Wednesday, July 19, 2017


It's that time of the summer where I start to think that my staple course "Theorizing Religion" might need a major overhaul. I do more than tweak it each year, in line with what seem to me important trends in Religious Studies and my sense of the particular needs of our students; I've also scaled back the required books, mainly for financial reasons.

Still, this will be an important year for Religious Studies, as one of our mainstay instructors - who taught mainly in medieval and Literary Studies - has left the university (boohoo), and we're pursuing a relationship with the burgeoning present-focused Journalism + Design program. I long ago abandoned the fantasy that most of the student in the class would be on their way to the Minor or even the Major (though it's required for them), and I'm thinking it's time I abandoned the fantasy that students come in with meaningful experience in religious studies... As I tell all instructors in the program, it's best to assume that for many students in the class it will be their first exposure to religious studies - and also, quite possibly, their last. Without students bringing in knowledge of actual religion (ostensibly a prerequisite, but Lang is loose with prereqs) discussion can tilt toward all-theory-no-religion, unprofitable tttttttt instead of trtrtrtrtr! This will also be year 3 of my experiment - I guess it's more than that by now! - with the category of "religion making" as a way of relating academic religious studies to other engagements, specifically with the aim of tapping students' prior non-academic knowledge of religion. And then there's the Evangelical support for Donald Trump...

The problem, of course, is that there are only so many class sessions, so much time you can expect students to spend. Every addition has to be accommodated be a subtraction. (I won't budge on my policy of usually assigning just one reading per class, though it might be several chapters from the same book.) So here's what I'm toying with: using a MOOC.

Yes, you heard me right, a MOOC, that pox on all university instruction! In my defense, I wouldn't be replacing an actual course with a MOOC; instead, I'd use the MOOCs as what it seems to me they are: multimedia BOOKS. Which MOOCs, though, and why? I'm thinking of the units on "World Religions Through Their Scriptures" of Harvard Divinity School's "Religious Literacy" project I sampled last year. I tried out the methodological unit, finding it more than acceptable, but my thought is to have students each choose one of the units devoted to a specific world religion: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism. Students would actually get an education in a particular tradition (what most of them lack), and one might find ways of having them share what they're learning with students studying other world religions. (We'd talk about the problems of "world religions" and "scriptures," too, of course, and in any case the series seems to be smart and sophisticated about both.) The whole thing could also be related to "religion making" and the religious studies/journalism frontier, since the Religious Literacy project is in part designed to address "religious illiteracy."

So what's not to like? The problems, at this stage of toying with the idea, are several.
(1) Harvard will strike some of the student as "the Man," even if it's HDS: isn't The New School supposed to reject all such venerable institutions and their stodgy approaches? And a MOOC in a seminar class? We can engage these incongruities fearlessly! (And by the way, a goodly number of our students and adjunct instuctors have gone on HDS, no stodge.)
(2) More seriously, each of the courses requires 24-40 hours of work - though it could and would be skimmed, I wouldn't want to endorse that. Accommodating a unit would take up the prep time for six class sessions in my class, a steep cost, whatever we get out of "becoming mini-experts" and sharing and synthesizing what we've learned. (I suppose that doesn't mean giving up six class sessions; some could be given to sharing MOOC learning, but others could offer self-contained learning experiences, perhaps around a film or a visitor or even a lecture.)
(3) Finally, to be responsible about it, I'd have to make my way through all five units. Goodbye summer! (But also, hullo standard world religions training, which I never got.)

I don't have to decide for another month. Perhaps I'll wind up imagining major revisions, then scaling them back, as in years past. I don't think the skeleton of the course, or its ethos, will change. I'll keep you posted...
PS This post's title means to be

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