Teaching Religion Beyond Texts

In a course where students will be learning about the ways in which religion is embodied, and perceived via non-discursive means (not just seen, but touched, smelled, heard, and tasted, for example), it seems ridiculous that all the learning should take place as students sit in a silent, sterile library, staring at books or computer screens, and then come to my class and talk about what they read. And yet, when I first designed the syllabus for my class, “Religion and the Senses,” that was exactly what I did. So in some sense, while this blog post is about the use of non-texts in course design, it is also implicitly about failure, or to put it more kindly, about the learning process of teaching. Now that I’m on my third attempt at this class, beyond the course title and my name, the syllabus looks almost nothing like the first iteration.

Why was my first attempt at teaching Religion and the Senses so textually driven?: because, like many of us young professors, I was overexcited about a wealth of available material. In designing almost any course, the professor is going to be at once overwhelmed by and excited about the sheer volume of what is out there. But making students read all the available material is never a good pedagogical approach, and it is especially counterintuitive in a course that is about non-discursive experience. In Religion and the Senses, I have gradually learned to scale back the number of readings, and their length, in order to make space for assignments and classroom activities that draw on events, websites, sounds, and images. Given my institutional context (about which I’ll say more below), at a small liberal arts college where students expect a certain degree of rigor (which is typically measured in number of pages read for a class each week and how late one has to stay at the library to do so), it has been a learning process for both me and my students, as I’ve tried to let go of expectations of quantity of material in favor of other modes of learning that provide challenges in entirely different ways, rather than just the amount of time spent in the library.

I should note here, that I now teach Religion and the Senses as a thematically-driven comparative introduction to the academic study of religion. (So perhaps this blog post is also about the introductory course.) The theme is obviously that of sense experience; this is the lens through which I expose students to a range of approaches to the study of religion, and a range of religious traditions. The range of religious traditions is accomplished through the thematic approach of the class, it is not a goal in and of itself, however, as it might be in a “World Religions” class. In the following paragraphs, I’ll focus on the use of events and websites, which raise a number of issues about pedagogical goals related to non-discursive learning, and learning beyond texts.


In Religion and the Senses in particular, I require the students to attend at least one religious event (this can be on or off campus), and write a 3-5 page descriptive piece on the use of one or more senses at this event. Although the students can attend an event at any point in the semester, the deadline for the assignment is quite late (just a couple weeks before the end of the semester), so ideally because of our readings and discussions in class, they will be noticing things that they otherwise might have overlooked. I require that students attend an event that they would not otherwise have visited, given their own religious inclinations or background. There is of course no such thing as a pure outsider point of view, but the implicit goal of this assignment is for students to be observers or participant-observers, not just participants.

Pedagogically speaking, this assignment accomplishes a couple goals for me. First, the students need to go out in the world and experience something, to put it flatly. The main point of the assignment is to find an event, attend it, and to think critically about sense experience in a way that they would not otherwise have done so before taking my class. Secondly, I like to include writing assignments of different genres into every course. Generally speaking, I design assignments that allow students to build on skills and feedback obtained within the semester, and argumentation is obviously a top priority therein. But I do enjoy giving students chances to experiment with different genres of writing, in part to play on different students’ strengths, but also because not all writing “In the Real World” is strictly argumentative. And honestly, creative assignments are an absolute joy to read. While instructor entertainment isn’t exactly a sound pedagogical goal, I have learned to be kind to myself when designing student assignments. I do not want to read the same essay thirty times in a row. Ever. There will always be options available.

A word on my institutional and geographic context is necessary here. While I’ll try to pitch my thoughts as broadly as possible on this blog, it is of course worth bearing in mind that I am still a person speaking from a particular point of view.

I teach at a small private liberal arts college in the greater Pacific Northwest. As a semi-native northwesterner, our particular location feels to me more like the west (as in, “old west,” not, “East vs. West”) than the Pacific Northwest per se, but many if not most of my students hail from the urban centers of the Pacific Northwest. This is particularly of note when I speak of experiential learning, especially as used in introductory-level courses. As I’ve often heard my colleagues mention, the Pacific Northwest is the “statistically most unchurched region of the country.” I’m not sure whether that is entirely true or how that sort of thing is measured (like any good scholar of religion, I approach “statistics” about religion and religious life with a great deal of suspicion), but it is certainly true on the campus on which I teach. I have found that many of my students seem to have never known a religious person, and even further, think of them as some kind of “other.” But also, in asking my students to find and attend a religious event of some kind, I am challenging them in ways I would not have expected before my return to the Northwest a year and a half ago. First, there aren’t a lot of events on campus for them to choose from, so there is a significant logistical challenge. And secondly, while I stress that they are attending events as observers, it is still a challenge for them to step into a context that is entirely unfamiliar to them, and about which they may have quite negative preconceptions. All of that said, I have been consistently impressed with the degree to which students challenge themselves to step outside of their comfort zones and reflect on and write about their experiences when doing so.


Icon of Silouan the Athonite

This year is the first time I’ve included a class visit to a local religious site, and I included this visit in direct response to some very thoughtful comments I received in student evaluations. In the last iteration of Religion and the Senses, a number of students remarked that they really enjoyed the non-traditional and experiential learning opportunities within the class, and that they wished we could do more of this, perhaps by visiting a site or event together, rather than just having students do so individually and report back to me about it. This year, I took the class to visit a local Eastern Orthodox church. For those who are unfamiliar, Eastern Orthodox worship is extremely sense-driven, so it is a wonderful opportunity for Religion and the Senses, because it draws on many different senses, and those are experienced in ways that are unfamiliar to many of my students. So while my choice of Eastern Orthodoxy was germane to the subject matter of my class in this way, it was also driven by local and contextual concerns. There is an Eastern Orthodox church that is a 5 minute walk from my campus, and most if not all of my students are unaware of this church. One of my colleagues has taken classes on many site visits to this church, so there is already a friendly and established relationship between the church and my campus. The church also has several extremely large and intricately designed bells that are in the church yard, and these bells were made locally. So while the students learned about the sense-driven worship in the Orthodox tradition, they also experience something of the local community in ways in which they might not otherwise be pushed to do at their four years here.

Our class visit took place during the time of our class session; many of my students are quite over-scheduled, so the close proximity of the church allowed us to walk down during class time, and I didn’t have to face the challenge of scheduling something outside of class time. As a result of the timing of our visit, we met with one of the priests at the church, who gave us something of a tour of the space and use of the senses in Orthodox worship, and took questions from the students. Having met the priest one-on-one (or, one-on-class), I gather that the students felt more comfortable returning to this church to write about a service, because a significant portion of the class returned for a visit for their descriptive assignment.


I realize that use of the web in class isn’t exactly innovative at this point. In Religion and the Senses in particular, I have tried to push students to re-imagine the web as a potential site for religious activity, in order to problematize some of our readings. Specifically, early in the semester I assign students Diana Eck’s Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); we spend at least two class sessions discussing this text before I turn to the experiential learning exercise. In Darśan, Eck introduces Hindu religious practice as “seeing and being seen” as worshipers visit shrines and/or view images or representations of deities. Darśan is a wonderful text for introducing some of the basics of Hinduism, but also in demonstrating that seeing is not neutral. That is to say, seeing (and perception via any other sense) is always conducted in a particular way that is shaped by one’s religious and cultural context. So the ways in which students see, for example, and the ways in which they think of seeing (what it means, what it does, how it works), are not neutral, nor are they the universal norm. After thorough discussion of Eck’s text, I introduce the idea of puja (Hindu worship), as conducted through a website.

Screenshot from SpiritualPuja.com

I provide students with a handful of links that situate this practice in different ways. (A quick web search of “online puja” will provide readers with a sense of some of the possibilities.) I have also paired this activity with a short theoretical reading on space and place (one I have used is Sam Gill’s chapter, “Territory,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, edited by Mark C. Taylor–Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, also available in a handy online version depending on your library access–, although there are many possibilities available), in order to give students a vocabulary for thinking about and discussing the location of the worshiper vis-à-vis the religious experience or activity. How is watching a previously recorded video on YouTube from a pilgrimage site in India different from viewing a live-stream video from a temple? How is watching a video (be it live or prerecorded) different from actually visiting the physical space of the temple? If, in the context of darśan, there is no distinction between the image of the deity and the actual deity itself (as students have learned from our discussions of Eck’s text), how is viewing a deity online any different? (In class I typically pose these questions to provoke discussion, obviously, and sometimes I am purposefully provocative in doing so.) Or, when viewing a website that displays an image of a deity and allows the user to click on certain parts of the page to perform actions of worship, how does this interaction change the mode of seeing taking place, in the case of darśan?

A word on the use of images and interdisciplinary collaboration:

Images provide great opportunity for thought and discovery of concepts that might be different than those that come up when discussing readings, or concepts might come up in different ways when looking at images. Discussing images is not inherently easier than discussing readings, however. I am always happy to give students with artistic backgrounds and interests opportunities to draw on those skills and backgrounds in class. Students who do not have such skills and backgrounds, however, can be intimidated by the prospect of discussing an image, and I have found that it can be a challenge to make those students feel sufficiently safe as to participate in the discussion.

But most importantly, I have learned when using images, that art historians can be invaluable collaborators. First, (just to state the obvious) Art History is a discipline that works to provide skills and background that students may use when interpreting images. I do not have those skills, nor do I have that background, so I would never dream of pretending, in my classroom, that I have those skills. I am quite fortunate that my institution’s department of Art History and Visual Culture Studies is just around the corner from my office, and the faculty in this department are always excited to talk and collaborate. So don’t be afraid of asking your friendly neighborhood art historians for help. And while disciplinary boundaries are permeable, they are still meaningful, so never have the hubris to assume that you have the skills or knowledge of another discipline. (I know, dear Craft of Teaching readers, that you are more wise and suspicious than that, but I feel I must make this statement explicitly in such a blog post, because it is important.)

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