A (Failed) Fugue for the Holidays

by Sonam Kachru, University of Virginia

“Life is like Sanskrit read to a pony”–Lou Reed

“The power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.” –Edward Gibbon


It is hard to know where one is with teaching. Of Richard Feynman’s legendary undergraduate lectures in physics, a treat required of all Caltech freshmen and sophomores (of all majors) between 1961-1964, some reported that it was like going to church. Not the solemn and somber kind, but the joyous, effervescent, in-your-bones variety of energizing spectacle you might carry with you through the week after.

sonam_kachru_religious_studies_01hr_da (1)Others, however, reached for different if no less pious fictions of foreign worlds to essay more sober assessments:

I found the lectures exciting and understandable in the hall, but they were Sanskrit outside [when I tried to reconstruct the details].

(Between us, Sanskrit—it is not so hard, whether you’re in or out of a classroom; it’s cognitive music, I find, and not at all like the study of Anglo-Saxon, the forced study of which Guy Davenport declared he would not forgive on Judgment Day, one of three pedagogical catastrophes, in fact, he was determined to begrudge the Maker: Philology was right up there along with having to learn how to abandon a sinking ship, and having to learn how to crawl under live machine‐gun fire.[1] To each, you see, their own very personal nightmarish figures for the halls and hells of learning.)

The thing that interests me here is that the student for whom physics turned to Sanskrit (and life, presumably, a little like the Lou Reed song quoted above) was in a position to agree with Feynman’s own considered thoughts regarding his pedagogical experiment.

In June 1963, Feynman offered the following assessment, one which he admitted to be widely at variance with the conclusions of the majority of his students and colleagues:

“I don’t think I did very well by the students. When I look at the way the majority of the students handled the problems on the examinations, I think that the system is a failure.”

That’s a simple enough criterion: can students solve the problems? If not, what would it mean to “know” the concepts introduced in the lectures?

It is hard to know where one is with teaching. Here’s one reason. To generate, and to maintain, the interest and enthusiasm of students for a subject is one thing; to convey what you need to “get around,” or, at least, to “know your way around” in a subject, where such skill is assessed by the professional standards of a discipline, is quite another thing entirely. Thing is, at least Feynman had a criterion. I don’t.

I used to think I had one. I recall the first time I read Feynman’s comments. I was sixteen. It sobered me right up.

Here’s why. In an India of a less global-market-friendly time, I had access to the three much-faded black-and-white photocopies of the originally unmistakably red volumes of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a treasured and much used hand-me-down my elder brother left behind when we went off to college. It was an indulgence of time as well as of money. I read them greedily, and furtively. You read them at night for inspiration, for orienting clarity and insight, for “the pleasure of finding things out” and the kind of entertainment some found in MTV in the houses of friends when their night-shift working parents were away. Feynman’s lectures were not on our school syllabus. They were neither assigned nor recommended in the long, brutal, trench-war-slog for the entrance examinations that determined where you might end up in this world. (Ha!) In the trenches, you “read” (meaning fought, ducked under, wrestled with, threw, slammed head against, pencil in hand) books like this, then available to us only in samizdat form:

Problems in General Physics

Feynman was for after-hours entertainment for some of the reasons he himself discerned. It got your blood flowing, ideas forming, changed your breathing even, showing you things in a light you could not have imagined possible. It was orienting, providing context and explanation. It taught you how to think, and why it matters. But it did not help you solve problems. Or, at least, it didn’t on its own.

What it means to “know” a concept, my instructors and tutors for my teenage years of failed rebellion repeatedly said, is to be able to recognize occasions where it could be applied, and to know how to apply it. Which meant: learning a rule, an exemplary problem, and then hacking through the undergrowth of proliferating cases till you got the feel of it in your bones. Were my teachers right and never mind Aristotle? Was “wonder” a dish best served after more nutritious fare and long labor? Is understanding (in the big-picture, orienting variety) for after-hours? (Vasubandhu, meanwhile, believed wonder came after long analysis and argument. But that’s another story.)

Feynman, I would now say, is not an example of, shall we say, how to read, but how to re-read. What he offered was a master-class reintroducing material we only thought we knew. A teacher of materials twice-removed from my students, in time, and tradition, I am rarely in a position to offer such classes. Typically, I must introduce. And by what criterion shall I judge my successes or failures?

I’ve found that learning a language, learning poetics, or even poetry, philosophy certainly, mythology sometimes, or more grandly, other human worlds, can, and ought to, really, require of one a discipline a lot closer to the kind of crawling through Irodov I begrudged then than it does the engagement Feynman seduces you into feeling.  But where is our Irodov for humanities?

Sure. We in the humanities don’t have the neatly defined paradigms of problems or solutions (much less paradigms of problems and solutions). But this is in part a function of decisions. I’m with Anthony Grafton (among others). It was not always the case that scientists and scholars have always been good neighbors forever sundered by the fences of methods and sensibilities. Here’s a riddle for a learned lore-master in an age of suspicion: how do you connect a wizard (Gandalf), a detective (Sherlock Holmes), a doctor (Sigmund Freud), an art critic in disguise (Giovanni Morelli), and the wonderful (perhaps, only seeming) anachronism of a Franciscan nominalist on the threshold of a new paradigm? With the help of a literary critic, a philologist, a micro-historian, and an impossibly learned semiotician, of course.[2]

We do have a zoo of quixotic objects (in the mathematician’s sense of “object”), and these exemplified at different scales; we have a battery of methods, disciplines, skills, and, more generally, varieties of craft-honed sensibilities we had better be in a position to pass on or at least to make less idiosyncratically and unreliably available than they currently are. (Must you really still apprentice with a doctor-fater-wizard to learn discipline, skill and craft in the humanities?) For the most part, we neither drill students on the premodern ‘cognitive technologies’ of argument, memory, attention, nor exhaustively test (in Irodov’s sense of “test”) students on their grasp of the modern (and premodern) tools of our trade, the comparison, the field-note, the time-line, the list, the tree-diagram, the genealogy, the ‘humble’ description…[3]

Perhaps my longing for an Irodov for the Humanities is inflected by accidents of biography. (I would have loved to have been tested on my ability to read, and to produce, kinship diagrams, a variety of tool which I am now, sadly, entirely unqualified to use.) Certainly, I am not advocating for the pedagogy of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, man of realities, fact, and calculation. I do not believe with Gradgrind that what is called taste is another name for fact; I do not advocate seeking mechanical substitutes for their tender young imaginations. And I disagree with Feynman, who at times could speak as if what we do in the humanities is a little like unjustified confidence in search of eloquent obfuscation. Why should beauty reside in this dimension of one centimeter, Feynman once asked of the flower reserved for poets, with the idea that the virtues of inquiry need not be confined to one discipline. That is so. But why, then, should rigor reside only at some scales, for some variety of objects, and not others?

For a certainty I believe that there is room for more pulling-up-your-sleeves and hewing-wood-and-drawing-water variety of in-class work than the model we’ve now got going in the humanities. On the current system any class with fewer than thirty students and which is not a class constrained by the demands of being responsible to a work in a foreign language, seems destined to descend into free-form (only apparently spontaneous) conversational séances from which truth or meaning (or whatever it is we take ourselves to exemplify) is expected to leak out of the ground like oil in Dehran. Not so much a Socratic chin-wag as the conversations Amos Bronson Alcott made the model for children at the Temple School in Boston in the nineteenth century: experimental, bold, innovative—all the things administrators love, and which are, often enough, like big-drilling, wildly self-defeating. For at the end is rarely discovery, too often only the broadcasting and search for confirmation of entrenched commitments from those already far too comfortable with their own voices.

At least in religious studies, home to every discipline and none, we outsource too much of craft and training, believing learning to be the same thing as finding your own voice, or some such, or after the kind of big game only found in conversation (as if thought were always and only the same thing as conversation). We leave too much of our teaching for those last, hastily scribbled comments on the margins of papers few will ever pick up again.


Of course, you’ll want both, skill-sets and virtues like curiosity and the wonder of the Big-Picture Stuff, the reverberating and clarifying joy of the revealing detail. I don’t know how to make magic in a classroom and transmit essential skills in a single class with the one set of students I’ll probably only see once. Well. That’s not quite it. I have, in fact, no criteria for knowing whether or not I have successfully done either.

I’ve begun experimenting with lectures. (More about which in my next post.) And I have begun trying to generate tasks, not conversations in class, an attempt to find that sweet poetic median between silence and incoherence. But I remain tethered at the other end to the variety of assignments second-nature to the humanities, the essay, the reading-response, the multiple-choice exam.

Part of that is lack of experience. I’ve been at this only three years. I have neither sufficient experience of teaching, nor any evidence of particular distinction therein. Seriously. None whatsoever. To adapt the sage Spike Milligan: no fear of awards, no time soon. Partly my befuddlement is surely because of the truth in Dickens’ saying of a more principled and worse instructor than I: “if he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might taught much more.”

But it’s not all grim news. I’ve newly learnt that an assignment need not be an assessment. And I’ve had good fortune with assignments designed to invite the engagement of students with materials with which they have no prior acquaintance, either in their lives or in the classroom.

Listen to this, for example:

This is a final assignment produced by a freshman student in his first semester of college: a musical transposition (and condensation) of the entire lyrical narrative of Aśvaghoṣa’s Life of the Buddha as it survives in Sanskrit and as this student read it in the translation of Patrick Olivelle. I like to think of it as a series of musical illustrations of the life of the Buddha. At least, that was the assignment: illustrate, in any medium, at least three episodes or scenes from the Life of the Buddha, and think of the illustration as a particular kind of vehicle joining translation and commentary.

You’ll want to bear three things in mind when judging this assignment. First off, this is from a student who has decided to commit to the study of commerce despite his love for music, with zero exposure to Buddhism, or indeed, any religion in an academic setting. What the hell, let’s be honest. This student did not produce a single piece of writing the entire semester that involved more than two sentences or the use of much punctuation at all. He said almost nothing in class. He only once approached me outside class. And that was to ask if he could write a piece of music for his final assignment.

Here’s the second thing. As was made clear in this student’s accompanying note briefly outlining his process of composition and the aesthetic principles governing the work, this student has recapitulated, without knowing it, the discovery in South Asian literary criticism of the possibility that moods can serve as principles for the unity of a composition. He even confronted a problem that exercised literary critics in South Asia, and T. S. Eliot at the beginning of the last century: how do you unite a succession of disparate moods in some culminating and contextualizing aesthetic state?

Now for the kicker: This transposition involves a finely considered act of judgment. Unlike Aśvaghoṣa, my student believed that the story required as an aesthetic context an intimation of the long background of the Buddha’s past lives. But he did not articulate this at first in words. It was only when asked for the function and value of a musical prelude I did not at first understand that it was made explicit that Aśvaghoṣa, as my musician-accountant averred, wanted improving—“It just doesn’t work otherwise.” I disagree. But if I do, it is only because he had given me something with enough shape and reach to disagree with. It wasn’t one more case of something “not even wrong.”

Clearly, this is cognitive engagement of a high order. This not-verbally-blessed student has worked his way into Aśvaghoṣa’s narrative. A+ I gave him. He was dignified. “Cool. Thanks,” he said and walked out of my office for the last time.

Such a blessed marriage of assignment and assessment is rare. I’ll be frank. My typical attempts at engaging the students with #unessays, or non-traditional assignments, produce little you could dignify as knowledge. Some enthusiasm. Not a little ingenuity (if a little too much like American high-school projects for my taste). And yet, little learning. And the traditional writing assignments? They have produced monsters born of the pairing of a teacher’s lack of invention and the abysmal high-school “education” of students that has taught them to call anything longer than fifteen pages a novel, and anything under, an op-ed.

Exceptions? Sure. I have had the pleasure of teaching one undergraduate, a first year, in fact, who reliably, consistently, and brilliantly outperformed my graduate students, producing finely-crafted argumentative prose for every writing assignment, with clearly formulated and insightful questions, well-weighted conclusions, the whole-thing balanced on a delicately arranged garden of references. Give her the name of a book and she’ll have read the shelf on which she found it in the library by the time you next meet. I have had nothing to do with her success. And my pedagogical ambition with respect to her is to try as much as I can to not get in her way.


It’s a little like parenting, I suppose. We may own only the inevitable failures. (The quote from Edward Gibbon in my epigraph was lifted from Feynman’s preface to his lectures—in failure, we may at least expect to keep good company.)

At least we can try and fail better.

And take comfort in failure. And then, particularly with failures of assessment. That’s where I’d like to leave things. There is one failure which I repeat to myself like a catechism this time of year. (Non-Hindus, you may read that to say “like a mantra.”)

Take that all-rounder in education, the good citizen and specialist in medicine, Dr. Watson. Do you recall his assessment of his singular roommate? It went something like this: Knowledge of Literature—nil; Knowledge of Philosophy—nil; Knowledge of Astronomy—nil; and so on, not without excluding this gem: “Knows nothing of practical gardening.” Holmes was no good as a liberal arts student, you’d deduce. Nor, I take it, a good citizen, at least not of the kind we are trying to produce.

It is not just that you’d rather spend time with Sherlock. Dr. Watson was a poor assessor. Holmes had Latin, Shakespeare, Goethe, and markedly unlike our current crop of citizen-parochials, Hafiz even. As Watson was to own to later, he didn’t just play the violin, but composed for it. Sherlock’s mind, self-bestowed by a singular commitment to his own course of study, eluded all but self-assessment. In the third week of November 1895 he devoted himself to the music of the Middle Ages, the “Polyphonic Motets of Lassus [Orlando di Lasso—I had to look that up].” You can’t play such music. To write the book on them, as Sherlock did, one would have had to “read” these pieces or at least “hear” what was written for multiple voices (and no other instrument) in the echo-chamber of one’s mind.

Mightily idiosyncratic, and formidably difficult to assess, requiring a lifetime to know, may young Sherlock be the patron saint of our grading season. Or so I mutter to myself, especially when I come across works like that my inscrutable and mute accountant-musician produced. I should have entirely overlooked him but for the happy accident of assessing him on the basis of an entirely idiosyncratic assignment.

I recall what I have learnt from Hugh Kenner (RIP), a geometer in prose, and a gentleman who remained almost, but not quite, utterly unintelligible in the lecture hall. A Victorian arithmetic of persons would have us add up Sherlock and Watson to exactly one: a single person, one half of which is a calculating machine, the other all beating heart. One creature lives in the mind of Charles Babbage, and the other in Tennyson’s In Memorium.

If you persist in such Victorian divisions of labor, you’ll forever need the pair, even if both halves ever after slander one another in perpetual friendship. Sherlock accused Watson of betraying what ought to have been an exemplary lecture for a tale, logic for romanticism. Watson, wrongly I think, would not believe the general public—the fabled citizenry we continuously invoke in our manifestos to administrators—ready for Sherlock’s style of incarnating thought in language. The success of Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces suggests that Watson was too quick in his dismissal of the fabled common reader, even as the awful pedantry of Holmes’ own attempts at prose, and the limited success of Feynman’s Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, suggests that entertainment is not the only virtue narrative (and other imaginative pedagogical devices) might claim in a competition with logic and analysis.

We might not get away teaching only as the Sherlocks of this world. But even as we teach as the Watsons, let us not forget that we must surely, then, not only aim to teach the Watsons. (That is a sentence that might have suggested far more wit and eloquence in Sanskrit with the possibility of its music of cases. Sigh.) Handicapped we might be, but we might exercise enough freedom and judgment to discern that we ought not to calibrate our successes and failures by only such standards the Watsons so nobly and helpfully extrude into this world. This season of grades and otherwise good cheer let us not forget those who may slip through the nets of our vexed assessments, those who may sit among the indolent and the blank-eyed, the slouchers and the seemingly indifferent, stubbornly and idiosyncratically learning what we cannot always know.

My new year’s resolution: continue to refine the #unessays, while sitting down to develop problem sets for the humanities.

But there is also this. I might not give my daughter Irodov for her fifteenth birthday. But I am sure to give her my non-cyclostyled proudly red copy of Feynman’s lectures. Not without William Dwight Whitney’s A Sanskrit Grammar: Including both the classical language, and the older dialects, of Veda and Brahmana.

Along with my apologies, naturally. As with parenting, you never really know where you are with teaching.



[1] As the essay is a gem, a triumph of detective-work with an improbable protagonist, I’ll cite it here: “Hobbits in Kentucky,” The New York Times, February 23, 1979.

[2] Read Guy Davenport’s “Tolkien, R.I.P.” for the October 3, 2005 edition of the National Review alongside Carlo Ginzburg’s better known “Clues: Roots of an Evidential Paradigm,” followed up by a re-reading of The Name of the Rose.

[3] How do you pass on “ways of seeing” rigorously and engagingly, beyond assigning John Berger’s book of that name? The next time I teach the necessarily ill-fated comedy of errors called THEORY & METHODS, I’m going to dial back the so-called Theory in order to bring up METHODS into the mix. Methods like comparison, or translation, or description—to help put that last on the table, for example, I’ll be assigning “Cloud Physiognomy” by Lorraine Daston (Representations, Vol. 135, No. 1, Summer 2016: 45-71) alongside Guy Davenport’s “reading” of Grant Wood’s American Gothic, from Geography of the Imagination. Homework will involve choosing a single object dug up from the ground and describing it in 250 words, then 500, then 1000 (with footnotes), the larger piece taking into account other relevantly similar objects, and take up for evaluation the student’s first attempt.

The Other Door

by Emanuelle (Mandy) Burton, College of Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago

In one major respect, I’ve traveled further afield than any of my colleagues on this blog, both past and present. My office at UIC is less than ten miles from Swift Hall, but it is in the computer science department. My purview is one-half of a course (required of all CS majors) called “Ethics and Communications in Computer Science.”  If you’re reading this head shotand thinking that the connection back to the Divinity School seems tenuous and perplexing…. Well, I still have those days, too. There are a lot of things I want to write about for the Craft of Teaching this year – the value of generalist education, the role of pedagogical ideals in shaping one’s practice in different institutional contexts, and a few other things besides – but I have realized that before I can write about any of them, I need to contextualize myself as an alumna of the Divinity School who is now embedded in a STEM program, and to clarify what light my experiences can shed on the present questions and concerns for upcoming scholars and teachers of religion.

Teaching ethics to computer scientists is not, to put it mildly, what I expected to be doing when I set out to pursue a PhD in religion & literature, or at any point along the way. I arrived at this position through a series of accidental intersections, noteworthy primarily because of their arbitrariness rather than because I followed any particular discipline or dicta. Shortly after graduating in 2014, I moved to Kentucky to teach humanities at Centre College. A few weeks into the term, I was standing in the right place one afternoon to get myself invited to a party full of people I didn’t know. At that party, I wound up chatting with a computer scientist who asked for my email address. She wrote to me the next day to invite me to coauthor a paper with her and a former student: she had been teaching ethics to her CS students using science fiction and was now writing a conference paper about it. It was due in two weeks. Would I like to join them? Sure, I replied: I could probably help out. As busy as I was teaching at a new school in a new place, two weeks wasn’t much of a commitment, and I could return to my own concerns afterward. Nothing about that first collaboration seemed particularly significant – only in retrospect does it appear as the first step toward anything else. But it is nonetheless the case that, three years later, I am coauthoring a science fiction-based ethics curriculum for computer science students (with these same two coauthors, plus two more), been granted an NSF postdoc to help produce said curriculum, and have found a long-term home in CS ethics pedagogy.

It’s true that some of the confluences in this serendipitous string are specific to my particular background: they were looking for somebody with a background either in ethics or in non-realist fiction, and I had just finished writing a dissertation at the intersection of those two fields. But the pedagogical capacities and commitments that inform this new work are things I share with many other scholars of religion, particularly those trained at Chicago. Most of the people I met while training at Chicago, whatever their methodological avocation, held in common the basic conviction that human meaning-making matters, as do the terms on which it takes place. A further shared conviction, in my experience of religious studies scholars, is that the critical tools from across the many disciplines encompassed in religious studies can be usefully brought to bear on all manner of human practices and articulations of value, whether or not these practices or articulations recognize themselves as religious or are best understood under that label. To choose religion as one’s field of teaching and study is not only to specialize in a particular discipline and body of knowledge; it is to choose a peculiarly fruitful avenue into the truly astonishing range of things that humans get up to. While it is true that I have had to step back from that particularly fruitful avenue, the questions that drove me there remain to be engaged from slightly different angles. There are still students ready to wrestle with these core problems, and to learn to recognize their contours. Their needs are different, but no less urgent, and teaching them requires the same array of skills as religion and humanities teaching—because of, rather than in spite of, their different needs.

My background in religious studies has fundamentally shaped my approach to this new and unexpected pedagogical avenue. After years of teaching religious studies and humanities courses, it seems clear to me that my students need more than just exposure to the key ethical issues in computer science: They need to come to grips with the complexity and ambiguity of the circumstances in which these issues emerge. They need critical tools that can help them recognize the very real kinds of knowledge that exist outside the logical positivism that undergirds all of their other coursework in the major. And finally, they need practice wrestling with the work of interpreting the world on terms that are, for so many of them, profoundly alien.  Incorporating all of that is a tall order, but it is one I am able to meet—with at least moderate success—thanks to my training in religious studies. When we discuss online communities and the role of platforms in shaping community dynamics and norms, I draw on my knowledge of the formation of religious communities in late antiquity and medieval Europe, and prod them to think alongside Durkheim, Anderson, Booth and Arendt. When we explore the information explosion that has accompanied the internet, I draw on Augustine, on Gadamer, on David Tracy and on Bruce Lincoln to destabilize the notion that any entity (human or digital) can merely collect objective units of meaning, and I push them to think critically about how those units came to be recognized, to seem real, to seem definitive. The course also necessarily involves some straightforward engagement with the topics that every professional ethics course in computer science needs to cover, such as self-driving cars, the proliferation of smart technology, and the reproduction of bias through social decision-making algorithms such as COMPAS. But as the term progresses, the students become steadily more capable of recognizing the foundational questions—of personhood, or epistemology, of justice—without my help.

Some things about teaching computer science ethics actually aren’t so different than my earlier teaching in humanities or religious studies. The task of training students to recognize the limits of their own understanding, and encouraging them to grapple with and through their own discomfort rather than taking refuge in specious clarity, is always and everywhere required. And some of the challenges peculiar to this moment are common across settings, such as the burgeoning onslaught of false or misleading “news,” and with it, students’ evaporating trust in any kind of information source. In my new context, I find myself discussing these discursive shifts by examining the technological conditions that have created or enabled that shift. And if they are less equipped to think about the discursive construction of religious minorities, or the languages of power marshaled by political leaders who claim to lead through Christianity, I can at least call their attention to those realities by routing them through more familiar concerns.

And some things were never that different – such as most students’ profound and often unreflective commitment to logical positivism. Teaching computer science ethics has given me uncommon pedagogical access to what are surely common concerns, such as the fact that few to none of my students have any expectation of privacy, or even much concern for it; or the fact that many of my students do not think that “trolling” and “engaging in debate” can be usefully distinguished, at least in online contexts. These sorts of cultural-generational divides (and technologically-determined generations are very short indeed) are precisely the sort that are often invisible until they are discussed directly, and they can have profound implications for how our students understand the world and engage in it.

So I haven’t left that past behind. I’m doing all of the things I’d hoped to do when I decided that I wanted to teach at the college level. The context is unexpected, but it’s one that nonetheless pushes me to grow and excel, as a teacher, in all the ways I would wish. But my experiences also help explain why I needn’t be, and maybe shouldn’t be, the only one to venture out this way, into a world that desperately needs our particular gifts.

Communicating about Academic Integrity: Reflections on the Value of Intellectual Production

by Kristen Tobey, John Carroll University

The post you’re reading isn’t the post I intended to write. The one I intended to write, scheduled to go live just as I and perhaps many of you return from Boston and this year’s KTobeyAAR/SBL Annual Meeting, was going to offer some reflections on the pedagogical lessons we might learn in such a setting, and how to bridge the often-divergent settings of the classroom and the academic conference, and our often-bifurcated selves, for the benefit of our students. I was going to write about collegiality and professionalization and interdisciplinarity and the ways we might bring those back to our students, and about how perhaps we do our students a disservice when we work so hard to “meet them where they are,” to render broadly accessible and relevant what seems too esoteric and granular for them.  I was going to write about ways that instead, I have invited students to meet me where I sometimes want to be, at the level of the esoteric and granular, about when that has been successful and when it hasn’t.

I was working on that very essay, seated at the computer station in the front of the classroom where students in my 300-level elective course were taking a test.  Then I saw that a student in the very back of the classroom was reading notes from his phone, for the entirely of the test.  Yes, I did allow him to finish the test oblivious to the fact that I was watching him cheat in an epic way.  I wanted to avoid rattling the other students with a dramatic scene, but if I’m honest, I didn’t call him out then and there in part because I was too staggered by what I was seeing.  I didn’t know what to do.

In almost a decade of teaching I’ve certainly had experience with academic dishonesty.  Students plagiarize, deliberately or not, when they write papers; their eyes wander, deliberately or not, when they take tests.  Until this episode, though, I’d never been faced with such inarguably premeditated, blatantly disrespectful cheating.  My syllabi clearly state my policy on academic integrity, so the consequences this student now must face are predetermined and thoroughly documented.  But I had no predetermined plan for what to do in the moment of discovery.

Academic integrity makes sense as a priority within a conceptual framework that assigns intrinsic value to intellectual work. As academics, we are so enculturated into that framework that we run the risk of forgetting that many of our students are not, and are not oriented as we are toward the idea of intellectual production as itself a good—which is by no means a self-evident idea.

Of course some are, like the student who inspired the musings that I thought would form the basis of this post, the one on the pedagogical lessons of the academic conference setting.  The author of a book we’re reading in my Minority Religions in America course mentioned the AAR and its annual meeting, and one student, curious for reasons that elude me, did some internet sleuthing and sent me a breathless email pointing out that at the conference this year, there would be six panels treating LGBTQ+ issues in religious studies, an area of particular interest to her.  These are my people!, she enthused.  This student is a Theology and Religious Studies major but has no interest in pursuing graduate studies.  Indeed she is vocal about having no such interest, and she has little patience for excessive abstractness or particularity.  But she saw value and meaning in the work that takes place at an academic conference, as abstract and particular as that work is.

That student was on my mind in Boston, as I thought about how best to bring back to my students the intellectual excitement of the conference setting. Also on my mind, though, was the student who cheated so flagrantly on his test, as a metonym for all those students who are not already oriented toward the intrinsic value of intellectual work.  Clearly he, more urgently than the student who wished she could attend AAR, needs the lesson that intellectual work is valuable, and clearly my syllabus statement on academic integrity had not inculcated it. I can only imagine that the policy, severe though it is, failed to sway not only the student who was so bold in flouting it, but many others who may not be so overtly defiant but who nonetheless find no purchase in its words.

During the conference, AAR president Eddie Glaude spoke in his plenary address of the pressing need for the liberal arts generally, and religious studies specifically, to train students who are “amateurs” in John Dewey’s sense of the word. For Dewey, experts too often indoctrinate, while amateurs are better suited for the kind of deep communication that is constitutive of democracy.  A syllabus statement on academic integrity is indoctrination, not communication.  If the student who was so excited to learn about the papers included at AAR demands my expertise (not, I hope, in the Deweyan sense, but in the sense that she requires of me the skills in which I am highly trained), then the student who cheated demands that I be an amateur.  Taking the term at its non-Deweyan face value, he demands skills in which I am untrained, such as policing and disciplining.  But in the Deweyan sense, he requires that I communicate better about why the things I value and prioritize might also resonate for him.

I don’t yet know how I will do this, how I will move from indoctrination to effective communication about academic integrity.  My syllabus statement will remain in place, but how will I make the somewhat formulaic words meaningful to students, especially those who don’t already buy in to the assumptions on which they are based?  This isn’t a question with a quick or simple answer, I’m sure, but it is a reminder that just when we think we are being called upon to performs tasks for which we are radically untrained, such as policing and disciplining—and this was a recurring theme in conversations with friends over the weekend, that is, the extent to which teaching requires of us so many things that we do not feel we know how to do; and how much we often feel the roles of teacher and scholar as competing with one another, even though in all our best versions of academia they inspire, inform, and improve one another—we are also being called upon to do what we are best trained to do: to demonstrate why and how intellectual work matters.  To remember that both the most- and the least-invested students require exactly that may go a long way toward bridging the bifurcated academic self.

Meet the Bloggers Day 5: Andrew DeCort

Last but not least in its series of blogger introductions, the Craft of Teaching Program is excited to bring you Andrew Decort, lecturer in ethics and theology at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology and director of The Institute for Christianity and the Common Good (www.iccgood.org). Read on for his reflections!

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Andrew DeCort: My research focused on the history of theological, philosophical, andDecort_3 political ethics and, more particularly, the ethics of making new beginnings after devastating moral ruptures in the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other 20th century moral philosophers. I graduated from the Divinity School in December 2015.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

AD: I will never forget Jean Elshtain’s two-semester course “Religion and the Political Order.” I had recently moved back to Chicago after a year of working in Ethiopia during a time when that country was rocked with a disputed national election, passionate protests, and hundreds of people killed in the streets and thousands more imprisoned. I could still hear the machine gun fire and the whisper of terrified strangers. Professor Elshtain lectured with an encyclopedic knowledge and immersed us in the complex, rich, and living tradition of Christian and post-Christian reflection on human nature, the political order, and moral responsibility in the face of crisis, which helped me think through my past experience and sense of responsibility for the future. Professor Elshtain’s course further convinced me that I wanted to devote my life to studying theological and political ethics with a focus on practical responses to situations of devastation, especially when speaking and acting for others is dangerous and may prove costly.

That said, I found that much of the most formative learning I experienced at UChicago happened not only in the classroom but in office conversations with my professors. I’m grateful to William Schweiker, Donald Levine, Jean-Luc Marion, Leon Kass, and other professors for countless one-on-one conversations.

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?

AD: I wish I had done more of my reading through the lens of a teacher, asking myself, “Would I want to teach this text? If so, in which context or course would specific selections be most relevant and powerful for my students?” If I had approached my coursework, exam prep, and dissertation research with that mindset, it would have been easier to intentionally build up a rich archive of teaching materials. I would encourage current graduate students to keep a running list or brief annotated bibliography of the texts they’re reading that they would also like to teach and for which class/context.

Frankly, I was surprised – but not surprised – by how students respond to passion in teaching. Students want to know that you care deeply about what you’re teaching, without slipping into dogmatism or bias. When students sense that you are existentially invested in what you teach, I have found that they respond very positively and experience a shift in learning from information gathering to personal transformation and heightened responsibility that lives on beyond the classroom. This – what Heschel called “a ceaseless shattering of indifference” – is one of the joys and burdens of teaching ethics.

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

AD: I would like to teach a course on origins and ethics. The course would combine readings from ancient Near Eastern stories like the Enuma Elish and Genesis, stretch to founding political documents like the Ethiopian Kebra Negast (“Glory of Kings”) and American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, include works like Lincoln’s speeches, Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers, and Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall, and look at “deep historians” and evolutionary theorists like Daniel Lord Smail, Robert Bellah, Yuval Noah Harari, Frans de Waal, and others. At each point, the task would be to wrestle with how a particular vision of beginnings leads to various, often conflicting visions of reality and what kind of life is worth living. What kind of ethical order does the beginning as accident or as violence or as impersonal dictate or as gift imply? The course’s working hypothesis would be that our founding imagination about our beginnings profoundly shapes how we interpret the sources and reality of value, the present, and how we think we should live into the future. How shall we respond to the reality that so many of our founding narratives, whether explicitly or implicitly, are rooted in violence, whether a god killing another god (Babylon) or the Queen of Sheba stealing the ark from Solomon (Ethiopia) or settlers dominating indigenous peoples (America) or natural selection (Darwinian biology)?

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

AD: Without question, Daniel Master, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Archaeology at Wheaton College. Daniel lectured passionately in the classroom, asked difficult questions, and invited rigorous discussion. He also welcomed me to spend hours dialoguing with him in his office and generously agreed to edit Matthew Robinson’s and my first (unpublished) book after a summer of writing in Ireland. When I talked with Daniel, the Bible, ancient material culture, sociological theory, and the big philosophical questions of human existence all came together. Daniel’s example has inspired me to offer rigorous courses combined with an availability over email and in my office to continue, deepen, and expand discussion and mentorship. My students have responded very positively to this teaching style, and much of it is rooted in the example of Daniel Master, along with Bruce Benson, Sarah Borden, Richard Schultz, and a few others.

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

AD: This is a tough question. I might say Hannah Arendt. While I’ve heard that she was a daunting professor, I intensely respect her emphasis on stopping and only then thinking. I expect that Arendt brought a lot of energy, creativity, and critical analysis to her classroom, because of this emphasis on thinking as a uniquely human gift and task, which flows in and out of action. There is so much thoughtlessness today, and I would like to see Arendt in action. It would also be invigorating to teach with someone who does not share my religious convictions but does share an overarching commitment to ethical responsibility in the face of radical (and banal) evil.

I’m also inclined to say Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. Vanier is such an extraordinary listener and he sees intrinsic value in each person. With that approach to people, I expect that Vanier’s classroom would be brimming with brilliant and beautiful discoveries, including the insight that the students are also teachers and thus that the classroom is a place of mutual learning. I begin my classes with the invitation, “Welcome: your coming is good,” and this attunement is inspired in many ways by Jean Vanier’s approach to people, the world, and God.

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

AD: I might imagine religious studies as an orange: an orange has many parts and internal complexity; it can be sour and/or sweet; you never quite know in advance which flavor will present itself; but it is generally good for you. I say this because I believe that religion taps into some of the most important elements of our humanity: our sense of self-transcendence, our capacity to ask questions, our yearning to live for something more than ourselves and to share our lives with others, our need for ultimate values, our intuition that life is valuable and worthy of love and sacrifice, our capacity to believe that all things originate in a radical act of generosity and will be given a new beginning when everything seems lost. In that sense, everyone is “religious” or wrestles with ultimate concerns, as Tillich said. But, on the other hand, religion taps into some of the darkest drives of our humanity: our lust to dominate reality and others, our manipulation of false transcendence to affirm and elevate ourselves over others, our justification of sacrificing others in the name of a “god,” our addiction to spiritualized pharmaceuticals that numb us and allow us to escape from reality through our own self-made fictions, our delight in cheap self-congratulation and triumphalism in the face of others’ suffering. This ambiguity or complexity of religion is why I believe we must teach the most inspiring founders and practitioners of our religious tradition (e.g., the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Rabbula of Edessa, St. Francis, Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa) with the most radical critics of our religious tradition (e.g., Spinoza, Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud), not to mention other religious traditions. But whether sour or sweet, critical or constructive, this complex work in religious studies contributes to the health of our humanity.

That’s it! Stay tuned in the coming weeks for our authors’ considered reflections on effective pedagogy! 

Meet the Bloggers Day 4: Sonam Kachru

For the fourth in our “Meet the Bloggers” series, the Craft of Teaching Program is excited to introduce to you Sonam Kachru, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Sonam Kachru: Philosophy of Religions, 2015.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

SK: As of today I think I’d say Bernard McGinn’s last course at the University. I sat very quietly in the back, I wasn’t taking it for credit, and I thus tried very hard to be invisible.sonam_kachru_religious_studies_01hr_da The learning, the humaneness, and the sense of a life of care and scholarship being gathered so lovingly and lightly every day was more moving than I can intimate. But I think it would be more honest of me to say that it was the range of possible classroom experiences which stuck with me most from my time at Chicago. And while we’re being honest, it was one classroom in particular and its association with legendary classes held in the past which stuck with me. The classroom is still on the third floor of Foster Hall. You can taste the air, with the press on air of books and mold and lifetimes of learning. Another experience, not quite a class, but one wherein I came to learn a lot, involves the table of staff selections at the Seminary Coop. It was an education, I tell you what.

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?

SK: How difficult and important it is to get to know your students. I don’t quite mean biographically. I mean something else, something like “their style.” I still don’t quite know how to put this: I suppose one way is to speak of the way an ethos can come to cling to the students at a particular university like dew. That there is such a thing as a style associated with a place I thought a fiction, but I’m increasingly feeling the need of being attuned to this, and of how hard it can be to get a feel for the cognitive and affective styles of students at a place.

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

SK: So many courses. This is today’s list. Buddha, Darwin, Freud—I suppose the title says it all, including why it probably will never be taught; another is The History of the God Who Would Not Age: Desire, a comparative course on Ancient Greece and South Asia, with the highlight being a reading of Bhartrhari showing us over many hundreds of verses what it is like for a poet and philosopher to grow old in the face of brashly resilient desire; and another course I’d be remiss not to mention, even as I’m speaking of dreams, is Constructing The World, a year-long course. We’d read selections from David Chalmers’ book of that name for both undergraduate and graduate versions of the course; thus equipped, the undergraduate version of the course would survey works of comparative meta-metaphysical awareness, thus Vasubandhu, Umasvati and Udayana from South Asia; the epic of nature, de rerum natura by Lucretius, from the so-called West; Leibniz’s Monadology, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, bringing up the chronological rear, but not without ending it with a comparative reading of Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Magadh by Shrikant Verma; and then we’d arrange for therapy. The graduate version would skip the survey and spend a year trying to piece together the human, its body and worlds, with the help of Vasubandhu’s Treasury of Metaphysics. We’d read that work entire. No therapy provided. I’m not qualified for this, but I’d love at some point to be able to reconstruct the intellectual climate of a place at a given time, say a course on Peshawar, 3rd – 5th centuries C.E.–we’d try and make that world come alive, visually, aurally, affectively, cognitively. Just look at what Mary Beard could manage with SPQR; if I could teach one class achieving even a 1/10 of that on South Asia I’d allow myself to think it an achievement.

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

SK: I have been uncommonly fortunate in my teachers. But if I had to, I’d like to name two: O. Bradley Bassler, a philosopher, poet and mathematician, and Tom Cerbu, a humanist and historian of the humanities, practically the Renaissance. Teaching together or alone, they exemplified care and responsiveness to others and to thoughts. They could exemplify all this in the things they said, the way they listened, and how they read. They spoke in complete paragraphs. They showed me why it matters. They nudged my ramblings into increasingly interesting questions, which I took down, and learnt from, long after I had forgotten their answers. They laughed a lot. And they were deadly serious. They taught me not to take oneself so seriously, but never to fool around with what we were gathered to discuss. For them what we do is a living way of life, you know? They hoped for the future, but they taught me to think of the dead. They’re the reason I’m in this mess we call the academy.

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

SK: Among the most recently dead, Geoffrey Hill. I’d love to hear him read Kalidasa. Among the less recently dead, Richard Feynman. I’d love to see what he’d see in the things I only think I’ve begun to see a little clearly. Beyond that, there are just too many, you know. I’d rather not co-teach with the mighty dead. I’d just love to get the chance to sit in the back of class: Aristotle, Vasubandhu, Ibn Rushd, the list is just endless. Confucius apparently loved to jam with his students. I think I should’ve liked to experience that as well.

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

SK: I am terrible with such questions. Honestly, “Imagine religious studies”–isn’t that enough of a challenge?

Tune in Wednesday for our final blog introduction!  

Meet the Bloggers Day 3: Emanuelle (Mandy) Burton

Third in our “Meet the Bloggers” series, the University of Chicago Craft of Teaching Program is excited to introduce Emanuelle Burton, who, in addition to nearly a decade spent teaching in the humanities core at the University of Chicago, has taught religious studies courses at Elmhurst college, humanities core classes at Centre College, and spent a semester teaching ethics to computer science students at the University of Kentucky. She currently teaches ethics courses in the College of Engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Mandy Burton: I graduated from the Religion and Literature program in 2014. My work examined the dialectic of self and world in fantasy literature for children, with an eye to the interrelationship between cosmic architecture and ethical norms.head shot

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

MB: A class that really stayed with me was Margaret Mitchell’s Introduction to New Testament course. I had never read the New Testament before graduate school, so my expectations were likely different than those of most of the other students. But it was clear to me that we were all of us, alike, electrified on that first day by the way that Professor Mitchell reframed the emergence and success of Christianity as a contingent and even bizarre outcome, considering that its messiah figure had, by all available metrics, failed pretty badly. There were many points during graduate school, and that course in particular, when I had my complacencies knocked out from under me; but that first day of ItNT was really a virtuosic pedagogical moment, revealing questions where I had perceived none and simultaneously presenting those questions in a way that felt raw and vital even to someone who had never spent time with those texts or that world. It was a pedagogical touchstone for me for my first several years of teaching, and the essence of what Professor Mitchell accomplished that day is what I try to do on the first day of every class I teach.

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?

MB: I was very happy with my pedagogical education in graduate school, which came almost entirely from the writing program (this was significantly before CoT existed.) The teaching of writing — not everywhere, but many places and certainly at Chicago’s WP — is the teaching of critical thinking and persuasion, which are obviously crucial to the teaching of religious studies (as well as many other things.) But it’s worth noting that I am deeply invested in undergraduate (as opposed to graduate) education, and further that I am pretty thoroughly sold on J Z Smith’s argument that the primary responsibility of a teacher of undergraduates is about thinking, and that one’s particular subject matter is in service of this goal.

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

MB: I have, for many years, been back-burner cooking a very critically ambitious course called Athens and Jerusalem, which would explore the intellectual history of how those paired constructions of culture have been used to organize discussions of politics, ethics and identity. I’m not sure if I will ever have the chance to teach it (or be satisfied with my plans for it, should the opportunity arise.) More realistically, I would love to teach a course on dystopian literature. Those are pretty thick on the ground these days, but I suspect mine would be the only one to begin with Langdon Gilkey’s WWII prison camp memoir.

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

MB: I learned a lot from many of my undergrad professors: I already knew I was interested in teaching, so I tended to pay attention to their pedagogy in addition to trying to learn the material. I probably learned the most from Maud McInerney, my undergraduate advisor. I remember realizing at one point — fairly late into my senior year, when I had taken several classes with her already — that we spent the majority of our class time simply explicating the text. I had never noticed this before, because our discussions never felt dry or pedantic (which is what I had always associated with the “review session” model.) That was also the moment, I think, when it really crystallized for me that reading is hard, and that working through a text to grasp what it is doing is, in fact, vital for anyone who teaches texts, but that a lot of Maud’s success was that class time was never presented that way. So I spent the rest of the year trying to get a feel for how she instigated and directed conversation so that we drank in the important details and bumped up against our own eisegeses.

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

MB: If I were to have the teaching career I had imagined for myself when I began a graduate program in religious studies, I would choose Stephen Toulmin. I would love to be responsible for the literary-cultural end of a course in intellectual history, and to co-teach with such a wise, generous and clear-eyed thinker. Given that I seem to be planting my feet in computer science ethics, my hands-down choice would be Zeynep Tufekci, who works at the intersection of technology and politics. She is incredibly insightful, and I really admire the efforts she has made to balance academic rigor with accessibility (which is especially important, given the absolute immediacy of what she works on.).

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

MB: I’m going to cheat slightly and imagine the object of religious studies as the fruit, and the study of religion as attempts to eat it. Given these rule-breaking alterations I have unilaterally adopted for myself, I think it makes sense to talk about religion as a grapefruit. There are so many ways to approach the grapefruit in a way that makes it accessible. You can peel it, first skin and then pith, in an approach that seems to construe the grapefruit on its own terms, and find lobes that appear to organize themselves into neat and monolithic wholes. You can cut it in wedges along paths of your own choosing, and see instead the minuscule separate segment-lets that are all packed in willy-nilly next to one another, each one slightly different; or you can cut it in half, and reveal a pattern that is beautiful, and which on the strength of its beauty can be read as reflecting some great design. But also, some of the shaping constraints of how people eat grapefruit is also analogous to religion. For one thing, people have strong opinions: some swear by it, either for the pleasure it brings or for its health benefits, whereas many others won’t touch it, and for some it is a symbol of austerity. Furthermore, some of its most passionate fans only ever eat it with sugar on top. And finally, if you dig into it too quickly, or from the wrong angle, it’s likely to squirt you in the eye.

Stay Tuned! More bloggers to come! 

Meet the Bloggers Day 2: Kristen Tobey

KTobeyContinuing our “Meet the Bloggers” series for the 2017-2018 academic school year, the Craft of Teaching Program is proud to introduce Kristen Tobey, Assistant Professor of Religion and the Social Sciences in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at John Carroll University.  She has also been an Arts and Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Religious Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

Craft of Teaching: What was your area of focus and year of graduation at the Divinity School?

Kristen Tobey: I received my PhD in 2010, in Anthropology and Sociology of Religion with a focus on religion in the United States.  I also received my MA from the Div. School, in 2002.

CoT: What was a class that especially sticks with you these years later, and why?

KT: I find myself thinking often about Bruce Lincoln’s Classic Theories of Religion.  I don’t do much lecturing in my courses, but when I do—and even when I don’t—I aspire to Lincoln’s effortless blend of encyclopedic knowledge and graceful enthusiasm.  Perhaps especially, I remember that Lincoln (like many of my Div. School professors) always treated the students in the class as worthwhile conversation partners.  Because of that, I left the class with more confidence in myself as a thinker than I began with; now, that’s a gift I work hard to give to my own students.

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?

KT: I’ve been surprised to learn how much being a successful college teacher is bound up with being a good entertainer, in the best sense of the word.  In that same vein, I wish I had learned earlier that, unlike the other graduate students who surround us when we are graduate students, many of my students would not come to my courses brimming with enthusiasm for the subject.  This seems obvious now, but it took me several semesters to figure out that my first task, always, is to sell students on why studying religion is important and enjoyable—something that most of us probably take for granted and might struggle to articulate, especially in ways that are meaningful to our students.

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

KT: I’ve been lucky to get to teach most of my “dream courses,” including one I did for the first time last year called Making Religious Selves.  We started from the idea—new to most of the students—that religious identity is context-specific, and dove into the mechanics of religious socialization, asking what it means to “be religious” from one context to another.  I can imagine developing a corollary course someday on Un-making Religious Selves, to deal with topics like conversion and apostasy and leavetaking, but I’ll think of a better title first.

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

KT: I remember so many of my undergraduate teachers with fondness and, now that I’m in the business myself, real awe for their level of commitment and the extent to which they gave of themselves.  But the teacher who perhaps inspires my teaching most directly is one who refused to give me an A in the class, because I, out of painful shyness, had failed to contribute to discussions, even once.  Now, it’s important to me to impress on my students the real benefits to be gained from getting braver as a classroom participant, but it’s also important to me to do that in a constructive and non-punitive way, and to be affirming when I see that they’re trying.

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

KT: Honestly? Unless the fit between instructors is just right, I find co-teaching to be so challenging that, as long as I’m making wishes, I might wish to never have to co-teach.  (If the person with whom I do co-teach is reading this, he is of course the lone exception.)

CoT: Imagine religious studies (broadly conceived) is a piece of fruit. Which fruit is it, and why?

I can imagine religious studies as a pomegranate. All those bursting seeds are somehow held together by a brittle but tough rind, not unlike the way the dozens (hundreds?) of different approaches to studying religion are improbably corralled under one disciplinary heading.  A pomegranate is a study in the relationship of part to whole; it is simultaneously a frustrating mess and an unmatched delight.  In the same way, its many-in-one nature has always been what most frustrates me and most compels me about our discipline.

Stay tuned for more introduction in the coming days!