Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | August 1, 2016

The Unessay: American Christianities and African American Religions

Herein lies a description of one of my favorite assignments: The Unessay.

First: some history. I started assigning unessays in the fall 2015 semester. I did not invent the unessay. It’s important first to give credit where credit is due. The idea comes from some of our wonderful colleagues in English and Digital Humanities. I was introduced to the idea of the unessay by Ryan Cordell, an English professor at Northeastern University, who references the assignment in his essay “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities.” He expands on the idea for a class of his here. He also pulled the idea from a couple of others, namely Michael Ullyot and Daniel Paul O’Donnell. They center the unessay on a few characteristics: students choose their own topics, they present it in any way they choose, and we evaluate based on how compelling it is. The idea is to break open the corral of the traditional essay and encourage students to take a different approach to the assignment. It requires some creativity. (Professor Cordell has posted some of his students’ previous unessays here.)

To my students, you can respond to the final paper prompt with either an essay or an unessay. The unessay is as described above: it’s your opportunity to break open the corral of the traditional essay. Be creative. Find alternative ways to answer the prompt. Previous students have turned in ceramics projects, paintings, 3-D and 2-D collages, drawings, original song lyrics presented as an album, a play, even a fitness routine. There are numerous other ways to approach the assignment as well. Don’t feel constrained by this list of previous unessays. Play to your strengths. If the concept of the unessay intrigues you, it is required that you meet with me in advance to talk through your idea. This way we can make sure that you meet the assignment requirements.

Keep in mind that there are two main parts of the final paper prompt: make a case for the three choices as being the most significant and then argue a central claim or thesis. My assessment of your assignment will focus on those two parts, whether you chose to do an essay or an unessay. Here is an important warning:you can turn in the most creative thing, but if you don’t fully answer the prompt, I can’t give your full credit. Many students who complete an unessay turn in a description or explanation of their unessay that helps illustrate how they answered the prompt. Think about pieces displayed in museums and art galleries. Many of them come accompanied by a plaque that describes/contextualizes/analyzes the piece.

The Assignment!

This 1200-word essay or unessay is due to the Turnitin link on blackboard before your final exam time.

Pick three persons, communities, or events that we have covered in class that you think are the most significant to the story of American Christianities or African American Religions (depending on your course). Your essay should explain why the three you picked are the most significant, not summarizing them. Summary will only tell me the “what” on your three choices; I want to know the “why.” Why are these the most significant? Your three selections will also be the basis of your thesis statement. Your essay’s argument should make a claim about the story of Christianity/Christianities in America or African American Religions. This could be a definition of American Christianities/African American Religions. This could be a claim about what’s most important to our understanding of it.


An A paper: This paper constitutes a critical and active engagement with the material that shows insight and creativity. Rather than summarize the person/communities/events, it explains why they are the most significant to the entire story of Christianity/Christianities in America or African American religions (depending on your course). It includes a clear and insightful connection between your three choices. It is stylistically well written and grammatically correct.

A B paper: This paper goes beyond a summary of the material and shows an effort to evaluate the information with some degree of clarity. While this essay may fall into summarizing from time to time, the majority of the body paragraphs show the significance of the selected persons/communities/events. It includes a clear connection between your three choices. Essays exhibit few errors in grammar and style.

A C paper: This paper shows little engagement with the material. It is primarily summary, rather than an effort to develop a critical and reflective perspective. The essay identifies a vague connection between the selected choices and thus fails to offer a thesis statement. It also shows a lack of proof reading and inattention to grammar and style.

A D or F paper: this paper lacks any serious effort to accomplish the assigned task. Essays are ill-defined, lack focus and clarity, and contain many grammar and style errors.

[Note: Some of the above I stole from myself from an old blog post on Religion in American History.]

Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | January 10, 2016

Teaching Strategies for Success

Last month I got asked to teach an extra class for this spring. Even though I feel like I never have enough time to get everything done, I agreed to take it on. This is because it’s the kind of class I think I would really enjoy teaching. It’s a single-credit class called “Strategies for Success” and is automatically enrolled with some of our academic probation students. The course has two goals: give them a little GPA boost and help them develop better skills for college success. The point is helping students succeed, and I can dig that.


I’ve never taught anything like this before, and I won’t lie; I’m a bit apprehensive about it. Other professors who have taught the class before have offered guidance on readings, syllabi, and assignments. There is also a common curriculum that is provided by the Center for Student Academic Success. I think the class will be a good experience, maybe not always “fun” but worthwhile for the students. I’m hoping to get a lot of out this too. I’ll be focusing on the types of skills that I wish I could spend more time on in my regular classes. In the process, I might figure out ways to quickly and more effectively cover these skills in those classes.

Here’s the syllabus!
Strategies for Success Syllabus Spring 2016

Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | November 17, 2015

Students in the Archives

I have my classes spend a lot of time with primary sources. Readers are probably already aware of this. Sometimes my students and I chuckle at things we find. Students in my American Christianities classes also write 2 faux primary sources over the course of the semester. Both my American Christianities class and my African American Religions class have a primary source reader that we read from a lot during the semester.

This post is a sort of sequel to my post last month about the faux primary source assignments. Earlier this month my American Christianities class spent a week with the archives of the Jesuits of the Oregon Province (which covers the Pacific Northwest and Inland Northwest). Gonzaga is lucky to be the host of these archives, and so having class is the archive is easy. (That, and the collection has the coolest archivist around!) The assignment was not a full research project, but there are still valuable lessons that undergraduates can learn in a couple of days in the archives. Recently in The American Scholar, Anthony Grafton and James Grossman wrote about how archival research is good for undergraduates. “When students do research, they learn to think through problems, weigh evidence, construct arguments, and then criticize those arguments and strip them down and make them better—and finally to write them up in cogent, forceful prose, using the evidence deftly and economically to make their arguments and push them home.The best defense for research, however, is that it’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self.” Granted, my students did not have a lot of time to form their scholarly selves. But I hope that process began.


Crow Indians with priests, image from Foley Library

I split the classes up in 6 small groups, and the archivist and I brainstormed 6 groupings of sources. One grouping focused on ceremonial life and included banners, vestments, photos and descriptions of feast processions on Native reservations. Another group focused on the art of conversion and perused a fascinating collection of dictionaries, grammars, and hymnals that the Jesuits in the region translated into Native languages. One table had documents and photographs illuminated sacramental life and how the Jesuits captured personal and community timelines in their baptismal, marriage, and death records. Another grouping focused on the administration of the Jesuits and included instructions to priests, critiques of fellow Jesuits, and, much to the excitement and entertainment of the students, rules for dating that the Jesuits wrote back in the 1950s. This group and the next took students behind the scenes and into the more practical and business side of the Jesuits. The fifth group had a collections of business documents: financial records, fundraising documents, budgets, and the old Jesuit order cattle brand (this was the West after all). Finally the sixth group dove into the records of St. Aloysius, the parish here on campus named after the university’s namesake. This included scrapbooks and photographs of the building over time – all documenting parish life. Each group will be responsible for a write-up on their small collection of materials that analyzes what the materials tell us as a whole.


Rev. Joseph M. Cataldo, S.J. image from Foley Library

Each mini collection had more materials than the students had time to read, but this way students got to “dig in” and hunt for things themselves. I told them that feeling a bit lost at the beginning was to be expected. It’s not until you’ve examined a few or more materials that you start to see a bigger picture. They also found materials that made them smile and got them excited. Many students used the word “cool” when describing the materials. While in the library, one group flagged me down with the same exuberance they would have for a free tshirt at a Zag basketball game. (They had found photographs from the mid-20th century cataloging when a relic of St. Francis Xavier [his arm] visited St. Al’s parish here on campus.)

The best part of this assignment was watching students come alive in the archives. I teach classes that fulfill core curriculum requirements, which means I don’t teach many Religious Studies majors. So one of my goals in the classroom is to cultivate intellectual curiosity. I want students to look at the materials (and the world) critically and thoughtfully. I want them to make connections beyond what’s on the page. While watching them in the archive, I saw sparks of this.

Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | October 25, 2015

Teaching Faux Primary Sources

Cross-posted at Religion in American History

This semester I’m teaching one section of African American Religions and two sections of American Christianities. Like many of us, I try to come up with assignments that are both enjoyable (or at least not painful) for students and are also enjoyable (or at least not painful) for me to grade. And all of my courses fulfill a core curriculum requirement. In other words, I’m not teaching majors but rather students from across the whole University. Right now I’ve got a batch of take-home midterms from my African American Religions course where the students had to pick the most significant reading they’ve done so far in class and argue why it was the most significant. Just before that, my American Christianities course turned in faux primary sources.

In both courses we have a primary source reader, and we read a ton of primary sources. Before the end of the semester they have to do a handful of worksheets on primary source readings of their choice. The questions on the worksheets are: What is the author’s main goal? And then: How does the historical context shape the document? The goal of these worksheets is to get them reading primary sources more critically (as opposed to just reading for basic content). In the case of the American Christianities course, these worksheets are complemented by the completion of two faux primary sources. Twice during the semester they turn in faux primary sources, which means they have to “channel” a real or fake person or group from American religious history and then come up with a document that s/he/they would have written.

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 8.09.44 AMThe assignment requires that the students think about those questions posed in the worksheets they complete. It forces them to think about the perspective of the person/group they are “channeling” and how s/he would write about the topic. If you want to see if your students “get” primary sources, ask them to make one up. (And, if your university/college is like mine and wants you to use the language of assessment, it encourages students to “create”.) There is a learning curve for assigning an assessment like this. This is the third semester I’ve used this assignment, and one thing I’ve learned is the importance of clear assignment guidelines and a more detailed rubric. And the clearer the assignment has become, the more students seem to enjoy it. Some students naturally thrive with a creative assignment but others feel lost at the beginning. Clear guidelines and vaguely referencing some previous student creations can help with this. It’s also a great test on your own teaching skills. You get a sense of what topics/groups/ideas you taught well, and which ones you should have spent more time covering or need to go about in a different way.

Screen Shot 2015-10-25 at 8.11.37 AMThe best thing though is the student successes. Some come up with new antebellum spiritual hothouse groups and turn in excerpts from the group’s scripture or become a journalist reporting a story on the group or create an anti-whatever pamphlet. And there was the Mormon student who experienced gleeful fun by writing an anti-Mormon pamphlet. Many of the Catholic students enjoy writing from the perspective of their own great-great-great (and maybe one more great) grandparents who came to the U.S. in the 19th century. Abolitionists and pro-slavery Christians write letters to their cousins. Native Americans “write” journal entries about encountering Spanish conquistador and French Jesuits. One of my favorites remains the theatre student who wrote a hymn as a Salvation Army lassie and then set it to parade music and turned in a recorded mp3 file (along with a letter sent from the lassie with the lyrics and why she wrote them).

I’m curious to hear from others. What are the more creative religious studies assignments you’ve come up with? How have they succeeded? What have you learned from teaching them?

Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | June 19, 2015

The Charleston Shooting

I am deeply sad and very angry about the #Charlestonshooting. There is so much that can be said about this horrible event. I was asked by SpokaneFAVS, a local publication about religion and faith in the Inland Northwest, to write something about this.

Instead of repeating anything here, I’ll just direct you to “A Violent Act in the Name of White Supremacy: The Charleston Shooting.”

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