I’ve just finished teaching my fall course on American religious pluralism—in fact, I was supposed to post about this yesterday but I’m still grading their final exams and submitting grades. It’s that time of year to think about what worked and what didn’t, and how I might do things differently next time. One definite highlight was the weekly “Friday Forums” where students posted or brought religious news to chew over during Friday discussions. Our best one was a day when the classroom heating unit was (unseasonably) blowing air conditioning and the room was frigid, so we abandoned ship and walked over to the campus coffeeshop inside the library and took over a big conference table area and held our class there. We never resolved complicated issues during the forums, but we raised them and argued about them and watched for them all semester. Counting up the hours, I see that nearly a third of the course was spent just mulling over current events and listening to one another take on real-life religious conflicts. For me, I think that was the best part of the course.
One frustration at the end of every semester is – there wasn’t time to say everything! You know that episode of Dr. Who where the people of London have those little earpieces through which they get daily downloads of all their news from the zeppelins steered by the megalomaniacal evil genius? Right, well, my classes turn out not to be like that. Very little of my brain gets downloaded directly into theirs. In the end, I feel like my students don’t end up knowing very much of what I know. But they know new things for themselves, and that seems like a more important outcome. Along with the final exam this past week, I also passed out a feedback form. The last question was, “what is your #1 takeaway from this class?” Most of the students answered some version of “I am more open-minded about or generally more aware of religion than I was when I started.” I consider that a resounding success.
I know how I would answer that question for myself: “Pluralism is not diversity. Pluralism is one possible response to diversity but must be consciously chosen from among the alternatives. Pluralism is not the inevitable consequence of increasing religious diversity in our country and in our communities. It will not happen without people of good will to make it happen.”
I can think of lots of ways I could modify the course when teaching it again. For one, we made many connections to current events but I found that my students lacked a solid background in ways of thinking religiously—it’s a foreign language to most of them, and I might need to spend more time modeling how to understand cultural texts that speak from religious perspectives – the one-week course introduction unit that defined some key American religious terms and concepts was not enough. For another, religious diversity is, in one sense, an American constant, but I think that having some key milestones or episodes highlighted even brighter would help students make sense of change over time against that constant backdrop. Ranging those chronologically, they might look like: acknowledging the pluralism of indigenous American religion (indeed, how labeling native American practices “religion” is itself problematic); complicating the assumed “WASP-ness” of the American revolutionary generation and the founders themselves; exploring the incredibly religiously fertile decades of the 1830s and 1840s; the World’s Parliament in 1893; Herberg’s thesis; the civil rights movement not just as a generic religious movement (which is how I sold it this time around), but as one that specifically reflects influences from multiple faiths including Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam as well as Christianity; and how post-1965 immigration has changed the religious landscape of our actual (but not entirely yet our imagined) cities and communities.
And perhaps another productive change could be to focus the final paper on a particular site of struggle over religious diversity and religious freedom: e.g. K-12 schools, higher education, workplaces, zoning boards, print & online media, film, the body, campaign politics, political rhetoric, holiday observance, medical care…
Speaking of final papers, my students wrote about a wide range of topics, some contemporary:
- The role of military chaplains
- Theology of the “death with dignity” debate
- The rise of unaffiliated and atheist respondents on religion surveys
- Correlations between church attendance and who’s in the White House
- The gap between popular and scholarly meanings of the word “cult”
- Controversies over saying the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools
- How Buddhism aligns with mainstream American values in unexpected ways
- Religious refusal of medical care
- The popularity of religiously-themed tattoos
- Social media and religious hate speech (analyzing that film trailer The Innocence of Muslims that caused so much trouble back in September)
And some historical:
- How Puritan churches in New England transitioned into the Congregational Way
- A sketch of the history of the ethnically and linguistically balkanized Worcester Catholic diocese
- The Scopes Trial
- Religious ideology of the 1920s Klan
- A close reading of a 1930s novel about the loss of religious meaning among Italian immigrants
My last thoughts aren’t really on course content but on how history courses are writing courses in disguise, and how historians like myself should probably be more transparent about this with students. Reading the term papers reminds me that I cannot take writing and research skills for granted among my students. I crafted the assignment to support good writing practices, eg having students submit the paper in stages, offering to read drafts, building in a peer review day, demo’ing the footnote, etc – but clearly, it wasn’t enough. One shorthand at our university for “this class assumes you know your way around the library and the basics of citation styles” is to add English Composition II as a pre-requisite or to make the course count for the WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) Gen Ed requirement. I didn’t do either of those when I created this course, because I wanted a low threshold for interested students who might want it as an elective, and anyway, not everyone who’s taken English Comp II has those skills as a result, but it does mean that I can expect an incredibly broad range of abilities and skills in the classroom as a result, and going forward I need to think more about how students whose skills are less developed can still succeed (having a TA is not an option). Group office hours on certain skills? Targeted assessment and intervention earlier in the semester? Mandating the purchase of a writing handbook? A class session with one of the research librarians? Paper conferences? Required use of the Writing Center? Argh, I don’t know. As I wrap up this semester it seems the most pressing need, not just for this class but for all of them. The interesting thing about the outcomes of liberal education—say, critical thinking, oral & written communication, ability to think historically, information literacy—is that they’re so darn interconnected. Teaching any one course, like hitting a spider web on any of its strands, touches the whole web, like it or not.