As part of my preparations for comprehensive exams, I recently “read” Brent Nongbri’s Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept (Yale UP, 2013). It originally caught my eye because it promised to examine the historical events which have naturalized the category of “religion.” While I haven’t had a chance to read it in its entirety (a month before my comps, “reading a book” very much deserves to be enclosed in quotation marks), what I have worked through so far is very promising.
As someone who regularly teaches introductory courses in the academic study of religion, Nongbri’s aim to track “the emergence of this conception of religions as apolitical paths to individual salvation” piqued my interest (1). One of the challenges with teaching introductory courses in my discipline is bringing about the process of defamiliarization that has to take place in order to see familiar things in unfamiliar ways. As a result, I share Nongbri’s interest in the question of “how and when people came to conceptualize the world as divided between “religious” and ‘secular” in the modern sense, and to think of the religious realm as being divided into distinct religions, the so-called World Religions” (2). In a very readable overview in his introduction (which I now plan to assign to my undergraduate students in World Religions), Nongbri traces the modern usage of the category to the Protestant Reformation, the Wars of Religion, John Locke, and the subsequent creation of a public and private sphere. With this introductory framework provided, Nongbri moves on to look at the uses and misuses of the category in other scholarly contexts throughout the body of the book.
I was particularly delighted to see such careful attention paid to the category given that the last readable (read: teachable) genealogical coverage that I’m aware of is what W.C. Smith laid out in Chapter 2 of The Meaning and End of Religion (1962). I had planned to assign that in future courses, but now I’ll probably try assigning Nongbri first. Nongbri’s book adds to the genealogy in the style of Smith and manages to do so without sacrificing clarity of writing or forgoing critical edge.
We need more critical historicization of the category “religion” of the kind that Nongbri is undertaking here. Nongbri’s work is reminiscent of (and looks just as promising as) Tomoko Masuzawa’s The Invention of World Religions (2005) as well as Peter Harrison’s “Religion” and the Religions of the English Enlightenment (2002). I look forward to having more time to work through it.
This post continues my reflections on World Religions pedagogy, from a paper I gave at the FSU Graduate Symposium on Religion entitled “The Importance of “Classification” in Teaching World Religions; or, On Using Justin Bieber to Teach J. Z. Smith.” The first part is here, and an introductory post providing context is here.
A class like World Religions too easily becomes “death-by-e.g.,” a forced march through pre-selected ism’s of every variety. By focusing on the issue of classification, we can inject some clarity into the course that simply isn’t found in most World Religions textbooks when it comes to addressing the all-important question of “why these traditions and not others?”. I’ve found that most textbooks choose to answer this question with a solid paragraph of hand-waving and circular arguments before quietly changing the subject. The selection of traditions, all too often, must rest on its presumed self-evidency.
My goal is to reach a point, early in the semester, where students can begin to understand the fundamentally Durkheimian point that classification is a social act—that it is, I tell my students, something done by people. Once we have this framework in place, we as a class can begin to critically examine things beyond the syllabus—say, what was it about the social order in the 1970s United States that spawned Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, or, what exactly do 19th century British colonial officials in Nepal have to do with the chapter on Buddhism in their textbook?
I’ve found Justin Bieber (or as he is known in my classroom, “The Biebster”) to be a great way to illustrate the politics of classification. Now, using Bieber definitely has its own time and place—such as the predominantly white, middle-class classroom that you’ll find at FSU. And even in those settings he won’t always be a good example—but finding an example like Bieber can be very helpful. I start off with a simple picture of him projected onto the board. Then I begin by asking questions. What does he do for a living? Who is this person? Very quickly, the answers get interesting: someone will inevitably say something along the lines of “he is the voice of his generation!” at the same time that someone else says “he sucks!”
Now we can get in to the good stuff: Musician or hack? Hero or moron? By drawing attention to the way students classify Justin Bieber, it opens a door for us to talk about how each of us classifies, often times without realizing we are doing it. Bieber is also useful to introduce the ways in which race and gender can factor into classificatory systems. Charles McCrary pointed me to an excellent clip from an episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Justin Bieber, which makes for a great in-class activity. The clip is from one of that evening’s skits, in which Bieber plays himself having a conversation with his “head of security,” played by Jason Sudeikis, which you can view below:
The joke, of course, is that the twelve body doubles—made up of the rest of the cast of SNL—look nothing like Bieber—a young white man—and the class can pick up on this immediately.
For those of you unfamiliar with Bieber’s music or public persona, the series of jokes relies on his often being confused visually for a female, and particularly a queer middle-aged woman, as well as his appropriation of hip-hop clothes and musical styles. This allows my class to tangle with the racial and gendered politics of classification: Why is there a joke about Bieber appearing female—presumably in a way not complimentary? Furthermore, what does it mean that Bieber, as one of my students has said, “tries to act Black”? What are the politics of classifying a 20-something Canadian millionaire as “black” or “African-American”? It allows my class to identify the tensions that come with applying certain terms to certain things, in a way that is much more immediately accessible to them than, say, when their textbook discusses the politics of Catholics rejecting the Protestant critique that they are interested in “ritual, not religion.” Yet, when my class gets to that point in the textbook, they now have more familiar examples to draw upon in understanding that there may be more at stake in these arguments over descriptions than first meets the eye.
Because assessments of Bieber provoke such fierce dissent in my classes, it makes it very clear to both sides (of the Bieber debate) how the words we use to describe things are the result of deliberate human choices, and that we might be able to identify agendas and interests at stake in calling something a popstar or a fraud. When my students understand the difference between an object and how that object is classified, it can help to remove some of the tension from the room when we talk about, say, early Christian debates over the divinity of Jesus, or whether the term “terrorist” might not be of universal applicability.
However, this line of thinking is useful beyond simply assessing the content of traditions, since it also allows us to talk about how those traditions have been studied over time (or even, why this particular conglomeration of people and activities is a considered a “tradition” distinct from other people and activities). Because—and this will not shock any of you—it’s one thing to try to get students to think about Justin Bieber, and quite another to get them to engage with the classificatory systems of Durkheim or Eliade. Talking of how certain scholars of religion think about the sacred and the profane is one way to get at classification, but it can make for a shaky start if it’s their first introduction to the concept. Bieber can make for a great opening act.
As I hope has become clear, focusing on “classification” in a World Religions class has several benefits. By getting our students to think about how the groups of people under study have categorized the world around them—and then how, in turn, these same groups are classified as “religious” (or not), we can help to instill practices of critical thinking so needed in the introductory classroom. It allows us to show our students the problems inherent in a conceptual framework that classifies things as a “World Religion.” Borrowing another phrase from Smith, it gives us the opportunity to address the “duplicity in the disciplines,” specifically the disciplinary lies that make up any introductory course. More importantly, it allows us the chance to turn these potential stumbling blocks into learning opportunities, by making object lessons out of the very things that can so easily distract an introductory class. So that when the semester ends, students leave the classroom not just knowing the content of a so-called “World Religion” but also knowing how to interrogate the world around them.
The paper I presented at the recent FSU symposium, “The Importance of “Classification” in Teaching World Religions; or, On Using Justin Bieber to Teach J. Z. Smith” centered on the role that the concept of “classification” can play in a well-oiled World Religions classroom (as a bonus, it also allowed me to scratch “Present a paper with ‘Justin Bieber’ in the title” off of my bucket list). I wanted to take the opportunity to meditate on Jonathan Z. Smith’s statement that “an introductory course serves the primary function of introducing the student to college-level work” (1).
If our primary job is to introduce, what exactly are we introducing? In a course as conceptually muddled as World Religions, the answer isn’t always clear. Are we supposed to talk about, for example, what “Buddhism” is and what Buddhists believe? I know that’s what my students expect me to do at the start of each semester. Here, my colleagues’ papers were very helpful: as Brad’s paper showed, simply reading the textbook(s) uncritically is rife with problems. Similarly, Tara’s paper showed how easy it is to reify notions of “tradition” without intending to do so. In other words, what our panel argued is that given its conceptual problems, World Religions is an incredibly difficult course to teach well.
Classification is helpful to teach for a variety of reasons. For one, it relieves (or at least assists) instructors in the debate about the worthiness of World Religions classes (or even courses in the humanities in general) by showing that there are, in fact, a variety of useful life-skills that can be taught and developed in our classrooms. Everything from identifying authority structures to tracing power dynamics to an awareness of how ideology and rhetoric operate can be reviewed in our courses. It also gives my students the tools to follow the textbook while interrogating it at the same time. Most important for the graduate instructor, however, might be its practicality. By focusing attention on the issue of classification and, more specifically, how the people and groups under study classify and are classified, you can get more bang for your buck out of every lecture. In so doing, it makes larger theoretical points much more accessible. I’ve found that it is, hands down, one of the most useful tools with which I can equip my undergrads.
As I read Smith, he has great ideas about introductory pedagogy but his suggestions for execution were of limited use. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that his teaching environment at the University of Chicago must be a little different than Florida State. I once had a student enter my class late to tell me that–and this is a direct quote– “Sorry I’m late, but we were doing a keg stand breakfast.” This class began at 10am. (Go Noles!) While certainly not the norm here at Florida State, it is suggestive of the type of problems we run into while teaching introductory courses at large state schools. I’d like you to keep that story in mind while you read one of Smith’s suggestions for how to run a proper introductory class like World Religions. It’s an extended quote, but bears reading in full:
An introductory course must feature a good bit of activity….For example, there should be short weekly writing assignments on a set task that requires reflection, argumentation, and risk-taking. Each piece of writing must be rewritten at least once, regardless of grade, and this requires that every piece of writing be returned to the student, with useful comments, no later than the next class period…an ethic of revision rather than originality should prevail. Among other devices, I ask my students to keep two notebooks, one for class and one for their reading. They are to make their notes on the right-hand pages and register queries, thoughts, conversations (with attribution) with other students, and, above all, revisionary proposals and re-readings on the left. At least once a quarter, I call in all students’ notebooks and texts. After reading them through, I have individual conferences with each student to go over what they’ve written and underlined and to discuss with them what this implies as to how they are reading and reflecting (2).
In short, I think this approach may work better with a class of 10-15 students than in a 70-person class with members who are in a period of their lives where they perform keg stands for breakfast. And, that aside, though it may be an ideal way to do things, it is simply not practical as a graduate instructor.
And here’s where the rubber meets the road: if we don’t know how to introduce, what good can we do? I tried in my own way to come up with approaches that might work. I needed the quick and dirty version of theoretical sophistication, something that could work to reach students who are trying to learn while some of their peers are, quite literally, drunk.
How, then, to do it well? It’s a complicated question, and one I’m far from answering satisfactorily. I have a few ideas that have worked well, and I’m always looking to improve.
One idea in particular has been helpful: I begin by assigning a first week writing prompt using the course syllabus as an object lesson. The students must address the differences between the traditions covered in the textbook and the ones covered in our syllabus. They then have to consider what is classified as worthy of inclusion in my course, and what is not. They have to wrestle with, for example, why their textbook omits any discussion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Scientology. More importantly, they can begin to hypothesize why we might talk about some things rather than others or, to quote Smith yet again, “why this rather than that” (3).
(1) Smith, Jonathan Z. “Narratives into Problems”: The College Introductory Course and the Study of Religion” JAAR 56:4 (1988).
(2) Smith, “The Introductory Course: Less is Better,” 729.
(3) Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982), xi.
The Department of Religion at Florida State University recently hosted its annual Graduate Symposium, which always proves to be a good time. Besides the good conversation and the opportunity to meet graduate students working in related fields, the symposium offers an opportunity to try out some of our research in a friendly setting.
At this most recent symposium there was a definite focus on graduate pedagogy, which was downright refreshing. While there’s always plenty of talk about the ins and outs of research practices or navigating the job market, it’s always struck me funny how little attention is normally paid to teaching–ostensibly something we are all doing (or hope to do one day). As a result, Brad Stoddard, Tara Baldrick-Morrone and I organized a panel on how graduate students should go about teaching introductory courses, specifically World Religions (which is a bread and butter course here at FSU). This is something we were interested in for a variety of reasons, not least because (1) the pitfalls in teaching World Religions are many and (2) we all have to do it regardless.
The panel, “Critical Reflections on the Teaching of World Religions” was splendid–and not least because we were in the newly remodeled Werkmeister Museum (seen above). I’ll go into more detail in future posts, but suffice it to say that I’m very grateful to the attendees who stopped by to hear us talk. We were fortunate enough to have one of the early time slots–at that magical moment when academics’ mid-afternoon caffeine is kicking in, yet before their thoughts have drifted towards the catered dinner awaiting them–and we were rewarded with many thought-provoking questions during the Q&A. I think there’s something to be said for settings like these, where can come together and discuss teaching in a way that is mindful of the peculiar pressures on graduate instructors–pressures both practical and political.
I’ll elaborate on these pressures in a future post.