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.

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