My teaching philosophy is guided by the belief that the classroom is a collaborative space where students develop their skills as critical readers and thinkers and challenge preconceived notions about history and culture. In all my courses I do five things: (1) help students to think critically about the definition of religion, (2) highlight the intersections between race, power, and gender, (3) use alternative materials, such as art or novels, to illustrate the course content, (4) make use of local resources including museums, places of worship, and guest speakers, and (5) help students to develop their writing skills.
Although I do want my students to leave my class with a certain collection of factual knowledge – they should know for example that the Bhagavad Gita is an important text in Hinduism or that Catholics believe in transubstantiation – I see my role as an instructor to question knowledge itself. How do we know what we know? What are the larger power structures at play? What are common narratives and the challenges to those? I do this in part by assigning readings that are sometimes difficult to read and going through them line by line with students in class. When I teach Martin Luther King’s The Letter from the Birmingham Jail, for example, we spend the entire class period analyzing King’s letter, working through the historical context, connecting it to current events, and analyzing why he chose particular words over others. By slowly going over the text, students learn to grapple with difficult concepts such as King’s view on self-purification. The result is that students gain a deeper understanding of King’s philosophy and its long-lasting effects rather than a cursory knowledge of the letter.
Working through difficult texts also allows me to discuss effective writing strategies. I find that students have the most difficulty with making convincing thesis statements and writing persuasive arguments. Pointing out the strategies of other authors as we work together to understand their arguments, allows them to internalize the information better than a writing guide would and it also makes them more comfortable with the idea of critiquing the “experts.” Part of the hesitancy of students to critique readings comes from their belief that they know little about the subject. By encouraging them to see the articles and books we read as a puzzle where they can point out how well some pieces fit and identify gaps in the material, they can focus on the construction of the argument rather than their lack of knowledge. While some of my classes have more writing assignments than others, in all my classes I strive to help students with their own writing skills through discussion board posts, short writing assignments, and final papers that are broken up into various stages. I make thorough comments on all assignments, taking care to note both the weaknesses and strengths of papers.
The classroom, though, is not just a place where I lead students through the readings. I view the classroom as a collaborative space in which students come in with varied experiences and we work to make the course materials relevant to their lives. The readings, class discussions, and assignments, however, should also challenge students to think outside of their personal experiences. One example of this is the fieldwork assignment I give for the world religion class. Typically, fieldwork assignments require students to visit a service of an unfamiliar religious tradition and then write a reflection paper. The assignment I give in the world religion class, however, consists of several parts. Students must visit a religious service or event twice so that they are less likely to generalize their experience. They must also look at three related websites, take pictures, and interview at least one person. Dividing the assignment up into several parts allows for students to have a more fulfilling experience and helps them to realize how various sources of information – their own observations, the websites, and their informant – can provide different, and sometimes contradictory, information. The assignment also forces students to learn more about their local community. Students not only enjoy the assignment, but many also note that they learned more about a religion through this project than they did reading the chapter on that same tradition.
I am also fond of using unorthodox materials in religion classes such as novels, films, and comic books. Religion is a deeply personal topic and sources such as novels, which allow students to entangle themselves in the emotions and story of a character, can sometimes express the religious world of a culture better than an article or textbook. I have found that novels work particularly well in making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, thereby inviting students to look at their own culture with a new perspective. Choosing appropriate novels can be tricky. For my Caribbean course, I used two novels. One was popular and allowed me to talk about various dimensions of Trinidadian society, but students hated the other novel. Even then, though, I could use the author’s popularity in the Caribbean to talk about why her form of storytelling might be more appealing to a Caribbean audience but perhaps slightly boring to a group of American college students.
While I do not generally use PowerPoint, I often write on the board, provide visuals including drawing out concept maps, and use “small practices” to help students retain the information better. These small practices include asking students at the beginning of class to recall the major points of the last class and passing out a notebook during the last few minutes so that students can anonymously write down any questions they may have for me. I then answer these questions during the next class session. I sometimes provide reading guides for materials that I think are especially dense. These guides are usually questions to help students identify the major themes of the reading. This allows us to have a deeper discussion rather than simply reviewing the content in class. I have found, though, that a delicate balance is needed between guiding students through the reading and allowing them to struggle with its meaning on their own. There is much to be gain from allowing students to approach the reading first without my guidance. While they may struggle with some concepts, they may also highlight points that I missed in the reading or make new connections. Such moments are important because they work to build the confidence of the student as a critical thinker.
I am always thrilled when students express continued interest in the study of religion after leaving my class, but my ultimate goal is for students to use the skills they have developed in my class in all of their classes, not to produce more religion majors (although that is always a plus!). If they walk out of my classroom and think more critically about the narratives presented in their other classes as well as in the larger society, I know I have done my job well.