Our Pre- & Inter- Pandemic Teaching was Never “Normal” (p.s. nor our post-pandemic teaching, too!)

Two Perspectives

I wish to talk about specific methods I and my colleagues adopted for pre-, inter and post-pandemic teaching.* I come at this with two perspectives:

  1. Teaching – As a freshly-tenured professor of religious studies at a public, R1 university (University of Alabama). My current research coordinates and publishes research with the Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion project.
  2. Administration – As the faculty technology liaison for UA’s college of arts and sciences. I consult 1:1 with faculty on teaching technologies, supervise quality assurance for online course development of all departments’ online courses, participate on campus tech/computing committees, and organize faculty development events. I also moderate the Teaching Hub, a site for faculty voices on teaching and learning.

Pre-pandemic in Alabama, I helped arrange for Todd Taylor and the Adobe team visit our campus on February 7, 2020. They introduced the potential of Creative Cloud for higher-ed to a group of over 200 faculty, staff, and administrators. On March 13, our university president announced suspended on-campus teaching, and on March 17 2020 announced “limited business operations,” requiring remote work for everyone except mission-critical employees. That’s when the inter-pandemic period began.

To be honest, the changes in course delivery and teaching did not substantively circumstances for everyone at UA. In particular, several of my departmental colleagues didn’t experience a radical shift in what we were already doing. I was teaching REL490 “Artificial Intelligence in Religious Studies” in Spring 2020. My last in-person class session established how we would complete the course while dispersed across the country.

Our department didn’t fully realize just how ‘prepared’ we were for inter-pandemic teaching, which we sorted out through the summer. Most everyone at UA made the shift online quite smoothly compared to news I heard from other campuses. UA had already learned some difficult lessons before “2020.”

Academic Continuity Before “2020”

Why were we prepared? Very tragically, Tuscaloosa experienced a devastating tornado  on April 27, 2011. That day in Alabama saw 62 tornados kill 253 people, injure thousands, and destroy many homes. Among them were UA staff, faculty and students. On-campus activities were suspended. All faculty were tasked with finding ways to close out the semester.

Natural disasters are more visible than pandemics. Just a few years prior, UA established shelters and classes for students from institutions affected by Hurricane Katrina. The trauma of 2011 lead to extensive “academic continuity” preparations. IT offices were tasked to continually find ways to harden physical systems, ensure data storage, and enable distributed work. Each college set up planning groups. Since my hiring in 2015, each semester involved college-wide exercises designed to test our capabilities for “suspended operations” (e.g. staff and/or faculty would be required to work off-campus).

Going Public Online Pre-Pandemic

My department was prepared in another way, too. In 2001 our program was declared “non-viable” by its governing body. Religious studies at UA was in trouble. Russell McCutcheon, my department chair, outlines what happened in his article. The department began a process of continually reinventing itself. McCutcheon calls it ‘staying nimble.’ I joined the department long after these ‘staying nimble’ days began. Looking back, my faculty perspective allows me to see how REL’s pre-pandemic strategies came into play inter-pandemic – which is where we are currently. These strategies will continue to be useful strategies for our post-pandemic futures.

As an academic unit, REL’s made a strategic shift to 1) go public online, and 2) use that online public persona to collect and sustain a local community. The rationale was survival. Building a local community by going public speaks to what our discipline has to offer a flagship university.

Going public online developed distributed expertise about online media across the faculty. We did not necessarily develop expertise in LMS/CMS content delivery. Administrators are mistaken to think ‘going online’ means ‘online teaching.’ The desire for another revenue stream obscures taking a broader, long-term perspective. None of our courses are “flipped” in the trendy sense of the word. We apply social theory concretely to our strategy for online presence.

As I understand it, the department’s strategy is to continually develop online presence with a suite of interconnected online platforms (e.g. WordPress sites, Soundcloud, Vimeo, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and most recently, Minecraft).

Presidents hall in minecraft and real life

The objectives are to:

  • attract new students to our courses
  • recruit majors (p.s. few to no students ever declare “religion” majors when applying for college…)
  • highlight student and faculty achievements
  • have fun and develop camaraderie
  • find new ways to “stay nimble”
  • listen for the voices of current students and alumni

The inter-pandemic outcome of going public online was a faculty already working to sustain community through a variety of online environments. Our recent Honors Day video highlights all of the above.

Inter-Pandemic Teaching

The above applied directly to my Fall 2021 course, REL502 “Public Humanities and Religious Studies.” 502 is a microcosm of REL, where students develop their media skills to convey our department’s motto: studying religion in culture.

“…work in the Department highlights the manner in which those behaviors and institutions named as religion are elements of ordinary cultural practices.”

REL courses teach there is no ‘normal.’ Nothing is ‘natural.’ Our students learn how group and social dynamics structure ‘normal’ and ‘natural.’ As McCutcheon says, We Really Can’t Afford to Go Back to Normal. REL502 teaches students this structurally reflexive approach for going public online.

The 502 syllabus is designed to teach attitudes and skills oriented towards public pedagogy. Since 2018, we team-taught 502 using a host of digital mainstays for the course:

  1. A WordPress site hosting the syllabus and course schedule.
  2. Slack channel for inter-session preparation, communications, and debriefing.
  3. Adobe Creative Cloud tools to experiment with a variety of media and platforms (both mobile and desktop apps).

a slack dialogue among students

N.B. Students gave permission for their names and work to be shared from our Slack channel, as well as for the video at the conclusion of this post.

Making the inter-pandemic shift was somewhat simple. Instead of huddling around laptops in a seminar room, I live-streamed, weekly class sessions to demonstrate and workshop through screen-sharing.

Among the mainstays for creating a learning community were the live-streamed sessions and Slack (many of my colleagues had success with Discord, too). I used Slack for:

  • student advice posted on slackPre-class prompts (which ultimately are pre-assignment prompts) to guide the class search for examples to review and thereby assemble our methods for critical evaluation of content, form, and practice.
  • Post-class summaries of what we learned and wish to carry forward.
  • Encouragement, relevant news, and resources for our media experiments.
  • Posting the experiments as links and/or embedded content.
  • Sharing reflections on process and lessons-learned for each experiment.

Our class community is not restricted to “2020.” All four years of class cohorts use the same channel. I encourage each cohort to search back through the channel. I cannot understand the effects of current students seeing previous conversations, experiments, struggles, work-arounds and outcome. And previous students sometimes chime in on the current class to offer encouragement and suggestions.

The Results of “Never Normal” Teaching

Did it work? Yes. From the get-go REL502 – and all my other courses since 2009 – are designed from the principles I once called “effective social learning.” Shifting a course already designed for distributed online collaboration to live-streamed sessions is not logistically difficult (Here’s how a colleague used Github and Discord). The primary liability was the processing power of students’ desktops.

student comment about processing problems

Perhaps the best way to conclude is with a series of snapshots from REL502:

* Parts of this post are adapted from my presentation at the Post-pandemic University conference at the University of Cambridge in October 2020.

How Not to Reinvent Yourself

Sierra Lawson is a BA and MA graduate of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama who is now pursuing her Ph.D. in the study of religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. In this post she reflects on how, as a TA, she’s using a model of the field we’ve come to call the examples approach.

As someone who describes their research interests as investigating claims about Marian devotion in modern Latin America, you can imagine my surprise upon being assigned a teaching assistantship in Hebrew Bible this semester. Continue reading

Getting the Party Started on Syllabus Day

The first day of class can be a bit nerve-racking, even for profs. One might think that profs have it easy at the start of the semester, but we all know the importance of first impressions. And for myself, there can be a lot of anxiety around those initial activities.

  • How much of the syllabus should we read? I don’t want to bore anyone, but I don’t want students starting out lost.
  • Do we dive right into content? The semester can really fly, so there’s no time to delay. I also don’t want to scare students off or have to re-teach material for those who won’t be joining our course until the second or third class session.
  • We could do an icebreaker? I like the sentiment, yet something doesn’t feel right about this either?

There are a lot of different directions one could go on Day One. And last week I approached the start of my REL100 introductory course by working “backwards.”

I thought a bit about some of Ellie Cochran’s reflections about her time as an REL major. One thing that I kept coming back to in her blog posts was how the kinds of questions she came to ask toward the end of her time were not at all that different from the sort that many students have when they first enroll in a course. By degree’s end she had more tools  for conceptualizing and investigating these questions–leading to more and more questions. Hints of that curiosity are there from the beginning.

So how might we take advantage of that kind of curiosity from the jump?

One way to absolutely not do this is to turn the course into a study of trivia and factoids.

Choose Your own Religion Wheel: A Guide to the Savvy Convert

More than a few Religious Studies profs have one of these in their office.

I found it at Spencer Gifts gif from the Office

This is true. I found mine at the mall.

The wheel gives you data like the number of adherents, how the religion frames the afterlife, material culture, pros, cons, and a quick description of beliefs. Although all that information has its place and may be potentially interesting to students, I think they are savvy enough to know that a 15-week course on those things as an end (rather than a means) may be a lemon of an education.

So the question for me became how do I short-circuit any attempt to turn the class into a trip on the Wheel-o-Religion.

Now for whatever reason, when I think about my scholarship, I often come back took a classic Paul Mooney bit remarking on “the N-word.” Commenting on Americans’ simultaneous obsession with and aversion to talking about race, Mooney once remarked,

“Everybody wants to be a “N—–,” but nobody wants to be a N—–.”

Like many jokes, it surfaces the conditions on the way we make meaning. In the joke. In fewer than 15 words, Mooney relays an ethnographic observation to poke at the power dynamics, psychology, and history of race. I’m no comedian, but I’d be thrilled with those kind of results from a 75-minute class.

So instead of the Wheel-o-Religion, I riffed on Mooney’s bit:

“Everybody wants to talk about religion, but nobody wants to talk about religion.”

Then we broke it down, discussing the first question and then the second one.

I was pretty amazed by the depth of questions I got. The conversation was so riveting that I didn’t have time to snap a photo. I ended the class with one final discussion question:

What do we need to discuss this semester so that this course is not a waste of time?

Perhaps the most remarkable thing was how at no point did the questions turn to google-able answers. No trivia. No factoids.

So as the semester gets going. Let’s be a little a nervous. Let’s get a little curious. And let’s see where good questions take us. I hardly think that doing so would be a waste of our time.

Anakin Skywalker saying, "This is where the fun begins."

Are you a Religious Studies prof? Tell us what you did for your first day.

Spotlighting Graduating MA Students

Emma Gibson and Sierra Lawson have spent the last two years developing their skills in research, social theory, and the public and digital humanities among other useful accomplishments. This spring, both students will graduate with a Master’s of Arts in Religion in Culture and plan to put their analytical tools to work as they further their education. Emma will pursue a Master’s of Architecture while Sierra earns a Ph.D. in Religious Studies. Find out what these young women have planned after graduation.

Continue reading

Prof. Altman Works with APAEP

Religious Studies Professor Michael Altman will be teaching with the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Project (APAEP) once a week this spring semester. He will be leading a course titled Religion in America to incarcerated students at the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, AL. Continue reading

More Isn’t Necessarily Better: Some Thoughts on the Job Search Process

Another job search season is upon us and, not yet knowing if our Department will be lucky enough to search for a new tenure track line (this year I submitted requests for two, in fact), I thought I’d offer a little unsolicited advice to people on the job market (and simultaneously solicit anyone else with experience on search committees in our field to contact me to consider writing a guest blog for our site, reflecting on these very issues from their point of view).

In case it doesn’t go without saying, let me me clear: the advise is idiosyncratic (for this is how I see things) but, for people on the other side of all those online application systems, maybe it’ll still provide a helpful insight into how at least some people go about the work of finding a new colleague.

Continue reading

Taco Insights on Faculty Service

With the start of another school year right around the corner I’m thinking about service — one of those three main areas into which scholars usually divide up their work (the others being research and teaching, of course — and the order in which they’re written is not insignificant). It’s not hard to find faculty posting on social media bemoaning committee work, as if it gets in the way of a professor’s real work, but I’m here to say how important it is to the long term well-being of a Department — the primary unit that helps to make possible those individual careers. Continue reading

#RELResearch: Professors Simmons, Loewen, and Altman Publish Together

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If you pick up the most recent issue of the venerable journal Method and Theory in the Study of Religion you will find three essays from REL faculty discussing the recently published Norton Anthology of World Religion. Rather than a simple review of the multivolume work, the essays from Merinda Simmons, Nathan Loewen, and Mike Altman consider what the publication of the anthology means for the larger field of religious studies. Each essay puts the anthology into a larger context of how scholars research and teach about religion. Curious what they said? Abstracts and links for the essays are below. Continue reading

We Are the Beneficiaries

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As I sit here making the Spring 2017 class schedule for our department I recall the many times that I’ve heard academics lament being involved in administration. (That they equally complain about no longer being much involved in the governance of their institutions is an irony too rich to overlook.) “My condolences” is the witty reply many offer when learning that a colleague has fallen on the dagger (yes, that’s how it is portrayed) of becoming a department chair, coupled with such profuse congratulations at news of one stepping down as to make you think that it was equivalent to having your wrongful conviction overturned. Continue reading

Check Out All of Our Class Blogs

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Did you notice the new tab on the menu at the top of our blog? That one up there that says “Class Blogs?” Well, many of our classes in REL use blogs so students can use their critical thinking skills in public. That new “Class Blogs” tab takes you to page where you can find all of our class blogs from this year’s REL 490 course to an Honors History of Religions in America course in Spring 2014. Check out the all of our great student content!

 

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