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.

Beyond Expertise: Modeling Learning in an Undergraduate Classroom

By Stephanie Franksteph%2520without%2520grandma

When I got my first teaching assignment in 2009–“Human Being and Citizen” in the College Core at University of Chicago–my reaction was horror. Knowing that the curriculum began with the Iliad, I agonized, “But I don’t have ancient Greek!” Now, as the only full-time faculty member in religious studies at my institution, this reaction seems almost charmingly innocent to me.  Over the last four years, I have developed a whole curriculum in religious studies that draws on languages I do not know, traditions I am not trained in, and themes I did not study in graduate school.

The psychological hurdle of teaching as a non-expert is not to be underestimated. But the fact of the matter is that—specialization being what it is—the vast majority of academics, no matter what their jobs, do most of their teaching in things they would not claim to be ‘experts’ about. And expertise is a not a bright-line matter. I would claim to be an ‘expert’ only on the intellectual history of the Durkheimian school. But ranging in concentric circles from that node of true expertise are other competencies: I know a lot about the history of the social sciences and about secularization theory; I know a fair amount about European intellectual history and the French revolution and critical theory. All of these are topics that I teach regularly to good effect, despite the fact that I have not written books on them. Remembering that expertise is a gradient helps instill the confidence to teach outside of one’s core competencies.

Still, some of us—particularly in smaller undergraduate-focused or service-oriented departments–do less teaching in circles close to our intellectual center than others. I am certainly one of these people. What I have found useful in designing courses (or sections of courses) that are far afield from my competencies:

  • Perhaps most obviously, you can consult with others: people who are experts (or nearer to experts) than are you, or even others who are non-experts but who may have taught a similar class in the past. I have found my cohort from the University of Chicago to be an infinitely rich resource; I have also reached out to strangers on social media to ask for recommendations and cultivated relationships with them from that beginning.
  • Design your syllabus to emphasize themes, questions, and skills rather than facts. This is of course the core of liberal-arts education, but it is both practical and comforting to underscore this (and announce as much to the students) when you feel out of your depth in a certain area.
  • Explore non-traditional pairings juxtaposing less-comfortable material with more-comfortable material. I have taught the Vairochanabhisambodhi Tantra together with a short excerpt from Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises; I have also taught it with a few passages from Max Weber on asceticism. This sort of programming can be very exciting and rewarding for students who are just learning to think about affinities and contrasts between different traditions.

If you can clear the the confidence hurdle through some combination of clear-eyed reflection and prudent course design, I think teaching outside of your expertise often opens up a pedagogy with a different rhythm—it provides an unusual number of opportunities for learning alongside your students, which can be very exciting for everyone. What I have found useful in this sort of teaching:

  • Be upfront with your students when the topic at hand is something you do not claim expertise in. Students often appreciate knowing that professors, too, have limitations. (This is often coded in terms of ‘relatability’ or ‘accessibility’ on student evaluations.)
  • Resist allowing your anxiety about lack of expertise to push you into scripting your class sessions too thoroughly, and certainly resist the temptation to lapse into lecture. Areas in the curriculum where you have less expertise are great opportunities for in-class activities. (Asking colleagues for ideas regarding specific content can be very useful.)
  • Try explicitly thematizing the fact that you are learning together: ask the students to bring to class a puzzlement regarding the material of the day. Have them list their puzzlements on the whiteboard, and include one of your own. See how many the students can solve adequately, working together, volunteer whatever answers you have, and then consult an expert on the rest.
  • Get comfortable with the response, “That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. But I will find out and get back to you.” Then do that. Modelling independent learning is great for students. I keep a small notebook in my handbag where I jot such questions down; I begin each class session with a quick review of the last session, and circle back to answer any questions that I left hanging during that review, acknowledging the student who posed the question by name.
  • At least once during the semester, invite a colleague who is an expert to attend class, whether in person or by Skype. Assign your guest’s work to the students and ask her to discuss it with them, or arrange for a more informal question-and-answer session (using class time to compile a list of worthwhile questions in advance).







Teaching in the Aftermath

Stephanie Frank, Columbia College Chicago

Editor’s note: Stephanie and David Albertson (University of Southern California) have begun a facebook group for discussion about and resource-pooling for humanities teaching in the wake of the election. Please message Stephanie if you would like to be added to the group.


When the election results began coming in, Tuesday evening, my thoughts went immediately to my bright, curious students, who had just voted in their first national election. Even then, before we knew the statistics about demographics and voting patterns, I had the sense of owing them an apology, as though the premise of liberal-arts education had been exposed as a lie, as though liberal-arts education itself was part of the counterfeiting of society, which (as Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert wrote more than a century ago) “always pays itself in the false coin of its own dream.”

Some colleagues were cancelling classes, and I understood the impulse—I was dubious that my students would be prepared for class. In fact, having a sense of the political temperature among my students from asides over the course of the semester, I was skeptical many would show up for class. More to the point, if I felt uncomfortable about standing up in front of my classroom in general, it seemed absolutely absurd to stand up in front of my classroom and carry on as planned—talking about practices of self-formation in Buddhism and early modern Christian monasticism.

At the same time, to cancel class seemed like giving up, like abandoning education just at the very moment that its necessity had just been underscored. So I wrote to my students, urging them to come, telling them that we could use class time to talk about whatever seemed relevant to them. I bought all the donuts at my local bakery and picked up a box of tissues.

I was not confident, travelling into the office loaded down with pastry, that I was doing the right thing. I generally maintain my classroom as a neutral forum—a space for students to learn how to advocate for their views more effectively. I don’t know how many times I have announced, in class, “I do not care what your politics are–you can have any opinion you want, as long as you are prepared to support it with an argument.” But clearly by abandoning my syllabus I was sending to my students a signal that I thought we were in the space of crisis. I was, after a fashion, taking sides. And I knew that this effect would be underscored by the fact that most of my students had views broadly similar to my own. One of my gravest fears about the result of the election was that our country would become a place where dissent was stifled; was I knowingly allowing my classroom to become such a space?

Further, I have always—and this comes as much from the University of Chicago as from anywhere—recoiled from the model of the classroom as a space for self-expression. The academy, for me, has been about critical discourse. I have refocused conversations when they have veered off into the personal; I have pushed students volunteering their experiences, in discussion, to analyze them. I have often defended the humanities against the charge of ‘softness’ as teaching skills of argument-making.

In my teaching statement, I name those skills as reading, writing, and speaking.

Critically, I forgot listening.

And it occurred to me that a failure of listening was at least a major part of why things had happened as they had, on Tuesday.

So I decided, on Wednesday morning, that listening would be the theme for the day. On the one hand—though I do not kid myself that my students did not discern my political sentiments—this was a strategy that would allow me to lead a discussion that would necessarily be political without politicking myself. (When a Trump supporter spoke up, I took it to mean that I was successful in cultivating an open discussion, even if the classroom environment could not be described as ‘neutral.’) But more importantly, it would be beneficial for my students: the students who were hurt needed to be heard, and the students who were oblivious to those pains frankly needed to hear them.

I had prepared some notes to connect the things that I thought would come up in discussion to conversations we had already had, over the course of the class—for instance, the matter of the mobilizing power of the demonization of others, or the question of whether complicity in oppressive systems constituted a kind of violence. But I said very little, ultimately. I offered my students donuts and reminded them of the rules of our classroom. I asked them how they felt about what had happened. And then I listened.

My students were, as usual, candid and smart. A couple of students spoke about their immigrant parents and undocumented immigrants in the communities they lived in. One student spoke movingly about her severely disabled brother; her presence in that classroom was made possible by Obamacare. Many students spoke about their concern for queer friends and loved ones. One student spoke frankly about her rape.

All of these students spoke, in some way, about their sense of vulnerability, in the wake of the election results. Then a young black man gently pointed out that this sense of vulnerability had been his daily reality for years, and that that would not probably have changed if the election had gone the other way.

The tissue box made the rounds.

I cried with my students.

I do not regret that.

In one sense I did little ‘teaching’ on Wednesday. Mostly, I made sure everyone who wanted to talk had a chance to say their piece. When I intervened, it was to try to connect students’ comments to each other—to show them that apparently disparate experiences might not be so disparate after all. Most of the teaching was done by my students, sharing their experiences. And I am confident that this was a kind of teaching—that my students learned in the sense that their moral horizons shifted, in the process of listening.

I suspect that surrendering the notion of education as ethical formation, over the last generation, has contributed to our current political predicament. So I think, now, that I was wrong to be so skittish about the sharing of feelings in the classroom. I thought of it as a kind of ersatz therapy, a form of adolescent self-involvement to be guarded against, but I see now that the pedagogical value is not for the speaker but the listener: truly attending to the experiences of someone else—particularly someone whose experiences one might not otherwise encounter—is powerfully transformative.

I am unsure if humanities teaching changed last week, or if it was revealed to have been all along something different than what we have been doing. And I am unsure what all of the contours of the new project are. But I am sure that the pedagogy of listening is one of the things we must cultivate in the days ahead.

Meet the Bloggers Day 5: Jawad Qureshi

Meet the fifth blogger we will be hearing from this year on the Craft of Teaching blog, Jawad Qureshi (Assistant Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, American Islamic College)!

With our cohort introduced, their own contributions will be beginning next week.

CoT: What was your area of focus and year of graduation (or expected graduation) at the Divinity School?quershi

JQ: I am a PhD candidate in the Islamic Studies program, aiming to graduate Spring 2017.

CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?

JQ: I wish there was more guidance and mentoring on syllabus design, specifically in relation to course objectives, learning outcomes, and assessment. As students, we have probably read dozens if not hundreds of syllabi, but we have rarely been called upon to write one and perhaps no feedback if we did have to write one. As a new faculty member, I was surprised by how important syllabi are to the department and college.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

JQ: There are so many! I would love to teach a course on the concept of tradition in the study of religion. I would explore the writings of Talal Asad and Alasdair MacIntyre, putting them in conversation with Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic authors who also wrote on tradition.

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today?

JQ: The professor that has left the most lasting impact on me from my undergraduate years was Jill Raitt. She taught me how to read ancient and medieval authors in a fresh and relevant way to my own intellectual and personal queries. Specifically it was mastery of the material and her critical engagement with these texts in an honest and  rigorous manner that has stuck with me. This course made me change my undergraduate focus to the study of religion and remains a model for how I want to teach.

CoT:  If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

JQ: I would love to co-teach a course with Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Sunni theology and legal theory. (Who am I kidding, I would more likely sit under the master and learn!)

CoT: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _____ and your new superpower of _____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

JQ: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _mango_ and your new superpower of _slowing down time_ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

Meet the Bloggers Day 4: Robyn Whitaker

We happily introduce Robyn Whitaker (Bromby Lecturer in Biblical Studies & Online Coordinator, Trinity College Melbourne Theological School) in today’s Meet the Blogger post. Stay tuned for our final introductory post in this series later this week!

s200_robyn-whitakerCoT: What was your area of focus and year of graduation (or expected graduation) at the Divinity School?

RW: My PhD (2014) was in Bible, with a focus on the New Testament and the Book of Revelation in particular.

CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?

RW: I wish we’d been trained in course and syllabus design in relation to learning outcomes. I still find it difficult to know how best to craft a course, choose the readings, and shape assessment tasks in order to get the desired outcome. I’m learning just how much time it takes to craft a new course from scratch and do it well.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

RW: This is a bit out of my field, but I’d love to teach a course on the rhetoric of preaching. I learned a lot about ancient rhetorical training as part of my dissertation work and think Greco-Roman rhetorical training offers a powerful method for modern homiletics both in terms of analyzing great sermons and in preparing sermons from conception through delivery. We could do with a few more Quintilians in our pulpits and public squares.

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today?

RW: Sadly, I have no memorable undergrad teachers. At least, not ones memorable for their inspirational teaching! But during my MDiv, I was fortunate to have a very engaging professor who opened up the Bible in ways that challenged me deeply (intellectually and personally) and made me realize the complexity and depth of biblical studies. She now happens to be the Dean where I teach.

CoT:  If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

RW: For an undergrad class it would have to be comedian Billy Connelly. A) He is hilarious, so it would be the funniest class ever. B) While not an academic he is one of the best story-tellers I know. Being able to talk about the ancient world in terms of stories makes it memorable and “real.” C) As a comedian he has an unusual perspective on the world which I think would make teaching the Bible pretty interesting.

CoT: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _____ and your new superpower of _____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

RW: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive __kangaroo___ and your new superpower of _reading their minds____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

Meet the Bloggers Day 3: Stephanie Frank

Today we introduce our third educator who will be posting on the Craft of Teaching blog this year: Stephanie Frank, Lecturer in Religion and Humanities at Columbia College Chicago. Find out more about Stephanie below…

CoT: What was your area of focus and year of graduation (or expected graduation) at the Divinity School?

SF: History of religions, 20152q

CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?

SF: I wish I had learned how central it is to the project of teaching to secure buy-in from students—and how that entails very different things in different contexts and among different student populations.

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

SF: I have always wanted to teach a class that tries to make sense of the category of ‘political theology.’ I am especially interested in the relationship of historical claims about the relation of theological and political ideas to various constructive/normative projects.

CoT:  If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

SF: I really regret that I never had a chance to study with Jonathan Smith; I can’t even imagine how much I would learn from co-teaching with him, both about religion and about teaching.

CoT: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _____ and your new superpower of _____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

SF: I don’t know what radioactive bite would communicate it, but I think the superpower of silence—of being willing to ask a question and then just wait—is a powerful improvement to teaching.

Meet the Bloggers Day 2: Sean Hannan

Today we introduce our second blogger in the Meet the Boggers series: Sean Hannan, Assistant Professor in the Humanities at MacEwan University. Find out what he thinks about radioactive angels below…

CoT: What was your area of focus and year of graduation (or expected graduation) at the Divinity School?

SH: History of Christianity; graduated 2016 (Summer Convocation — perhaps the last one ever?)

CoT: What do you most wish you had learned about teaching as a doctoral student? (and/or) What surprised you the most as a new faculty member?

SH: I found that attending the Craft of Teaching sessions and doing some teaching of my own (in the College Core, Graham School, and at St. Xavier on the Southwest Side) left me with a good deal of experience heading into my first actual day on the job. If anything, I suppose what I would have most benefitted from would have been more discussion of how to translate teaching material from a UChicago Core or liberal arts model into the more survey- and lecture-intensive atmosphere of most other post-secondary institutions. Ideally, the use of, say, digital tools in the classroom would not be the sole skill learned in one’s pedagogical training. But what if you wind up in a setting where the use of such learning tools is strongly encouraged? Are there ways to bring the best of Chicago-style academics to bear upon other kinds of learning environments? What kinds of specific strategies should we be testing out before we find ourselves in front of big classes full of students with their own unique sets of expectations?

CoT: Briefly describe a course you’ve never taught but would like to.

SH: I’d love to teach a survey or seminar on the history of different ideas about time. Even limiting ourselves to the ‘Western’ tradition, we could glean a lot from a march through the diverse definitions of time offered up by Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Al-Razi, Hasdai Crescas, and so on and so on. “Time” is a word that gets thrown around in a lot in different academic contexts, but I seldom see many attempts to attack the topic directly. Doing so would hold interest not just for students of philosophy, history, and religion, but also for those who want to put intellectual history into conversation with contemporary questions. (How many pop-science articles about “what science tells us time really is” pop up on our Facebook feeds?) Luckily, it looks like my new institution might be giving me the chance to put together such a class for upper-level undergraduates next year. Fingers crossed!

CoT: Who was a teacher you had as an undergraduate who inspires how you teach today?

SH: Two of my undergraduate professors at the University of Alberta really made a meaningful impression on me and my academic trajectory so far. The first, Dr. Kitchen, taught me that you can look at ancient and medieval history in fresh and exciting ways, rather than sticking to the staid textbook line. The second, Dr. Gow, used to hold reading groups–sometimes extracurricular, sometimes for credit–that allowed students to push beyond the usual offerings found in the everyday curriculum. By letting us help design the reading list, no matter how ambitious it became, Dr. Gow gave us the chance to test out our own intellectual limit-cases, rather than sitting passively in the back row of some lecture hall. If I can leave any of my students with that sense of intellectual possibility and open-endedness, which I definitely received from Dr. Kitchen and Dr. Gow, I’ll be more than satisfied.

CoT:  If you could co-teach a course with any person alive or dead, who would it be and why?

SH: I would team-teach a course on the philosophy of time and the use of historical narrative with Chicago’s own Paul Ricoeur. A close second place would be co-teaching a course on the relationship between religion and historical consciousness with Karl Löwith. Third place would be a course on Neoplatonic and Aristotelian theories of time in late antiquity (which become astoundingly complicated!) with the historian of philosophy Richard Sorabji. (I’m not sure if anyone would sign up for that one, but I’d love to do it all the same.) In any of these cases, I’d stand a much better chance of accomplishing my ‘dream course’ (as outlined in a response above) than I would trying to do it all on my own.

CoT: You’ve been bitten by a radioactive _____ and your new superpower of _____ has instantly made you a more effective teacher.

SH: I’ve been bitten by a radioactive angel and my new superpower of directly beholding the Word of God has instantly made me a more effective teacher, since I now have unmediated access to the rational causes underlying the vast architecture of the universe in its entirety. (Sorry, I’ve been reading a lot of Augustine lately…)