Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | July 7, 2017

Small Teaching

small teaching.jpgThe other day I finished reading a new book about teaching, James Lang’s Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. I spend more hours than I’d like to admit thinking about teaching: syllabi, readings, assignments, new courses, classroom activities, curriculum development, how to connect with students in a meaningful way for all of us, how to still have time to research/write …

When we think about making changes to our courses, it can often feel overwhelming. Maybe not all students realize it, but it takes a lot of time and energy to plan courses and individual classes. Re-framing, re-structuring a course is a big task, but I’m often trying to brainstorm how to improve every course and every class I teach, whether it’s through a new assignment, reading, module, theme, whathaveyou. That’s one of the reasons why I ordered Lang’s book; he’s making a case that we can really change our classes and our students’ learning experiences with small changes. According to Lang, small teaching is “an approach that seeks to spark positive change in higher education through small but powerful modifications to our course design and teaching practices” (5).

Lang organizes the book in three main sections: Knowledge, Understanding, and Inspiration. Each section has three chapters and each chapter introduces the concept, offers some of the findings from the science of learning on it, and then (the best part!) models for how to engage with that concept through small teaching. No matter how much active learning a teacher might aim for, we can always do better. Active learning for the sake of active learning is not a good approach. We need to think about why we plan courses and individual class sessions the way we do (in that sense, the chapter on “Self-Explanining” is also about us as teachers).


I made a running list of the ideas from Lang’s class that I plan on implementing in my courses. Some of these will occur in the first few minutes of class, others in the last few minutes, some in the middle, and a few course structure changes. Some of these just prompt me to be more transparent with students about why we’re doing what we’re doing and especially making clear why Religious Studies matters regardless of their chosen discipline. Some of these ask them more questions about what they’re getting out of the class, what’s making sense, and what quandaries and questions remain at the end of a class session.

The book also had some good validation for some of the activities I already do (things like play a song that intersects with the day’s topic as class begins and the activity-based learning of trips to the library’s archives and special collections). All in all, a helpful book that I’m recommending to other teachers.

Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | May 4, 2017

Taking Classes to the Archives

Cross-posted at Religion in American History

Readers might remember that I like to post about teaching. A big part of my teaching is primary sources and that increasingly includes archives. I first blogged about taking a class into the Jesuit archives back in November 2015, shortly after having my American Christianities class work in the archives. That was my first time taking my class on an archival field trip, and since then I’ve taken four more classes back. I’m hooked, and it seems they are too. Many have told me that they hope the assignment remains on the syllabus for future classes.


Two students digitizing photos, from spring 2016 Native American Religions.

Back when I took my first class into the archives, I blogged and raved about Anthony Grafton and James Grossman’s piece in The American Scholar about how student experiences in archives help them develop “habits of mind” and begin to form their scholarly selves. Now, when I take my class into the archives we’re not doing full-blown research projects, but we might be getting there. Since that initial foray into archives and pedagogy, I’ve taken my spring 2016 Native American Religions class into the Jesuit archives, along with a first-year seminar called Race in America (fall 2016 and spring 2017), and my American Christianities class again (spring 2017). With the exception of Native American Religions each class spent one week on an archival project; Native American Religions spent about four weeks. Each class I’ve learned more about how to effectively teach with archives, and each time, I have loved it.


Short digitizing break to smile for the camera! (That class was the only one I photographed.)

I won’t summarize the American Christianities archive experience, as that was recounted last time. This semester we did more or less the same project. The Native American Religions class project had a digital humanities component and really needs a stand-alone post. The project had its successes and its not-so-successes and I’m stoked to try it again with two sections this fall! (If you’re really curious, click here.) Instead I’d like to focus here on my Race in America first-year seminar class. They looked at 5 boxes from the “Radicals Collection,” an unprocessed hodgepodge. A while back there was a Jesuit who was fascinated by radical groups in the region and begin to collect newspaper clippings, pamphlets, photographs, etc. on various radical groups. There are four boxes of material on the Ku Klux Klan and one on various white supremacy groups in Idaho and the rest of the region (Neo-Nazis, skinheads, Aryan Nations, and more). In groups of four, they each took one of those boxes. Being an unprocessed collection meant there was no archival guide and no clear organization for the material. I encouraged the class to enjoy that aspect. They had recently finished Paul Harvey’s Bounds of Their Habitation: Race and Religion in American History and I reminded them that he had to sift through tons of material to tell that story. Their task was similar: figure out the story of their box. Each group turned in a 3-4 page reflection on the experience that focused on four main questions: What kind of materials did you look at? What did those materials have to say? What do they tell us as scholars? How do they fit in their historical and cultural contexts? They were fascinated by the KKK’s local popularity, as the Jesuit amassed a lot of material about the Klan in Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and the rest of the Pacific Northwest. The Klan-produced material helped them see how the organization marketed and presented itself, and the newspaper coverage highlighted both acceptance of the Klan and pushback. The newspaper clippings on the strong presence of the Aryan Nations in the late 20th century (1970s and 1980s) reminded them that though the KKK is not widespread in the region anymore, the power of white supremacy is certainly still around. (To prepare them for this project, we read Kelly J. Baker’s “Robes, Fiery Crosses, and the American Flag: The Materiality of the 1920s’ Klan’s Patriotism, and Intolerance”from Material Religion.)

As a fun bonus for those still reading, here’s my take on best practices with archival projects (which might one day be its own blog post). Others might have a different take, and each project is going to be a little different.
1. Allow time and room for play. I sometimes feel like class time can be rigid, which is not a bad thing on its own but it can get monotonous. Spending time with archives switches things up and gets students out of their desks and into a new space. Those two things alone set a different tone and atmosphere that encourages creativity and curiosity. Archives, then, become a great place to explore.


Two students and the wonderful archivist (David Kingma) digitizing photos, from spring 2016 Native American Religions.

2. Select manageable amounts of material. Too much material can overwhelm students who are not used to archives and lead to exclamations of, “we can’t read all this!” I remind them often that reading everything is not their task, but rather to begin crafting a story based on the material in front of them. I also don’t like giving them too few documents, but rather the right amount to keep them busy and interested. In other words, I try to leave them with even more questions.
3. I’m a fan of group work for archive projects. They can divide and conquer more material, they work through difficult/challenging/strange documents together, and they explain the material to each other. If you do group projects though, I recommend having each student fill out a short peer team assessment form that has them evaluate how they and the rest of the group cooperated together. It typically helps ensure a healthy group dynamic and it encourages them to be thoughtful about how they work with their peers—something they’ll need to know, regardless of their chosen careers. (Confession: I stole my peer team assessment form from the fantastic Katie Faull.)
4. Befriend your library and special collections staff! Not only are they wonderful people, but also they are the best wellsprings of knowledge about the material. And, chances are, they enjoy working with undergraduate students! With an archival project, collaboration is your friend.

Posted by: emilysuzanneclark | August 1, 2016

The Unessay

Please go to my new website: and

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. Consider your strengths, talents, and skills and think about how to apply them. Previous students of mine have turned in ceramics projects, paintings, 3-D and 2-D collages, drawings, original song lyrics presented as an album, a bond financing deal for a faux 501(c)(3), a video, a play, even a couple fitness routines. Some have simply adopted an alternative writing format, such as a letter. 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.

To students in RELI250 or RELI225: 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. To students in RELI193: Keep in mind that your final prompt requires you to respond to at least one of the questions in a sustained manner. Be sure your unessay does that.

To all students, 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. Fully responding to the prompt is of the upmost importance for an unessay. You will turn in a description or explanation of your 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. Your explanation can range from a paragraph to a page.

The Assignment!

The prompts for the final essay/unessay for your class is uploaded to blackboard. Since not every class with the unessay option has the same prompt, there’s no need to confuse you here with all of them.

Rubric for Unessays!

An A unessay: This unessay constitutes a critical and active engagement with the course material that shows insight and creativity and demonstrates time and effort devoted to creating something thoughtful. The chosen medium works persuasively with the design and polish of the unessay. The project’s structural and formal elements productively serve the core concept of the unessay. The unessay includes a clear and insightful connection between your three choices and reflects a convincing and nuanced thesis. An A unessay come with a clearly stated explanation. This will include your thesis and an explanation of how your unessay responds to the prompt.

A B unessay: This unessay meaningfully engages course material and shows an effort to creatively evaluate the information with some degree of clarity. It reflects some time, effort, and forethought. The chosen medium works with the unessay presentation, but some additional design forethought would have helped. The unessay’s structural and formal elements serve the core concept of the project. The unessay includes a clear connection between your three choices. Accompanied statement provides some clarity to the piece but not complete explanation.

A C unessay: This unessay shows some engagement with the course material but it is unsustained uncreative, and inconsequential. It fails to developed a critical and reflective perspective. The chosen medium doesn’t work with the unessay’s presentation. The unessay identifies a vague connection between the selected choices and thus fails to offer a clear thesis statement. Both it and the explanation will appear to be thrown together at the last minute.

A D or F unessay: This unessay lacks any serious effort to accomplish the assigned task. The unessay idea and execution are ill-defined, lack focus and clarity, and contains no main argument. Any unessay not discussed with me before the deadline will automatically receive no higher than an D. Check your assignment guidelines for that deadline.

[Note: Some of the above I stole from myself from an older blog post on Religion in American History. And fellow teachers, if you copy and paste from this, please link to it! Let’s teach our students good practice in citing sources.]

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.

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