The Problem with the Primacy of Primary Sources


By Andie Alexander
Andie Alexander earned her B.A. in Religious Studies and History in 2012. She is completing her M.A. in Religious Studies at CU Boulder. Andie also works as the online Curator for the Culture on the Edge blog.

Over the past few weeks I have heard repeated talk of primary sources vs. secondary sources, privileging the former over the latter in every case. The argument that was made in these instances is premised on highlighting the legitimacy and groundedness of the primary sources, as if they focus on something “real,” (such as religion on the ground, or “real world” examples). These are then juxtaposed with the secondary sources, which are seen as subsequent discourses on primary sources, mostly concerned with meta-discourses — regarded mainly as “thinking about thinking” or “talking about talking” — which are given that secondary ranking because they aren’t talking about something “real” or answering the reader’s question (in fact, often they leave them with more questions than answers, whereas primary sources are all about answers). In some cases, these secondary sources are dismissed with a “So what?” I say “dismissed” not with a negative connotation, but with a sense of such indirect relation to the “real world religion” that the “meta-discourses” are seen as not worth the same time and engagement as their juxtaposed primary sources.

What strikes me as interesting about this distinction between primary and secondary sources is that the use of that very language largely relies on some essentialized notions of religion, as if it exists authentically, apart from subsequent claims about it. Continue reading

Prof. Loewen Presents at the Center for Instructional Technology’s Showcase


Faculty in REL, and throughout the University, are experimenting with technology in their classrooms every semester. Last week the Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) hosted a showcase for faculty to share the cool stuff their are doing with technology in the classroom. The Department’s own Prof. Nathan Loewen presented his work in developing The College of Arts & Sciences Teaching Hub, a digital resource center that provides tools for faculty to improve and innovate in their teaching.

Along with Jessica Porter, eTech’s Digital Editorial Specialist, Prof. Loewen presented features of the Teaching Hub and engaged the audience in dialogue about the site’s design, potential features and future content. In short, the focus of the Teaching Hub is to promote community, collaboration, and teaching innovation in the College; provide opportunities to develop and refine teaching skills throughout the year, including yearly workshops, peer coaching, and the common book event; identify and share resources regarding effective, research-based teaching practices; and foster cross-disciplinary conversations on teaching and learning, relevant to faculty members at any level.

Because teaching with technology is so much more than just Powerpoint.


A “Hipster’s” Introduction to the Study of Religion

I’m writing this post during the office hours of my first REL100 course, “Introduction to the Study of Religion.” During the term, my 150 students were introduced to something they clearly did not expect: the study of religion. What did they expect? Something about this…

Wikipedia image of prevailing world religions

… in a context that looks something like this…

Full lecture in Theatre L, Newman Building, UCD

What happened instead? During my office hours, a student told me that taking my class was like learning from a “hipster version of John Greene.” Greene’s fast-paced videos on YouTube are among the ways and means today’s students learn about their course topics (As this student frankly told me, students sometimes use them as direct replacements for reading the text or showing up for class!).

John Greene’s 2 minute and 35 second “On Religion (Redux)” actually does a fairly decent job of presenting something about the academic study of religion.

The upshot of my course aligns with most of what Greene states here: a academic discussion about religion is a discussion about the vagaries of classification and the concomitant need for critical inquiry into how humans deploy grammar and classification.

My class sessions are structured as active learning based critical inquiries into how public and scholarly discourses deploy grammar and terms to frame “religion,” where examples from the everyday interact with those from religious studies scholars.

And so while the course includes a few lectures, several mini-lectures and many lecture-discussions to establish baseline arguments, students largely find themselves learning how to apply the ideas from the textbook and lectures in small group workshops. As a result, the class sessions regularly involve me and my amazing GTA, Dr. Paul Eubanks, floating from group to group in order to work out understandings of the course content and the example at hand. The image I tweeted below was a workshop where students discussed Canada’s proposed “Barbaric Cultural Practices” legislation.

Or, in another example from my course, groups first classified a list of 28 scholarly definitions of religion to be taking one of the following approaches: essentialist, functionalist or family resemblance. Each group then did the following while my GTA and I moved through the room to verify each group’s progress and results:

“The judgment of a classification is not “better or worse,” but whether or not it is useful. If this is the case, then classifications should be tactical and provisional. In other words, “religion” does not exist until an agent proposes a definition and theory of religion.

  1. Go back to the definitions and determine which are the top five most academically useful definitions.
  2. To the “approach” column, add what your group takes to be a good example of each “top five” definition from online media. Please both state the example and embed the link (press control+K to insert a hyperlink).
  3. To the “approach” column, add a brief justification of your chosen example.

My approach to structuring the course not only accomplishes the course learning objectives that are stated in my syllabus, it also fulfills what I think should be the  pedagogical orientation of a humanities course that teaches critical thinking. As I state in a forthcoming article for Method and Theory in the Study of Religion reviewing the recently-released Norton Anthology of World Religions:

“There are several reasons why considering form as the first element of content is useful for teaching from a critical perspective (see Loewen 2015: 55-56). Doing so may focus course design on the skills for questioning subjectivity and interrogating the self-evidence of claims, for example. Learning objectives, then, are not so much to learn names and dates or memorable quotes… (see Zeller 2015: 124), but rather to demonstrate knowledge of how to analyze discourses according to distinct theoretical approaches. […] It is a normative claim in favor of applied learning, such that teaching constitutes the active facilitation of skills in the processes and procedures of scholarship.”

And so, compare all of the above to the approach taken by Jack Miles, the editor of the Norton Anthology of World Religions. I think you will agree that Miles articulates the common, folk sensibilities of what students thought an “introduction to the study of religion” would be about.

Instead, I do hope that my students come away from REL100 with a critical sensibility about all that goes into the construction of “religion.”


The Proclaimers

proclaimingI’ve seen a lot of early career people teaching — of course, I was once one of them, like us all, back when, at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, I would write out entire lectures the day or night before and then read them each class, sticking closely to my text — and they unfortunately share a trait with some of their older, supposedly experienced colleagues: they’re proclaimers. Sitting at the back of a classroom, during the typical practice teaching moment for a job interview (something we require in our Department, along with a research presentation and a variety of other steps that comprise the typical on-campus job interview today), I’ve heard my share of candidates talk about methodological this and ontological that, hierophanies abound as do ideologies, and liminalities, and transcendental epistemologies, not to mention some post-structuralist ennui. But in the midst of the technical vocabulary I often find people who do not yet know how to teach but who, instead, are equipped only to tell people what they themselves already happen to know.

In a word, they’re proclaimers. Continue reading

Collaborative Learning?

collaborativelearning2How do you think a classroom ought to be structured? Who is the expert — is there even one? Is everyone in it together or are some speakers more authorized than others? After all, one of the people in that classroom is assessing the others — or is everyone assessing everyone else, with the same consequences on the line for all?

Consider this article:

collaborativelearningRead it all here.