Thursday, August 25, 2016

New blurb for theorizing

I've carried a course introducing the discipline of religious studies with me since I first started professoring. Once called "Approaches to the Study of Religion" and a lecture, it became a seminar and was renamed "Theorizing Religion" by a short-lived colleague here, and that name has stuck. The upcoming academic year will mark my tenth time teaching it at Lang. Perhaps by next year it will get a new name, "Religion Making."

Revisiting the syllabus each year has become a ritual, a chance to take stock of my changing understanding of my discipline, as well as of the context in which I'm teaching it. Assignments have changed as well as readings, which encircle a relatively stable core of "classic texts" in newer debates and perspectives. (I agonize about the core each time. Canons exist only because professors say so. Is it really appropriate to subject students to the old roster of dead white men? And yet, after two decades in the field, I have - not without chagrin - to acknowledge that few of the more contemporary readings I've assigned over the years are still being used. This isn't because they're out of date, but because they are part of growing and changing discussions... Still, in these growing changing discussions, those old classics - which are out of date! - keep coming up! We're constituted as a field - and able, to the extent that we are, to talk across generations - through our formative engagements with these classics. I can't do the counter-canon thing. I teach critical awareness and creative engagement through wrestling with compromised legacies.

And yet I've been moving toward what I'm now calling "religion making" as a focus for some time. The foundation, I suppose, lies in the seminar itself - an educational set-up where knowledge is put together by the a particular group of people in discussion, rather than handed down by a lecturer (or texts) representing a field, a discipline. The particularity of the particular group matters, too. When I first arrived, Lang had no majors, and religious studies still isn't a major. I'm still grateful for the students who concentrated in religious studies, but most students, even in this class, aren't. The course has to be useful for psychologists and historians and students in culture and media, too. And writers and artists - for Lang has many students hoping to establish themselves as artists. How can I be of service to them - and they to the class? Seminars work because the participants are not just empty vessels, waiting to be filled by professorial instruction, but come with perspectives, questions, insights, identities of their own - what I've in the last year learned to call "prior knowledge."

And of course many of the students, whether they're taking few or many courses in religious studies, aren't taking it to learn about religious studies. They're curious about religion - something carefully or carelessly omitted from their previous education. Religion has become one of the things Americans encounter in college. Some come because they are fascinated or disturbed by religious fanatics, others are on a spiritual quest of their own. None are, let's face it, interested in the discipline of religious studies (let alone its endless self-critique). But perhaps I can show them how to be - and why to be interested, even if academia isn't their thing.

So here's where I've ended up in the Fall 2016 edition. (I'm happy to show you the readings and assignments, too.) Religious studies shares the stage with "religion-making," a broader category which includes religion as presented by media and framed by law, engaged by politics and sublimed by art - and which welcomes students' prior knowledge. Each is offered as necessary but not sufficient. The academic approach may be new to them, and I hope to demonstrate its value to them, but they are already working with categories and practices of "religion" as they walk in the door. Learning to theorize together in a seminar setting should make them more reflective, responsible "religion makers," both in school and out. (I don't print out the syllabi until Monday, so if you notice typos etc, let me know!)

Recent calls for better policing of the borders of the field ring hollow 
to my mind. What is fascinating about religion are the borderlands. 
Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, “Teaching Religion” 

The category of religion has been described as "the most ideological of Western creations." (Dubuisson 2003: 147) It is a modern western concept, born perhaps in 1799, yet most of what it is thought to refer to is non-modern or non-western. At the same time, it seems an inescapable part of articulating what it means to be human here and now. What does it reveal and obscure? Can it be thought about in non-mystifying ways? 

This course weaves together a critical history of the academic discipline of religious studies with explorations of everyday “religion-making” in the media and our own lives. We read classic and contemporary theories of the nature, history and value of religion to develop a reflective understanding of the concept as well as of the phenomena which are made to bear its name. Unexamined views of what religion is (and isn’t) blind us to the true challenges of those practices, beliefs and traditions regarded as religious – as well as those not so regarded. 
Many other categories constitutive of western modernity interlock with the concept of religion. Understanding the travails of religious studies also offers insight into other, similarly fraught disciplines, as indeed into the nature of disciplinary projects as a whole. A critical awareness of the concept of religion and its study offers incisive perspectives on politics, gender, ethics and identity. 

But what has recently been called “religion-making” isn’t just something scholars do. We experience religion as a natural kind because it is woven into our individual, social and even political experience. Religions are made and unmade by participants as well as by critics, by high and pop culture, by individuals and communities negotiating complicated identities, by those who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” - and by the law. 

The academic study of religion is not an escape from these wider practices of making and unmaking “religion” and “religions” but a privileged place for reflection, critique, intervention and dialogue in the broader theoretical and practical challenges of our time.

PS I've found a second epigraph:

To use category names should be a commitment to tracing
the assemblages in which these categories gain a momentary hold.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World, 29

1 comment:

Beth said...

I'd love to see your new syllabus when it's ready. I don't get to teach this course much anymore in practice, but I still theoretically teach it every year, so new ideas would be intriguing.