my own assumptions that needs to be challenged. I am deeply ambivalent about emotion and I prize the rational. This means I rarely engage emotions in the classroom and I am at risk of ignoring them in the texts I teach.

There are a couple of implications for teaching the Bible that spring to mind when reading Corrigan’s work on emptiness. Firstly, students who come from the kinds of religious backgrounds Corrigan describes might not be aware of how all pervasive this idea is, that they are empty vessels who receive God’s word. In its worst form this emptiness ideology supports the doctrinal idea that the Bible came down from the divine realm in its final form and thus negates the insights of history, context, and a whole range of scholarly pursuits such as source and redaction criticism. That is, it negates human contributions to divine revelation. Similarly, it can manifest in a naïvety about students’ own assumptions or a resistance to having to do with “work” of interpretation. Surely the text should just be clear for those willing to receive it?

I currently use a couple of class exercises to try and counter these issues. At the beginning of semester I ask students to write a reflective piece about who they are as interpreters, explicitly asking them to name their biases and core identities. At the end of the semester I return their reflection and ask them to think about what has changed. Of course, this exercise works best for the already self-aware. In a seminary context I think it could helpfully be reframed in terms of emptiness and the desire to be filled. Additionally, I hold a debate in class about whether theology precedes or follows scripture and, lastly, I ask them to think about authority and whose authority they have trusted to teach or interpret the Bible for them. These latter two conversations tend to reveal unstated suppositions and can help with self-awareness, but there is still the issue of emotion.

An unavoidable implication of Corrigan’s work is that emotions relate deeply to cognition. If we are educating whole persons we are engaging with them intellectually, bodily, emotionally, contextually. How we do that in an integrated way is something I’m still working on: it is easier to find ways of sidelining or externalizing emotion than engaging it. Moreover, if Corrigan is correct, emotion plays a major role in every religion and here we move beyond the individual. I plan to try and help students recognize the emotions, including emptiness, on display in the biblical text so a conversation can begin. Indeed, doing so might help students, in the words of Corrigan, be “better positioned to appreciate the similarities and differences among religious groups in different parts of the world. … [and] able to better understand religion in relation to other aspects of life” (p. 16).



Embodying Sacred Texts

by Jawad Anwar Qureshiquershi

In his exceptional study of West African Quran schools, The Walking Qur’an, Rudolph Ware describes Islamic learning as follows:

“Islamic knowledge was being transmitted as much through bodily practices as mere words. This focus on bodily transmission of religious ideas expresses as understanding of knowledge as a thing that inheres in the body. What it meant “to know” in the context of Senegambian Qur’an schooling differed dramatically from what it meant for contemporary Westerners. Knowing was produced as much by the limbs as by the mind. Imitation of the teacher’s gestures and comportment was as much part of the educative process as the texts that one was required to read. Memorization of texts allowed for a person possession of the Word in the body, without requiring recourse to a written source external to the self. The people were the books, just as the Prophet was the Walking Qur’an. Islamic knowledge was embodied knowledge.” (The Walking Qur’an, p. 49)

What Ware is highlighting is that people of different faiths relate to their scriptures in unique ways. Not all religious traditions emphasize direct access to the discursive aspect of scripture through translations into the vernacular of a community. For many religious traditions, the language of scripture is usually foreign and incomprehensible, yet despite this, there is still often an intense relationship to these texts. One of the challenges that I face when teaching the Qur’an is considering how to teach the ways in which Muslims relate to their scripture. In addition to the discursive ways in which the Qur’an shapes Islamic normative traditions of theology, law, and ethics, the study of the Qur’an by Muslims through memorization and recitation shapes Muslim subjectivity in a pre-discursive fashion. How does one draw attention to this in the classroom?

The exercise I came up with is to have students in my Qur’an class memorize a portion of the Qur’an. Not the English translation, but the original Arabic. To set up this exercise and to introduce this problem, I first screen the documentary Koran by Heart, which follows the story of three young Muslim children as they compete in a competition for Qur’anic memorization and recitation in Cairo. The children are from different Muslim countries and none of them speak Arabic—Rifdha is a young girl from the Maldives, Nabiollah a young boy from Tajikistan, and Djamil is from Senegal. While the movie touches on many aspects of contemporary Islam and the tensions therein, the key feature that it draws attention to for my purposes is the value that Muslims place on the memorization and recitation of the Qur’an, with little concern for exegesis.

As further set up for this exercise, we spend some time considering the soundscape of qur’anic recitation as discussed by Michael Sells in his Approaching the Qur’an. Sells dedicates two chapters to introducing the soundscape of short surahs and also includes an audio CD that has various recitations of the same passages. Sells’ work opens up the affective aspects of the Qur’an through focusing on sound. Additionally, and what makes this exercise possible, he includes a transliteration and close phonetic analysis of select surahs.

With this set up, I have the students carry out their own Qur’anic study by memorizing one of the chapters that Sells studies. The chapter that I use is surat al-Qadar (Q. 97). This is one of the shortest chapters of the Qur’an and consists of merely five verses, just over thirty words in all, with some repetition. The verses read (Haleem’s translation):

We sent it down on the Night of Glory.

What will explain to you what that Night of Glory is?

The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months;

On that night the angels and the Spirit descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every task;

peace that night until the break of dawn!

Using the transliteration provided by Sells as well as the audio recordings (I also give them certain YouTube videos of the surah as well), I set the students on the task of memorizing this short surah. The objective is not to learn what the Arabic means, nor even to focus on the translation, but rather to open questions about this widespread Muslim practice. I start by having students consider how they memorize things. Were there any particular body practices (rocking back and forth, or sideways) that they employed? Did they recite aloud as they repeated the words, or silently? Did they listen to the recordings as they memorized, or did they rely on reading out the transliteration? How did they work on their pronunciation of some of the difficult Arabic letters? More importantly, how is this different from the other ways in which they learn at the university?

(If there were some form of a Qur’an school nearby, I would also have students visit for a day as participant-observers for greater effect.)

With these questions in mind, I wrap up this exercise by reading sections from Ware’s book, The Walking Qur’an, expanding on different modes of embodiment beyond memorization and recitation, and what this means epistemologically.

The point of the exercise is to move away from—if even for a short period—from what thinking about what the text says to draw attention to how one relates to the text. This is done through drawing attention to the affective and embodied aspects of how Muslims relate to the Qur’an, through sound, recitations, memorization, and the attendant body practices. The focus on the body as it relates to sacred texts is not in opposition to the discursive aspects of those texts but to think about this perhaps as a condition for undertaking a particular form of discursive study related to Muslim subjectivity.



On the Fullness of Students

[Editor’s note: This Spring quarter, our Craft of Teaching bloggers will be engaging with, expanding upon, and diverging from the work of John Corrigan, the Divinity School’s 2017 Alum of the Year — particularly pertaining to issues around emotion, embodiment, and the teaching of religion.]

By Anne Mocko


In John Corrigan’s book Emptiness, the author identifies a sensibility in American Christianity, which he traces back into deeper Christian pasts, according to which the believer must be emptied out of their old self in preparation for being filled with God and holiness. In his second chapter, “Body,” he links this desire to empty the self to a variety of practices—fasting, bleeding, refraining from sex or speaking, crying.

“John Piper’s A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer proposed that the feeling of emptiness was desire for God, and that fasting cultivated both. The empty stomach as cultivated emptiness and a partner to prayer is one manifestation of the emptied body” (50).

“Protestant writers emphasized that old blood had to be drained before the saving new blood of Jesus could be admitted to the body” (58).

“LaHaye and his followers accordingly made the sexual act in marriage a means by which to be filled with Christ. In order to “fill that spiritual void within their lives,” men and women opened themselves to each other and to God all at once. The union of a man and a woman was also a union with Christ. The celebration of marital sex was explained as both the pursuit of pleasure and the spiritual union with one’s partner and God simultaneously” (76).

None of these practices or sensibilities are explicitly related to pedagogy—but I think they are not unrelated, either. I think that the religious sensibility Corrigan names might actually inform one of the traditional assumptions about what it means to teach: that in order for students to learn, they need to be emptied out of their prior selves and/or outside lives, so that their professor might pour wisdom into their appropriately prepared vessels. I think this “filling empty vessels” idea might still lurk in the background (even if just as the straw-man) in debates over several traditional teaching techniques, such as the value (or not) of lectures, and possibly also in the pervasive faculty complaints about students using technology in their classrooms. (After all, a student-mind full of social media cannot be filled with sociology.)

Many educators have critiqued old models of what it means to teach as hierarchical or colonialist, or just plain ineffective. Accordingly, they have often tried to move toward flipped classrooms or feminist pedagogy—an impulse that I think could potentially be framed as a desire to recognize and honor the existing fullness of students when they come to our classrooms. In these models, students need to engage and extend themselves, not passively receive information, for they have not been (and should not be) first emptied of their lives and experiences and perspectives.

Another way to consider the fullness or emptiness of the students, and the roles that faculty might adopt relative to them, might be to consider the extent to which faculty are or are not willing to engage students on issues beyond the intellectual pursuits of the course. It is not uncommon for students to seek out faculty in order to talk through things they are facing far beyond the limits of the classroom, and I think the degree to which a faculty member is receptive or unreceptive to these approaches might be related to that professor’s implicit understanding of whether their students should properly come to them full or empty. An empty student should seek out a professor only to solicit more contents for their vessel, whereas a full student might want to come pour themselves out.

It often surprises me the depth and seriousness of issues that students sometimes want to discuss with me. In just this academic year alone, I have been honored with the confidences of students who have lost a parent to suicide, who have left an abusive relationship, who were struggling with self-harm, who were hospitalized for a potential brain tumor, who were trying to reconcile with parents after disclosing non-normative sexuality or gender.

This is one of the parts of my job that I have long felt the least prepared for. No one in grad school ever told me that I might end up having to create safe spaces for emotional pain; there was no qualifying exam on listening, consoling, or figuring out when and whether to hug. Pretty much every time I find myself in one of these complicated conversations with a student, I go next door to my colleague’s office to complain that anyone who wanted to teach undergrads should be first required to take a course in pastoral care.

I think that this part of teaching—this part that can stretch so far beyond the classroom or the assigned readings—links back to fullness and emptiness in an important way. For the professor who approaches their job with a model of emptiness, expecting their students to be vessels for their knowledge, a hard conversation will be taken as an invitation to lecture. As soon as the student pauses, an ‘emptiness model’ professor will start talking, trying to fill the silence and the pain with whatever wisdom the professor can muster on the fly. I have done this myself: I have tried to provide solutions or perspectives, because it is tempting and comfortable to revert back to one’s expertise, and to fill the room with what one knows and thinks. And occasionally that really is what the student wants.

But a ‘fullness model’ would suggest something else: that the student isn’t coming to receive more words from the professor; they are instead coming to pour out some of themselves in the professor’s presence, to be simply seen and heard. In that case, the response must be to stop talking and just listen, to witness their struggle, and ask what they need.

This can turn out to be a core task for a professor, especially in liberal arts colleges—and I think especially for women faculty, who in all contexts (including the academy) are more often than men called upon to do emotional labor. For academics who lack the interest or facility, emotional interactions with students can feel inappropriate or distracting from real academic labor, but for those who deeply value mutual learning in the context of relationships, these moments of student vulnerability can feel enormously rewarding.

This is not to say that it is necessary or even appropriate for faculty to take on side-jobs as therapists; students in deep distress should properly be directed to whatever support services one’s institution offers, and students who come to their faculty with wholly inappropriate expectations need to be gently corrected and redirected. But this is not the same as expecting that the task of the student is to bring to me a purified self to be filled and molded.

Perhaps I personally subscribe to a ‘fullness theology’ of teaching, one that rejects a lecturer-on-high who will only come down into a properly emptied vessel. I would rather position myself as a more mature fellow-traveler, who sometimes guides, sometimes walks beside, sometimes listens more than talks, and sometimes suffers with those who follow.


Beyond Expertise: Modeling Learning in an Undergraduate Classroom

By Stephanie Franksteph%2520without%2520grandma

When I got my first teaching assignment in 2009–“Human Being and Citizen” in the College Core at University of Chicago–my reaction was horror. Knowing that the curriculum began with the Iliad, I agonized, “But I don’t have ancient Greek!” Now, as the only full-time faculty member in religious studies at my institution, this reaction seems almost charmingly innocent to me.  Over the last four years, I have developed a whole curriculum in religious studies that draws on languages I do not know, traditions I am not trained in, and themes I did not study in graduate school.

The psychological hurdle of teaching as a non-expert is not to be underestimated. But the fact of the matter is that—specialization being what it is—the vast majority of academics, no matter what their jobs, do most of their teaching in things they would not claim to be ‘experts’ about. And expertise is a not a bright-line matter. I would claim to be an ‘expert’ only on the intellectual history of the Durkheimian school. But ranging in concentric circles from that node of true expertise are other competencies: I know a lot about the history of the social sciences and about secularization theory; I know a fair amount about European intellectual history and the French revolution and critical theory. All of these are topics that I teach regularly to good effect, despite the fact that I have not written books on them. Remembering that expertise is a gradient helps instill the confidence to teach outside of one’s core competencies.

Still, some of us—particularly in smaller undergraduate-focused or service-oriented departments–do less teaching in circles close to our intellectual center than others. I am certainly one of these people. What I have found useful in designing courses (or sections of courses) that are far afield from my competencies:

  • Perhaps most obviously, you can consult with others: people who are experts (or nearer to experts) than are you, or even others who are non-experts but who may have taught a similar class in the past. I have found my cohort from the University of Chicago to be an infinitely rich resource; I have also reached out to strangers on social media to ask for recommendations and cultivated relationships with them from that beginning.
  • Design your syllabus to emphasize themes, questions, and skills rather than facts. This is of course the core of liberal-arts education, but it is both practical and comforting to underscore this (and announce as much to the students) when you feel out of your depth in a certain area.
  • Explore non-traditional pairings juxtaposing less-comfortable material with more-comfortable material. I have taught the Vairochanabhisambodhi Tantra together with a short excerpt from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises; I have also taught it with a few passages from Max Weber on asceticism. This sort of programming can be very exciting and rewarding for students who are just learning to think about affinities and contrasts between different traditions.

If you can clear the the confidence hurdle through some combination of clear-eyed reflection and prudent course design, I think teaching outside of your expertise often opens up a pedagogy with a different rhythm—it provides an unusual number of opportunities for learning alongside your students, which can be very exciting for everyone. What I have found useful in this sort of teaching:

  • Be upfront with your students when the topic at hand is something you do not claim expertise in. Students often appreciate knowing that professors, too, have limitations. (This is often coded in terms of ‘relatability’ or ‘accessibility’ on student evaluations.)
  • Resist allowing your anxiety about lack of expertise to push you into scripting your class sessions too thoroughly, and certainly resist the temptation to lapse into lecture. Areas in the curriculum where you have less expertise are great opportunities for in-class activities. (Asking colleagues for ideas regarding specific content can be very useful.)
  • Try explicitly thematizing the fact that you are learning together: ask the students to bring to class a puzzlement regarding the material of the day. Have them list their puzzlements on the whiteboard, and include one of your own. See how many the students can solve adequately, working together, volunteer whatever answers you have, and then consult an expert on the rest.
  • Get comfortable with the response, “That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. But I will find out and get back to you.” Then do that. Modelling independent learning is great for students. I keep a small notebook in my handbag where I jot such questions down; I begin each class session with a quick review of the last session, and circle back to answer any questions that I left hanging during that review, acknowledging the student who posed the question by name.
  • At least once during the semester, invite a colleague who is an expert to attend class, whether in person or by Skype. Assign your guest’s work to the students and ask her to discuss it with them, or arrange for a more informal question-and-answer session (using class time to compile a list of worthwhile questions in advance).







Reflection, February 2017

s200_robyn-whitakerBy Robyn Whitaker

In September 2001, when planes deliberately crashed into the World Trade center in NYC, I was on the other side of the world working in a small, Australian country town called Wangaratta. One of my roles was to teach primary-aged school children religious education. The curriculum I had inherited was explicitly Christian, without even the most token recognition that other religions existed. As I heard the rhetoric and ignorance about Islam emerge in news reports and local gossip following 9/11, I knew something had to change. So that week, I threw out the curriculum and taught a simple class highlighting all the things Christianity, Judaism and Islam shared in common (suitable for 10 year olds). There was nothing particularly insightful about it, but it was a minor act of resistance in one place where I could exercise influence. At the end of the class the teacher, a woman with a university degree, thanked me with these words: “I learned a lot today. I didn’t know Islam was a religion.”

Today we find ourselves in a similar global climate in terms of the irresponsible use of inflammatory language about non-Christian religions, the “othering” of certain groups, and shared ignorance in public forums. As a Christian, teaching Christian texts in a Christian seminary (that’s a lots of “Christian”!) I feel an urgent responsibility to educate in a manner that broadens minds, nuances conversation, and creates respectful dialogue between those of different religious faiths. My job does not require it. My role as a scholar and public intellectual does.

This post is for those of you who, like me, find yourselves teaching Christian things in explicit or implicitly Christian settings. What can we model in our classrooms and methods? How can our assignments and readings help foster the kind of thinking and dialogue we’d like to see in wider society?

As I teach “Introduction to Old Testament” this semester, I am going to attempt to subversively inject a bit of interfaith dialogue into my classroom. We’ll have an explicit discussion about titling of the Older Testament/Hebrew Bible as a way of thinking about why language matters. When we get to texts of violence I’ll ask students to reflect upon both ancient and contemporary modes of violence: who are the victims, who are the perpetrators, are these distinct categories, and does our interpretation do violence to others? We’ll have guest lecturers from other faith traditions and nationalities. We’ll discuss how key passages, like the Abraham and Isaac story, have been interpreted in Judaism, Islam, and Christian traditions. I’ll try and find a way to check “othering” language and stereotypes without shutting down discussion.

As Jawad Qureshi pointed out in his blog post in January 2017, Islamophobia is not new, but the “scope and intensity” is. The classroom is one place where we, as educators, can challenge the essentialist enmity towards other religions that has found a rather comfortable lodging place within much of the Christian tradition. Yes, such enmity is embedded in the biblical narrative itself, but that offers opportunity to question, critique, and examine the context and efficacy of such rhetoric. To do so gets to the heart of critical biblical study as distinct from a devotional reading of sacred texts.

Despite being educated in the Divinity School, where I stood in awe of the amazing things my friends studied that I barely understood, I feel ill-equipped to engage in interfaith education. I’m stepping firmly out of my comfort zone. Being comfortable, however, is no longer an option.

Learning from New American Neighbors

By Anne Mocko

unnamedI am someone who believes in learning by doing, and I think experiential teaching is especially crucial when trying to teach Hinduism (a tradition that is not just unfamiliar to students, but which prioritizes practice over text and theology). When I was hired to teach Asian religions at Concordia College, therefore, it was crucial for me to explore the resources in the area would be available for exposing my students to the lived traditions of South Asia.

By good fortune, the small city of Fargo/Moorhead, where my college is located, happened to be one of the two main refugee resettlement cities for the states of North Dakota and Minnesota. While Minnesota has primarily resettled Somali and Sudanese refugees in town, North Dakota has primarily resettled Bhutanese refugees—over 5,000 between 2008 and 2012, equivalent to roughly 4% of the city of Fargo. These Bhutanese refugees are Hindus, and ethnic Nepalis—and so match perfectly to the language and cultural expertise of my doctoral fieldwork.

These local Hindus, whom I was now hoping to introduce to my overwhelmingly white, Protestant students, ended up in Fargo/Moorhead based on an ethnic cleansing program in their country of origin. In Bhutan, the majority of the population (the ‘northerners’ the Ngalops and Sharchops) speak a Tibeto-Burman language and practice Tibetan Buddhism. The minority population, the Lhotsampas, or ‘southerners,’ were largely Nepali-speakers and Hindus; some were people whose families had drifted into the region long before the solidification of national boundaries, while others had made their way into the country far more recently.

In the late 1980s, around the time a national census revealed that the ‘southerners’ now comprised a threatening 45% of the population, the Bhutanese government embraced a “One Nation, One People” policy. They enforced a new national dress code (based on the clothing of northern populations) and disallowed Nepali language in schools; the government then cracked down on ethnic Nepali protests and ‘freedom fighters,’ making it increasingly untenable to live in Bhutan as a Nepali Lhotsampa. Many ethnic Nepalis fled, while others were deported. This situation resulted in a documented refugee population of over 100,000 in UN camps in eastern Nepal by its peak in 1996, plus undoubtedly many other migrants who resettled in less formal ways.

While Bhutan eventually repatriated a fraction of these people, the overwhelming majority of refugees remained in the camps for the next decade awaiting either Nepali citizenship or third-country migration. It was not until the end of the second Bush administration that the UNCHR finally completed negotiation and screenings to begin sending these refugees to the US and elsewhere.

The Bhutanese refugee population in Fargo was thus quite recently transplanted when I arrived in town in 2012, having only begun to arrive in 2008. Many were still monolingual in Nepali. They were just beginning to organize as a community, and did yet not have official community or religious spaces established—though they did have a Himalayan grocery store. Unlike the professional-class Nepali emigres I had encountered in Chicago, the Bhutanese refugees came to the US as full extended families, and retained an undiluted, unselfconscious rural-Nepali approach to the world. It was the closest thing I could possibly have gotten to cultural immersion without returning to Nepal, and a remarkable potential teaching resource.


As I was gearing up to teach Hinduism for the first time in January 2013, however, I had been so swamped for months (between my new teaching load, and being a new parent) that I hadn’t had any opportunity to reach out to the Bhutanese refugee community yet.  Nevertheless, I optimistically marked down Sunday March 10 on the syllabus for a class puja for Maha Shiva Ratri, and assumed I would be able to meet some local Hindus in time to pull it off.

January and February sped past me, and as March arrived, I still didn’t really know any Hindus in town—much less any Hindu priests. So finally I pulled my exhausted self together enough to just show up at the local Himalayan grocery, and see who I might meet. I asked (in Nepali) if the men hanging around the store knew any priests for a ritual I wanted done. Several of them just looked at me blankly, but a man named Tirtha, who lived in a West Fargo apartment with his wife and extended family, seemed to be delighted to meet a white woman who could speak his native language. We exchanged phone numbers, and he promised to set up a priest for me.

I went ahead and booked a room on campus, and told my students we were ready for the program. We would be gathering together for some Nepali tea and a small puja to a Shiva image (I was still working on that part); I would bring some clothes and jewelry for them to try on, and we could try some henna. I thought it would probably work fine.

The day before the event, Tirtha texted me to ask if he could invite his brother, and maybe a few other people. I said, ‘Certainly.’ I thought this meant there would perhaps be three or four Bhutanese Nepalis at the event. The next day, however, Tirtha showed up with the priest, his brother—and about 30 other people. Tirtha’s huge extended family had piled into three minivans, and was now pouring into my event, chatting to each other in Nepali, taking pictures of each other dressed up in saris and kurtas and topis. The women started grabbing my female students and dressing them up like dolls in the clothes I had brought; the men started setting up the ritual space, and instructing me on how to comport myself as the patron of the ritual. Someone decided the flowers we brought weren’t right, and went back to the grocery to find something better. Little kids were running around, an elderly man was intent on teaching one of my male students a Nepali song. It was chaos of the best and most culturally authentic kind.


I realized afterward that the event that I had accidentally put into motion was far superior in every respect to the event I had planned. What I had thought I was putting together was an event not just for but mostly about my students, in which they would be the white, English-speaking majority observing a few brown men perform a foreign culture. What I got instead was a legitimately Nepali event, a brown-majority, Nepali-speaking, Hindu holiday, family party that just happened to include my students.

I came to think that this dynamic was pedagogically fundamental, placing my students at the margins of an event that was theoretically ‘for’ them. Especially when teaching students from the dominant culture, I have decided that it is critical to decenter them, to teach them how to enter into other people’s spaces not as the self-assured norm, but as ignorant, disoriented, and yet respectful guests.

The dominant population in this country normally encounters diversity when presented with a marginalized individual/practice/food, delivered in otherwise non-threatening ways. It is rare for the dominant population to be helpless due to their native language, or to lack the cultural knowledge to be able to participate in a public event. White people tend to remain in their comfort zone even when they eat at an Indian restaurant, watch a subtitled ‘foreign film,’ or interact with a token Black colleague. Christians tend to set the conditions under which they will reach out to Muslims, or to do an interfaith service (often in a church) with a rabbi or a Lakota.

My Hindu ‘guests,’ though, had turned themselves into the hosts. This was, as it happened, an excellent opportunity for them. Despite the thousands of Hindus in town, there is no Hindu temple in Fargo/Moorhead: many of the people who came that day hadn’t participated in a puja or celebrated a Hindu holiday in months or even years, and they were delighted to have the opportunity to connect back to their histories and homelands. They weren’t performing for me or my students; they were gladly accepting the space and time (and priest) I had arranged, as a chance to enjoy their own tradition in their own way and on their own terms.


Following the Shiva Ratri event in 2013, I continued to arrange celebrations of Hindu holidays with Tirtha’s family for the next three years—and I purposefully framed future events by providing the time, money, and space, while handing over the planning and execution of the event to the Bhutanese Nepalis. The following year, I held another Shiva Ratri event; then when my class switched from Spring semester to Fall, we collaborated for Dasai and Diwali.

The results could be a little unpredictable, but in ways that were inevitably interesting and helpful to talk through with students. The first year that I hosted Dasai, for example, I had cleaned and prepared a location in my house that I thought would be suitable to set up the Dasai ghar, but when the Nepalis arrived, they vetoed my space (on the grounds that it was against a north-facing wall), and started moving my furniture to create something more appropriate. Later that day, the priest rushed the end part of the ritual (because he had been fasting since the night before, to be maximally ritually pure, and was getting hungry), yet he refused to eat the fruit or yogurt or tea that I had carefully prepared, because he couldn’t risk eating from a non-Hindu kitchen. The second year that I hosted Dasai, the priest had to cancel the day before one of the rituals, because his daughter-in-law had had unexpectedly her baby three weeks early, and his whole household was now under ritual pollution. These were considerations that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to talk through in class, but which became crucial ways to engage with Hinduism as a lived tradition, a practical tradition, a contextualized tradition.

By last year, it started to be harder to coordinate with Tirtha’s family. Tirtha and his brother-in-law had opened a business in town, and they had a lot less flexibility in their time; several of the women of their generation had started working in the local hospital, and the elderly relatives were getting involved in English classes, the community garden, and other local community activities. So last fall and this fall, I celebrated Diwali instead with the Nepali international students at Concordia and Nepal Students Association of the local public university, MSUM. The effect is still quite similar, with Nepali Hindus typically outnumbering my students, and immersing my students in an unfamiliar language and set of traditions—though the international students tend to be more cosmopolitan and English-fluent than Tirtha’s family, and are somewhat more self-conscious about explaining their culture instead of simply being themselves.


img_19561I think the experiential learning that I have developed these past several years may offer some useful insights about working with a local marginalized community. First, it is not enough for the dominant population to be well-wishers to the marginalized population. They have to be prepared to enter into the spaces and practices and assumptions of the people they want to engage with, and do more listening and following than talking and directing. Second, and relatedly, marginalized religious traditions are unlikely to fit tidily into the boxes that are set up (usually unintentionally and non-maliciously) by people in power, including me, and it is important to be willing to hand over the rules and parameters to the people you want to help flourish.

Third, since the word “religion” tends to attach to the practices, ideas, and ideals that are most valuable to a community, it is a particularly valuable gift to create space for a marginalized community’s traditions to flourish. Hinduism, for example, is a religion that very much lives into a place: gods, goddesses, times, and temples are deeply particular, and divine power never comes into the world in the exact same way twice. So for Hindus to come into a new place, they need more than permission to follow their religion. They need spaces and days set aside to celebrate the world, and they may even need to discover or invite gods and goddesses in/to their midst.

Finally, it is one of the great privileges of being an academic to be able to build bridges between dominant and marginalized communities, and to ask the dominant community to listen to and empathize with their newer neighbors. It has become common in the past year to demonize refugees, to ask ‘who are these people?’ and insist ‘we know nothing about them.’ But refugees are vetted more carefully than any other category of migrant, and the Bhutanese refugees waited for 12 years or more to come to the United States. They are profoundly grateful to be here, excited to put down roots, eager to own homes and start business and grow their own food—and they are ideally positioned to challenge the ignorant insularity and xenophobia that has washed over this country. We as scholars and teachers are in a position to insist that our privileged students pay attention to them and take them seriously, and if we can do that well, we will form a better next generation of citizens.

“I think Islam hates us”: Teaching Islam in an Islamophobic Era

By Jawad Qureshi

quershiAs I write these words, Americans in various urban centers are descending on their airports to protest the Muslim Ban instituted by the administration a day before. There is little exaggeration in saying that our current president is the most openly hostile presidents to Muslims that we have had within my lifetime. To be sure, his immediate predecessors have initiated and adopted policies that wreaked carnage on Muslim lands and peoples globally, and they were responsible for targeting Muslim Americans with draconian laws. Few however have adopted the rhetoric of exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice to the extent that our current president did in his campaign last year. His first week in office and his staff appointees attest that his rhetoric was not mere campaign promises.

While for some, this might feel like a major shift in public discourse, scholars engaged in the academic study of Islam are all too familiar with this rhetoric. We have been in the process of becoming Trump’s America for a long time. Scholars of Islam have been tracking discourse on Muslims and Islam in public spaces, culture, and politics, and we are seeing an intensification of attitudes toward Islam and Muslims that came to the fore after 9/11, but had long been latent in American culture.

The term developed by scholars for this phenomenon is Islamophobia, defined as “hatred, hostility, and fear of Islam and Muslims, and the discriminatory practices that result.” (Todd Green, The Fear of Islam, 9) In 1997, the UK’s Runnymede Report, which popularized the term, offered some common features underlying Islamophobic conceptions of Islam. These are the sense that Islam is (1) monolithic and static, (2) separate and other, (3) inferior, (4) the enemy, and (5) manipulative. As a result, (6) racial discrimination of Muslims is justified, while (7) Muslim criticisms of the West are rendered invalid. Taken altogether, (8) these ideas render anti-Muslim discourse natural. What emerges as a result is exclusion (from politics and employment), discrimination (in employment practices), prejudice (in the media and everyday experiences), and violence (in physical assaults, vandalism, and verbal abuse) aimed at Muslims. (Runnymede Report, 12)

All of these features are present in the current president’s rhetoric and policies towards Muslims. In one of the most blatant displays of this essentializing conception of Islam, effacing the voice of Muslims and the possibility of any variety among them, candidate Trump answered a question from CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper, “Do you think Islam is at war with us?” by saying, “I think Islam hates us. There’s something, there’s something there. There’s a tremendous hatred, a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us.” The rhetoric of his appointees is not much better. Trump’s national security advisor retired general Michael Flynn, reduces Islam to an ideology. Flynn tries his hand at “nuance” by referring to “radical Islam” rather than Trump’s totalizing Islam.

Scholars tracking and studying Islamophobia have recommended four strategies to combat it. These are:

“(1) speaking out wherever and whenever Islamophobia occurs, (2) targeting and discrediting the individuals and institutions that benefit financially and politically from spreading misinformation about Islam, (3) cultivating interpersonal and interfaith relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, (4) educating the public about Islam, particularly its diversity and the common ground it shares with the West and other religious traditions.” (Todd Green, The Fear of Islam, 312)

The area to which I contribute, in my role as a teacher, is the last one: education. The academic teaching of religion, at its best, is particularly well situated to counter the conceptions of Islam that underlie Islamophobia. Against these essentialist notions, scholars of religion teach that religions are not “monolithic and static,” but are diverse, and that they change and develop over time; that religions are not “separate and other” but are deeply interdependent, with shared (albeit contested) histories, and more often than not shared values. Claims of the “inferiority” of a religion, its essential enmity toward another civilization, and its being instrumentalized for ideological ends often rest on stereotypes that can be interrogated within the academic study of religion.

Tackling the foundational notions of Islam that feed into Islamophobia should not stifle criticism of Muslims, or even Islam. One of the features that distinguishes an academic and scholarly study of religion from a confessional one is the ability to critique the religion and its adherents. In combatting Islamophobia in academic settings, it is important to guard against sacralizing Muslims and Islam through silencing criticisms by heavy-handedly brandishing the Islamophobia label. This can be accomplished through safeguarding a space where criticism does not slip into hate speech, nor undermine a Muslim’s freedom to practice their religion. To disagree with a Muslim woman wearing hijab is a right; to attack her for wearing one is a crime, and to support legislation that prohibits her from practicing her religion is Islamophobia—exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice—in action.

Lastly, as an educator teaching Islam in an Islamophobic era, there are two crucial points that need to be emphasized:

The first is that Muslims have not been the first group targeted in this manner. Whether one is thinking about Native Americans, Black Americans, or the internment camps of Asian Americans, America is built on a history of oppressing communities. It is imperative for scholars teaching Islam to educate themselves about this history and to connect today’s events with the past, and with the oppression of other communities going on currently.

Secondly, it is imperative to recognize that Islamophobia is not new. It is not a product of 9/11, as my presentation above might have suggested, that targeted Arab and South Asian Muslims. While it has a name since the mid-90’s that has been usefully employed in describing rhetoric, attitudes, and policies since 9/11, it was a reality before it was a name, and it was the experience of Black Muslim communities. What has changed between now and yesterday, I would argue, is merely the scope and intensity.

The Travails of Trying to Go Digital

by Sean Hannansean-hannan

When I took up the position of Assistant Professor in the Humanities here at MacEwan University, my job description included a mandate to engage with the digital humanities. The nature of this engagement was open-ended, both delightfully and terrifyingly so. It could mean intimately interweaving cutting-edge technology into a research project. Or it could mean focusing on how best to supply students with the tools they’ll need to make sense of digital information for purposes both scholarly and economic.

Regardless of the shape it took, this engagement clearly had to have an effect in the classroom. Though scholars at my institution are keen to maintain active research profiles, our main purpose is and has always been to teach students. (It’s a radical mission, I know!) Since our teaching doesn’t take place in a vacuum, this means we have to account for the latest developments in how students go about learning in the first place. Given the prevalence of technology in pretty much everything we do these days, I shouldn’t have to say much more about how embedded student learning is in the world of websites, apps, and other modern miscellanea.

One mantra often heard from the mouths of digital humanists is that students best ‘learn by doing.’ The practical effect of this mantra is to turn most instructors’ attention in the direction of assignment design. If we can design assignments that encourage students to engage with digital resources of their own accord, then we can actually combine our own pedagogical goals with skills already taking shape for most students. Instead of just hauling out your laptop and slapping some PowerPoint slides up via a projector, in other words, you might even be able to get students to develop technological prowess by creating their own polished presentations (hopefully on a platform more adventurous than PowerPoint).

At the same time, as a former denizen of Swift Hall, I can’t help thinking that ‘learning by doing’ should not supplant learning by, well, thinking. We might even want to say that, in the greater scheme of things, thinking and doing are not so opposed. (This is another daring proposition, I know!) Many a Wednesday I stood in line in the Reynolds Club for my one-(American)-dollar milkshake, surrounded by students with shirts stating: “That’s all well and good in practice, but how does it work in theory?” That leaves a mark on your psyche. (Here I will keep silent regarding claims about where exactly it is that “fun comes to die.”)

The higher goal, then, would be to approach assignment design in a way that honours both the practical wisdom of ‘learning by doing’ and the stodgy-sounding-but-still-salutary ‘learning by thinking.’ While still in Hyde Park, however, I knew that I had to take the initiative if I wanted to get more involved with the former side of things. If left to my own devices, I might have just fashioned a shelter in some long-forgotten corner of the Reg and kept reading the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina editions of Augustine until I transcended any sense of time and space. Perhaps it would eventually become necessary for a search-and-rescue operation to come find me, beard down to the floor, subsisting mostly off of Ex Libris coffee of varying quality (depending on the year in which I got lost).

Luckily, things didn’t end up that way for me. Instead, I went out and tried to procure odd jobs that would help me better understand how to wed twenty-first century tech to the humanities in ways that weren’t utterly lame. In the summer of 2015, I was one of a stout cohort of Divinity School students to contribute to the University’s 125th Anniversary departmental histories project. While some of us were chosen for more exploratory missions (like engaging with molecular engineering), I was given the imposing task of helping to document the long history of the Divinity School itself.

Given that the Divinity School is, by most estimates, about a quarter of a century older than the University of Chicago itself, it should suffice to say that there was much to do. The job involved digitizing old documents (yellowing pages of course programs from 1895), building up databases (of alumni and faculty), and finally contributing to the creation of visual products. That last bit was ultimately completed by people far more skilled than I, of course.

Aiming to keep my momentum going after this summer job, I spent a good chunk of the 2015-2016 academic year working as an Institutional Data Intern with UChicagoGrad and the Office of the Executive Vice President. While the 125th Fellowship job taught me a lot about how to put the ‘digital’ in ‘digital humanities,’ this internship had me not just building up databases, but figuring out how to subject them to data-tuning and then actually put them to work strategically. This was less about connecting digital resources to traditional humanities research and more about burrowing as deep into the digital as my humanities-addled brain could tolerate.

Once I re-emerged from the data-tunnels to the bright, Platonic surface of humanistic truth-seeking, I realized that I would have to figure out how best to put all of this to work in service of both my research and my teaching. That’s what I’ve been trying to do here at MacEwan over the past few months. I began, like all responsible Canadians, with a grand and reverent caution. In my second-year Medieval European History course, as an initial trial balloon, I slowly transitioned my students from traditional reading responses to digital mapping assignments.

For ease of access, I had them use Google’s MyMaps to construct historical maps of twenty distinct locations that were relevant to our study. Of course, given that Google will instantly locate any current site, I mostly used former place-names that are no longer commonly used, such as Constantinople for Istanbul or Königsberg for Kaliningrad. (The latter was surprisingly successful at stumping students!) MyMaps, while insanely simplistic compared to sophisticated mapping tools like GIS or Stanford’s Orbis, does let you play around a little bit. You can add in images and textual descriptions for each locale, while also colour-coding location markers based on relevant criteria (e.g., you can make all of the members of the League of Cambrai purple—just because!).

This time around, however, I decided just to stick with the basics and see how it went. Perhaps students would struggle with the basic elements of accessing MyMaps, navigating its interface, or sending their finished products along to me (as a link rather than a file). In the end, all of these concerns were proved baseless. Prepare for a shocking revelation: students who were mostly born in the late ’90s have little trouble making use of Google programs like this. The most common bit of feedback I got was that the assignment was simply too easy.

To such feedback I say: challenge made; challenge accepted. For my History 101 class this semester, which covers everything ever up to 1500 CE, I will be rolling out not one, not two, but (wait for it) three distinct assignments based on digital tools. The first will be ‘Mapping 2.0,’ which will now be certain to award points on the basis of aesthetic presentation (images, descriptions, and whatever else they can come up with). The second, haunted by the spectre of my 125th Anniversary fellowship, will be a polished timeline constructed using one of the multiple tools made for just such a purpose; I’m currently leaning toward Timeline JS.

The third and final project is, in a way, reminiscent of my institutional data internship, in that I will try to get a bit more technical and have students run analysis on selected textual fragments. Here, however, we run into a potential snag. In a pre-modern history course that is based on evidence provided by a textbook, students will encounter primary sources only by way of translation. An esteemed colleague of mine at Washington State University pointed out the obvious folly of having students run analysis on translated text. Without doubt, NVivo and Voyant can be valuable tools, and yet—might their value be diminished if we apply them not to Virgil but to some schlub’s rendering of his magisterial Latin into crudely modern English? (Apologies to my fellow schlubs out there.)

Translation issues are not the only problems that plague the aspiring digital humanist. Sometimes there are subterranean roadblocks that emerge as if from nowhere. In my senior-level seminar this year, for example, I designed an entire assignment around the use of the Augustine’s Confessions app, a fantastic piece of software developed by a team at Villanova University.[1] Students would be encouraged to consult the app as they worked through the Confessions on their own, then write a review of the app that reflected on its pedagogical potential. At the end of the semester, we would then all join together to present our findings at MacEwan’s common undergraduate research day or CURD. (Note: we don’t actually call it that!)

Alas, as I retired to check my emails one last time before bed after teaching our first session, I saw an email from a student indicating trouble downloading the app. After rooting around a bit, I discovered the core of the issue: the app, being American in origin, could not be purchased from a Canadian account. Rest assured: the obvious workarounds popping up in your head right now have been tried and found wanting. Further workarounds are being sought as we speak. We have our top people working on it. In the meantime, we must wallow in the unexpected awareness that, even in this age of global-digital quasi-bliss, good ol’ national borders still can get in the way of a good assignment.

Postscript: After letting Noel Dolan and the rest of the Confessions app team know about the issue, they fixed everything immediately by adding it to the Canadian app store, thereby cementing Villanova’s status as my favourite school east of Lake Michigan.


Embracing “The Mind that Doesn’t Know”

unnamed                  What I want to unpack is the anxiety that many young faculty feel about “not knowing the answer” in class. I think a lot of us come to the classroom worrying that we don’t know enough to be fit to teach, and that if some student asks us something that we don’t know, our lack of expertise will be exposed. This is often a legitimate fear, since many of us end up teaching classes outside of our research areas; it can also be a hyperbolic expression of the creeping worry of imposter syndrome. I also think, though, that the fear of not-knowing represents a misrecognition of what it is that we should do as teachers.

During my own first two years teaching, I worried constantly that I hadn’t sufficiently mastered the material I was expected to present. Trained primarily as a South Asianist, I was hired for my current position to teach not just “Religions of India,” but “Religions of East Asia” and “Christianity and Religious Diversity.” My anxiety at teaching beyond my existing comfort zone meant that I would often get up at 4 or 5 AM to look for new readings for myself on Confucianism or the Patristic Period; I would spend lunch breaks grilling senior colleagues on the differences between Luther’s and Calvin’s theology, and email grad school friends to inquire whether or not to teach the Documentary Hypothesis.

This content-building was in fact important work, necessary for me to do the work I was hired for—and I learned a lot in the course of getting myself up to speed. But I also noticed that by the end of my fourth semester teaching, this frantic content-acquisition was starting to take over. The more comfortable I became with the content I had mastered, the more I reverted into a model of pedagogy that implicitly privileged content over process, and set me up as the center of knowledge which I would try to pour into my students’ brains. I found myself using more and more class time to lecture, or to answer questions that students asked. In teaching the same rotation of classes, I found myself planning exactly what should happen in each class meeting. As I came into my third year teaching, it was become less and less common that students would ask something I didn’t know the answer to, but it was also less and less common that they would come up with an insight I hadn’t anticipated, or that the class would unfold in organic, unexpected ways.

There were a few things that shook up my perspective on my teaching. The first was that as I started to work more on my first book, I started to spend less time obsessively prepping my classes—and noticed the counter-intuitive result that my teaching often got better. I was continuing to teach a regular rotation of repeated classes, and I discovered that the more time I spent prepping before a session of a course I had already taught three or four times, the more likely I was to dominate and over-structure the class time. I discovered that on the handful of days that I showed up without explicitly preparing, class actually went fantastically well—because I ended up backing off and providing more room for the students to talk, wrestle with things, and direct the flow of our time.

(This is not a recommendation to never go into the classroom prepared, by the way: it’s a recommendation to see past semesters of teaching as part of your preparation. ALWAYS plan when you’re teaching a new course.)

The second wake-up call turned out to be a semester in which my lower-level class simply dragged. By chance there were just more low-skill and low-engagement students in the mix than usual, and the handful of higher-skilled students were unusually reserved; also, we got assigned an awkward room, in which a wall blocked a third of the students from being able to see the rest. Faced week after week with a roomful of blank stares (instead of the usual thoughtful attention and chattiness I had become accustomed to at my institution), I viscerally felt the inadequacy of standing at the front of the room trying to give my students information. I started trying to figure out how to “flip the classroom” and get my resistant students talking to each other and interested in the material.

It didn’t work terribly well with that particular class; I finished the semester with a roomful of still mostly detached students gritting their teeth to get through their core requirement. But I had spent a lot of time myself reviewing my pedagogy, reaffirming my commitment to class discussion, re-imagining ways to produce active investigation instead of passive note-taking (or staring)—and that had profound impacts on the classes I have taught since. The trick, I had to remind myself, was not for me to know things, but for them to understand, discover, and analyze things.

As it turned out, my difficult semester of lower-level students coincided with a semester when my upper-level course was “Religions of East Asia,” and I was struck anew by a reading that I use when teaching Zen. This essay, entitled “Son Master Man’gong,” includes the enlightenment-biography of a young Korean Zen monk. This monk (Man’gong) keeps becoming over-confident of his spiritual accomplishments, and he keeps declaring himself to be enlightened. Then when examined by his master, the master rejects his claim of enlightenment, and sends Man’gong back to work harder at meditating on his koan.

Man’gong does eventually convince his master that he has achieved true spiritual insight, and is on his way to full, true enlightenment, through an exchange in which pivots from asserting his total knowledge, to instead confess his incomprehension:

Man’gong was stunned. He could find nothing to say. … In great despair, Man’gong bowed and said, “Forgive me.”

“Do you understand your mistake?”

“Yes. What can I do?”

“Long ago, when Zen Master Choju was asked if a dog has the Buddha-nature, he said, ‘No!’ What does this mean?”

“I don’t know.”

Kyongho said, “Always keep this mind that doesn’t know and you will soon attain enlightenment.”[1]

A mind that “always knows” is a stuck mind—a mind that can no longer grow. Only a mind that knows its limitations can still be stretching and developing, and this is critical for crafting oneself as a teacher-scholar. As a scholar, I make sure that I am reading and writing about new things that aren’t just rehashing my dissertation. As a teacher too, I now work to try to maintain a mind that doesn’t know. Confident now that I have enough basic knowledge to be competent, I try to find ways to make sure that each class has some flexibility and room for surprise.

So what does it look like to try to teach with a ‘mind that doesn’t know’? I might try rotating in a reading that had been unfamiliar to me, to make sure that I keep teaching at the edges of my expertise (and am therefore still learning myself). I almost always try to make sure there is room in each class meeting for students to digest material in open-ended ways—usually in small groups, that don’t have to ‘report’ to me or defer to my greater knowledge.

I try to only plan out half to three quarters of class time, and try not to have more than 15 minutes of uninterrupted talking by me. When someone asks me a question to which I don’t know the answer, I celebrate that as an interesting new development: I sometimes give the student a best guess at an answer (advertised as such), or explain to them how I might go about finding out the answer, but I try to model for them that it is an exciting moment when someone shows you a point of ignorance, because that’s the moment when you can grow.

Being the expert in the room does sometimes involve conveying information: students simply don’t know enough about Asian religions to responsibly move straight to reflection time, and it is important to make sure that discussions are grounded in concrete practices, details, or texts that they are newly encountering. But conveying information is the beginning and not the end of preparing yourself to teach, and it is much more important to show them how to approach new things and ask good questions—especially when they don’t already know the answer.

[1] Mu Soeng, “Son Master Man’gong and Cogitations of a Colonized Religion.” In Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism, Jin Y. Park, ed. (NY: SUNY series in Korean Studies, 2010)

Twilight of the Textbooks: Smashing Idols through Classroom Dialogue

Thinking back upon the halcyon days of my graduate study in Hyde Park, I dimly recall a formative remark made at one of our always-well-organized (and characteristically well-attended) Craft of Teaching meetings. Alright, in full disclosure: I only received my doctoral degree from the Divinity School this summer, and so I remember those pedagogical sessions better than you might think. Still, permit me to paraphrase rather than cite from eidetic memory.

One or two of our august faculty members had decided to join this particular meeting and grace us with the wisdom they had accumulated over the years. After some brief but helpful opening statements, most of the session consisted of a rather lively question period. We gave the British parliament a run for their money that day. The question that stands out to me still ran as follows: “Since graduate school trains us to focus as intently as possible on increasingly precise topics, how should we go about preparing to teach a course as broad as, say, Introduction to World Religions?”

The authoritative response came down swiftly: “Well, I would have serious reservations about the intellectual integrity and pedagogical purpose of such a course.” (Again, I’m paraphrasing; real speech too often lacks the aesthetic allure of alliteration.) The problem with this response is that it is not really much of a response. It informs the questioner of the respondent’s views on poor syllabus design, I suppose, but it doesn’t help the questioner out of their quandary. As new instructors, we often find ourselves put in the position of having to teach courses that are either pre-made or at least heavily conditioned by departmental expectations.

This is especially so for those who labour as adjuncts or under term contracts, but it is also broadly true for early-career academics of all stripes. It takes time to build up the institutional capital needed to reshape the curriculum (and hopefully not just in one’s own image). To walk in, pedagogical guns a-blazin’, and tell the sheriff how things are going to run now that the new kid’s in town—well, this is not usually advised as best practices by our career advancement counselors.

The most frustrating thing about that response, however, was not that it begged the question and thereby missed the point. Far more frustrating was the fact that the response struck many of us in the room as correct. For a good number of doctoral students, especially those trained rigorously and exhaustively in their chosen fields, there’s much anxiety to be found in the transition from a firm grasp of a topic to a diffuse survey of innumerably many topics.

All of our alarm bells go off when we’re told we have to teach our classes on the basis of notions like “world history” or “the West” or, most alarming of all, “religion.” I remember too that, while I was still finishing up my dissertation, I went to interview for an adjuncting gig at another Chicago-area school. The job was to teach something like the “Intro to World Religion” bogeyman mentioned above. As I prepared for the interview, I racked my brain trying to go back over every critique I had ever read about the universalizing idea of “religion,” the integrity of the field of “religious studies,” and the reflective questions we need to ask if we are going to try to speak of global traditions that span countless times and places.

This was exactly the wrong approach to take, at least if my goal was to land the gig. Let it suffice to say that I did not. Shortly after I arrived, the interviewer asked me point-blank: “So, which religions would you be teaching?” Slightly (or not-so-slightly) stunned, I managed to stammer out some of the overcooked reflections about the problem of ‘religion as such’ I had come up with in advance. The interviewer stopped me mid-sentence, reiterating the request more assertively: “Just tell me which ones you’re gonna teach.”

In the end, it turned out, the interviewer just wanted me to provide a Wikipedia-style listing of so-called ‘world religions:’ Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism… Maybe Daoism or Shinto or Confucianism, if they’re lucky. Jainism would have probably been a bridge too far for this particular interviewer. Regardless, the underlying message bubbled to the top fairly quickly. Again, to paraphrase: “Just teach ‘em some religions and get out.”

Luckily, the position I now find myself in is much more welcoming than that. Still, my teaching duties demand from me a breadth that can remain a bit startling at times. As a member of a Humanities Department, I am surrounded by colleagues skilled in History, Classics, Philosophy, and a wide swath of languages. My degree says History of Christianity, but this semester I’m responsible for teaching everything from ancient Rome up to Shelley’s Frankenstein. Next year, I’ll be taking on my first proper ‘world history’ course, covering everything (well, not everything) from the time the aliens built their first pyramid (just kidding) up until the year 1500 CE.

Sticking to my grad-student guns may no longer cut it. One way or another, I will be teaching these courses. In some (not all) cases, I will be free to select a textbook from a pre-approved list of possibilities. Within an institutional context, of course, this freedom will not be absolute. Given these constraints, it is on me as a teacher to figure out how to do justice to the inherent diversity of these historical periods. And I’ll have to do so in a way that’s intellectually responsible, yet also accessible to the increasingly large number of students staring back at me.

In other words: ‘dialogue in the classroom’ isn’t just a goal or a nice aspiration. It’s a necessity. Rather than letting the textbook talk for itself (as if it could), we instructors have to make sure that we are speaking not just alongside the textbook, but oftentimes against it. Now, I don’t mean to say that every textbook is trash. Writing a textbook seems like an unpleasant and potentially unrewarding task, so I’m not out to vilify the good people who actually sit down and write these things. But the level of generality at which most textbooks operate lends itself to vagueness bordering on misinformation. Sometimes the Big Picture, however, useful as an introductory image, risks turning into a dangerous idol.

Dialogue in the classroom is how we smash that idol or, at the very least, provide our students with a number of diverse idols which can then hash it out in some kind of apocalyptic Twilight of the Idols, culminating in Ragnarok-like fashion at the end of the semester. To make this call for dialogue more substantive, let me suggest a few concrete steps we can take to keep ourselves away from the pitfalls plaguing the uncritically taught survey course.

There are countless ways we could go about framing different kinds of dialogue, so I’ll keep myself to just three. I’ll call these critical dialogue, digital dialogue, and political dialogue. Critical dialogue means not being afraid to call out the textbook. Does your medieval history textbook, despite aiming for pluralism, put the contributions of Jews, Muslims, and women in a secondary place? Mine does! If yours does too, say that. Let the students know. Some of them might be picking up on that already, but not everyone will be.

Digital dialogue, meanwhile, is a tricky one. It is tough to go there without coming off as vapid (“Digital Humanities changes everything!”) or snide (“What does digital humanities even mean, anyway?”). But the secret strength of digital resources is that they allow students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to join the dialogue to do so. Students who learn visually can excel in online mapping assignments; those who struggle to speak in class can join the conversation in other ways. It doesn’t always have to be old-school, stand-and-deliver pedagogy.

This broadening of accessibility brings me to political dialogue. Given recent events, this kind of dialogue should be as intimidatingly relevant as ever. But by ‘political dialogue’ I don’t necessarily mean explicit debates about policy, however necessary those might be. Instead, I’d like to draw a parallel between dialogue in the public sphere and in-class discussion. In both cases, there is an increasing concern that we are losing touch with one another. Our online echo chambers echo loudly with the reminder that we are stuck in those very echo chambers. The same might be said for the academic echo chambers many of us inhabit while in grad school. As you finish up the dissertation, you might find yourself talking (mostly in your head) to people who know a lot of what you’re going to say before you even say it. That is not at all the case when you have fifty minutes to teach a room full of teenagers about, say, the Hundred Years’ War. Political dialogue in the classroom, then, might also have to mean fine-tuning your approach to fit the backgrounds and the vocabularies of your students. Not everyone had the privilege of inhabiting the echo chamber you just spent seven-plus years exhaustively exploring.

Please indulge me as I close with one more anecdote or, in this case, an anecdote within an anecdote. On a certain lunch one fine Wednesday, I heard the historian of religion Bruce Lincoln recount his memories of an ongoing debate between two of his mentors, little-known scholars by the names of Mircea Eliade and Jonathan Z. Smith. This dispute, Lincoln told us, revolved around the question of which came first in cosmology and cosmogony: chaos or order. In Lincoln’s telling, his own academic formation took shape in the wake of hearing his two teachers engaged in substantive debate about an intellectually precise question.

Admittedly, it is hard to model this kind of precision in large survey classes. But that is precisely why we need to encourage critical dialogue within these classes. Even (or especially) when you’re giving students the Big Picture, you shouldn’t let them think that learning stops there. As they turn to sell their textbooks back to the campus store, as so many do, let them see this not only as a financially necessary concession, but also as an emancipatory act of idol-smashing. At the very least, it’ll sound cooler that way.

Teaching in the Aftermath

Stephanie Frank, Columbia College Chicago

Editor’s note: Stephanie and David Albertson (University of Southern California) have begun a facebook group for discussion about and resource-pooling for humanities teaching in the wake of the election. Please message Stephanie if you would like to be added to the group.


When the election results began coming in, Tuesday evening, my thoughts went immediately to my bright, curious students, who had just voted in their first national election. Even then, before we knew the statistics about demographics and voting patterns, I had the sense of owing them an apology, as though the premise of liberal-arts education had been exposed as a lie, as though liberal-arts education itself was part of the counterfeiting of society, which (as Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert wrote more than a century ago) “always pays itself in the false coin of its own dream.”

Some colleagues were cancelling classes, and I understood the impulse—I was dubious that my students would be prepared for class. In fact, having a sense of the political temperature among my students from asides over the course of the semester, I was skeptical many would show up for class. More to the point, if I felt uncomfortable about standing up in front of my classroom in general, it seemed absolutely absurd to stand up in front of my classroom and carry on as planned—talking about practices of self-formation in Buddhism and early modern Christian monasticism.

At the same time, to cancel class seemed like giving up, like abandoning education just at the very moment that its necessity had just been underscored. So I wrote to my students, urging them to come, telling them that we could use class time to talk about whatever seemed relevant to them. I bought all the donuts at my local bakery and picked up a box of tissues.

I was not confident, travelling into the office loaded down with pastry, that I was doing the right thing. I generally maintain my classroom as a neutral forum—a space for students to learn how to advocate for their views more effectively. I don’t know how many times I have announced, in class, “I do not care what your politics are–you can have any opinion you want, as long as you are prepared to support it with an argument.” But clearly by abandoning my syllabus I was sending to my students a signal that I thought we were in the space of crisis. I was, after a fashion, taking sides. And I knew that this effect would be underscored by the fact that most of my students had views broadly similar to my own. One of my gravest fears about the result of the election was that our country would become a place where dissent was stifled; was I knowingly allowing my classroom to become such a space?

Further, I have always—and this comes as much from the University of Chicago as from anywhere—recoiled from the model of the classroom as a space for self-expression. The academy, for me, has been about critical discourse. I have refocused conversations when they have veered off into the personal; I have pushed students volunteering their experiences, in discussion, to analyze them. I have often defended the humanities against the charge of ‘softness’ as teaching skills of argument-making.

In my teaching statement, I name those skills as reading, writing, and speaking.

Critically, I forgot listening.

And it occurred to me that a failure of listening was at least a major part of why things had happened as they had, on Tuesday.

So I decided, on Wednesday morning, that listening would be the theme for the day. On the one hand—though I do not kid myself that my students did not discern my political sentiments—this was a strategy that would allow me to lead a discussion that would necessarily be political without politicking myself. (When a Trump supporter spoke up, I took it to mean that I was successful in cultivating an open discussion, even if the classroom environment could not be described as ‘neutral.’) But more importantly, it would be beneficial for my students: the students who were hurt needed to be heard, and the students who were oblivious to those pains frankly needed to hear them.

I had prepared some notes to connect the things that I thought would come up in discussion to conversations we had already had, over the course of the class—for instance, the matter of the mobilizing power of the demonization of others, or the question of whether complicity in oppressive systems constituted a kind of violence. But I said very little, ultimately. I offered my students donuts and reminded them of the rules of our classroom. I asked them how they felt about what had happened. And then I listened.

My students were, as usual, candid and smart. A couple of students spoke about their immigrant parents and undocumented immigrants in the communities they lived in. One student spoke movingly about her severely disabled brother; her presence in that classroom was made possible by Obamacare. Many students spoke about their concern for queer friends and loved ones. One student spoke frankly about her rape.

All of these students spoke, in some way, about their sense of vulnerability, in the wake of the election results. Then a young black man gently pointed out that this sense of vulnerability had been his daily reality for years, and that that would not probably have changed if the election had gone the other way.

The tissue box made the rounds.

I cried with my students.

I do not regret that.

In one sense I did little ‘teaching’ on Wednesday. Mostly, I made sure everyone who wanted to talk had a chance to say their piece. When I intervened, it was to try to connect students’ comments to each other—to show them that apparently disparate experiences might not be so disparate after all. Most of the teaching was done by my students, sharing their experiences. And I am confident that this was a kind of teaching—that my students learned in the sense that their moral horizons shifted, in the process of listening.

I suspect that surrendering the notion of education as ethical formation, over the last generation, has contributed to our current political predicament. So I think, now, that I was wrong to be so skittish about the sharing of feelings in the classroom. I thought of it as a kind of ersatz therapy, a form of adolescent self-involvement to be guarded against, but I see now that the pedagogical value is not for the speaker but the listener: truly attending to the experiences of someone else—particularly someone whose experiences one might not otherwise encounter—is powerfully transformative.

I am unsure if humanities teaching changed last week, or if it was revealed to have been all along something different than what we have been doing. And I am unsure what all of the contours of the new project are. But I am sure that the pedagogy of listening is one of the things we must cultivate in the days ahead.

Being Bilingual (But Speaking One Language): Thoughts on the Insider/Outsider Problem in Teaching Islam

quershiOver the past three academic years, I have twice been called upon to teach a class titled “The Academic Study of Islam.” This is an MA level course that is meant to introduce students to the graduate program as well as provide them some of the competencies needed to carry out their studies over the course of their degree. When I was first offered this course, I thought to myself, “Great! This is exactly the kind of introduction to the field of Islamic studies that I wish I had as a beginning graduate student!” We cover some of the perennial problems for scholars of Islam, such as which transliteration system to use (Library of Congress? IJMES? Encyclopaedia of Islam? EI2 or EI3?) and how to get it to work on your computer. The course introduces students to the primary scholarly reference works, and also covers problems related to methodology and theory. How do scholars engage Islamic sources? Can we take what the sources say at face-value, or do we have to adopt a posture of radical skepticism towards these sources? This was a course I designed for outsiders of the Islamic tradition to study Islam as outsiders and so my frame of reference was not the Islamic tradition but the academy.

This class has forced me to think through my own position in religious studies as well as the study of Islam. I have pursued the study of religion throughout my academic career and I have also studied Islam at length in a more traditional manner, studying directly under religious scholars (ulama) in a non-institutional format. While the differences between the academic study of Islam and the traditional study of Islam are quite clear to me, designing and teaching “The Academic Study of Islam” has provided me with an opportunity to pause and think about some of these differences.

The insider/outsider problem is one of the seminal problems that one faces in the study of religion. Scholars have often spoken about this problem using the terms emic and etic, where the former studies religion from the insider’s perspective, and the latter studies religion from an outsider’s. For the study of Islam, Edward Said’s Orientalism presents a powerful critique of the etic study of the Orient, problematizing questions of knowledge, power, and representation. As a graduate student, I found Said’s condemnation of the Orientalist enterprise far-reaching and insightful, but it over shot and essentialized Orientalist scholarship. Further, it did not advocate a way to move forward in the study of Islam.

Perhaps the clearest statement regarding an etic view for the study of Islam was made in 1977 by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, in their Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. This small book was a tour de force that challenged the field of early Islamic history. Though they do not use the term, they accused the then regnant scholarship for being by and large emic, merely re-telling what the Islamic sources say about Islam’s origins. Hagarism was meant to challenge the field and its methodological assumptions. In the clearest statement of an outsider position, the authors state:

“This is a book written by infidels for infidels, and it is based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources. Our account is not merely unacceptable; it is also one which any Muslim whose faith is as a grain of mustard seed should find no difficulty in rejecting.” (Hagarism, viii)

The outsider position was not what turned me off from this approach, nor its undermining of traditional Muslim accounts. It appeared as a good thought experiment—“What would the origins of Islam look like if we relied entirely on non-Muslim sources?”—but this was not what the authors posited (though other scholars picked up this line of questioning with very fruitful results). What turned me off to this approach was the epistemological stance and playing fast and loose with the sources. Though the authors have distanced themselves from this “youthful idea” in the decades since its release, it remains emblematic of one approach to the academic study of Islam: it can only truly be done by outsiders.

Writing at roughly the same time, Marshall Hodgson presented a way of thinking about Islam that was not emic and that was aware of the scholar’s positionality vis-à-vis their object of study. The introduction to his monumental three-volume The Venture of Islam presented Hodgson’s own terminology, not borrowed from other disciplines and superimposed on Islam, but ideas that he developed organically from his decades of studying and teaching Islam. His introduction displayed his own awareness of the biases that scholars bring to their object of study. One quote from the introduction has stuck with me over the years, and speaks to the insider/outsider problem: “It is no guarantee of balanced insight, to be a Muslim, nor of impartiality, to be a non-Muslim.” (The Venture of Islam, 1:27) Hodgson thus was sensitive to the insider/outsider problem, but more importantly provided a method for studying Islam that acknowledged the problem.

While Hodgson was quite useful in doing Islamic studies in the academy, he did not get to the heart of the difference between Orientalism and traditional Islamic scholarship. As a doctoral student, I read Talal Asad’s seminal essay The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, where he tackled the problem of an essentialism and nominalism in the study of Islam. Essentialist studies of Islam conceive of Islam as maintaining an ahistorical unchanging essence (part of what Said problematized); nominalism on the other hand collapses the idea of an essentialized Islam (with a capital I) and conceives of multiple islams (lower case i) determined by the informants’ own ideas. Asad’s solution was to think of Islam as a discursive tradition. I do not want to dwell here on Asad’s concept of discursive tradition, as other more qualified scholars are able to do so. What I want to note is that it helped me think through the problem of Orientalism and traditional Islamic scholarship. Specifically, it made clear to me the notion that Orientalism, like traditional Islamic scholarship, is also a tradition: it has its founding figures, institutions, fundamental agreements, problems, methodologies, standards, and modes of inquiry. Drawing on the work of the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (an important source for Asad), I would further note that these traditions are not entirely incommensurable; rather, there are ways in which they not only challenge but also inform one another.

Thus, someone trained in the academic study of religion as well as in the religion itself inhabits two traditions at once. The metaphor that best clarifies this dual inhabitance to my mind is being bilingual. Each language has its own rules, its own syntax, morphology, and rhetoric, long established before you or I started using them. One option is to conform to the rules of one language when using it, and the other while using that one. Hybridity too is an option, or even pidginization, or creolization. I however prefer to speak Arabic with my Arab friends, and English as my mother tongue.

What to do then with a class like “The Academic Study of Islam”? This, to my mind, is largely dependent on the institution one is at and the particular departmental learning outcomes. Outside of the context of a Muslim institution of higher learning, in my approach, such a class is an initiation into the Western etic tradition of studying Islam.

Claiming Authority in the Classroom

s200_robyn-whitaker“Don’t ever take baked goods to your class,” I was told one day by a well-meaning colleague. “It’s a thing only women faculty do and it completely undermines us.” My brain flicked through the myriad of times I’ve presented my classes with cupcakes, slices, or muffins to prop them up towards the end of term, reward them for enthusiastically attending 8am language classes three times a week, or simply wanted to care for stressed out, badly fed students. You see, I like to bake and I like to feed people. Little did I know I was apparently undermining my authority as a female professor.

There are many theories about how to claim authority in the classroom (see here for example) and even more when it comes to being female. Here are a few thoughts from my experience as a teacher, mostly in seminary or Div School settings, so I acknowledge that some of the dynamics are different for those who teach undergrads.

In my experience the challenge to authority comes in two forms. Firstly, that student who doesn’t really want to be there and whose body language is signaling that loud and clear. These I mostly ignore. My job is to prepare the most engaging class I can, but I cannot force a disengaged student to learn (I might however follow up with them privately). Second is the student who wants to challenge you, who sees the classroom as a chance to show what they know, or to take on the teacher. There is a particular manifestation of this last type in religion departments and seminaries where (usually) men feel the need to tell (usually) female faculty what the real “truth” is. In this case, it might be a matter of rising above and not letting such a person push your buttons, but we’ll address this person further below.

Here are some of my “rules” for claiming authority:

1. Set clear ground rules

This means being clear about your expectations from the first class. I tell students to be punctual (and make sure I am), I tell them what to call me, and I use the syllabus as a way to establish a set of expectations about their own conduct, obligations, and academic standards. In Australia we tend to be casual so students call me “Robyn” at my invitation. Check what the culture is at your institution and, particularly if you are a woman, demand the equivalent title to the male professors.

I usually start semester with a conversation about in-class method. I mostly teach Bible classes to students who come with their own deeply embedded belief systems and ideas about the Bible. I use this excellent piece about not being entitled to your own opinion in my classroom as a way to talk about the kinds of argument one can mount on the basis of evidence (i.e. the text). I also reassure them that I am not interested in all students having my theology, but rather that they know how to argue and think for themselves. It can undermine the attempts of that second type of student who wants to challenge your “truth” with his or have a theological argument.

2. The classroom is not a combat zone

One way to diffuse any potentially combative student is to take the approach that the classroom is not a combat zone. This relates to what we are trying to do as teachers. My model is to think of myself as facilitator and coach (as cheesy as those terms are). It means when challenged by that obnoxious student I don’t take it personally but see it as a chance to further someone’s learning. So I acknowledge them for their knowledge and preparation (if appropriate), or for a challenging question or willingness to engage, but I also challenge them to think more deeply and point out if they are being obnoxious or bullying to other students in an attempt to help them learn appropriate adult ways to disagree. Of course, you can still expect rigorous debate, but sometimes we have to show how it is done.  

3. Respect is mutual

Too often I see faculty complain they don’t get respect when they don’t respect the students. Respect is mutual. One of the ways I respect students is to learn their names and something about them as a person. It also helps to remember being a young person who was so desperately trying to figure out their place in the world. I show respect by making sure I am punctual, prepared and dressed like a professional. Don’t dress like a student and then complain when you are treated like one!

Part of respect relates to #1 and the expectations of the classroom. I say something like this to students on day one: “if I see you on facebook or texting during class I’ll assume you would rather be doing something else with your time and I’ll ask you to leave so that you can do that. If you are here, respect me and your classmates by being present.” See how I made that about respecting peers and not just the teacher?

3. Have good boundaries

Lastly, know your role. You are not a friend or mother/father: you are responsible for student learning in one particular subject area. No matter what you do not every student will like you and that is ok. Remind yourself that you successfully completed a PhD and bring real knowledge to the room. Equally you don’t have all knowledge. Admitting what you don’t know something can be powerful modelling. It allows for a conversation about how you’d find X out and approach research, and it empowers students to learn for themselves (and frees us from such expectations!).

4. Pick your battles

If the above does not create the classroom culture you’d like it is definitely not worth having a power battle with a student in front of everyone. Have the confidence to shut it down and say “let’s continue that conversation after class, we need to move on.” I find many of the students who like to grandstand in public are far less comfortable with a one-on-one combative conversation. Moreover, the other students will appreciate that you are valuing their time by managing the class and not letting it be hijacked.

Lastly, walk into your classroom with confidence – back straight, head up, voice slow, and a smile on your face. If need be, fake it until it’s real. And, if you feel so moved, take cupcakes to class. Not because you need to be liked, but because we are all human beings and sometimes sugar = happiness.

Meet the Bloggers Day 5: Jawad Qureshi

Meet the fifth blogger we will be hearing from this year on the Craft of Teaching blog, Jawad Qureshi (Assistant Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, American Islamic College)!

With our cohort introduced, their own contributions will be beginning next week.

CoT: What was your area of focus and year of graduation (or expected graduation) at the Divinity School?quershi

JQ: I am a PhD candidate in the Islamic Studies program, aiming to graduate Spring 2017.

CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?

JQ: I wish there was more guidance and mentoring on syllabus design, specifically in relation to course objectives, learning outcomes, and assessment. As students, we have probably read dozens if not hundreds of syllabi, but we have rarely been called upon to write one and perhaps no feedback if we did have to write one. As a new faculty member, I was surprised by how important syllabi are to the department and college.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

JQ: There are so many! I would love to teach a course on the concept of tradition in the study of religion. I would explore the writings of Talal Asad and Alasdair MacIntyre, putting them in conversation with Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic authors who also wrote on tradition.

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today?

JQ: The professor that has left the most lasting impact on me from my undergraduate years was Jill Raitt. She taught me how to read ancient and medieval authors in a fresh and relevant way to my own intellectual and personal queries. Specifically it was mastery of the material and her critical engagement with these texts in an honest and  rigorous manner that has stuck with me. This course made me change my undergraduate focus to the study of religion and remains a model for how I want to teach.

CoT:  If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

JQ: I would love to co-teach a course with Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Sunni theology and legal theory. (Who am I kidding, I would more likely sit under the master and learn!)

CoT: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _____ and your new superpower of _____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

JQ: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _mango_ and your new superpower of _slowing down time_ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

Meet the Bloggers Day 4: Robyn Whitaker

We happily introduce Robyn Whitaker (Bromby Lecturer in Biblical Studies & Online Coordinator, Trinity College Melbourne Theological School) in today’s Meet the Blogger post. Stay tuned for our final introductory post in this series later this week!

s200_robyn-whitakerCoT: What was your area of focus and year of graduation (or expected graduation) at the Divinity School?

RW: My PhD (2014) was in Bible, with a focus on the New Testament and the Book of Revelation in particular.

CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?

RW: I wish we’d been trained in course and syllabus design in relation to learning outcomes. I still find it difficult to know how best to craft a course, choose the readings, and shape assessment tasks in order to get the desired outcome. I’m learning just how much time it takes to craft a new course from scratch and do it well.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

RW: This is a bit out of my field, but I’d love to teach a course on the rhetoric of preaching. I learned a lot about ancient rhetorical training as part of my dissertation work and think Greco-Roman rhetorical training offers a powerful method for modern homiletics both in terms of analyzing great sermons and in preparing sermons from conception through delivery. We could do with a few more Quintilians in our pulpits and public squares.

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today?

RW: Sadly, I have no memorable undergrad teachers. At least, not ones memorable for their inspirational teaching! But during my MDiv, I was fortunate to have a very engaging professor who opened up the Bible in ways that challenged me deeply (intellectually and personally) and made me realize the complexity and depth of biblical studies. She now happens to be the Dean where I teach.

CoT:  If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

RW: For an undergrad class it would have to be comedian Billy Connelly. A) He is hilarious, so it would be the funniest class ever. B) While not an academic he is one of the best story-tellers I know. Being able to talk about the ancient world in terms of stories makes it memorable and “real.” C) As a comedian he has an unusual perspective on the world which I think would make teaching the Bible pretty interesting.

CoT: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _____ and your new superpower of _____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

RW: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive __kangaroo___ and your new superpower of _reading their minds____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

Meet the Bloggers Day 3: Stephanie Frank

Today we introduce our third educator who will be posting on the Craft of Teaching blog this year: Stephanie Frank, Lecturer in Religion and Humanities at Columbia College Chicago. Find out more about Stephanie below…

CoT: What was your area of focus and year of graduation (or expected graduation) at the Divinity School?

SF: History of religions, 20152q

CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?

SF: I wish I had learned how central it is to the project of teaching to secure buy-in from students—and how that entails very different things in different contexts and among different student populations.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

SF: I have always wanted to teach a class that tries to make sense of the category of ‘political theology.’ I am especially interested in the relationship of historical claims about the relation of theological and political ideas to various constructive/normative projects.

CoT:  If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

SF: I really regret that I never had a chance to study with Jonathan Smith; I can’t even imagine how much I would learn from co-teaching with him, both about religion and about teaching.

CoT: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _____ and your new superpower of _____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

SF: I don’t know what radioactive bite would communicate it, but I think the superpower of silence—of being willing to ask a question and then just wait—is a powerful improvement to teaching.

Meet the Bloggers Day 2: Sean Hannan

Today we introduce our second blogger in the Meet the Boggers series: Sean Hannan, Assistant Professor in the Humanities at MacEwan University. Find out what he thinks about radioactive angels below…

CoT: What was your area of focus and year of graduation (or expected graduation) at the Divinity School?

SH: History of Christianity; graduated 2016 (Summer Convocation — perhaps the last one ever?)

CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?

SH: I found that attending the Craft of Teaching sessions and doing some teaching of my own (in the College Core, Graham School, and at St. Xavier on the Southwest Side) left me with a good deal of experience heading into my first actual day on the job. If anything, I suppose what I would have most benefitted from would have been more discussion of how to translate teaching material from a UChicago Core or liberal arts model into the more survey- and lecture-intensive atmosphere of most other post-secondary institutions. Ideally, the use of, say, digital tools in the classroom would not be the sole skill learned in one’s pedagogical training. But what if you wind up in a setting where the use of such learning tools is strongly encouraged? Are there ways to bring the best of Chicago-style academics to bear upon other kinds of learning environments? What kinds of specific strategies should we be testing out before we find ourselves in front of big classes full of students with their own unique sets of expectations?

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

SH: I’d love to teach a survey or seminar on the history of different ideas about time. Even limiting ourselves to the ‘Western’ tradition, we could glean a lot from a march through the diverse definitions of time offered up by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Al-Razi, Hasdai Crescas, and so on and so on. “Time” is a word that gets thrown around in a lot in different academic contexts, but I seldom see many attempts to attack the topic directly. Doing so would hold interest not just for students of philosophy, history, and religion, but also for those who want to put intellectual history into conversation with contemporary questions. (How many pop-science articles about “what science tells us time really is” pop up on our Facebook feeds?) Luckily, it looks like my new institution might be giving me the chance to put together such a class for upper-level undergraduates next year. Fingers crossed!

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today?

SH: Two of my undergraduate professors at the University of Alberta really made a meaningful impression on me and my academic trajectory so far. The first, Dr. Kitchen, taught me that you can look at ancient and medieval history in fresh and exciting ways, rather than sticking to the staid textbook line. The second, Dr. Gow, used to hold reading groups–sometimes extracurricular, sometimes for credit–that allowed students to push beyond the usual offerings found in the everyday curriculum. By letting us help design the reading list, no matter how ambitious it became, Dr. Gow gave us the chance to test out our own intellectual limit-cases, rather than sitting passively in the back row of some lecture hall. If I can leave any of my students with that sense of intellectual possibility and open-endedness, which I definitely received from Dr. Kitchen and Dr. Gow, I’ll be more than satisfied.

CoT:  If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

SH: I would team-teach a course on the philosophy of time and the use of historical narrative with Chicago’s own Paul Ricoeur. A close second place would be co-teaching a course on the relationship between religion and historical consciousness with Karl Löwith. Third place would be a course on Neoplatonic and Aristotelian theories of time in late antiquity (which become astoundingly complicated!) with the historian of philosophy Richard Sorabji. (I’m not sure if anyone would sign up for that one, but I’d love to do it all the same.) In any of these cases, I’d stand a much better chance of accomplishing my ‘dream course’ (as outlined in a response above) than I would trying to do it all on my own.

CoT: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _____ and your new superpower of _____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

SH: I’ve been bitten by a radioactive angel and my new superpower of directly beholding the Word of God has instantly made me a more effective teacher, since I now have unmediated access to the rational causes underlying the vast architecture of the universe in its entirety. (Sorry, I’ve been reading a lot of Augustine lately…)

Meet the Bloggers Day 1: Anne Mocko

Welcome back to the Craft of Teaching blog and to the start (for us late bloomers in Swift Hall, anyway) of another academic year! After our summer hiatus, we are delighted to announce that we are following upon the success of last year’s blog conversation between five alumni bloggers within the first ten years of their graduation with another, similar cohort of Divinity-school trained scholars & educators in the diverse domains of religious studies.

Like last year, we begin with a “Meet the Bloggers” series in which we will introduce this year’s Bloggers in Digital Residence. Over the course of the year, they will share their reflections and experiences teaching religion in a variety of disciplines and institutional contexts, in productive counterpoint with the Craft of Teaching programming taking place at the Divinity School.

Today, we are happy to welcome Anne Mocko, Assistant Professor of Religion at Concordia College.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation (or expected graduation) at the Divinity School?unnamed

Anne Mocko: I was in History of Religions, and I graduated in 2012. I took qualifying exams in Hinduism, Buddhism, and critical theory, and wrote a dissertation about Hinduism, politics, and ritual in modern Nepal.

CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?

AM: I’m not actually sure how to answer this, because I learned a lot about teaching and had quite a bit of teaching experience while I was still a doctoral student. But I guess the steepest learning curve came from having to balance teaching multiple courses at the same time: as a grad student I had only ever taught one course at a time, and so that course had all of my attention. Trying to juggle multiple courses unfolding at the same time is a rather specific skill, but I’m not sure anyone could have taught me how to do it.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

AM: I really want to teach an undergraduate seminar around Jain practices, as both a content course and an experiential course. I envision week by week having the class learn about different categories of actions Jains pay attention to, and different things Jains renounce or avoid—and then all of the students being required to go out and experiment with renouncing or avoiding practices from that category. I think it would open up all kinds of conversations about American consumer culture, and what it means to live a religious and moral life.

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today?

AM: I had a lot of great professors as an undergraduate, but I think I might pattern my own teaching most closely off Isabelle Kinnard, a New Testament scholar (and UChicago alum) with whom I took “Synoptic Gospels” as a college senior. Prof. Kinnard was able to convey both a deep love and seriousness for her subject, while also expressing a profound appreciation for the ways her subject could be odd or perplexing or ridiculous, which I think is something of a Chicago ethos that helped send me to grad school. She struck a successful balance between providing information for us (lecturing) and inviting our debates (discussion), which I try to deploy in my own classes, and her class introduced me to the pedagogical power of close reading.

CoT: If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

AM: The two guys from Car Talk. I’m not sure exactly what subject we would teach, but they are so magnificent at explaining something that I don’t really understand or care about, in a way that makes me understand and care about it, that I can’t see how we could go wrong.

CoT: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _____ and your new superpower of _____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

AM: Panda bear ; sitting silently while a student rethinks and finds an answer for themselves.

On Suits, Shoes, and Professionalization

Last fall I was at a workshop—at Princeton, to flash some “professional” credentials at the start.  My colleague and fellow blogger Lauren Osborne was there, too—even more “professional” than me, because she had submitted a paper for the group to discuss.  She and I were standing outside a room waiting for a key-note to begin, and we were talking about this gig, the blog, and the Craft of Teaching program more broadly, which we understood as an initiative in response to a long-standing lack of emphasis, on behalf of the Divinity School, to issues of “professionalization.”  We said something, one of us, to the effect that this was a good thing, getting grad students to think about academia as a profession, helping folks prepare for and land jobs. Continue reading

Employment is the New Citizenship: The Liberal Arts in the Global Economy

I would like to circle this discussion of Peter Kaufman’s article back to the academic discipline of religious studies. In general terms, Kaufman encourages humanities teachers to work together with our colleagues in pre-professional programs to find ways to make sense of humanistic study as contributing to the professional development of students. This is insofar as those students will become professionals, and even leaders in their professions, for whom the challenge of responding to the unfolding exigencies of their work lives will require skills beyond those learned in their pre-professional classes. They will require, Kaufman writes, the skills we teach in the humanities. Continue reading

Laboral Arts

I am pleased to follow Rick Elgendy and Lauren Osborne in contributing to the Craft of Teaching blog’s quarter-long discussion of the relationships between liberal education and professionalization in academe, with reference to Peter Kaufman’s article “Education for Professional Leadership in the Humanities: Exhortations and Demonstrations.”

It seems clear from reading these thoughts by my colleagues that the conversation about the “crisis of the humanities” is a conversation about many other things, as well. Starting out from a consideration of the purpose of a liberal arts education, it moves quickly to such grand themes as the nature of the human being, the structure of society, and the struggle against injustice. A grand (if not grandiose) list of concerns, to which I cannot resist adding one more: the alienation of spirit and body. Continue reading

Academe as Labor

As Rick Elgendy mentioned in his recent post, “Pedagogy in the Humanities and Professional Leadership,” the Craft of Teaching Religion blog is hosting a quarter-long conversation on the relationship between liberal education and the increasing calls for increased professionalization in higher education. As the second contributor to that series of posts, I continue the conversation here. Continue reading

Pedagogy in the Humanities and Professional Leadership

This quarter, the Craft of Teaching blog is hosting a sustained conversation on the uneasy coexistence of liberal education in the humanities and professional training in contemporary higher education.  The tension between faculties, the shifting administrative focus of energy and resources to the professions, the apparent impatience of many students with the “impractical” arts and humanities – all of these are well-documented (and frequently bemoaned).  But need this relationship be tense?  How can each play a role in majors and programs traditionally constituted by the other?

Continue reading

The Balancing Act of Major Design

Prior to undertaking a department-wide redesign of our major, I never would have realized how complex the conversation can be between the opportunities and constraints of institutional context and parameters. Although it sounds obvious in retrospect, one’s ideals about how best to instill in undergraduates robust and critical understandings of our discipline must be balanced with institutional concerns that may arise on a variety of levels. In this post, I take a pragmatic approach in considering the nuts and bolts of a religion major. While this approach does raise the issue of theoretical concerns of defining the discipline in conversation with learning goals that we decide we ought to instill in students, I approach these matters from the bottom up, so to speak. Continue reading

Teaching from Both Head and Heart

Once, at a senior ministry project presentation, I turned to Prof. Richard Rosengarten and said, “What’s the difference between a seminary and a divinity school?”  “I don’t know,” he replied with a grin, “what is the difference between a seminary and a divinity school?”  I was a little embarrassed to tell him that this wasn’t the setup to a great joke, but a sincere question. Continue reading

Interdisciplinarity and the Classroom

Interdisciplinary! It’s not just a buzzword—it’s a way of life! Or maybe it’s just a buzzword? I’ve been thinking lately about the ways in which interdisciplinarity, which seems relatively easily saleable in the context of job applications and administrative newsletters, relates to teaching, and especially to teaching upper-level courses. Continue reading