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.

Two Roads Diverged…

Reslan Aslan, on the CNN show, Believer, speaking with a Hindu asceticI’m on a panel, at a national conference this November, assessing the contributions of the late Huston Smith, so I’m re-reading some things that I’ve not read in a long time — such as his 1958 book, The Religions of Man (which, in one or another edition, has been in print ever since it was first published).

Book cover of Huston Smith's 1958 book, The Relgiions of Man Continue reading

Another Good Book with Prof. Michael Altman

good-book-mike

The tenth installment in our A Good Book series is now on vimeo! This episode revisits Prof. Michael Altman as he shares yet another influential book, The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa. Be sure to give it a watch!

Another Good Book with Prof. Altman from UA Religious Studies.

What It Gives With One Hand….

timeenoughI found this over at the Huffington Post this morning — an announcement for a new HarvardX (part of edX) course on religious literacy.

The course is described as follows: Continue reading

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… Continue reading

A Response to “Responsible Research Practices,” Part 4: Research on Human Subjects

Picture 18This is an installment in an ongoing series on the American Academy of Religion’s recently released draft statement on research responsibilities.
An index of the
complete series (updated as each
article is posted) can be found here.

The previous post ended by citing the fourth of Bruce Lincoln’s “Theses on Method” — specifically, his call for scholars always to contextual, historicize, what they study by asking “who speaks here?” and “to what audience?” Among my difficulties with the AAR’s draft document is that it reads as if its authors had never read or taken seriously comments on the field such as Lincoln’s. Again, while I have no idea what debates took place between the members — or better yet, what compromises were required — reading their draft’s second bullet point’s advice that we “promote good” by, among other things, “telling the truth” flies in the face of Lincoln’s own widely read thoughts on what we ought to be doing in this field when we do research. Continue reading