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.

One thought on “Twilight of the Textbooks: Smashing Idols through Classroom Dialogue

  1. Pingback: Twilight of the Textbooks: Smashing Idols through Classroom Dialogue – Dr. Sean Hannan

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