It feels like the summer only just began and yet while I was trying desperately to finish up the draft of a book I’m writing for EdinburghUP and to finish the first draft of another Laruelle translation (Introduction to Non-Marxism, which is really good!) it appears that half the summer is already gone. In six weeks I’ll be back in the classroom at La Salle and so my courses have begun weighing on my mind. Last year I taught two courses, one was a 200-level course called “Contemporary Religious Thought” focusing on the problem of abstraction (what we do in intellectual work like theology) and suffering. I was unhappy with the first semester version but in the second semester version my lectures improved and I had a more engaged group of student (helped that the class moved from 9am to 11am). Next year my 200-level course changes though and I’ll be teaching Modern Catholicism, which is going to present it’s own challenges and I’m sure I’ll talk about that in another post. But, while I was happy with the way Contemporary Religious Thought went in the end, my four sections of Exploring Religion (an introduction to the study of religion) were all for me ultimately failures and so I have been slowly thinking over how to reorganize the class for next year.
It’s important as a teacher to realize when your classes have failed, as any good teacher or teacher aspiring to better teaching will know. So this is me effectively thinking out loud about what it is that failed, what I want the students to come out of the course having learned or experienced, and what I could change to help make that happen.
So, let’s start with failures. Well, before I turn the critical gaze upon myself, let me say what isn’t working in terms of the students themselves. I certainly was unprepared for the unpreparedness of my students to study a humanities subject at a college level. While our acceptance requirements mean that our students have generally decent to good SAT scores and high school transcripts, it does seem that we tend to attract students mostly into our Business and Nursing programs. Many of my students, I have found, approach their time at university as worker training with added social events. I don’t think this is good, but I can’t fault the individual students for thinking this way in our age of neoliberal precariousness. It is after all the ideology in the air at the moment. I do have to question the business wisdom of attending a private university whose tuition costs are far from negligible, but I realize that this ideology is far from consistent. My usual tactic of telling my students I did not take attendance or assign busy work also did not work with the population at La Salle. While at Nottingham and DePaul I did the same thing, my attendance never fell below 85%, whereas at La Salle I had some classes hovering just below 50%. Obviously this resulted in lower grades overall, but it also suggests that my students here need that illusion of a disciplinary structure, whether I like it or not. Then there is the usual problems many of us are facing after Bush’s disastrous program of No Child Left Behind, which seems to have left an entire generation behind. So they don’t like long readings, writing papers is in general difficult for them and critical thinking is confusing for them in terms of how to evaluate themselves or how I am evaluating them. These student failures are all things I think I can handle next semester. Attendance policy, spaced out writing and quizzes to check on their reading a bit more, and more discussions about what papers are supposed to look like and what critical thinking is. I’m not too worried about that, though the authoritarian thing bothers me I treat teaching as in part donning a persona so I can be their Stalin no problem.
OK, so what did I do wrong? Well, if you look at my syllabus for the class you will see that I used an introductory textbook. That text summarizes a number of individual theorists from Otto to Tillich and Durkheim to Geertz. I liked the idea of introducing the students to a number of different approaches to religion, somewhat like the Intro to Philosophy I taught at DePaul where we covered 16 philosophers in 20 weeks. That philosophy class worked well, I was excited every class, they dug it and I had to weave a thread about love and subject/objects to make it make sense… it was fun. But it didn’t work with the study of religion and I think in part because, while I have that grounding in the history of philosophy and can weave a coherent narrative that makes sense from Plato to Irigaray and Laruelle, I can’t do that with the study of religion. In part this is because my PhD is in philosophical theology, so I didn’t spend a ton of time with social-scientific approaches to the study of religion unless they were philosophically interesting (and Durkheim and company can be, but you gotta work them pretty hard to get that to come out). It’s also hard because the figures that make up the study of religion are all very different, Durkheim and Tillich do not reside in the same disciplinary country. I also had them read Bataille’s Theory of Religion with the hopes that they would read a whole text of a theorist and to expose them to the interesting craziness that can come from such a wildly interdisciplinary approach to the problem. That didn’t work because they just couldn’t parse the book at all (if they even attempted to… one rather lovely student whose twitter I stumbled upon when he emailed me I couldn’t place his face tweeted that “my faggot professor can stick that foreign book up his ass”… lovely on some many levels) and I didn’t dedicate enough time in lectures to unfold the entire thing for them. I also used a novel, Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which didn’t seem to go well with them, but I don’t know what kind of novel to switch it out for. Then there was Augustine’s Confessions and Malcolm X’s autobiography, which I planned to neatly present us with an insider’s account of their own religious experience that also happened to be important literature in its own right. I taught the Malcolm X book well, but I’ve never liked Augustine’s Confessions and so even my best attempts to encourage a deeper engagement on their part never went very far. What did work here was that I could, for both Islam and Christianity, present a very broad history of the development of thought in those traditions alongside of everyday people’s experiences of those religion and the divine with them.
OK, so what do I want them to get out of this class. Well, it seems to me that they should come out of this class being able to take an upper division course in religion. They should have the critical skills to engage with religion in an intellectual way (I don’t even care if it’s academic as such since very few of them are majors, but intellectual is important to me). So it seems I do need to give them some of the tools people as diverse as Tillich and Durkheim have developed alongside helping them develop their critical thinking skills and writing. I also think it is important that university students read important literature, which was one of the reasons I had chosen the Confessions. And it is also important to me that some of the students get excited and enticed by the practice of thinking. I know that’s a bit romantic, but that’s why I do what I do; I love it and I want to show them how this can be exciting and interesting and vital.
So what am I going to do? Well, I do like to show films in my classes as a kind affective way of thinking about some of these issues. I used American Beauty for this class and, though I had forgotten how much masturbating there is in, I think it worked ok, but I didn’t show it at the right time of the semester. This semester I think I’m going to show it earlier, in the first two weeks of the semester. The purpose of showing this movie or any movie really is to challenge what they think counts as the object of the study of religion. I know American Beauty has its problems and it is very middle class, but it is a religious narrative told without any reference to organized religion and that can be helpful at this level. I also need to rethink how I teach the first section of the class, where we deal with the individual theorists. Maybe choose four that I myself can get excited by and focus really hard on their primary sources rather than reading a textbook. Which four though? Well, Otto for sure. Maybe Durkheim, but I need to find what exactly from him I can use. I love Marx on this stuff, but there isn’t much focused except maybe On the Jewish Question, but that introduces some problems. I find Geertz kind of helpful, but he’s entirely problematic in ways that aren’t and so I have no idea where to go for the anthropology of religion since the people I like are a bit more advanced. But then I was thinking, after reading how Islamaphobic many of my students are combined with how conventional they think religion is, that it would be good to read “weird” texts as well. What I mean by conventional is the way that so many of them seem to think of religion as just about moralistic bullshit. And I know that’s certainly part of it, my strange divided upbringing between atheism and evangelical Christian parents certainly was damaging in so far as I have internalized some of that moralistic bullshit, but that isn’t at all why religion still interests me nor is it the essence or identity of religion in my view. I have a dualistic approach to religion, it is a site of active and reactive forces, and what is interesting is not the reactive forces (they are by nature boring) but the active forces. I want them to look at that. So from the past syllabus I am thinking right now I’m only going to retain Malcolm X and I am considering adding a book by Michael Muhammad Knight (either Blue-Eyed Devil, Journey to the End of Islam, or Tripping with Allah) to round out the Islam section. But for the Christianity section (and, yes, I have pretty much limited myself to these two traditions for better or worse) I am at a bit of a loss. I may teach the Confessions again, but I don’t really want to and yet I can’t think of a good replacement for it. So I’m open to suggestions there. And as for an interesting contemporary Christian book, I have no idea where to go with that either, maybe see if I can find an interesting syncretic account of Christianity and paganism? The experience of immigrants and Christianity? I want to avoid emergent stuff like Pete Rollins, so that’s not at all what I mean, but anyone have thoughts here? I have also been playing around with using Mama Lola this time around as well, perhaps getting rid of the novel all together. But I really don’t know yet.
So, knowing I probably won’t take all or even most suggestions, what do you intrepid readers suggest?