Scaling Up

By Mandy Burton, College of Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago

I’ve always liked teaching required classes. It is a genuine preference—a happy accident of temperament rather than a boast about what a superior departmental citizen I am—but also a fortunate one for me, since most of us end up spending a lot of our classroom time in core seminars and introductory courses. While I can’t bottle the preference itself, I can identify the aspects of this kind of teaching that have sustained me through multiple iterations of the same course (and in some cases the additional bog-down-y millstone of a standardized syllabus.) In the end, it’s pretty simple: focus on the students’ experience of the text, rather than my own. However many times I have read the Nichomachean Ethics or the Inferno, the other readers in the classroom are new to me, each time, and the freshness of their own encounter with the material refreshes it for me. It’s not an approach that works with every kind of course, but in those introductory courses that aim to teach students a new way of seeing the world, I have found it both sustainable and sustaining.

This somewhat Pollyannaish approach to teaching, however, crashes up against another challenging aspect of required courses, and one which I myself had been spared until relatively recently: their size. I’ve taught overloads before and drowned in seemingly-endless stacks of papers, and it is a challenging situation even when an overload means 45 or 50 students (as it has in my experiences.) But all of those papers, and all of our in-class discussions, still took place between the same 45 or 50 people. In my present position, I have 120 students. Next year will likely be 150. I am not yet certain I can persuade my chair that 150 should be the absolute cap, rather than 175.

120 faces, 120 minds. 120 transformations to observe, nudge, or wheedle along as necessary. The issue isn’t simply the volume of grading for so many students (although of course that matters, too); it’s the challenge of being present to 120 different individuals. It’s the challenge of getting to know them well enough to push them in productive and individualized ways, and knowing them well enough that they trust that this is what I’m doing, rather than trying to cram them into a preconceived box. How could I do that for 120 people in a single term?

The first thing I learned is that it couldn’t be done, at least not in the ways I had done it before. The second thing I learned was that I had to figure out how to do it anyhow, because it was profoundly demoralizing for me to imagine dispatching my particular pedagogical responsibility—the one and only ethics class that most of my computer science major students would take during their undergraduate career—in any other way.

So I am puzzling through changes to my approach that allow me to accomplish (most of) the basic goals I have for my classrooms, on a larger scale than I could have imagined a few years ago. My thoughts here reflect work in progress, rather than a collection of strategies that I am eager to defend, let alone canonize. I can make no promises about how directly helpful they will be for other courses. But the process of adaptation can itself be instructive, and I hope that this list offers the seeds of useful ideas for other classrooms as well.

Make more assignments credit/no credit

I open and close my ethics course with guided reflection papers, which need to be substantive enough to get credit (more than a sentence or two per prompt question) but are otherwise ungraded: a complete assignment gets full credit. This decision initially grew from the specific conditions of my course, which is a professional ethics course: though I push my students to sharpen their descriptive precision and to reflect on their own values and assumptions, I didn’t want them to think I was grading their personal value systems and reasoning processes (and in any case, I wasn’t sure what criteria I would use.)

What I have learned is that these credit/no credit assignments are hugely freeing for me, allowing me to disentangle the attention I pay to them, qua getting to know the students, from the more time-consuming and exhausting kind of attention that is required when assigning grades. Whether I am reading carefully (as I do at the beginning of the stack) or only skimming to make sure that the assignments are sufficiently detailed (as sometimes happens toward the end), I pick up enough details to have a sense of my students’ beliefs, values, growth points, and willingness to engage. And without the worry about assigning (and keeping track of) specific grades, all of my mental energy can go to simply learning about them.

Do I get some half-assed assignments? Of course I do. I think we can be confident that I would anyway, even if there were letter grades at stake. And the chance to interact with the assignments on more enlightening, less burdensome terms makes it worthwhile.

Be selective about when your graded assignments are due

One of the best things I learned about teaching while in graduate school, from an advanced writing program course called Composing Composition, was the notion of a progressive assignment structure, in which each assignment is understood to build on or develop those which have come before. If one imagines that the assignments for a term are a coherent arc, then it becomes easier to assess how any one assignment fits into the course’s larger goals. It also becomes easier to make choices about which assignments are essential for the goals of the course—or essential in their current form—and which can be dispensed with, or covered in another way.

While I have not abandoned the principle of progressive assignment structures, this year has forced me to abandon some of the practices that I have always associated with them, simply because I cannot afford to give as many assignments as I could when I had fewer students, and have (for reasons detailed above) dispensed with the idea of a large culminating project at the end of the term. And while part of me genuinely regrets cutting back the number of assignments—and with it, the depth and duration of the arc by which I get to communicate with each of them and watch them grow—the rest of me is still huddling shell-shocked in the corner, contemplating the grading that still needs to be done.

I have found a counterintuitive way to preserve the spirit of the progressive assignment structure, while yet forsaking some old practices, by putting all of my graded written assignments in the first third of the term. This approach has several benefits. The first is that I get to see their work, and their thinking, earlier, rather than later. It also allows me to communicate several important thing about the course to the students early on. On a broad level, it telegraphs that the goal of the assignments is to help them build a body of knowledge they can use in the course, rather than to prove to me that they’ve learned it. It also helps on an individual level, simply because they get to see feedback from me very early on.

There are additional benefits to this approach. The students’ work benefits from being produced at a point in the semester when there is less competition for their time and attention (and before they’ve begun to burn out) and w e are all pretty delighted to get the labor-intensive part of the term out of the way.

Increase small group facetime

(not FaceTime™.)

I have unwillingly come to acknowledge my own limits in keeping track of such a large group of students. A semester still feels long, after so many years at a quarter-based institution, but it’s not long enough for me to get to know all of my students, at least not on the terms I am accustomed.

This realization has forced me to analyze, in fine grain, why I think that kind of one-on-one knowledge is important and valuable. Part of the reason is because it enables me to respond to my students in an individualized way, both in person and in comments on their work. But why is this individualization itself valuable? The answer, it turns out, is twofold: because it enables me to respond to the specific aspects of each student’s thinking that should be reconsidered, and because it helps communicate to them that I see them: that it matters what and how they think, and that I, at least, believe that is both possible and worthwhile for them to grow. Convincing the students of this latter point is vital. And though it works better if I can give them very granular and personalized feedback on their work, I have learned that even the blanket recognition that their individuality matters helps to increase their trust in the feedback I give.

One idea that I came up with too late for this semester, but which will be central to my course next fall, is “ethics lab.” In the early weeks of the term, every single student will meet with me and one other classmate for a half-hour conversation about an issue of their choosing. Like the opening and closing assignments, they will receive full credit for attending, assuming they are present mentally as well as physically. The only required preparation is that they identify an issue to talk about. The real event is the time we spend together, and the goal is simply to be in the room together, having difficult conversations. A half an hour isn’t long, compared to a full term; but for a student who is accustomed to fading into the background—for whatever reason—it’s a lot of time to spend in a room with one’s professor and one other student, being listened to and challenged on one’s premises and asked to find new ways into an old problem.

It is going to be a gamble, and (for me) a time-intensive one. And though I like to imagine that I will retain some key details about every single one of these conversations, I suspect that, in practice, the sessions will blend together in my head. But even if many of the details fade for me, over the long term, it is my hope that the students themselves will remember them, or at least remember the feeling of being seen: of being recognized as an individual who can and must take responsibility for their own thinking.

This is what I’ve figured out so far. I’m not convinced it’s all going to work. I am fairly certain that none of it will work quite as well as the thing I’ll figure out next, on the basis of trying these things. But if I can model for my students that I, too, am continuing to change and to grow in the face of new challenges, that seems worthwhile too.

The Student’s Voice

By Allison Gray, St. Mary’s University

Those who attend the upcoming CoT workshop with Prof. Margaret Mitchell will get toALG headshot experience firsthand her fun and effective prosopon exercise, which invites students to internalize and embody the voices of biblical interpreters throughout history. I’d like to offer some reflections and resources for a complementary invitation we teachers issue in the religious studies classroom, the invitation for students to show up as interpreters themselves and share their authentic, informed voices with their classmates.

The challenge

Anyone who has stood in front of an undergraduate classroom probably knows what I mean by “student face” – the inscrutable, near-universal, apparently blank stare that can mask anything from utter boredom to fear of the cold call to quiet expectation that the class will be interesting. I’d venture to say that “student face” is the default starting position in most courses. But on the best days, that careful, safe mask slips, and we really see our students: something clicks and suddenly there’s a path into what they care about and what they’re most excited to do next. Now there’s something at stake in the conversation, they take ownership of the material, and together we’re looking for answers, or for more helpful questions, or for connections to life experience. What is it, exactly, that creates a space where students can show up and speak with authority in their own voices?

Watching students really talk to each other and engage in lively debate about a text is so rewarding, it’s tempting to attribute it to some kind of magic. Maybe it inheres in these texts I love (who isn’t thrilled to talk about the apostle Peter bringing a smoked fish back to life?) or maybe I can chalk a successful class up to my own infectious enthusiasm, or maybe that great discussion last week was a result of the Super Blue Blood Moon 2018. But in fact – thankfully – the magic is largely the product of careful preparation, and it can be built into low-stakes assignments due on the day of a class meeting where you’d like to hear students’ voices.

A sample assignment

I’ve had some success with assigning Position Papers in my advanced New Testament courses. First we lay the groundwork. We’ll spend one class period on method or theory, such as studying varied definitions of magic and miracle. The next class period is devoted to modeling application, for example, talking about whether the Jesus of Mark 9 heals with miracle or magic and interrogating our own assumptions about Jesus, the gospels, and the definitions themselves. Finally, each student has to write a Position Paper on a test case text that is the assigned reading for the next meeting; in this particular sequence we used the non-canonical Acts of Peter. In approximately 750 words, students must defend one of two positions, drawing on the methods we’ve discussed and using evidence from the assigned primary text (Peter’s works of power are miracle or Peter’s works of power are magic). Students bring their Position Papers to class, I ask them what they think and remind them to defend their position using evidence, and we’re off to the races. Students who don’t normally participate talk animatedly, many respond directly to other students’ comments and speak to each other by name, and it’s not unusual for the conversation to continue in the hallway after class. They show up, make their voices heard, and listen to each other’s voices.

Crafting an assignment

To my mind, assignments that create the potential for a dynamic class discussion combine several key features:

  • They are low-stakes assignments. This assignment isn’t going to make or break anybody’s grade, and the rubric places more emphasis on completion or a good-faith effort than on mastery. The assignment is not terribly onerous, so it can be repeated several times during a single term, giving students practice and increasing their confidence.
  • They build on work you’ve already done together. Test out a theory introduced in the last class or explain how this new-to-you text displays features of a genre the class is studying. On Bloom’s taxonomy, the main task of the assignment would be probably be classified as “application.” Students aren’t being asked to do something totally new but to take knowledge they feel confident about and bring it to bear in a new situation.
  • They require engagement with texts or other artifacts (i.e., students have to do the assigned reading). Abstract reflection won’t suffice, because everybody is analyzing a shared object. Students need to make evidence-based arguments instead of offering opinions.
  • They encourage creativity. The assignment leaves room for students to take it personally, to connect course material to things they care about outside of class, or at least to take a position and defend it.

With this combination of features, the assignment can allow or even encourage students to take calculated risks, testing out theories or methods they’ve just learned without too much fear of somehow getting it wrong. The result tends to be either frustration with the limits of a theory or excitement about a new discovery, both reactions that can be productively shared in a room of one’s peers and that generally create feelings of camaraderie among the students who are willing to use their voices. And no one just sits back with “student face.”


(Symposium with a Flute Girl)

Additional resources

Spencer Benson’s recent post on The Scholarly Teacher blog: “How to Use Questions to Promote Student Learning” [link:]

Jakob Rinderknecht’s writing assignment modeled on the Thomistic disputation, described in a post on the TheoDepot blog [link:]

An exercise for listening to student voices on sensitive topics, from klguidero at TheoDepot [link:]


A (Failed) Fugue for the Holidays

by Sonam Kachru, University of Virginia

“Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony”–Lou Reed

“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” –Edward Gibbon


It is hard to know where one is with teaching. Of Richard Feynman’s legendary undergraduate lectures in physics, a treat required of all Caltech freshmen and sophomores (of all majors) between 1961-1964, some reported that it was like going to church. Not the solemn and somber kind, but the joyous, effervescent, in-your-bones variety of energizing spectacle you might carry with you through the week after.

sonam_kachru_religious_studies_01hr_da (1)Others, however, reached for different if no less pious fictions of foreign worlds to essay more sober assessments:

I found the lectures exciting and understandable in the hall, but they were Sanskrit outside [when I tried to reconstruct the details].

(Between us, Sanskrit—it is not so hard, whether you’re in or out of a classroom; it’s cognitive music, I find, and not at all like the study of Anglo-Saxon, the forced study of which Guy Davenport declared he would not forgive on Judgment Day, one of three pedagogical catastrophes, in fact, he was determined to begrudge the Maker: Philology was right up there along with having to learn how to abandon a sinking ship, and having to learn how to crawl under live machine‐gun fire.[1] To each, you see, their own very personal nightmarish figures for the halls and hells of learning.)

The thing that interests me here is that the student for whom physics turned to Sanskrit (and life, presumably, a little like the Lou Reed song quoted above) was in a position to agree with Feynman’s own considered thoughts regarding his pedagogical experiment.

In June 1963, Feynman offered the following assessment, one which he admitted to be widely at variance with the conclusions of the majority of his students and colleagues:

“I don’t think I did very well by the students. When I look at the way the majority of the students handled the problems on the examinations, I think that the system is a failure.”

That’s a simple enough criterion: can students solve the problems? If not, what would it mean to “know” the concepts introduced in the lectures?

It is hard to know where one is with teaching. Here’s one reason. To generate, and to maintain, the interest and enthusiasm of students for a subject is one thing; to convey what you need to “get around,” or, at least, to “know your way around” in a subject, where such skill is assessed by the professional standards of a discipline, is quite another thing entirely. Thing is, at least Feynman had a criterion. I don’t.

I used to think I had one. I recall the first time I read Feynman’s comments. I was sixteen. It sobered me right up.

Here’s why. In an India of a less global-market-friendly time, I had access to the three much-faded black-and-white photocopies of the originally unmistakably red volumes of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a treasured and much used hand-me-down my elder brother left behind when we went off to college. It was an indulgence of time as well as of money. I read them greedily, and furtively. You read them at night for inspiration, for orienting clarity and insight, for “the pleasure of finding things out” and the kind of entertainment some found in MTV in the houses of friends when their night-shift working parents were away. Feynman’s lectures were not on our school syllabus. They were neither assigned nor recommended in the long, brutal, trench-war-slog for the entrance examinations that determined where you might end up in this world. (Ha!) In the trenches, you “read” (meaning fought, ducked under, wrestled with, threw, slammed head against, pencil in hand) books like this, then available to us only in samizdat form:

Problems in General Physics

Feynman was for after-hours entertainment for some of the reasons he himself discerned. It got your blood flowing, ideas forming, changed your breathing even, showing you things in a light you could not have imagined possible. It was orienting, providing context and explanation. It taught you how to think, and why it matters. But it did not help you solve problems. Or, at least, it didn’t on its own.

What it means to “know” a concept, my instructors and tutors for my teenage years of failed rebellion repeatedly said, is to be able to recognize occasions where it could be applied, and to know how to apply it. Which meant: learning a rule, an exemplary problem, and then hacking through the undergrowth of proliferating cases till you got the feel of it in your bones. Were my teachers right and never mind Aristotle? Was “wonder” a dish best served after more nutritious fare and long labor? Is understanding (in the big-picture, orienting variety) for after-hours? (Vasubandhu, meanwhile, believed wonder came after long analysis and argument. But that’s another story.)

Feynman, I would now say, is not an example of, shall we say, how to read, but how to re-read. What he offered was a master-class reintroducing material we only thought we knew. A teacher of materials twice-removed from my students, in time, and tradition, I am rarely in a position to offer such classes. Typically, I must introduce. And by what criterion shall I judge my successes or failures?

I’ve found that learning a language, learning poetics, or even poetry, philosophy certainly, mythology sometimes, or more grandly, other human worlds, can, and ought to, really, require of one a discipline a lot closer to the kind of crawling through Irodov I begrudged then than it does the engagement Feynman seduces you into feeling.  But where is our Irodov for humanities?

Sure. We in the humanities don’t have the neatly defined paradigms of problems or solutions (much less paradigms of problems and solutions). But this is in part a function of decisions. I’m with Anthony Grafton (among others). It was not always the case that scientists and scholars have always been good neighbors forever sundered by the fences of methods and sensibilities. Here’s a riddle for a learned lore-master in an age of suspicion: how do you connect a wizard (Gandalf), a detective (Sherlock Holmes), a doctor (Sigmund Freud), an art critic in disguise (Giovanni Morelli), and the wonderful (perhaps, only seeming) anachronism of a Franciscan nominalist on the threshold of a new paradigm? With the help of a literary critic, a philologist, a micro-historian, and an impossibly learned semiotician, of course.[2]

We do have a zoo of quixotic objects (in the mathematician’s sense of “object”), and these exemplified at different scales; we have a battery of methods, disciplines, skills, and, more generally, varieties of craft-honed sensibilities we had better be in a position to pass on or at least to make less idiosyncratically and unreliably available than they currently are. (Must you really still apprentice with a doctor-fater-wizard to learn discipline, skill and craft in the humanities?) For the most part, we neither drill students on the premodern ‘cognitive technologies’ of argument, memory, attention, nor exhaustively test (in Irodov’s sense of “test”) students on their grasp of the modern (and premodern) tools of our trade, the comparison, the field-note, the time-line, the list, the tree-diagram, the genealogy, the ‘humble’ description…[3]

Perhaps my longing for an Irodov for the Humanities is inflected by accidents of biography. (I would have loved to have been tested on my ability to read, and to produce, kinship diagrams, a variety of tool which I am now, sadly, entirely unqualified to use.) Certainly, I am not advocating for the pedagogy of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, man of realities, fact, and calculation. I do not believe with Gradgrind that what is called taste is another name for fact; I do not advocate seeking mechanical substitutes for their tender young imaginations. And I disagree with Feynman, who at times could speak as if what we do in the humanities is a little like unjustified confidence in search of eloquent obfuscation. Why should beauty reside in this dimension of one centimeter, Feynman once asked of the flower reserved for poets, with the idea that the virtues of inquiry need not be confined to one discipline. That is so. But why, then, should rigor reside only at some scales, for some variety of objects, and not others?

For a certainty I believe that there is room for more pulling-up-your-sleeves and hewing-wood-and-drawing-water variety of in-class work than the model we’ve now got going in the humanities. On the current system any class with fewer than thirty students and which is not a class constrained by the demands of being responsible to a work in a foreign language, seems destined to descend into free-form (only apparently spontaneous) conversational séances from which truth or meaning (or whatever it is we take ourselves to exemplify) is expected to leak out of the ground like oil in Dehran. Not so much a Socratic chin-wag as the conversations Amos Bronson Alcott made the model for children at the Temple School in Boston in the nineteenth century: experimental, bold, innovative—all the things administrators love, and which are, often enough, like big-drilling, wildly self-defeating. For at the end is rarely discovery, too often only the broadcasting and search for confirmation of entrenched commitments from those already far too comfortable with their own voices.

At least in religious studies, home to every discipline and none, we outsource too much of craft and training, believing learning to be the same thing as finding your own voice, or some such, or after the kind of big game only found in conversation (as if thought were always and only the same thing as conversation). We leave too much of our teaching for those last, hastily scribbled comments on the margins of papers few will ever pick up again.


Of course, you’ll want both, skill-sets and virtues like curiosity and the wonder of the Big-Picture Stuff, the reverberating and clarifying joy of the revealing detail. I don’t know how to make magic in a classroom and transmit essential skills in a single class with the one set of students I’ll probably only see once. Well. That’s not quite it. I have, in fact, no criteria for knowing whether or not I have successfully done either.

I’ve begun experimenting with lectures. (More about which in my next post.) And I have begun trying to generate tasks, not conversations in class, an attempt to find that sweet poetic median between silence and incoherence. But I remain tethered at the other end to the variety of assignments second-nature to the humanities, the essay, the reading-response, the multiple-choice exam.

Part of that is lack of experience. I’ve been at this only three years. I have neither sufficient experience of teaching, nor any evidence of particular distinction therein. Seriously. None whatsoever. To adapt the sage Spike Milligan: no fear of awards, no time soon. Partly my befuddlement is surely because of the truth in Dickens’ saying of a more principled and worse instructor than I: “if he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might taught much more.”

But it’s not all grim news. I’ve newly learnt that an assignment need not be an assessment. And I’ve had good fortune with assignments designed to invite the engagement of students with materials with which they have no prior acquaintance, either in their lives or in the classroom.

Listen to this, for example:

This is a final assignment produced by a freshman student in his first semester of college: a musical transposition (and condensation) of the entire lyrical narrative of Aśvaghoṣa’s Life of the Buddha as it survives in Sanskrit and as this student read it in the translation of Patrick Olivelle. I like to think of it as a series of musical illustrations of the life of the Buddha. At least, that was the assignment: illustrate, in any medium, at least three episodes or scenes from the Life of the Buddha, and think of the illustration as a particular kind of vehicle joining translation and commentary.

You’ll want to bear three things in mind when judging this assignment. First off, this is from a student who has decided to commit to the study of commerce despite his love for music, with zero exposure to Buddhism, or indeed, any religion in an academic setting. What the hell, let’s be honest. This student did not produce a single piece of writing the entire semester that involved more than two sentences or the use of much punctuation at all. He said almost nothing in class. He only once approached me outside class. And that was to ask if he could write a piece of music for his final assignment.

Here’s the second thing. As was made clear in this student’s accompanying note briefly outlining his process of composition and the aesthetic principles governing the work, this student has recapitulated, without knowing it, the discovery in South Asian literary criticism of the possibility that moods can serve as principles for the unity of a composition. He even confronted a problem that exercised literary critics in South Asia, and T. S. Eliot at the beginning of the last century: how do you unite a succession of disparate moods in some culminating and contextualizing aesthetic state?

Now for the kicker: This transposition involves a finely considered act of judgment. Unlike Aśvaghoṣa, my student believed that the story required as an aesthetic context an intimation of the long background of the Buddha’s past lives. But he did not articulate this at first in words. It was only when asked for the function and value of a musical prelude I did not at first understand that it was made explicit that Aśvaghoṣa, as my musician-accountant averred, wanted improving—“It just doesn’t work otherwise.” I disagree. But if I do, it is only because he had given me something with enough shape and reach to disagree with. It wasn’t one more case of something “not even wrong.”

Clearly, this is cognitive engagement of a high order. This not-verbally-blessed student has worked his way into Aśvaghoṣa’s narrative. A+ I gave him. He was dignified. “Cool. Thanks,” he said and walked out of my office for the last time.

Such a blessed marriage of assignment and assessment is rare. I’ll be frank. My typical attempts at engaging the students with #unessays, or non-traditional assignments, produce little you could dignify as knowledge. Some enthusiasm. Not a little ingenuity (if a little too much like American high-school projects for my taste). And yet, little learning. And the traditional writing assignments? They have produced monsters born of the pairing of a teacher’s lack of invention and the abysmal high-school “education” of students that has taught them to call anything longer than fifteen pages a novel, and anything under, an op-ed.

Exceptions? Sure. I have had the pleasure of teaching one undergraduate, a first year, in fact, who reliably, consistently, and brilliantly outperformed my graduate students, producing finely-crafted argumentative prose for every writing assignment, with clearly formulated and insightful questions, well-weighted conclusions, the whole-thing balanced on a delicately arranged garden of references. Give her the name of a book and she’ll have read the shelf on which she found it in the library by the time you next meet. I have had nothing to do with her success. And my pedagogical ambition with respect to her is to try as much as I can to not get in her way.


It’s a little like parenting, I suppose. We may own only the inevitable failures. (The quote from Edward Gibbon in my epigraph was lifted from Feynman’s preface to his lectures—in failure, we may at least expect to keep good company.)

At least we can try and fail better.

And take comfort in failure. And then, particularly with failures of assessment. That’s where I’d like to leave things. There is one failure which I repeat to myself like a catechism this time of year. (Non-Hindus, you may read that to say “like a mantra.”)

Take that all-rounder in education, the good citizen and specialist in medicine, Dr. Watson. Do you recall his assessment of his singular roommate? It went something like this: Knowledge of Literature—nil; Knowledge of Philosophy—nil; Knowledge of Astronomy—nil; and so on, not without excluding this gem: “Knows nothing of practical gardening.” Holmes was no good as a liberal arts student, you’d deduce. Nor, I take it, a good citizen, at least not of the kind we are trying to produce.

It is not just that you’d rather spend time with Sherlock. Dr. Watson was a poor assessor. Holmes had Latin, Shakespeare, Goethe, and markedly unlike our current crop of citizen-parochials, Hafiz even. As Watson was to own to later, he didn’t just play the violin, but composed for it. Sherlock’s mind, self-bestowed by a singular commitment to his own course of study, eluded all but self-assessment. In the third week of November 1895 he devoted himself to the music of the Middle Ages, the “Polyphonic Motets of Lassus [Orlando di Lasso—I had to look that up].” You can’t play such music. To write the book on them, as Sherlock did, one would have had to “read” these pieces or at least “hear” what was written for multiple voices (and no other instrument) in the echo-chamber of one’s mind.

Mightily idiosyncratic, and formidably difficult to assess, requiring a lifetime to know, may young Sherlock be the patron saint of our grading season. Or so I mutter to myself, especially when I come across works like that my inscrutable and mute accountant-musician produced. I should have entirely overlooked him but for the happy accident of assessing him on the basis of an entirely idiosyncratic assignment.

I recall what I have learnt from Hugh Kenner (RIP), a geometer in prose, and a gentleman who remained almost, but not quite, utterly unintelligible in the lecture hall. A Victorian arithmetic of persons would have us add up Sherlock and Watson to exactly one: a single person, one half of which is a calculating machine, the other all beating heart. One creature lives in the mind of Charles Babbage, and the other in Tennyson’s In Memorium.

If you persist in such Victorian divisions of labor, you’ll forever need the pair, even if both halves ever after slander one another in perpetual friendship. Sherlock accused Watson of betraying what ought to have been an exemplary lecture for a tale, logic for romanticism. Watson, wrongly I think, would not believe the general public—the fabled citizenry we continuously invoke in our manifestos to administrators—ready for Sherlock’s style of incarnating thought in language. The success of Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces suggests that Watson was too quick in his dismissal of the fabled common reader, even as the awful pedantry of Holmes’ own attempts at prose, and the limited success of Feynman’s Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, suggests that entertainment is not the only virtue narrative (and other imaginative pedagogical devices) might claim in a competition with logic and analysis.

We might not get away teaching only as the Sherlocks of this world. But even as we teach as the Watsons, let us not forget that we must surely, then, not only aim to teach the Watsons. (That is a sentence that might have suggested far more wit and eloquence in Sanskrit with the possibility of its music of cases. Sigh.) Handicapped we might be, but we might exercise enough freedom and judgment to discern that we ought not to calibrate our successes and failures by only such standards the Watsons so nobly and helpfully extrude into this world. This season of grades and otherwise good cheer let us not forget those who may slip through the nets of our vexed assessments, those who may sit among the indolent and the blank-eyed, the slouchers and the seemingly indifferent, stubbornly and idiosyncratically learning what we cannot always know.

My new year’s resolution: continue to refine the #unessays, while sitting down to develop problem sets for the humanities.

But there is also this. I might not give my daughter Irodov for her fifteenth birthday. But I am sure to give her my non-cyclostyled proudly red copy of Feynman’s lectures. Not without William Dwight Whitney’s A Sanskrit Grammar: Including both the classical language, and the older dialects, of Veda and Brahmana.

Along with my apologies, naturally. As with parenting, you never really know where you are with teaching.



[1] As the essay is a gem, a triumph of detective-work with an improbable protagonist, I’ll cite it here: “Hobbits in Kentucky,” The New York Times, February 23, 1979.

[2] Read Guy Davenport’s “Tolkien, R.I.P.” for the October 3, 2005 edition of the National Review alongside Carlo Ginzburg’s better known “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” followed up by a re-reading of The Name of the Rose.

[3] How do you pass on “ways of seeing” rigorously and engagingly, beyond assigning John Berger’s book of that name? The next time I teach the necessarily ill-fated comedy of errors called THEORY & METHODS, I’m going to dial back the so-called Theory in order to bring up METHODS into the mix. Methods like comparison, or translation, or description—to help put that last on the table, for example, I’ll be assigning “Cloud Physiognomy” by Lorraine Daston (Representations, Vol. 135, No. 1, Summer 2016: 45-71) alongside Guy Davenport’s “reading” of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, from Geography of the Imagination. Homework will involve choosing a single object dug up from the ground and describing it in 250 words, then 500, then 1000 (with footnotes), the larger piece taking into account other relevantly similar objects, and take up for evaluation the student’s first attempt.

The Other Door

by Emanuelle (Mandy) Burton, College of Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago

In one major respect, I’ve traveled further afield than any of my colleagues on this blog, both past and present. My office at UIC is less than ten miles from Swift Hall, but it is in the computer science department. My purview is one-half of a course (required of all CS majors) called “Ethics and Communications in Computer Science.”  If you’re reading this head shotand thinking that the connection back to the Divinity School seems tenuous and perplexing…. Well, I still have those days, too. There are a lot of things I want to write about for the Craft of Teaching this year – the value of generalist education, the role of pedagogical ideals in shaping one’s practice in different institutional contexts, and a few other things besides – but I have realized that before I can write about any of them, I need to contextualize myself as an alumna of the Divinity School who is now embedded in a STEM program, and to clarify what light my experiences can shed on the present questions and concerns for upcoming scholars and teachers of religion.

Teaching ethics to computer scientists is not, to put it mildly, what I expected to be doing when I set out to pursue a PhD in religion & literature, or at any point along the way. I arrived at this position through a series of accidental intersections, noteworthy primarily because of their arbitrariness rather than because I followed any particular discipline or dicta. Shortly after graduating in 2014, I moved to Kentucky to teach humanities at Centre College. A few weeks into the term, I was standing in the right place one afternoon to get myself invited to a party full of people I didn’t know. At that party, I wound up chatting with a computer scientist who asked for my email address. She wrote to me the next day to invite me to coauthor a paper with her and a former student: she had been teaching ethics to her CS students using science fiction and was now writing a conference paper about it. It was due in two weeks. Would I like to join them? Sure, I replied: I could probably help out. As busy as I was teaching at a new school in a new place, two weeks wasn’t much of a commitment, and I could return to my own concerns afterward. Nothing about that first collaboration seemed particularly significant – only in retrospect does it appear as the first step toward anything else. But it is nonetheless the case that, three years later, I am coauthoring a science fiction-based ethics curriculum for computer science students (with these same two coauthors, plus two more), been granted an NSF postdoc to help produce said curriculum, and have found a long-term home in CS ethics pedagogy.

It’s true that some of the confluences in this serendipitous string are specific to my particular background: they were looking for somebody with a background either in ethics or in non-realist fiction, and I had just finished writing a dissertation at the intersection of those two fields. But the pedagogical capacities and commitments that inform this new work are things I share with many other scholars of religion, particularly those trained at Chicago. Most of the people I met while training at Chicago, whatever their methodological avocation, held in common the basic conviction that human meaning-making matters, as do the terms on which it takes place. A further shared conviction, in my experience of religious studies scholars, is that the critical tools from across the many disciplines encompassed in religious studies can be usefully brought to bear on all manner of human practices and articulations of value, whether or not these practices or articulations recognize themselves as religious or are best understood under that label. To choose religion as one’s field of teaching and study is not only to specialize in a particular discipline and body of knowledge; it is to choose a peculiarly fruitful avenue into the truly astonishing range of things that humans get up to. While it is true that I have had to step back from that particularly fruitful avenue, the questions that drove me there remain to be engaged from slightly different angles. There are still students ready to wrestle with these core problems, and to learn to recognize their contours. Their needs are different, but no less urgent, and teaching them requires the same array of skills as religion and humanities teaching—because of, rather than in spite of, their different needs.

My background in religious studies has fundamentally shaped my approach to this new and unexpected pedagogical avenue. After years of teaching religious studies and humanities courses, it seems clear to me that my students need more than just exposure to the key ethical issues in computer science: They need to come to grips with the complexity and ambiguity of the circumstances in which these issues emerge. They need critical tools that can help them recognize the very real kinds of knowledge that exist outside the logical positivism that undergirds all of their other coursework in the major. And finally, they need practice wrestling with the work of interpreting the world on terms that are, for so many of them, profoundly alien.  Incorporating all of that is a tall order, but it is one I am able to meet—with at least moderate success—thanks to my training in religious studies. When we discuss online communities and the role of platforms in shaping community dynamics and norms, I draw on my knowledge of the formation of religious communities in late antiquity and medieval Europe, and prod them to think alongside Durkheim, Anderson, Booth and Arendt. When we explore the information explosion that has accompanied the internet, I draw on Augustine, on Gadamer, on David Tracy and on Bruce Lincoln to destabilize the notion that any entity (human or digital) can merely collect objective units of meaning, and I push them to think critically about how those units came to be recognized, to seem real, to seem definitive. The course also necessarily involves some straightforward engagement with the topics that every professional ethics course in computer science needs to cover, such as self-driving cars, the proliferation of smart technology, and the reproduction of bias through social decision-making algorithms such as COMPAS. But as the term progresses, the students become steadily more capable of recognizing the foundational questions—of personhood, or epistemology, of justice—without my help.

Some things about teaching computer science ethics actually aren’t so different than my earlier teaching in humanities or religious studies. The task of training students to recognize the limits of their own understanding, and encouraging them to grapple with and through their own discomfort rather than taking refuge in specious clarity, is always and everywhere required. And some of the challenges peculiar to this moment are common across settings, such as the burgeoning onslaught of false or misleading “news,” and with it, students’ evaporating trust in any kind of information source. In my new context, I find myself discussing these discursive shifts by examining the technological conditions that have created or enabled that shift. And if they are less equipped to think about the discursive construction of religious minorities, or the languages of power marshaled by political leaders who claim to lead through Christianity, I can at least call their attention to those realities by routing them through more familiar concerns.

And some things were never that different – such as most students’ profound and often unreflective commitment to logical positivism. Teaching computer science ethics has given me uncommon pedagogical access to what are surely common concerns, such as the fact that few to none of my students have any expectation of privacy, or even much concern for it; or the fact that many of my students do not think that “trolling” and “engaging in debate” can be usefully distinguished, at least in online contexts. These sorts of cultural-generational divides (and technologically-determined generations are very short indeed) are precisely the sort that are often invisible until they are discussed directly, and they can have profound implications for how our students understand the world and engage in it.

So I haven’t left that past behind. I’m doing all of the things I’d hoped to do when I decided that I wanted to teach at the college level. The context is unexpected, but it’s one that nonetheless pushes me to grow and excel, as a teacher, in all the ways I would wish. But my experiences also help explain why I needn’t be, and maybe shouldn’t be, the only one to venture out this way, into a world that desperately needs our particular gifts.

Communicating about Academic Integrity: Reflections on the Value of Intellectual Production

by Kristen Tobey, John Carroll University

The post you’re reading isn’t the post I intended to write. The one I intended to write, scheduled to go live just as I and perhaps many of you return from Boston and this year’s KTobeyAAR/SBL Annual Meeting, was going to offer some reflections on the pedagogical lessons we might learn in such a setting, and how to bridge the often-divergent settings of the classroom and the academic conference, and our often-bifurcated selves, for the benefit of our students. I was going to write about collegiality and professionalization and interdisciplinarity and the ways we might bring those back to our students, and about how perhaps we do our students a disservice when we work so hard to “meet them where they are,” to render broadly accessible and relevant what seems too esoteric and granular for them.  I was going to write about ways that instead, I have invited students to meet me where I sometimes want to be, at the level of the esoteric and granular, about when that has been successful and when it hasn’t.

I was working on that very essay, seated at the computer station in the front of the classroom where students in my 300-level elective course were taking a test.  Then I saw that a student in the very back of the classroom was reading notes from his phone, for the entirely of the test.  Yes, I did allow him to finish the test oblivious to the fact that I was watching him cheat in an epic way.  I wanted to avoid rattling the other students with a dramatic scene, but if I’m honest, I didn’t call him out then and there in part because I was too staggered by what I was seeing.  I didn’t know what to do.

In almost a decade of teaching I’ve certainly had experience with academic dishonesty.  Students plagiarize, deliberately or not, when they write papers; their eyes wander, deliberately or not, when they take tests.  Until this episode, though, I’d never been faced with such inarguably premeditated, blatantly disrespectful cheating.  My syllabi clearly state my policy on academic integrity, so the consequences this student now must face are predetermined and thoroughly documented.  But I had no predetermined plan for what to do in the moment of discovery.

Academic integrity makes sense as a priority within a conceptual framework that assigns intrinsic value to intellectual work. As academics, we are so enculturated into that framework that we run the risk of forgetting that many of our students are not, and are not oriented as we are toward the idea of intellectual production as itself a good—which is by no means a self-evident idea.

Of course some are, like the student who inspired the musings that I thought would form the basis of this post, the one on the pedagogical lessons of the academic conference setting.  The author of a book we’re reading in my Minority Religions in America course mentioned the AAR and its annual meeting, and one student, curious for reasons that elude me, did some internet sleuthing and sent me a breathless email pointing out that at the conference this year, there would be six panels treating LGBTQ+ issues in religious studies, an area of particular interest to her.  These are my people!, she enthused.  This student is a Theology and Religious Studies major but has no interest in pursuing graduate studies.  Indeed she is vocal about having no such interest, and she has little patience for excessive abstractness or particularity.  But she saw value and meaning in the work that takes place at an academic conference, as abstract and particular as that work is.

That student was on my mind in Boston, as I thought about how best to bring back to my students the intellectual excitement of the conference setting. Also on my mind, though, was the student who cheated so flagrantly on his test, as a metonym for all those students who are not already oriented toward the intrinsic value of intellectual work.  Clearly he, more urgently than the student who wished she could attend AAR, needs the lesson that intellectual work is valuable, and clearly my syllabus statement on academic integrity had not inculcated it. I can only imagine that the policy, severe though it is, failed to sway not only the student who was so bold in flouting it, but many others who may not be so overtly defiant but who nonetheless find no purchase in its words.

During the conference, AAR president Eddie Glaude spoke in his plenary address of the pressing need for the liberal arts generally, and religious studies specifically, to train students who are “amateurs” in John Dewey’s sense of the word. For Dewey, experts too often indoctrinate, while amateurs are better suited for the kind of deep communication that is constitutive of democracy.  A syllabus statement on academic integrity is indoctrination, not communication.  If the student who was so excited to learn about the papers included at AAR demands my expertise (not, I hope, in the Deweyan sense, but in the sense that she requires of me the skills in which I am highly trained), then the student who cheated demands that I be an amateur.  Taking the term at its non-Deweyan face value, he demands skills in which I am untrained, such as policing and disciplining.  But in the Deweyan sense, he requires that I communicate better about why the things I value and prioritize might also resonate for him.

I don’t yet know how I will do this, how I will move from indoctrination to effective communication about academic integrity.  My syllabus statement will remain in place, but how will I make the somewhat formulaic words meaningful to students, especially those who don’t already buy in to the assumptions on which they are based?  This isn’t a question with a quick or simple answer, I’m sure, but it is a reminder that just when we think we are being called upon to performs tasks for which we are radically untrained, such as policing and disciplining—and this was a recurring theme in conversations with friends over the weekend, that is, the extent to which teaching requires of us so many things that we do not feel we know how to do; and how much we often feel the roles of teacher and scholar as competing with one another, even though in all our best versions of academia they inspire, inform, and improve one another—we are also being called upon to do what we are best trained to do: to demonstrate why and how intellectual work matters.  To remember that both the most- and the least-invested students require exactly that may go a long way toward bridging the bifurcated academic self.

How Not to Celebrate the Reformation: The Imperative of Responsible Sensitivity for Theological Education Amidst Religious Complexity and Conflict

by Andrew DeCort, the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology

David Daniels’s article “Honor the Reformation’s African Roots” – the basis of his recent Sightings article – has gone viral as Christians around the world celebrate 500 years since Luther’s 95 theses. As my first reflection on “the craft of teaching,” this article can serve as a useful case study in the sensitivity required for teaching Christian history and theology in contexts of inter-Christian complexity and conflict.

Daniels’s stand-alone thesis nailed to the Internet is innovative and exciting: Luther’sDecort_3 Reformation was inspired by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which served as Luther’s “forerunner.” Thus, the Reformation is not the hegemonic monopoly of European Christians but should be received as a gift rooted in Africa.

As a professor of theology in Ethiopia, who was trained in Ethiopian Studies under the University of Chicago’s Donald Levine while completing my PhD in Theological Ethics at the Divinity School, Daniels’s fascinating essay reminds me of Levine’s discussion of “Conventional Images of Ethiopia” in his Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society (University of Chicago Press, 1974 and 2000). Levine argued that the root problem with these “images” is that they “tell us less about Ethiopian realities than they do about the history of the world outside” (15). Rather than reflections of Ethiopia, these images are often the dreamy projections of foreigners who have little or no familiarity with Ethiopia itself and can sometimes contribute to conflict within Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, Daniels (or at least Daniels’ Luther) falls into this trap, and his article tells us less about Ethiopian realities than it does about “the history of the world outside,” notably in the age of Trump with its resurgent white supremacy.

Let me mention several complications that should attune theological educators to the great care required when teaching theology in complex and conflictual religious contexts like Ethiopia.

First, “Ethiopians” have not historically thought of themselves as “Africans” per se. Of course, Ethiopia is in Africa, and some Ethiopians happily identify as Africans. But by calling “Ethiopian roots” “African roots,” Daniels reveals his ignorance of Ethiopian identities and their complexities, past and present. In an article that celebrates the cultural expansiveness of the Reformation, it would be responsible to have some sensitivity to how Ethiopians typically think and speak of themselves.

Second, Daniels’s case for “Ethiopian roots” is shallow. While he carefully refers to “possible Ethiopian connections” to Luther’s reform movement, the fact that Luther may have respected “the church of Ethiopia” does not indicate any causal connection to his launching of the reformation without further evidence, much less the accuracy of Luther’s impression. Daniels mentions that Luther had his (first?) face to face discussion with an actual Ethiopian believer, Michael, in 1534 – seventeen years after 1517.

The fact that this single deacon seems to have affirmed Luther’s “Articles of the Christian Faith” says nothing about the potential translation issues and political factors in play. After all, this was during the time of Ahmed Gregn’s jihad in Ethiopia, when the Christian Ethiopian state desperately needed foreign assistance. Daniels shows no awareness of these possible complexities in Deacon Michael’s approval of Luther’s theology.

Third, Daniels calls “the church of Ethiopia” the “dream” of Luther and as such “a true forerunner of Protestantism.” For better or worse, Luther’s view of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity was in fact dream-like because it was not a forerunner of “Protestantism” in any obvious sense.

A. Ethiopian Orthodoxy was obviously not “Roman Catholic,” but it had its own patriarch or “pope” with all of its hierarchy just like Catholicism, which Luther viciously ridiculed.

B. It is questionable whether Ethiopian Orthodox Christians practiced the Eucharist in the way Luther or Daniels assumes. In fact, to this day, few adult Orthodox Christians even take the Eucharist after childhood because they see it as too holy, a source of acrimony between Orthodox and Protestant Christians here.

C. With regard to “vernacular Scriptures,” this is partly true and partly not. Much of the liturgy and readings in Orthodox corporate worship are in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopic equivalent of Latin, which most ordinary Ethiopians can’t understand. Thus, there is a very similar dynamic to the liturgical language which Luther rejected in Ethiopian worship, which contemporary Protestants do not hesitate to polemically point out. It would be interesting to see if this was the case in the 16th century.

D. Daniels claims that the Ethiopian Church rejected practices embraced by Catholicism that Luther also rejected. But here there are also problems. Although the Orthodox Church may not have written and sold formal “indulgences,” the idea that our works – especially gifts to the church and the poor – affect our eternal destiny after death is a deep part of Ethiopian Orthodox spirituality. Also, as I mentioned, “the primacy of the Roman Pope” was simply replaced in the Orthodox Church by the primacy of the Coptic Patriarch (Ethiopian Orthodoxy did not become fully independent from Egypt until 1959).

In fact, if Luther had known more about the medieval church, he would have likely condemned the ways Ethiopian emperors interfered in the liturgy and doctrine of the church. Curiously, Abba Estifanos, a 15th century “reformer” who is sometimes compared to Luther, was tortured to death by Zara Yaqob, the most theologically influential emperor in medieval Ethiopia, who centralized Mary’s mediatory role in Ethiopian piety, an idea that would have horrified Luther and horrifies Ethiopian Protestants still. Incidentally, Zara Yaqob is venerated as a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to this day.

Fourth, to write that “Luther must have been thrilled to learn that what he had rediscovered in his reading of the Scriptures was already present in the Ethiopian Church” is over-simplistic at best and likely simply wrong. To this day, “Lutherans” in Ethiopia are often viewed as followers of a foreign religion (“yewuchi haimanot”) dangerous to the Orthodox Church. When I visited Gondar (a key seat of theological learning in Luther’s time), the principal of an Orthodox monastic school forbade me from coming inside because he assumed that I was Protestant missionary and thus a follower of a false religion seeking to destroy their church. My Lutheran students often return the compliment (sadly) and refuse to acknowledge that Orthodox people are even “Christians.” In fact, one of my students (sadly) denounces Orthodox Christians as “Romish pagans.”

Given that Abba Estifanos was tortured to death a generation before Luther, it’s hard to imagine that things would have been much different during Luther’s time. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine how Luther’s intense anti-Semitism would have influenced his views of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which prides itself on its “Jewishness” and prioritizes the Old Testament in its piety (e.g., keeping kosher laws), despite Luther calling it the “gentile” church. During Luther’s time, there were fierce debates in the church about the observance of the Sabbath (SaturdaySunday, or both?), which Luther would have ridiculed as “Judaistic.”

Thus again, to claim “For Luther, the Church of Ethiopia was the historical proof that his reform of the Church in Europe had a clear historical and biblical basis” borders on an ignorant insult dressed as a compliment that has potential to stir further conflict within Ethiopian Christianities.

While there are many ecumenically hospitable people and priests within the Orthodox Church, with some of whom I’ve been graced to have extended theological discussion (including Abuna Mathias), the overwhelming majority would be horrified to hear that their church is being claimed as a source for Luther’s Protestantism. To this day, children are routinely kicked out of their families when their parents learn that they convert (and it is seen as a conversion) to “Protestantism.” In fact, a student told me in my office just this week that her father refused to speak to her for three years after she converted to Protestantism from Orthodoxy.

In sum, then, Daniels’s thesis with its unconventional “image” of Ethiopia – for better or worse – tells us more about Luther and/or Daniels and what Levine called “the history of the world outside” Ethiopia than it does about Ethiopia or her ancient church.

While every theological educator who cares about teaching accurate history and authentic Christian theology should celebrate Daniels’ attempt to disrupt a Eurocentric vision of Christianity, it is unfortunate that his article ends up doing so by reducing Ethiopia, yet again, to a screen for the projection of the Western imagination, even one so great as Luther’s. While it is nice that “the Ethiopian church” was Luther’s “dream,” it was, is, and deserves to be much more than that.

The ignorances, inaccuracies, and potential sources of conflict in this article show the persisting complexity of “reform” today and the danger of Western scholars trying to defend the Africanness of Christianity in a way that “Africans” themselves would not likely recognize or appreciate. If nothing else, then, Daniels’ article is a useful if problematic reminder of the imperative to teach theological traditions in ways that are respectful and recognizable to their followers, as well as mindful of the unforeseen potentials for fueling further misunderstanding and hostility within faith communities when seeking to build global bridges.

For Christian educators who embrace the Pauline “ministry of reconciliation,” we can and must do much better as we seek to promote peace and the common good within and beyond our religious communities.

Teaching Prometheus: Theory and Praxis

by Allison Gray, St. Mary’s University 

In light of the October 27th “Pedagogy Unbound” event, I thought I would offer a few reflections on connecting our academic work to the wider world in which we and our ALG headshotstudents move. During my first year teaching in a Theology department at a Catholic university, I struggled mightily with being in an institutional context that invites and encourages me to bring together my own faith commitments and my academic work and to simultaneously model that integration for students. Thinking with the CoT’s metaphor of binding and unbinding, here’s a little bit about what happened in Year One and how it is shaping my approach to pedagogy.

Coursework & Binding

When I first sat down to draft a syllabus for the Core course called “Foundations of Reflection: God” for Fall 2016, I was intimidated. When I found out that students refer to the class by their own, even more terrifying title (“the God class”), I figured I was in big trouble. My UChicago training in New Testament and Early Christian Literature had prepared me to get students excited about the Bible, literary interpretation, and history, but I certainly didn’t feel ready to teach an introduction to Theology and explain to a room of students why they should care about this required course. How could I guide them into a significant exploration of theological questions and methods outside my own wheelhouse and relate these theoretical abstractions to their practical experience, relationships, and career plans? I quickly found that the most effective approach was bringing this exact question – and my own concerns about binding theory to praxis – to the classroom. Inviting students into a collaborative conversation[1] about what this field is and why it matters keeps questions of meaning and significance at the center of the course and brings the field alive for all of us.

Each semester in “the God class,” the most dynamic discussions focus around how insights from the study of religion might matter for everyday life. Students engage enthusiastically with the following sorts of questions:

What is it that people in your major/career would say is “sacred,” and does it share any essential qualities with the sacred as defined in religious studies?

What sorts of ground rules would you lay out to facilitate respectful interfaith dialogue?

What are some practical steps we could take as a campus community to show solidarity with the poor, to apply principles from liberation theology?

If you could design a new campus ritual that reflects fundamental principles of Catholic theological anthropology, what would that ritual look like?

Their answers are thoughtful and creative, and they consistently reflect a deep awareness of the real world consequences of religious ideas, stories, and commitments. Because the questions are real questions without easy answers, the classroom becomes a place for discovery. Together we are shining Promethean fire on the world around us, using what we learn about religion to illuminate new connections between ritual and culture, between tradition and experience, between doctrine and moral codes, between Theology and other disciplines. One of the gifts of “the God course” is its broad scope, a reminder that the work of genuine learning is ongoing, exploratory, and collaborative.

Service Work & Unbinding

For most of our students, the real world in which they encounter religion and religious people is not some future reality that awaits after they leave college. We know that today’s college students are increasingly juggling work responsibilities, family obligations, and professional internships with their studies. They are also increasingly involved in service work, out of personal investment and/or because they know it will look good on a resume. My university, like many undergraduate institutions, has an active Civic Engagement office with a robust set of programs offering students the opportunity to get involved in service by collaborating with a whole range of community partners. What does a professor in Theology or Religious Studies have to offer in this world outside the classroom?

In Spring 2017, I was a chaperone for an Alternative Spring Break trip to East St. Louis, IL. In a number of one-on-one conversations with students during the trip, I felt like I had stepped into unfamiliar territory yet again. They weren’t asking me for my presence as a teacher, even though I had all sorts of thoughts about how Catholic teachings on social justice, solidarity, and peace mattered for what we were experiencing and what we saw local community leaders doing. They weren’t asking me for anything except to listen as they worked through their own insights, to watch them create meaning.

Sticking with the Prometheus metaphor, experiential learning involves empowering students to search for sacred fire out in the world and gather it for themselves. It also involves recognizing and appreciating the fire they bring back to share. I needed to unbind myself from the comfortable roles of “teacher,” “authority,” and “interpreter” and step back into the shoes of a beginner accepting the fire of practical wisdom from others. As scholars of religion, intimately familiar with the way human beings use religious ideas and stories and rituals to constitute meaning, we are perhaps singularly well equipped for this work of being present and appreciating the fires blazing up within our students.

Prometheus sketch by Henry Fuseli

(Prometheus Sketch by Henry Fuseli)


I’ll end this post by saying that I’m still struggling to strike a balance between binding together theory and praxis in the classroom and unbinding my understanding of teaching from the classroom. But I am inspired by my students and colleagues who share the fire of their own insights and light the way toward new questions and further learning.

[1] Wabash offers excellent resources for thinking about collaborative learning. See, for example, Judith A. Berling, “Getting Out of the Way: A Strategy for Engaging Students in Collaborative Learning,” Teaching Theology and Religion 1.1 (1998): pp 31-35. Available at

Meet the Bloggers Day 5: Andrew DeCort

Last but not least in its series of blogger introductions, the Craft of Teaching Program is excited to bring you Andrew Decort, lecturer in ethics and theology at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology and director of The Institute for Christianity and the Common Good ( Read on for his reflections!

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Andrew DeCort: My research focused on the history of theological, philosophical, andDecort_3 political ethics and, more particularly, the ethics of making new beginnings after devastating moral ruptures in the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other 20th century moral philosophers. I graduated from the Divinity School in December 2015.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

AD: I will never forget Jean Elshtain’s two-semester course “Religion and the Political Order.” I had recently moved back to Chicago after a year of working in Ethiopia during a time when that country was rocked with a disputed national election, passionate protests, and hundreds of people killed in the streets and thousands more imprisoned. I could still hear the machine gun fire and the whisper of terrified strangers. Professor Elshtain lectured with an encyclopedic knowledge and immersed us in the complex, rich, and living tradition of Christian and post-Christian reflection on human nature, the political order, and moral responsibility in the face of crisis, which helped me think through my past experience and sense of responsibility for the future. Professor Elshtain’s course further convinced me that I wanted to devote my life to studying theological and political ethics with a focus on practical responses to situations of devastation, especially when speaking and acting for others is dangerous and may prove costly.

That said, I found that much of the most formative learning I experienced at UChicago happened not only in the classroom but in office conversations with my professors. I’m grateful to William Schweiker, Donald Levine, Jean-Luc Marion, Leon Kass, and other professors for countless one-on-one conversations.

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?

AD: I wish I had done more of my reading through the lens of a teacher, asking myself, “Would I want to teach this text? If so, in which context or course would specific selections be most relevant and powerful for my students?” If I had approached my coursework, exam prep, and dissertation research with that mindset, it would have been easier to intentionally build up a rich archive of teaching materials. I would encourage current graduate students to keep a running list or brief annotated bibliography of the texts they’re reading that they would also like to teach and for which class/context.

Frankly, I was surprised – but not surprised – by how students respond to passion in teaching. Students want to know that you care deeply about what you’re teaching, without slipping into dogmatism or bias. When students sense that you are existentially invested in what you teach, I have found that they respond very positively and experience a shift in learning from information gathering to personal transformation and heightened responsibility that lives on beyond the classroom. This – what Heschel called “a ceaseless shattering of indifference” – is one of the joys and burdens of teaching ethics.

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

AD: I would like to teach a course on origins and ethics. The course would combine readings from ancient Near Eastern stories like the Enuma Elish and Genesis, stretch to founding political documents like the Ethiopian Kebra Negast (“Glory of Kings”) and American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, include works like Lincoln’s speeches, Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, and Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall, and look at “deep historians” and evolutionary theorists like Daniel Lord Smail, Robert Bellah, Yuval Noah Harari, Frans de Waal, and others. At each point, the task would be to wrestle with how a particular vision of beginnings leads to various, often conflicting visions of reality and what kind of life is worth living. What kind of ethical order does the beginning as accident or as violence or as impersonal dictate or as gift imply? The course’s working hypothesis would be that our founding imagination about our beginnings profoundly shapes how we interpret the sources and reality of value, the present, and how we think we should live into the future. How shall we respond to the reality that so many of our founding narratives, whether explicitly or implicitly, are rooted in violence, whether a god killing another god (Babylon) or the Queen of Sheba stealing the ark from Solomon (Ethiopia) or settlers dominating indigenous peoples (America) or natural selection (Darwinian biology)?

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

AD: Without question, Daniel Master, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Archaeology at Wheaton College. Daniel lectured passionately in the classroom, asked difficult questions, and invited rigorous discussion. He also welcomed me to spend hours dialoguing with him in his office and generously agreed to edit Matthew Robinson’s and my first (unpublished) book after a summer of writing in Ireland. When I talked with Daniel, the Bible, ancient material culture, sociological theory, and the big philosophical questions of human existence all came together. Daniel’s example has inspired me to offer rigorous courses combined with an availability over email and in my office to continue, deepen, and expand discussion and mentorship. My students have responded very positively to this teaching style, and much of it is rooted in the example of Daniel Master, along with Bruce Benson, Sarah Borden, Richard Schultz, and a few others.

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

AD: This is a tough question. I might say Hannah Arendt. While I’ve heard that she was a daunting professor, I intensely respect her emphasis on stopping and only then thinking. I expect that Arendt brought a lot of energy, creativity, and critical analysis to her classroom, because of this emphasis on thinking as a uniquely human gift and task, which flows in and out of action. There is so much thoughtlessness today, and I would like to see Arendt in action. It would also be invigorating to teach with someone who does not share my religious convictions but does share an overarching commitment to ethical responsibility in the face of radical (and banal) evil.

I’m also inclined to say Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier is such an extraordinary listener and he sees intrinsic value in each person. With that approach to people, I expect that Vanier’s classroom would be brimming with brilliant and beautiful discoveries, including the insight that the students are also teachers and thus that the classroom is a place of mutual learning. I begin my classes with the invitation, “Welcome: your coming is good,” and this attunement is inspired in many ways by Jean Vanier’s approach to people, the world, and God.

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

AD: I might imagine religious studies as an orange: an orange has many parts and internal complexity; it can be sour and/or sweet; you never quite know in advance which flavor will present itself; but it is generally good for you. I say this because I believe that religion taps into some of the most important elements of our humanity: our sense of self-transcendence, our capacity to ask questions, our yearning to live for something more than ourselves and to share our lives with others, our need for ultimate values, our intuition that life is valuable and worthy of love and sacrifice, our capacity to believe that all things originate in a radical act of generosity and will be given a new beginning when everything seems lost. In that sense, everyone is “religious” or wrestles with ultimate concerns, as Tillich said. But, on the other hand, religion taps into some of the darkest drives of our humanity: our lust to dominate reality and others, our manipulation of false transcendence to affirm and elevate ourselves over others, our justification of sacrificing others in the name of a “god,” our addiction to spiritualized pharmaceuticals that numb us and allow us to escape from reality through our own self-made fictions, our delight in cheap self-congratulation and triumphalism in the face of others’ suffering. This ambiguity or complexity of religion is why I believe we must teach the most inspiring founders and practitioners of our religious tradition (e.g., the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Rabbula of Edessa, St. Francis, Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa) with the most radical critics of our religious tradition (e.g., Spinoza, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud), not to mention other religious traditions. But whether sour or sweet, critical or constructive, this complex work in religious studies contributes to the health of our humanity.

That’s it! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for our authors’ considered reflections on effective pedagogy! 

Meet the Bloggers Day 4: Sonam Kachru

For the fourth in our “Meet the Bloggers” series, the Craft of Teaching Program is excited to introduce to you Sonam Kachru, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Sonam Kachru: Philosophy of Religions, 2015.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

SK: As of today I think I’d say Bernard McGinn’s last course at the University. I sat very quietly in the back, I wasn’t taking it for credit, and I thus tried very hard to be invisible.sonam_kachru_religious_studies_01hr_da The learning, the humaneness, and the sense of a life of care and scholarship being gathered so lovingly and lightly every day was more moving than I can intimate. But I think it would be more honest of me to say that it was the range of possible classroom experiences which stuck with me most from my time at Chicago. And while we’re being honest, it was one classroom in particular and its association with legendary classes held in the past which stuck with me. The classroom is still on the third floor of Foster Hall. You can taste the air, with the press on air of books and mold and lifetimes of learning. Another experience, not quite a class, but one wherein I came to learn a lot, involves the table of staff selections at the Seminary Coop. It was an education, I tell you what.

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?

SK: How difficult and important it is to get to know your students. I don’t quite mean biographically. I mean something else, something like “their style.” I still don’t quite know how to put this: I suppose one way is to speak of the way an ethos can come to cling to the students at a particular university like dew. That there is such a thing as a style associated with a place I thought a fiction, but I’m increasingly feeling the need of being attuned to this, and of how hard it can be to get a feel for the cognitive and affective styles of students at a place.

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

SK: So many courses. This is today’s list. Buddha, Darwin, Freud—I suppose the title says it all, including why it probably will never be taught; another is The History of the God Who Would Not Age: Desire, a comparative course on Ancient Greece and South Asia, with the highlight being a reading of Bhartrhari showing us over many hundreds of verses what it is like for a poet and philosopher to grow old in the face of brashly resilient desire; and another course I’d be remiss not to mention, even as I’m speaking of dreams, is Constructing The World, a year-long course. We’d read selections from David Chalmers’ book of that name for both undergraduate and graduate versions of the course; thus equipped, the undergraduate version of the course would survey works of comparative meta-metaphysical awareness, thus Vasubandhu, Umasvati and Udayana from South Asia; the epic of nature, de rerum natura by Lucretius, from the so-called West; Leibniz’s Monadology, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, bringing up the chronological rear, but not without ending it with a comparative reading of Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Magadh by Shrikant Verma; and then we’d arrange for therapy. The graduate version would skip the survey and spend a year trying to piece together the human, its body and worlds, with the help of Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Metaphysics. We’d read that work entire. No therapy provided. I’m not qualified for this, but I’d love at some point to be able to reconstruct the intellectual climate of a place at a given time, say a course on Peshawar, 3rd – 5th centuries C.E.–we’d try and make that world come alive, visually, aurally, affectively, cognitively. Just look at what Mary Beard could manage with SPQR; if I could teach one class achieving even a 1/10 of that on South Asia I’d allow myself to think it an achievement.

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

SK: I have been uncommonly fortunate in my teachers. But if I had to, I’d like to name two: O. Bradley Bassler, a philosopher, poet and mathematician, and Tom Cerbu, a humanist and historian of the humanities, practically the Renaissance. Teaching together or alone, they exemplified care and responsiveness to others and to thoughts. They could exemplify all this in the things they said, the way they listened, and how they read. They spoke in complete paragraphs. They showed me why it matters. They nudged my ramblings into increasingly interesting questions, which I took down, and learnt from, long after I had forgotten their answers. They laughed a lot. And they were deadly serious. They taught me not to take oneself so seriously, but never to fool around with what we were gathered to discuss. For them what we do is a living way of life, you know? They hoped for the future, but they taught me to think of the dead. They’re the reason I’m in this mess we call the academy.

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

SK: Among the most recently dead, Geoffrey Hill. I’d love to hear him read Kalidasa. Among the less recently dead, Richard Feynman. I’d love to see what he’d see in the things I only think I’ve begun to see a little clearly. Beyond that, there are just too many, you know. I’d rather not co-teach with the mighty dead. I’d just love to get the chance to sit in the back of class: Aristotle, Vasubandhu, Ibn Rushd, the list is just endless. Confucius apparently loved to jam with his students. I think I should’ve liked to experience that as well.

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

SK: I am terrible with such questions. Honestly, “Imagine religious studies”–isn’t that enough of a challenge?

Tune in Wednesday for our final blog introduction!  

Meet the Bloggers Day 3: Emanuelle (Mandy) Burton

Third in our “Meet the Bloggers” series, the University of Chicago Craft of Teaching Program is excited to introduce Emanuelle Burton, who, in addition to nearly a decade spent teaching in the humanities core at the University of Chicago, has taught religious studies courses at Elmhurst college, humanities core classes at Centre College, and spent a semester teaching ethics to computer science students at the University of Kentucky. She currently teaches ethics courses in the College of Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Mandy Burton: I graduated from the Religion and Literature program in 2014. My work examined the dialectic of self and world in fantasy literature for children, with an eye to the interrelationship between cosmic architecture and ethical norms.head shot

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

MB: A class that really stayed with me was Margaret Mitchell’s Introduction to New Testament course. I had never read the New Testament before graduate school, so my expectations were likely different than those of most of the other students. But it was clear to me that we were all of us, alike, electrified on that first day by the way that Professor Mitchell reframed the emergence and success of Christianity as a contingent and even bizarre outcome, considering that its messiah figure had, by all available metrics, failed pretty badly. There were many points during graduate school, and that course in particular, when I had my complacencies knocked out from under me; but that first day of ItNT was really a virtuosic pedagogical moment, revealing questions where I had perceived none and simultaneously presenting those questions in a way that felt raw and vital even to someone who had never spent time with those texts or that world. It was a pedagogical touchstone for me for my first several years of teaching, and the essence of what Professor Mitchell accomplished that day is what I try to do on the first day of every class I teach.

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?

MB: I was very happy with my pedagogical education in graduate school, which came almost entirely from the writing program (this was significantly before CoT existed.) The teaching of writing — not everywhere, but many places and certainly at Chicago’s WP — is the teaching of critical thinking and persuasion, which are obviously crucial to the teaching of religious studies (as well as many other things.) But it’s worth noting that I am deeply invested in undergraduate (as opposed to graduate) education, and further that I am pretty thoroughly sold on J Z Smith’s argument that the primary responsibility of a teacher of undergraduates is about thinking, and that one’s particular subject matter is in service of this goal.

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

MB: I have, for many years, been back-burner cooking a very critically ambitious course called Athens and Jerusalem, which would explore the intellectual history of how those paired constructions of culture have been used to organize discussions of politics, ethics and identity. I’m not sure if I will ever have the chance to teach it (or be satisfied with my plans for it, should the opportunity arise.) More realistically, I would love to teach a course on dystopian literature. Those are pretty thick on the ground these days, but I suspect mine would be the only one to begin with Langdon Gilkey’s WWII prison camp memoir.

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

MB: I learned a lot from many of my undergrad professors: I already knew I was interested in teaching, so I tended to pay attention to their pedagogy in addition to trying to learn the material. I probably learned the most from Maud McInerney, my undergraduate advisor. I remember realizing at one point — fairly late into my senior year, when I had taken several classes with her already — that we spent the majority of our class time simply explicating the text. I had never noticed this before, because our discussions never felt dry or pedantic (which is what I had always associated with the “review session” model.) That was also the moment, I think, when it really crystallized for me that reading is hard, and that working through a text to grasp what it is doing is, in fact, vital for anyone who teaches texts, but that a lot of Maud’s success was that class time was never presented that way. So I spent the rest of the year trying to get a feel for how she instigated and directed conversation so that we drank in the important details and bumped up against our own eisegeses.

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

MB: If I were to have the teaching career I had imagined for myself when I began a graduate program in religious studies, I would choose Stephen Toulmin. I would love to be responsible for the literary-cultural end of a course in intellectual history, and to co-teach with such a wise, generous and clear-eyed thinker. Given that I seem to be planting my feet in computer science ethics, my hands-down choice would be Zeynep Tufekci, who works at the intersection of technology and politics. She is incredibly insightful, and I really admire the efforts she has made to balance academic rigor with accessibility (which is especially important, given the absolute immediacy of what she works on.).

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

MB: I’m going to cheat slightly and imagine the object of religious studies as the fruit, and the study of religion as attempts to eat it. Given these rule-breaking alterations I have unilaterally adopted for myself, I think it makes sense to talk about religion as a grapefruit. There are so many ways to approach the grapefruit in a way that makes it accessible. You can peel it, first skin and then pith, in an approach that seems to construe the grapefruit on its own terms, and find lobes that appear to organize themselves into neat and monolithic wholes. You can cut it in wedges along paths of your own choosing, and see instead the minuscule separate segment-lets that are all packed in willy-nilly next to one another, each one slightly different; or you can cut it in half, and reveal a pattern that is beautiful, and which on the strength of its beauty can be read as reflecting some great design. But also, some of the shaping constraints of how people eat grapefruit is also analogous to religion. For one thing, people have strong opinions: some swear by it, either for the pleasure it brings or for its health benefits, whereas many others won’t touch it, and for some it is a symbol of austerity. Furthermore, some of its most passionate fans only ever eat it with sugar on top. And finally, if you dig into it too quickly, or from the wrong angle, it’s likely to squirt you in the eye.

Stay Tuned! More bloggers to come! 

Meet the Bloggers Day 2: Kristen Tobey

KTobeyContinuing our “Meet the Bloggers” series for the 2017-2018 academic school year, the Craft of Teaching Program is proud to introduce Kristen Tobey, Assistant Professor of Religion and the Social Sciences in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at John Carroll University.  She has also been an Arts and Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Kristen Tobey: I received my PhD in 2010, in Anthropology and Sociology of Religion with a focus on religion in the United States.  I also received my MA from the Div. School, in 2002.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

KT: I find myself thinking often about Bruce Lincoln’s Classic Theories of Religion.  I don’t do much lecturing in my courses, but when I do—and even when I don’t—I aspire to Lincoln’s effortless blend of encyclopedic knowledge and graceful enthusiasm.  Perhaps especially, I remember that Lincoln (like many of my Div. School professors) always treated the students in the class as worthwhile conversation partners.  Because of that, I left the class with more confidence in myself as a thinker than I began with; now, that’s a gift I work hard to give to my own students.

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?

KT: I’ve been surprised to learn how much being a successful college teacher is bound up with being a good entertainer, in the best sense of the word.  In that same vein, I wish I had learned earlier that, unlike the other graduate students who surround us when we are graduate students, many of my students would not come to my courses brimming with enthusiasm for the subject.  This seems obvious now, but it took me several semesters to figure out that my first task, always, is to sell students on why studying religion is important and enjoyable—something that most of us probably take for granted and might struggle to articulate, especially in ways that are meaningful to our students.

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

KT: I’ve been lucky to get to teach most of my “dream courses,” including one I did for the first time last year called Making Religious Selves.  We started from the idea—new to most of the students—that religious identity is context-specific, and dove into the mechanics of religious socialization, asking what it means to “be religious” from one context to another.  I can imagine developing a corollary course someday on Un-making Religious Selves, to deal with topics like conversion and apostasy and leavetaking, but I’ll think of a better title first.

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

KT: I remember so many of my undergraduate teachers with fondness and, now that I’m in the business myself, real awe for their level of commitment and the extent to which they gave of themselves.  But the teacher who perhaps inspires my teaching most directly is one who refused to give me an A in the class, because I, out of painful shyness, had failed to contribute to discussions, even once.  Now, it’s important to me to impress on my students the real benefits to be gained from getting braver as a classroom participant, but it’s also important to me to do that in a constructive and non-punitive way, and to be affirming when I see that they’re trying.

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

KT: Honestly? Unless the fit between instructors is just right, I find co-teaching to be so challenging that, as long as I’m making wishes, I might wish to never have to co-teach.  (If the person with whom I do co-teach is reading this, he is of course the lone exception.)

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

I can imagine religious studies as a pomegranate. All those bursting seeds are somehow held together by a brittle but tough rind, not unlike the way the dozens (hundreds?) of different approaches to studying religion are improbably corralled under one disciplinary heading.  A pomegranate is a study in the relationship of part to whole; it is simultaneously a frustrating mess and an unmatched delight.  In the same way, its many-in-one nature has always been what most frustrates me and most compels me about our discipline.

Stay tuned for more introduction in the coming days! 

Meet the Bloggers Day 1: Allison Gray

Welcome back, after our summer hiatus, to the Craft of Teaching Blog!

We are delighted to have another outstanding cohort of Divinity School-trained educators and scholars, ready to engage with one another on the pedagogical challenges and opportunities that animate them. We are again looking forward to learning a great deal from our alumni contributors, while hosting this conversation across the many sites of educating about religion in the United States and beyond.

Each year we begin with a “Meet the Bloggers” series. Over the course of the year, these Bloggers in Digital Residence 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.

ALG headshotToday we are delighted to welcome Allison Gray, Assistant Professor of Theology at St. Mary’s University (San Antonio).

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Allison Gray: I received my MA from the Divinity School in 2007, then moved over to the Department of New Testament and Early Christian Literature in the UofC Humanities Division, but all of my committee members were Div School faculty. My research focused on three biographical narratives by the fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa, looking especially at how he deployed Greco-Roman biographical conventions to create didactic portraits extolling Christian virtue and illustrating the value of a new, Christian paideia. I graduated in June 2016.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

AG: The class that sticks with me most is Margaret Mitchell’s New Testament Intro course, because I got to experience three versions of it! I took the course early during my MA coursework, and then I was a TA for the class twice. First of all, Dr. Mitchell leads dynamic class sessions and invites students to think of themselves as scholars in the field of New Testament studies, and that invitation was empowering for me as a student. Then seeing the course from the other side, as a TA involved in grading student work and leading supplementary discussions, gave me a greater appreciation for the kind of time and effort that goes into thoughtful course design. I was also struck by all the opportunities for flexibility that became possible once the course framework was in place. It was exciting to think about the many ways teaching can be responsive rather than carefully scripted.

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?

AG: I learned many helpful things about teaching as a doctoral student, but one principle I wish I had internalized before my first adjunct teaching experience is that it helps everyone when you are transparent with students about course goals and lesson goals. Students are less likely to expend real effort on a class activity or homework assignment when they don’t understand the point or how it will affect their learning. I had a really humbling class meeting about a month into my first course where I sat down with the students and talked through the rationale behind a weekly assignment that kept going horribly wrong; things improved the very next week, and I’ve made an effort to clarify assignment goals ever since.

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

AG: For a while I’ve dreamt about teaching a course in classical and early Christian epistolography – I’d call it “Reading the Mail” to give students the sense that they’re spying on ancient lives – but I’ve yet to formally propose it. The main focus of the course would be an examination of the work letters did in emerging and developing Christian communities of the first five centuries CE. We’d use Greco-Roman, Christian, and Jewish sources to look at the role of letters in forging relationships, reinforcing social bonds, creating and questioning religious identity, mediating disputes, and providing instruction. I think this kind of course could get at deeper questions about how we define and encounter religious authority and help students think critically about the complicated role of seemingly prosaic texts in faith communities.

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

AG: Although I had a number of inspiring professors at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA, my absolute favorite was David Lupher in the Classics Department. This man was a remarkably patient teacher and embodied the sort of scholarly generosity I aspire to have. He invited his undergrads to meet visiting classicists, took our interests seriously and adjusted syllabi accordingly, and always listened attentively. Most importantly, he brought a joyful lightheartedness to his work. Whether we were translating horrific bloody passages of the Eumenides, talking about the misadventures of Apuleius’ unfortunate Lucius, or – on one memorable occasion – covering an entire classroom whiteboard with a diagrammed sentence from Augustine’s City of God (yes, he even agreed to translate Augustine with me in an independent study), he struck a balance between working hard and taking time to laugh and appreciate the ridiculous fun that is bumbling through ancient texts. Thinking back on his open, candid classroom presence definitely inspires me to share what I love with my students, to show them the joy I experience without feeling self-conscious. A few years ago, I went back to Tacoma, and even though Prof. Lupher was out of town, he left instructions that I should go to his office to take his copy of the Sources Chretiennes edition of Gregory’s Life of Moses to use for my dissertation work. It is one of my most prized possessions.

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

AG: I would love to teach a course on early Christianity with the Greek satirist Lucian. His incisive critiques of various religious practitioners have always struck me as driven by a deep affection for the human condition, so I think we could find common ground from which to argue about what the authors of texts like the Apocryphal Acts were up to. He is obviously a careful reader and observer, and anyone who can write a work like his A True Story could offer wonderful insights into what motivates people to write dramatic religious narrative. I can just imagine the levity his brilliant irreverence would bring to the classroom.

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

AG: I’m going to go ahead and be the jerk who says “tomato.” Religious studies: it’s hardly ever what you think it’s going to be, but its very ability to surprise you is wonderful and nourishing. And the New Testament scholar in me wanted to name a fruit that could reasonably fulfill the promise attached to the little scroll of Revelation 10:9, “Take it and eat, and it will be bitter in your belly, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” Tomatoes give people acid reflux, right?

Stay tuned for more introductions in the coming days!

Emotion and Teaching Religion

by Stephanie Frank, Columbia College Chicagosteph%2520without%2520grandma

To bring John Corrigan’s work relating emotion to religion into the conversation we have been having, this year, on this blog, I want to reflect a bit on the relation between emotion and teaching religion. I was struck by Robyn Whittaker’s description of her discomfort, in the classroom, with her students’ recourse to statements of feelings; indeed, it echoed some of my sentiments in the post that I wrote about teaching the day after the 2016 presidential election. I, too, have the impulse to ask students to reframe comments beginning “I feel…” as claims with supporting evidence, and part of me is pulled toward articulating the project of liberal arts education in terms of just this sort of transformation.

I think this impulse derives more from a certain philosophical tradition’s structuring opposition between logos and pathos (an opposition that values one and devalues the other) rather than the nature of the educational enterprise. Indeed, if I consider the proposition more carefully, I do not want to educate my students “out of” feelings–or anything remotely close to that. The question, then, is: what roles do “emotions” play in what we do in our classrooms now, and what roles might we envision for them, in thinking about how we could become more effective teachers in the future?

It is, I think, an underacknowledged truth that a significant part of what we call liberal arts education—and perhaps most of that portion of liberal arts education we call “moral formation”—really amounts to cultivating certain sorts of emotional responses to the world in which we live. It is a commonplace that the role of liberal arts education is not imparting values to students so much as giving students the tools to discern their own values, and I take it that part of what it is to have values is to react emotionally to the world in which we live in certain ways. If I said that I valued autonomy but I were indifferent to instances of coercion I encountered, for instance, you would be reasonable to question whether I had the values I claimed to have.

But I also think it is disingenuous to pretend that we intend purely to help students clarify their own values. I would wager that the majority of us would be disappointed if we learned that (say) a student who had taken our course on race and religion in U.S. history had not become more sensitive (in the sense of emotionally attuned) to issues of structural inequality over the course of the semester. So I think (whether or not we are in the habit of admitting it) part of the project of liberal arts education is moral formation in the sense of cultivating particular emotional responses. Indeed, one of the perils of undergraduate education is that it is often easier for students to acquire the emotional responses associated with certain values than to acquire the skills of defending those values.

All of this is to say that—despite my and Robyn’s visceral responses to the language of “I feel…”– we are always already trafficking in emotion when we teach, whether or not we admit it. But what I have said so far pertains to liberal arts education as entailing the cultivation of certain emotional responses in students—rather as Corrigan suggests (as others have before him) that religious discipline cultivates certain emotional responses in practitioners. A distinct but equally worthy question would more directly address the dilemma that Robyn and I (and I assume others) face in the pedagogical situation of “I feel…”: How can we as teachers channel students’ emotions to cultivate the intellectual dispositions that we seek to impart to them?

Obviously this is a question bigger than a blog post: to approach it properly would require a careful definition of emotion and a coherent account of human motivation, etc. Nevertheless, I think we are already at least peripherally aware of the role certain emotions have in education. The intellectual virtue of curiosity is closely related, for instance, to the emotion of wonder; and I think most of us will have shared with our students the experience of being spurred by annoyance or anger with someone else’s conclusion to carefully analyze the argument that led them there. In some cases, the emotions involved in learning are those that cathect our students’ relationships with us: we have all had interactions with students who were motivated to do intellectual heavy lifting by admiration or, alternatively, demotivated by resentment.

Indeed, I suspect a substantial part of what makes an effective teacher—a part to which we don’t pay enough explicit attention—is not just imparting the ‘right’ emotional responses to students, but also working with students’ emotions to affectively charge the hard work of learning. When I return to the classroom in September, I will be more conscious of the possibilities (and potential liabilities) of this enterprise.

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

Hospitality: Hosting Dialogue on Big Questions as a Form of Counter-Cultural Learning

By Andrew DeCort, The Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology

Sometimes what we need to tackle big questions in the classroom is not simply more knowledge but a wider network of friends and warmer hospitality. For me at least, the instinct is to read a ton, prepare a compelling lecture, and then field questions from my students based on the question(s) I want to address.

But that is not always the most fruitful approach. Instead, I’d suggest inviting someone to come have a conversation with you and thus modeling for your students how to ask questions in a respectful and thoughtful manner, how to listen carefully and charitably, and how to follow up with fresh comments and questions that can extend the dialogue, enrich learning, and deepen relationship.

For example, last year I taught a new seminar at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology entitled “The Command of Neighbor-Love: History, Theology, and Ethics.” This course rather ambitiously poured over the biblical texts on neighbor love within their cultural contexts, then marched through major figures in the history of theology and philosophy, and finally addressed specific questions of practical relevance for neighbor-love in the Ethiopian context. One of these questions was how Islam approaches neighbor-love and whether Christians and Muslims can work together to promote a shared vision of neighbor-love for the common good in Ethiopia.

As I said above, my initial instinct was to read closely our assigned texts; to immerse myself in the Quran, Hadith, and other secondary sources on the topic; and to come to class with a dense lecture that would impress and challenge my students. Frankly, outpacing my students’ knowledge on this topic wouldn’t have been very difficult, and we could have easily had a safe and even stimulating class session on our questions.

But I decided against this, and I invited my friend Abduletif Khedir, a lecturer in Human Rights at Addis Ababa University and a devout Muslim, to visit my class for that session. In truth, I was unsure how this was going to work. To my knowledge, my Christian institution had never invited a Muslim into the classroom, and the session was three hours long, so there was plenty of room for misunderstanding or awkwardness. But this turned into one of the, if not simply the, most energizing and thought-provoking sessions of the entire semester.

First, I gave a very brief introduction on the ethics of listening to others based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, what he calls “the first service” of loving our neighbor. Then I gave a very respectful introduction to my friend Abduletif, expressing my gratitude for his willingness to come to EGST and why he was qualified to educate us on this topic. Next, Abduletif and I had a focused but free-flowing dialogue for over an hour based on questions I had prepared in advance and the spontaneous back-and-forth that resulted. Here I was able to model for my students how to ask relevant and respectful questions, engaging sensitive topics (e.g., jihad and the Islamic State) without being offensive or arrogant. After a short break, the seminar resumed, and I opened the classroom for Q&A between the students and Abduletif, which lasted for well over another hour.

I was very pleased with the result. The students followed my lead in expressing gratitude and respectfulness to our guest. They also did a good job of formulating real questions that combined sensitivity with seriousness and importance. What followed was a warm, rich, and thought-provoking dialogue. Far from having too much time, we went over time because the students wanted to keep asking questions and learn more from our guest instructor/dialogue-partner.

Afterward, several of the students told me that they loved that session and that they had never talked with a Muslim at such length and in such depth about Scripture, faith, and ethics. This was striking to me, because approximately 35% of the Ethiopian population follows Islam, so meeting and talking with Muslims requires little effort. And yet my students told me that what we did in class was unprecedented for them and eye-opening.

Frankly, I think we all left the classroom with a sense of deep gratitude and awe, because our conversation partner modeled such kindness toward us and command of his tradition, offering nuanced and honest responses to our questions that left us feeling respect for his faith and rich possibility for further dialogue. Far from a dry lecture or an apologetic debate, that session truly was an energizing, mind-expanding conversation.

In fact, what I loved the most about this session was that it performatively embodied the topic we were dealing with: practicing neighbor-love beyond our Christian bubble with Muslims and trying to figure out how we can pursue the common good together. So rather than theory or sheer information, the students got to observe and then participate in the subject matter – to do it for themselves with a Muslim neighbor who is actively involved in our shared city.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that inviting a guest is the only good way to tackle big questions in the classroom. But I’ve found that it can be an especially fruitful way to break down barriers, stimulate deeper curiosity, and give your students an opportunity to practice the real dialogue that all big questions should generate.

In conclusion, let me mention a few practical tips that I think contributed to the success of this session.

First, I had organized a few previous dialogues with Abduletif when I brought my Wheaton College students to Ethiopia, so we already had a relationship and I was confident that he was comfortable with and skillful at conversation with passionate students. I was also confident in his expertise and capacity to communicate his knowledge of Islamic thought with fluency.

Knowing your dialogue partner before addressing sensitive and potentially controversial questions is important. If you haven’t already cultivated friendships with relevant dialogue partners for a big question you want to ask, this is a great opportunity to build bridges with other scholars and community leaders who can engage your classroom. I encourage you to think about people you know and/or potential contacts that you can start cultivating dialogue with now to avoid last-minute invitations and unnecessary blunders.

Second, I gave my students plenty of readings in advance of the session that laid the groundwork for the dialogue, challenged stereotypical assumptions, and stimulated a desire to learn more from our guest. Those readings – mostly from Muslims on neighbor-love rather than Christian interpretations of Muslims, which can be a temptation in confessional settings – gave fruitful reference points for the students to ask exegetical questions of the Quran and Hadith, as well as more immediate questions of practice and ethics today. Setting strong context for the dialogue is crucial.

Third, I did my homework and prepared about ten carefully formulated questions to ask Abduletif in front of my classroom for our live dialogue. Again, my primary goal here was to model for my students how to formulate compact, precise, important questions that were respectful and real rather than rhetorical or cornering. I’ve found that students can struggle to articulate what they actually want to ask and easily end up asking something else or confusing what they want to know. Thus, it’s valuable to model for students the thoughtfulness and care that goes into formulating clear, concise, crucial questions, including mentioning that these questions were actually prepared and written in advance rather than spontaneously generated by their teacher’s genius.

Asking questions well requires time and effort. At the beginning of the session, I invited my students to write down their questions and to work on them as they listened, so that when the open Q&A started, they would be focused and prepared. This worked well.

The capacity to ask questions – big and small – is essential to what makes us uniquely human. For all we know, we are the only species that can formulate questions, listen carefully to responses, and then change how we think and live based on this free flow of language (dialogos). Given the ideological polarization of our age fueled by arrogance and insecurity, it would be easy to fabricate (pseudo)questions as tees off of which to hit home-runs with our answers for our students as passive consumers of information.

But what our students may need most from us is not our convincing answers but our courageous questions and our patient capacity to model the moral virtues of dialogue that make learning possible, worthwhile, and life-changing. Inviting a thoughtful, passionate dialogue partner into the classroom is one way to perform this counter-cultural practice. As one of my UChicago mentors, Professor Donald Levine, insisted, this is the very heart of education: “conversation about the meaning of life, as each sees some part of it, on behalf of everyone.”[1]

In many cases, this begins by extending hospitality toward others with different points of view, sharing honest conversation, and discovering that there is often far more that unites us than divides us.


P.S. If you’re interested in my class’s conversation with Abduletif Khedir, you can access a transcript of it entitled “Love Your Neighbor: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue on God, Jihad, and Neighbor-Love” on my Facebook here.

[1] Donald Levine, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1965), xii.

Teaching Religion, in America

By K. Tobey, John Carroll University

During my doctoral years, when I was adjuncting in a few different Religious Studies departments in the Chicago area, I had a conversation with the chair of one of those departments that remains with me some ten years later. Still naïve about the realities of the job market, I asked about the chances of longer-term employment in that department. I was teaching courses on religion in the United States; the department’s Americanist would be retiring before long. Might the stars align and produce a job in the vicinity of my field? The chair told me that tenure lines wouldn’t be getting replaced just like that, and that a full-time hire in American religions was unlikely, given that, in his words, “Anyone can teach that.”

Nearly every Americanist I know has at least one similar story, and bristles at the telling of it. I imagine those in other concentrations could recount analogous conversations as well.

Exchanges like these are troubling not only because they render Americanists expendable and devalue the work that we are trained to do, but also because of the fundamental untruth they contain about what teaching Religion in America entails. I will concede that there is a sense in which my former department chair was right, or partly right, that “anyone”—at least, anyone with solid training in a not-entirely-unrelated field and a few good reference books—could teach some version of a course on American religion. In the same way that I once muddled my way through a semester teaching Philosophy of Religion (mostly successfully, the students reported, though it felt like a fifteen-week nightmare to me, and I suspect that any philosopher of religion looking at my syllabus would take my view), anyone trained in Swift Hall probably could keep at least a step or two ahead of the students even in a course as far from their area of expertise as Philosophy of Religion is from mine. But a less benevolent presumption undergirds these conversations: that teaching Religion in America is something anyone can do because it involves no more than a simplistic recounting of a superficial master narrative. That former department chair of mine entirely elided the complexity and particularity with which Americanists, like any experts, are trained to see their subject of inquiry.

Indeed, highlighting those complexities and particularities is not always easy to do in the sweeping survey courses that many of us will teach. In ten or fifteen weeks, how do we do anything but race through a master narrative and hope for the best? Some of my more fruitful approaches to this quandary have involved resisting the “Religion in America” label altogether by either zooming out or zooming in.

One instance of zooming out involved taking a group of students to Denmark, which neatly foils the United States in its religious dynamics. There is a lot to learn about religion in Denmark, and there is a lot to learn about religion in the United States in Denmark, by way of both connection (the first non-English translation of the Book of Mormon was into Danish, for example) and contrast (unlike in the United States, churches sit empty while almost everyone professes church membership, and the reported level of trust in religious leaders, also unlike in the United States, is astronomically high). That trip was a lucky opportunity that I may not happen upon again, but whether or not travel is involved, we do our students a favor when we help them to perceive the wildly idiosyncratic nature of the American religious landscape.

Zooming in is easier to do, at least logistically. I am fortunate to teach in Ohio; it’s not an exaggeration to say that everything important in American religious history happened here. Replacing the general survey in American religious history with a course on Religions of Ohio was a simple and logical curricular switch resulting in a course that still functions as an introductory survey, but at the same time emphasizes and theorizes particularity. Thematically oriented courses can accomplish this as well as geographically oriented ones, but if, like me, you teach at a school whose student body is mostly local and possessed of an ardent hometown loyalty, the geographic lens may be just what you need to get students excited about the subject.

By zooming out and zooming in—by examining idiosyncrasy and particularity—students learn the value of extrapolation and comparison, and the limitations. When we as instructors resist, in this or any subfield, the presumption of a superficial master narrative, we give students an opportunity to wrestle with complexity, a skill that employers situate near the tops of their lists of hiring preferences. The simplistic master narrative, then, is an impediment to understanding religious dynamics in America, but it is also a betrayal of what coursework in religious studies—all its subfields—can contribute to the personal growth and professional success of our students.

In its best version, religious studies, whether as a solitary required course or a lifelong scholarly pursuit, comprises an endeavor profound in both its simplicity and its consequence: it invites us to a better understanding of other people, providing tools with which to apprehend vastly different logics (whether cognitive, emotional, or embodied), and to better interrogate logics that we have taken for granted. It requires us, whether scholar or student, to engage our own interiority and equips us to participate thoughtfully and responsibly in a complex, diverse world. These are abstract outcomes, but they depend on the acquisition of practical, demonstrable skills that are useful far beyond the religious studies classroom, including reflective and critical inquiry, synthetic analysis, and constructive communication.

To teach religion is to insist on the power of reasoned inquiry, constructive discourse, and compound explanations. Religious studies is inherently multidisciplinary, a simultaneous celebration of an eclectic and disciplined focus. It requires us to marshal diverse resources as we approach intricate problems, and to examine questions from multiple angles. It requires us to suspend judgement before analysis and practice critical empathy, and raises powerful warnings against the tendency to dehumanize that which is unfamiliar. Today’s America needs these skills perhaps more than ever. Against the presumption of superficial narratives and simple explanations, let us take seriously our discipline’s resources, and our own responsibility.

Learning about Your Teaching, or, Self-Assessment for Everyone!

By Allison Gray, St. Mary’s University

Almost every list of “best practices in teaching and learning” talks about self-assessment, and we all know that constructive feedback and thoughtful reflection can lead to improvement and innovation in the classroom. However, the typical tool for a professor’s self-assessment – the student evaluation – is incredibly problematic: evaluations are demonstrably biased against people of color and women, and students don’t always have a clear understanding of how evaluations are used, which can lead to a lack of thoughtful comments or low response rates. Yet most schools continue to use some sort of standard evaluation, and as junior faculty members I think most of us need and value student feedback about our courses and our pedagogy. What can we do?[1] Since the end of the semester is rapidly approaching, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about how to facilitate (and participate in) meaningful self-assessment as scholar-teachers in the academic study of religion.

Go beyond the standard course evaluation

DIY. If you find the typical Likert scale ratings less than informative, you can try to create supplementary evaluations that provide you with the information you actually want. If you really want to know how students liked your switch from powerpoint to Prezi in the last month of class, ask! Each semester I draw up course-specific evaluations, tailored to the content and activities of a given semester, and I set aside time in one class period for students to fill them out. For example, I’ll provide a list of the in-class activities we’ve completed that semester and ask students to identify those that were most and least useful for their learning and to provide explanations for their selections. You can also ask about how helpful or interesting students found particular readings or lecture topics. I’ve learned a lot over the years from asking “What could the students and/or instructor do to facilitate more active class participation?” And one of my favorite things to read is a set of student responses to the question, “What new question(s) do you have about Theology/the Gospel of John/Discipleship [make it as specific as you want] now that you’ve completed the course?” Invariably students’ answers to this last question reveal (1) surprising gaps in what the syllabus covered, which can guide future course revisions and (2) the ways that students connect course content to their learning in other courses, their major fields of study, or their personal lives.

Make self-assessment an ongoing process. Build self-assessment and student reflections into the course early and often, and use them to tweak your teaching as you go. As part of any major project or paper, students can complete a self-assessment form or write a paragraph describing what they learned by completing the assigned task. At the end of a class period, give students 3 minutes to write down how a class discussion affected their perspective on a course topic or reading, and start the next class meeting by filling in lacunae or responding to good insights. Not only can these forms of self-assessment encourage students to think about and become aware of their own learning, but they can give you concrete information about your classroom in real time, so that you’re not waiting in suspense for that end-of-term eval. On a larger scale, one of my colleagues offers a mid-semester course evaluation that asks students to identify classroom and teaching practices that she should keep and which ones she should jettison, and she makes some adjustments accordingly.

Be transparent. I mean this in a few different ways. Inviting students to assess their own work can help to demystify the grading process, reminding them of your expectations while there’s still time in the term to make improvements. By the time they get to the standard course evals, they may be more likely to give you a good rating for “instructor makes expectations clear.” But it’s also important to talk with your students about why you’re asking them to assess your teaching and to explain what you’ll do with their feedback. I feel like this open communication makes it easier to take risks in the classroom. For example, a few semesters ago I organized a class meeting around a collaborative GoogleDocs exercise. I had no idea if this would turn out well or if students would hate the activity. At the end of the class period I revealed they had been the first to test out this new in-class activity and that their experience would help me decide when and how to use it in the future. I got some very helpful suggestions that I’ve since incorporated in other classes.

Harness your religious studies skills

Ways of collecting the data are great, but reading what students have to say about your teaching style, your materials, your courses, and your discipline can be terrifying. I’m starting to think it’s inevitable that I’ll get at least one evaluation a semester that says, “I wish we didn’t have to take this class. I hated everything about it.” But we’re scholars of religion, so we know how to get through tough experiences! Make the process of reading evaluations into a ritual – Centering yourself in a tranquil setting. Reading the text aloud in a supportive community. Crying out in lamentation. Drinking wine. You know the drill.

[1] There are so many excellent articles and blog posts if you want more than my two cents. Here’s one recent post about gender bias in evaluations: Victor Ray’s “Is Gender Bias an Intended Feature of Teaching Evaluations?” on Inside Higher Ed [link:], and the Carolina Women’s Center has a short reading list on gender and racial bias here [link:]. For an interesting approach to self-assessment, check out Sherrie Steiner’s post “How Using Autoethnography Improved my Teaching” on The Scholarly Teacher blog [link:]

Pilgrimage: An Ancient Model for Transformative Theological Education

By Andrew DeCort, Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology

Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia

For three consecutive years (2014-2016), I had the privilege of designing and co-leading the Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia (AAE) program at Wheaton College. The first part of AAE revolved around a 16-week academic seminar that immersed our students in primary and secondary Ethiopian sources. These interdisciplinary readings focused on (1) Ethiopia’s governing narratives shaping self-understanding (“authority”), (2) constitutive practices and institutions that organize body and society (“action”), and (3) systems of evaluation for critiquing and reimagining authority and action toward a new future (“ethics”). AAE became a framework for interpreting and engaging human identity and society with the goal of cultivating responsible Christian leadership across cultures.

Dr. DeCort leading the AAE seminar at Wheaton College (2014).

The AAE seminar was designed to prepare our students to travel to Ethiopia itself for eighteen days during the summer. Our goals for this extended “site visit” – what I called a Pilgrimage of Theological Humanism – were fourfold: (1) to be deeply present, (2) to listen closely, (3) to observe carefully, and (4) to undergo transformative learning. We didn’t travel to Ethiopia with the usual foreign agenda: to tour, teach, and “change” people, or even to do academic “fieldwork” per se. We went to Ethiopia to be with Ethiopians and to learn from Ethiopians in their own spaces, with their own problems and possibilities, having done as much homework as 16 weeks would allow.

Thus, we embarked with a deep sense of expectation, seeking to reimagine our visions of authority, action, and ethics through intensive, often intense encounters with Ethiopians, their vocations, and their implicit and explicit “AAEs.” During our pilgrimage we engaged nearly thirty visits/seminars with diverse local leaders, including Abuna Mathias, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewehado Church; Dr. Betta Mengistu, a founding father of the Pentecostal movement; Professor Abdulatif Khedir, a Muslim intellectual who teaches law and human rights at Addis Ababa University; Blen Sahilu, a feminist activist promoting women’s wellbeing against gender-based violence; and representatives at the African Union.

With Aba Sereke Birhan at the Head Quarters of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (2016).

The AAE program was recognized for excellence by the University of Chicago Center for Teaching, won praise from the President of Wheaton College, and many of our alumni commented that this program was the most formative academic experience of their college career (see here and here). In the remainder of this reflection, I will briefly describe two of our many site visits and then meditate even more briefly on three factors that made this pilgrimage so rich for our students and so respectful for our hosts.

Itash’s House

Our first “site visit” was perhaps counter-intuitive but crucial for our pilgrimage. I took our students to visit an Ethiopian Orthodox family living in a tiny mud house in one of Addis’s slums. I have built a close relationship with this loving family for over ten years and brought my students with their permission. This family, like so many others, has persevered through intense hardship: rural-urban migration, HIV, a bad injection at a government hospital that left their daughter nearly paralyzed, the hard work of making ends meet in a city with massive unemployment, and the daily life of seven people living in a single room with one bed.

Before our visit, I began by reading a narrative essay to my students describing this family’s history, their incredible strength and religious devotion, and why I wanted us to visit their home at the beginning of our pilgrimage. We then traveled to their neighborhood, walked deep into the slum, and crowded into Itash’s home. Many of my students commented that this “site visit” was the most impactful during our time in Ethiopia.

Talking with Itash, left, in her home after lunch and coffee (2016).

With Itash we discovered radical hospitality. Itash warmly welcomed us as family and invited us to feel at home sitting on her family’s bed. She cooked us a lavish meal of delicious injera-be-wet (traditional bread and stew) in her small kitchen. She then served us home-roasted coffee as she told us about her life, how she practices gratitude each morning as she prays and drinks coffee, and how God is faithful as she bakes injera and supports her family amidst the suffering that life brings.

This preface to our pilgrimage was not poverty porn or a call for pity. It was the attuning paradigm for everything that followed: Itash is a powerful author, agent, and ethicist – an exemplar of radical hospitality, sacrificial generosity, and humane leadership. We came to be present, listen, observe, and learn with her as our professor, in the midst of her neighborhood, which is daily life for so many millions of Ethiopians and others.

Without sanitizing the injustice of poverty, that slum and Itash’s home became a sacred space of human encounter, religious reverence, and practical learning about a deeply good life amidst lack, sickness, and tragedy. I wanted my students to learn from the very beginning of this “site visit” – this pilgrimage – that we came to learn from everyone, everywhere, in every circumstance of life, starting with this strong woman and her resilient family. (Later on the trip, we fasted a meal, and the savings were privately given to Itash to express our gratitude and make sure her hospitality did not take away from her family’s needs.)

Year after year, I have been astonished by Itash’s generous welcome and the enduring impression she made on my students. Long after we returned home, students commented that they still think of Itash each morning as they drink coffee and reflect on the meaning of gratitude and the demands of responsibility in a world with so much goodness and grief.

Lalibela’s Rockhewn Churches

Later in our pilgrimage, we took a plane from Addis to Lalibela, a rural town in the northern mountains of Ethiopia with eleven rockhewn churches dating from the 13th century and before. Lalibela is described as Ethiopia’s Jerusalem and “the eighth wonder of the world,” a former capitol and continuing pilgrimage site where millions of Ethiopians have traveled to celebrate the birth of Jesus for nearly a thousand years and still to this day.

As our guide Gashaw took us deep into these ancient stone sanctuaries, he explained the rich theological significance that surrounded us. Again and again, he invited us to remove our shoes before entering to embody our reverence for these sacred spaces. He noted that the churches point to the east, orienting pilgrims in space toward the resurrection and return of Christ. Half of the churches symbolize the earthly Jerusalem and the others the heavenly Jerusalem, with the stream between them named Jordan and the mountain behind them named Herman: this is a sacred city that marries earth and heaven. The stones inside are smooth from the millions of hands that have touched them, the millions of lips that have kissed them, seeking God in the physical mediation of stone dedicated to heaven. The hand drums with which the priests lead the people in dancing and singing boom with the gospel: the smaller, bottom end of the drum represents the Old Testament; the larger, bigger end represents the New Testament; between them is the body of the drum held together with leather straps, which simultaneously represents the womb of Mary and the wounded body of Jesus. With dancing feet, singing voices, and the bassy boom of the drum, the Gospel is alive: resonating between Old and New Testaments, the womb of Mary gives birth to the Messiah Jesus, whose stripes have healed the world and filled it with God’s glory.

AAE visiting St. Giorgis Church in Lalibela, Ethiopia (2016).

Deep in the hewn mountains of Lalibela’s ancient churches, my students encountered a surprising classroom for questioning Platonized Christianity, which emphasizes disembodied propositional beliefs that lead to an afterlife in an immaterial otherworld. There in Lalibela, sacred space is literally carved into rock. The cold of the stone reminds the pilgrims of holy earth beneath their feet. The colorful etchings and icons fire the imagination with divine history. The drum-driven dance of worship booms with an embodied gospel in a sanctuary filled with incense. Worshipers drink holy water and cross their foreheads with sacred ash. Going before us, Gashaw led us through a long, pitch-black tunnel from one church to another, crouching and struggling not to lose our footing – an embodied performance of the pilgrimage from darkness to light that is human history, climactically incarnated in the death and resurrection of Jesus as we walk together.

In Lalibela, we found that Christian believing gets embodied in Christian touching, seeing, tasting, hearing, and smelling – hewn into stone, oriented toward the east, calling humanity into a life of pilgrimage toward the New Jerusalem. My students were provoked and inspired by an unfamiliar Christianity, which is far more ancient than their American Evangelicalism. Authority, action, and ethics took on new dimensions.

Conclusion: Preparation, Expectation, and Reflection

The AAE pilgrimage is not a perfect model of site visits and theological education. But these two vignettes from a woman’s home and a town of ancient churches illustrate the rich learning that led my students to rethink their own authority, action, and ethics and to see this program as a pillar of their undergraduate education. In conclusion, what were some of the pieces that made these site visits so meaningful?

First, our site visits were preceded by thick preparation. Before stepping foot in Ethiopia, we did 16 weeks of rigorous study, dialogue, and fellowship. We cultivated epistemic humility by discovering our ignorance, while actively informing ourselves. We wove a deep sense of trusting community by regular meetings and meals together. We also developed a rich spiritual attunement toward our travel by assigning weekly ethnographic exercises and the readiness to encounter sacred presence with everywhere, in each place, in every circumstance with the ethical ethos “welcome: your coming is good.”

Second, our site visits were energized by a deep – in our case, daily – expectation. Yes, we traveled to learn “academic” material – dates, places, people, causes, complexities, and outcomes. But we went to Ethiopia expecting to be touched and changed by others. AAE was far more than a field trip to collect data. It was a voluntary risk to expose and share ourselves with others and their stories, who generously welcomed and received us, including Orthodox, Pentecostal, Muslim, agnostic, and atheist Ethiopians. Again and again, I invited my students to be deeply present, to listen closely, to observe carefully, and to open themselves to transformative learning. Of course, this spiritual practice requires voluntary investment from each member of the cohort, but we found that this developed organically out of this program’s application process and 16 weeks of preparation.

Third, site visits like AAE require enduring reflection. After we returned home from Ethiopia, the students were tasked with rereading the notes from their ethnography journals taken during our pilgrimage. They were then assigned to write an essay entitled “Paradigms of a Plausible Future” based on W.H. Auden’s poem “The Garrison,” where he writes, “To serve as a paradigm now of what a plausible Future might be is what we’re here for.” In this integrative essay, we asked our students to describe and analyze 3 to 5 of the most powerful site visits from our pilgrimage and how these Ethiopian people and/or places embody “paradigms of a plausible future” for our lives and leadership in global society. Thus, the students were given a chance to formulate how their rigorous preparation and materialized expectation formed into enduring learning about authority, action, and ethics that can be applied across contexts. Our site visits were not left behind like tourism but became part of us like pilgrimage. In fact, upon our return, students were challenged to consider daily life across contexts as an endless pilgrimage calling for their presence, listening, observance, and transformative learning.

Site visits are risky and can easily turn into “trips” that leave hosts feeling like disrespected tools and visitors like extractive tourists. But they can also be transformative and life-changing learning experiences. Across the three years of Authority, Action, Ethics: Ethiopia, we found that our thick preparation, deep expectation, and enduring reflection designed a pilgrimage of learning that made our hosts feel deeply respected (a comment I heard frequently) and our students inspired and responsible.

With my colleague Dr. Matthew Robinson, I look forward to relaunching the AAE program later this year through the Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms Universität Bonn and the Institute for Christianity and the Common Good.



Students in the Field: The Pedagogy and Ontology of Site Visits

By Kristen Tobey, John Carroll University

As a social scientist, I value fieldwork not only as crucial for much of my research, but also as central to how we learn best about religion. I was hired into my current position on those grounds, as someone who could expand my department’s methodological breadth and be a resource for students interested in religion as local and lived. My courses bear the stamp of my methodological disposition, but I am also the go-to, as advisor or sounding board, when a student has a sociological or anthropological project or thesis in mind. Part of my role within my department is to guide students through the tactics and ethics of field research, and I delight in that role.

Still, I have mixed feelings when it comes to sending students into the field. Ideally, site visits expand students’ horizons, allowing encounter with the “other” and highlighting particularity while revealing that difference isn’t scary, and often isn’t even altogether different. Especially at an institution like mine, where many of the students have attended Catholic schools for years and often have had little exposure to religions other than their own, these tandem outcomes are tremendously valuable, and students often express appreciation for them after the fact (in contrast to the trepidation they usually express upon realizing that a course has an experiential requirement). When they fall short of the ideal, however, site visits can disrupt the site and its practitioners, and discomfit students. At their worst, they may even confirm biases and prejudices. This is pedagogical ground to tread carefully, as Dr. Anne Mocko will discuss in her upcoming Craft of Teaching workshop. In tandem with that workshop, I offer some thoughts on how to help site visits go well, and how to render them valuable even when they seem to fall short of the ideal.

For the purposes of ordinary coursework, I send students in to the field primarily in two admittedly uncreative ways: independent visits to a religious service or event from a tradition that is unfamiliar to them, and class field trips. The “unfamiliar tradition” visits, especially, never fail to inspire dread in students. For most of my students, this assignment is their first exposure to a religious tradition other than their own, and I can count on one hand the students who have been excited about it beforehand rather than anxious. Little do they know how much more I worry about this assignment than they do.

Mostly I worry about them having an experience that seems tedious or difficult or otherwise off-putting, and coming away more bored or even antagonistic towards the study of religion than when they went in. Correspondingly, my pedagogical work around this assignment primarily has to do with managing anxieties and expectations—theirs and mine. We talk at length about details like how to dress (always students’ first question), but I’ve learned over time that questions about what to wear and the like often mask deeper concerns about the ontology of participant-observation. My mostly-Catholic students wonder what it means for them to attend a non-Catholic service, in the same way that the mostly-Methodist students I took on a short study-abroad trip to Cophenhagen a few years ago wondered what it meant for them to suddenly find themselves involved in an unplanned neopagan rite that none of us expected. I now make explicit what I didn’t always realize I needed to articulate: that visiting doesn’t have to include participating, and that what participation implies ontologically is theirs to determine. I emphasize to students, however, that if they wish not to participate, they should choose a site accordingly, one where a stranger sitting on the sidelines will not be perceived as threatening.

Students often are surprised to consider that their presence might arouse suspicion. This past year, however, a number of students experienced exactly that when they attended a synagogue service at a temple near campus. As the students entered the temple, they were approached and queried (brusquely, as they later told the story) about their purpose there, and then were asked to leave. Our Catholic university sits squarely in the middle of a heavily Jewish neighborhood; the nearby temples are accustomed to and have always welcomed visiting students at their services. I was fully taken aback when my students reported to the class that “people were mean” at the temple. What initially seemed to be all my students’ worst fears coming true, however, turned into an important pedagogical moment, as the class together connected the congregants’ wariness with a recent spate of anti-Semitic attacks on area temples.

I worry less about students having an outright bad experience—those instances are so very rare—than I do about students being “bored,” as they might characterize it: not finding a meaningful entry into the experience, not coming away with takeaways that they can recognize as significant. I have found that students are more invested in the visits when we all work together to generate a list of things they might fruitfully notice, most of which don’t seem to be “about” religion, necessarily. I ask them to think about what someone might notice or observe upon visiting a regular activity of theirs for the first time. For many of my students, a religious service would fall under the category of something they do regularly, but I ask them specifically to think first about non-religious activities, where the students (especially in the 100-level courses where site visits are a common assignment) have an easier time identifying the observable social dynamics at play. At your LGBTQ+ meeting, what might someone attending for the first time notice? At your sorority or fraternity event? In the few minutes before swim team practice? I do not mean to suggest to them that a religious service is reducible to its social dynamics. But coming up with concrete things to notice—somebody seems to be in charge (or not); women and men are doing different things (or not); some people seem like they really know what they’re doing (and some don’t); the room is set up in a particular way for the event (or it’s not)—helps students to feel less adrift when walking into an unfamiliar situation.

That many of those things are not explicitly about religion means that their observations might not be, either.  Often those ostensibly non-religious observations are the most teachable ones. After a class trip to Kirtland Temple (an important LDS site near our campus), several students seemed astonished that our tour guide had tattoos up and down both of his arms. “But he said he was a minister!” they gasped. Who was this man? What does it mean to be a minister? What does it mean to be religious? I hadn’t planned for the conversation that ensued (indeed, as a Gen-Xer, I had scarcely registered his tattoos); the students surely hadn’t either. But it was just the one we all wanted to have.