I really enjoy teaching religious studies to undergraduates. Of course, I enjoy sharing my passion for learning and thinking about religion with students. After class one day in a World Religions class, a student came up to me saying “this blowed my mind” and wanted to talk with me for the next ten minutes about why this was a new and exciting way of thinking for him and what a religion minor requires. Remembering how I experienced something similar one day as a undergraduate, I was excited and humbled to realize that I inspired a similar feeling in a student.
My teaching philosophy has developed over the course of multiple years as a teaching assistant and as an instructor. Specifically at Florida State University, I have had taught multiple sections of Religion in the U.S. and Introduction to World Religions. I think teaching should go beyond introducing students to historical facts or providing reportage of religious beliefs and practices. My goal as an instructor is to supply students with the analytical and thinking skills necessary to critique other interpretations of religions and cultures and produce their own arguments. In the classroom, I endeavor to both equip students with knowledge about the course topics and provide them with theoretical tools to become beginner scholars and critics themselves.
My approach to teaching had developed over time, and each time I have taught another section of the same course number, I have changed content, reading materials, and even course organization. I have increasingly dedicated more time to introducing students to theories and methods regarding the study of religion and culture. Providing students with theoretical tools, background information, and primary sources fosters a productive classroom environment for student discussion, brainstorming, argument-building, and even debate. Exams are one way of demonstrating mastery of a subject, but building an argument and supporting an interpretation of their own gives students the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. For example, after discussing the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, the history of “world religions” discourse, and introducing students to the concept of and variety of indigenous religions, I ask my students why they think no representatives of these “tribal” religions were invited to the World’s Parliament. When discussing the tensions between American religious freedom and the act of defining religion, I have students brainstorm how Jonathan Z. Smith might dissect and appraise this problem. These are typical of the style of questions I use to initiate class discussion or use in prompts for reflection essays.
I also think that the study of religion in an academic setting makes more responsible citizens. I realize this may sound like an opulent or perhaps romantic sentiment, but I think it’s true. When Michel Foucault beings The Order of Things: An Archaeology the Human Sciences, he cites Jorge Borges’s work “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” and a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia”’s classification of animals. Foucault opens this way because it exemplifies “the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.” For many undergraduates taking a religious studies class, this is a new way of thinking for them—namely, the idea that we are all raised in certain epistemes that structure and shape our way of thinking and our understanding of the world. I encourage them in religious studies classes to accept that there are other epistemes and to imagine themselves in the shoes of someone who inhabits them. I tell students to imagine themselves living in west Africa in 1710, in Syria in 350 CE, or in Florida in 1595. I want them to begin thinking about what the world is like for someone in different specific historical context. Studying religion, particularly in a country with such religious and cultural diversity that also has a strong tendency towards religion, can be a touchy subject. However, if students are able to recognize that there are other epistemes, other ways of approaching the world and its problems, and other orientations to the “religious,” hopefully this better equips them to live in the twenty-first century. Technology, economic systems, political structures—all of these inevitably change throughout the years, but the diversity of human cultures will remain. Therefore, if students are able to recognize that there are different modes of thinking and different religious orientations to the world and that these matter for those who occupy them—regardless of who’s religion is true or who’s culture is better (though these are questions that do not interest me)—my students will hopefully interact with people in a respectful, thoughtful, and knowledgeable manner.
You can also find some of my thoughts on teaching religion and race on the companion website for Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey‘s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.
Some sample syllabi:
For a recently developed course on Religion and Race in American History (using The Color of Christ), click here: Race and Religion
For my Fall 2012 syllabus for Introduction to World Religions, click here: Rel_1300-09_Fall2012
For my Summer 2011 syllabus for Religion in the U.S., click here: Rel 2121 summer2011 syllabus