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Students as Junior Scholars of Religion

May 20, 2010

I heard that Stanly Fish used to tell incoming freshman, “You’ve always been told that the purpose of writing an essay is to express yourselves; however, you do not as yet have selves worth expressing.” There’s something to this idea!

One of my goals as a teacher in religious studies is to help students learn to see religious traditions from the perspective of academic scholars. In part, this means that their own personal “perspective” or their prior “experiences” aren’t really welcome in the course (except in marginal ways). They are in my class precisely because their personal perspective is probably inadequate for thinking critically about religious traditions; my goal is to give them a more sophisticated interpretive framework for evaluating our course’s content.

I remind them of this from time to time: “As an academic scholar of religion—and you are all junior scholars of religion for the purposes of our course—what might you say about x?” The purpose in framing questions in this way is that I want them not to think in terms of what they personally think, but to get them to put themselves in the shoes of a scholar. Similarly, many questions take the form of: “What would Marx say about x?” or “What would Bourdieu say about x?”

My course is not designed for them to achieve enlightenment or personal fulfillment, but for them to see the world from a scholarly perspective.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2010 3:12 pm

    From following your blog for a year or so this is very interesting. Firstly, because it seems to confirm my beliefs that US American university education is a comparatively infantising experience – God help anyone who called any but the most brown tongued of British or Australian university students a “junior” anything! And, secondly, it seems that a great deal of your approach to teaching religion comes from what the Californians would call “a very personal space”.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 20, 2010 3:21 pm

    In America, colleges are basically set up to extend adolescence. I have to hand-hold my students through everything. Calling them junior is the least of our worries.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the personal space comment; I have to deal with the fact that students treat religion as a strictly “personal matter,” but I sure as hell don’t treat it as such. So I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying.

  3. larry c wilson permalink
    May 20, 2010 4:41 pm

    Every scholar has a personal bias.

  4. May 20, 2010 6:57 pm

    As a graduate student, I took a few courses from Stanley Fish and will say he is not only provocative but often right. And I think he is right about undergrads. I am in general agreement with your approach.

    In my own Anthropology of Religion course, which is chronologically oriented and attempts to locate supernatural thinking in deep (i.e., evolutionary) time and trace it to the present, I have opted for a straight lecture approach, as I have found that students’ personal/previous experiences with religion — and their strong, inchoate opinions on the subject — do not allow for much productive or open-ended discussion.

    My only concern — which is a mild one — is what Rodney Stark calls the “ancestor worship” approach to scholarship, in which much revered figures such as Marx, Durkheim, Freud, Weber, etc., are seen as major authorities and uncritically followed. All these figures, including my own favorite Nietzsche, were wrong about many things, so asking “What would Nietzsche/Marx say about x” may be a thoughtful conversation starter but should not be a discussion finisher.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 20, 2010 8:36 pm

    Cris, yes, I often lecture—for much the same reasons you mention. About your concern: I know what you mean, and I try to be aware of that. I don’t think I idolize these thinkers in my intro course—in fact, I often point out weaknesses that some of these thinkers have. It’s definitely an important concern to be sensitive to.

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