What Makes Religious Studies Different? (If It Is.)

Some of the challenges of teaching are similar across the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. How to generate class discussion, how to address sometimes widely varying levels of academic preparation, how to coach study skills without making one’s course about that, how to encourage those small steps into the inference-making indigenous to one’s discipline, how to show the course’s connection to reality beyond its institutional form as a “class” – everyone who teaches at the college and university level has to address these, somehow.

And then there’s religious studies. It’s special. Or so it seems.

I was hired to anchor Texas State’s religious studies minor, but within a few years, my teaching portfolio expanded to include the department’s general philosophy course, which is required of all undergraduates, and courses in the Honors College (neé Program). In many of these courses, I don’t address religion at all. In some of my religion courses, I don’t address biblical traditions. Some differences between teaching RS and anything else, and teaching RS sans biblical material, became evident.

Since situating our texts in historical context is standard operating procedure, the first difference I noticed was that this is easy to do for anything that isn’t the Bible. In World Religions courses, for instance, I have never experienced resistance to a consensus dating of Asian texts, even when I noted a disagreement between traditional dates and the results of historians. But with the Bible – even books like Ecclesiastes, not to mention the Torah or Mark – class after class mounted great resistance. I responded by making the principles of historical induction as explicit as possible and inviting discussion about what would happen if we threw them out for everything we study.

Over time, I came to see that this dynamic was embedded in a weakness of framing. An academic endeavor constructs a certain type of framing for anything it studies: we take a cognitive step away in order to constitute some parts of experience or observation as data (or in history, primary sources) and then practice methods designed to articulate a secondary discourse – interpretation, explanation, comparison, integration with the body of knowledge. People do resist this maneuver for some areas of their experience, but there is no principled reason that I can see why anything should be exempt across the board. With religious studies, this tension gets into foundational questions of the field, but my concern here is the classroom. Students who expect a course in, say, human sexuality, to be constructed in this academic manner may come to a religion course with a different expectation. To me, these are just different areas of knowledge; but the panoply of course offerings may run athwart a student’s boundaries for what can be treated this way and what should not.

Finally, there’s an expectation of intellectual hand-holding – of reassurance. For me, it manifests in question-behind-the-question situations, those exchanges in class when one gets the uneasy feeling that the question expressed in words isn’t what the student is really concerned about. For instance, in a World Religions course, it can take the form of surprise when the professor does not construct a Christian self as a subtle home base, a point of view from which “other” religions are studied. This can get as subtle as pronoun use in classroom discourse. I have heard colleagues discuss this dynamic, but I’m under the impression that I run unusually low on providing this sort of reassurance. Besides my religious difference from my students, it’s a combination of temperament and commitment. In “The Value of Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell argues that true intellectual endeavor pursues the not-Self, and only such pursuit expands us. This resonates with me, and I try to prompt students to it. However, that operating mode tends to elicit subtle demands for the reassurance of (given constructions of) Self. On this point, I’m consciously out of pedagogical fashion. Nevertheless, academics who naturally build in strategies that reassure may still miss whatever degree or type of reassurance some students expect. The students may not know they expect it until it isn’t there. And we don’t know what any given individual expects until he or she is before us.

Layers within layers.

On the one hand, some differences in classroom dynamics have been very noticeable and consistent across my teaching career. Biblical studies classes stand out, especially on the first point; religion courses on other topics are more like biblical studies courses than like philosophy and honors courses; and philosophy and honors courses are far more like each other than they are like RS courses. There’s a gradient: the Homeric Epic course, which I’m teaching this term, is more similar to the non-RS courses.

On the other hand, I have recently come to some skepticism about my own impressions. For years, I supposed that students understood the principles of historical induction and simply refused to apply them to the Bible. Naïve of me: they may just be taking the material in their history courses as authoritative pronouncements rather than careful inductions. One of my colleagues, a distinguished specialist in Texas history, told me that a student once wrote on his evaluation that someone who hates Texas shouldn’t teach Texas history. Now, Frank does not hate Texas. But he does not teach the mythicized version of Texas history that some students expect, and they reject it. Maybe it’s not religion as subject that’s the problem, but rather any topic where academic method generates cognitive dissonance on a matter important to someone’s identity.

Other factors may also be at work with academic framing and the need for reassurance. I have seen a tendency to what I call unispace – a construction of everything as contiguous and a refusal of multi-leveled framing – in all of my courses. And the need for reassurance could be a version of “relatability,” which some critics have recently identified and deplored. In any case, I am no longer certain that religion as problematic object of study explains the patterns.

Is religious studies special? Or is it just a place where a certain kind of cognitive dissonance is likely to arise? And is the nature of the special difficulty (if there is one) in the subject by itself, as it were, or in the subject’s interpersonal and rhetorical dimensions? I know that my students in biblical studies classes gossip about whether I believe in Jesus. I don’t think anyone has ever gossiped about whether I believe in Hephaistos. Yet those questions aren’t as far apart as my students are apt, unconsciously, to imagine. Still, ahistoricism, unispace, and centering on the self, these strike me as endemic features of our cultural scene. That makes them all part of our teaching lives, underneath the details of academics fields or specific topics. For all that, is there a religious studies difference in how these are expressed?



Note: Earlier this year, there was a flurry of print and blog discussion of “relatability.” I have linked only Rebecca Mead’s article in The New Yorker, but a search on the term or on her title will turn up many other contributions.


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