Friday, September 18, 2015

Pedagogical Project

The MetroCITI seminar started its Fall meetings today. I was one of three participants sharing our thinking about a "pedagogical project" we're pledged to explore in one of our classes this semester. My project is tentatively called "'Religion making' and Students' Prior Learning," and it was wonderfully helpful to have to explain it quickly (ten minutes) to friendly folk from other schools and disciplines, and even more helpful to get their reactions and suggestions.

"Students' prior learning" is one of the key categories of our seminar. Learning happens only when new knowledge successfully grafts onto old, generating always different tensions, displacements and rearrangements with it, and the more a teacher knows of her students' prior knowledge the more effectively can she facilitate new learning. (The same goes for the teacher's prior knowledge.) The voluminous literature on "teaching and learning" pays remarkably little attention to this prior knowledge, however. Hence, in part, MetroCITI, one of several projects committed to finding ways of "surfacing" prior learning in the service of better education. ("Surfacing" here is a transitive verb.)

In religious studies "prior learning" is tricky. School instruction on religion is rare to non-existent in American students' experience, so what students know isn't religious studies. My training inclines me to dismiss it as a dangerous distraction from the work of academic work, faith-based and first-personal rather than evidence-based and critical, but I've been coming around on that one. It's only in this seminar that I'm learning to appreciate what students bring as learning. I had recognized that most of my students aren't aspiring scholars or religion, nor do I need them to be. Like the students of most religious studies courses, they are there for often spiritual reasons of their own. My first step was to realize (decide) that these aims and those of the academic discipline I teach can be compatible.

But the discipline has been changing, too. If my suspicions of students' unschooled religioisities were overdrawn, so perhaps was my confidence in my discipline. We're several decades into a fundamental critique of the academic study of religion is naive, ideologically complicit with Western colonialism and its legacies, and much less neutral than it supposes it is: the academic categories of "religion" it advocates are, it is argued, irreducibly Christian in origin, Protestant, and probably shaped by contingent experiences of political liberalism too. The academic enterprise is the more necessary, and the more valuable, knowing that even our modern American understandings of religion, spirituality, secularism and science are not universal. So I've been working on surfacing my prior learning - and its weaknesses. 

At the same time, scholars - including scholars in religious studies - have been helping us understand just how much more thoughtful and creative religious practice is than people used to think. Far from being "blind" followers of uncritically inherited beliefs and practices, we now expect to find agency, discernment, decisions about choices of inheritance and practice at every level. The "lived religion" movement which I've been following for a few years is one of the places where this is most explicitly thematized. As Robert Orsi reminds us, scholars navigate the same territory "between heaven and earth" as the people we study, both as individuals and as scholars.

All of this came together for me (though it was only making today's presentation that it became fully clear to me) in the idea that my students bring bona fide religious studies learning with them to my classes, even if they've never studied religion academically (or at all). "Lived religion" is not the same as religious studies - it asks different questions and is seeking different sorts of result - but it is more like it than I'd been able to realize. It asks questions, it sifts and compares, it tries things out. It has known and unknown loyalties, works with more and less explicitly held definitions of truth and value, but it seeks to correct its blindnesses.

So we get to my pedagogical project, which uses the category of "religion making" to analyze (appreciate and critique) both what religious "practitioners" and scholars of religion do. In today's presentation I introduced it this way:

draw in students’ prior learning to get them to see “religion making” as something happening on different scales and in different settings—the academy, the law, the media, and/but also lives of communities, families, individuals. My hope is that this makes more explicit the ways the academic study of religion can build on, complicate and enrich students’ prior convictions, experiences, hopes and fears. I would like my teaching to speak to students’ personal motivations while also allowing a focus on the distinctiveness, and the distinctive contribution made by, of academic study.

More easily said than done but worth a whirl. I'll let you know how we fare!

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