Poesis, Part Two: Creative Assignments in Academic Religion Courses —

The term “creative assignment” is ambiguous. It could mean a creatively conceived assignment to engage in an academic task. While such creative assignments are certainly better than dull ones, I mean the other leading sense here: an assignment for the student to engage in a creative task. In religious studies, we deal with texts and performances that have a long history of drawing artistic engagement, and artists in turn contribute to the on-going generation of religious traditions. Including creative tasks in the palette of a course’s assignments can lead students to a better grasp of the creative processes that fuel religions.

In my teaching repertoire, I have two courses that always carry a creative assignment. One is Homeric Epic. Artistic work drawing on or from the epics has a history as long as the epics, which in turn drew on earlier productions. The fecundity and attraction of classic texts can be studied in conventional academic ways, and we do that. However, an artistic project asks students to position themselves, tentatively and as an exercise, in the line of cultural creation. The assignment requires them to select an episode or moment stated or implied in the epics, and then to do a project in some genre of art – literature (poetry, drama, fiction), visual arts (drawing, painting, 3-D), or music. This is not an exhaustive inventory of arts, but I try to limit it to those which I am reasonably qualified to judge and in which students are likely to have some prior training. So no architecture. In addition to their creative project, they must also write a short (3-page) examination of their process: why they selected their subject, what choices they made, their self-assessment of the results, and how the project may have given them insights they would not have had as easily from an academic exercise. In short, the structure is to create something, reflect on its creation, and connect it to course themes. Writing is far and away the leading choice, but I have also seen a number of interesting paintings, some musical compositions, and a few projects of other types. One student did a creative nonfiction project titled The Homeric Warrior’s Manual (hilarious), and another years ago developed a recipe based on the medicinal concoction Hecamede makes for the wounded men in book 11 (not recommended).

If Homer seems all too literary, the other course with a creative assignment is Apocalypticism. I make them write an apocalypse. Their efforts must show knowledge and use of the generic conventions; include an apocalypse-style construction of the past; and address, directly or indirectly, contemporary anxieties. The course spans the ancient Near East to the present (present can literally mean the months in which the course occurs), and the conventions change over time. Inevitably, this temporal compression produces works with mixtures of generic conventions. That’s fine, since those are the conditions in which writers and artists work. I could practice students on generic conventions in other ways, but this assignment challenges them to come up with something that people might find persuasive. That demands thinking about, and feeling, what needs apocalyptic works meet. In part, I’m trying to prompt some understanding of the emotional appeal of apocalyptic worldviews. Then again, the students have perhaps too much fun: these usually have a strong undercurrent of satire and irony. (Were apocalyptic authors satirists misunderstood by the overly-earnest? Probably not. Maybe a few.)

I use creative assignments in other courses, but these are more variable. In all cases, the purpose is to push students to experience the process of producing this type of work. Academic and artistic modes of thought are distinct, and religious studies courses rightly should emphasize the former. A certain kind of secondary structuring – the mutual construction of data and method, primary sources and secondary discourse – is what makes a project academic, such that it best serves the purpose of knowledge-generating inquiry. However, cultivating only one mode has dangers. Structuring everything in life as data and forming the self wholly as its critic is no way to live. With religion, literature, and the arts, that critique-only mode also actively undermines our ability to understand why people make religions, poems, and paintings. Very few of my students will become academics of any sort; more of them are artists; and all will be citizens of this polity. In my view, including creative assignments better serves all of the legitimate purposes for which a religious studies course might be designed.

I will close with one sample of a student’s creative assignment. In Spring ’11, I team-taught a course on the theme of heroes. The colleague and friend with whom I was working is not a religious studies scholar; he’s a former English professor who somehow ended up in public service. We structured the course around figures; my colleague chose major historical figures that were personally important to him. Rather than play the detached academic, I selected figures who had personal significance for me. We ended up with a mixture of political, artistic, philosophical, and religious figures. One of my figures was James Joyce. I don’t regard Joyce himself as a hero – he could be quite a rascal – but the notion of the artist as hero fit our syllabus well, and Joyce’s work profoundly influenced me as a writer. One of my students took to Joyce and seems to have intuited his importance to me. Thus did Shelby King’s ink and pencil portrait of the artist of Portrait of the Artist come to hang on my office wall.*



*Used with permission.

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