Dispatch from a UK Classroom

Adam and EveA friend in the UK on Facebook just posted this newspaper article for what seems to be a new series, “Academic Anonymous” — “where academics can tell it like it is”– entitled:

Teaching Religion: My Students are Trying to Run My Course

Not a few academics in the UK now feel rather frustrated, what with a variety of changes in higher education funding brought about recently by the government there — issues not unfamiliar on this side of the Atlantic, of course, where an increasing emphasis on tuition-based funding (in response to widespread cuts in government funding) has sometimes led to a “student-as-customer” model, a model that sometimes suggests to a few students that their mere attendance in class warrants an A.
How this all impacts the academic study of religion, at least in this one anonymous writer’s experience, is evident from his/her article. For instance:

The prioritisation of the student experience has rightfully empowered students to take a greater responsibility for their learning, which means that student unions and their societies enjoy a far greater influence in universities than ever before.

But this includes religious societies. And at my institution, the fee-paying culture has given rise to a predominantly white, economically-privileged, middle class student body, in which any diversity of religious or non-religious students has been overpowered by a particularly influential form of evangelical Christianity. It is a belief system that is uncomfortable with the academic study of religion, and which will often explicitly resist it.

Students’ membership of this society is flattening the dynamics of lectures. Buying into the current claim that Christians suffer persecution in the UK, many appear compelled to resist the academic critique of the traditions and texts they hold dear. Recently, a group of students in a lecture refused to undertake the work set because they didn’t want to apply postmodern perspectives to what for them was a sacred text.

I’m not sure how this compares to the conditions in which the study of religion is taught in public universities here. What’s your experience? Is it undermined, at times, in the classroom or is the approach adopted in this field part of the problem that requires such responses?

Or maybe there’s a third option…?

Do instructors sometimes fail to make evident to their students that the game is not “right or wrong” or “yes or no” — as in “miracles do or do not happen” — but, instead, entirely different: studying the conditions in which such claims come to be made, how they do or do not change over time, who dos or does not make them, the effect of making them, and the contest that results when others who think and act differently meet up with those claims and the institutions in which they count as commonsense…?

I say this because there are little hints, at least as I read them, in the newspaper piece that suggest to me a possible reason for this person’s experiences. For example:

In fact, I’m an atheist (always have been), and my motivating “belief” as an academic is that the secular study of religions is a crucial activity in any university. You don’t need to be a disciple of Richard Dawkins (and I’m certainly not) to realise religion continues to play a major role in contemporary societies and cultures, whether we like it or not.

I single this passage out because I think that far too often those on the liberal end of the spectrum, where this author presumably is, fail to see the normative and thus unsubstantiated claims they’re making (Question: why make it about theism vs. atheism when it’s obvious that neither stance is about evidence?), claims more than likely heard loud and clear by those in the class who fail to share these assumptions — those who then likely feel compelled to defend themselves, sometimes vocally in class, from what they (whether intended or not by the teacher) perceive to be an attack on things they hold dear. That is, so-called conservative or evangelical students easily (and, I would add, rightly) pick up on the implicit contest even though some instructors think they’re advancing neutral, self-evident scholarly claims.

Now, while I don’t know the author in question and obviously have no idea of his or her actual experiences in the classroom, I’ve often enough seen this happening that I tend to be a bit suspicious about a professor lodging this sort of complaint. Having been called “dangerous” to the study of religion by some of my colleagues, for being far too radical in my historicizing approach to our field, it is curious to me that I’ve generally not had any of these problems with my students, after teaching for twenty years in the U.S. “south” (e.g., eastern Tennessee, southwestern Missouri, central Alabama) where it seems everywhere I teach is described to me by locals as “the buckle of the Bible belt” (suggesting to me that it may be all buckle and no belt!). While I don’t want to jinx things by talking too much, it strikes me (or at least I hope) that students soon realize that the game has shifted considerably in my classes, that it’s not about the old, endless tennis game of theism vs. atheism, right vs. wrong, Dawkins debating whomever…, but about an entirely different set of issues that they’ve probably never before entertained. They understand, I think, that my job is to model for them a way of problem-solving, a way of thinking and talking about human beings, their actions and the structures in which they move, inviting them to assess the possible gains of talking about ourselves in this or that way, leaving to others in other institutions to take a stab at other ways of talking and thus other gains they might value. Thus, for the vast majority, regardless what they do or do not “believe,” it’s plain, I think, that there is no contest to wage.

Though maybe I’ve just been lucky to teach some really great students — which I have, of course.

You can read the whole article here and see what you think for yourself.

And you can ask our upcoming Aronov Lecturer, Prof. Richard King, about all of this maybe, since he’s coming here from the UK to lecture on March 4, 2014 (also doing a lunchtime discussion with students, so watch for the notices).

7 thoughts on “Dispatch from a UK Classroom

  1. Having read this, I thought it was very informative. I appreciate you for taking out time and effort to put this article together. I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and commenting. But it’s still worth it!

  2. I thought this was a really good response Russell. I’m a UK academic – evangelical but you really wouldn’t know it in the classroom, I assure you – and I’ve not experienced anything remotely like this in Biblical Studies or Theology modules. I had far worse problems when I taught in Theological College than at university level! I certainly don’t think the experience described in the article is universal and wonder if it is somehow either contextual or due to the influence of a couple of irritating miscreant students. Hard to tell. But I was bemused by the original post.

  3. You point to the instructor’s statement about atheism as the possible source of his/her issues, although that may be true, but the author never says that this is the point of contention, nor is it specifically stated that atheism is even brought up in the course of lectures. It appeared to me that the author was simply giving background information. Second, you mentioned that you teach in religious studies in the “bible belt” but never ran into any significant problems with evangelical students, what types of courses did you teach? Did any go into great detail about historical critical matters relevant to the Bible? Just curious. Thanks.

    1. Anthony–I’ve taught a wide variety of courses so far in my career, an especially varied list in its early years, from world religions surveys to specialized courses on myths, sacrifice, the history of the field, etc., etc. So I think I’ve confronted a variety of situations teaching a variety of material students thought was both exceedingly familiar and rather strange.