Just about to finish up teaching my first upper-level undergraduate course: American Religious History. Given that American religion is my primary area of training in my doctoral work, this class has been loads of fun to teach, and made more enjoyable with discussion-oriented students. It is a small class, so the dynamics are certainly different than if there were, say, 40-50 students. Unfortunately, as a summer school class everything seems shorter.
In prepping for lectures, and, in general, conducting research for teaching, I want to offer thoughts on several resources, and throw it open for discussion.
I opted for a thematic approach overall, focusing mainly on the variety of religious experiences in America's past (students read Robert Orsi the first week, for instance), while the course moved chronologically. I assigned Patrick Allitt's reader, Stout's biography on Whitefield, the much-loved Kingdom of Matthias, and one of my favorite books, James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. For general background to the course I also assigned Buter, Wacker, Balmer, Religion in American Life: A Short History. In addition, two Du Bois essays came from this volume, and I assigned a few documents from Harvey and Goff's excellent reader on contemporary American religion.
Having recently read Stephen Prothero's newest book on religious literacy, and being more or less convinced of his arguments, I set out to (unscientifically) test his thesis by giving my students the first night of class his suggested religious literacy quiz. Students seemed to know more than I expected, but some of the things I thought they'd know they didn't. It was an interesting exercise, and prompted much fruitful discussion. Before taking the quiz, I had students read his Christian Science Monitor essay and then I spoke briefly about the book.
In prepping for my lecture on Islam in American religion (focusing mainly on the 18th and 19th centuries), I found several chapters in Michael Gomez's amazing Black Crescent absolutely indispensable. Gomez has done an amazing amount of archival work here, and it is a must read if you want to make key transatlantic connections for classes that deal with American or Atlantic history.
Since the class was two nights per week and went from 6-10, I broke the class up between lecture, discussion, and some form of media--either music, movie clips, or documentary segments. I showed clips from the movie Glory and Gods and Generals to highlight black and white religion during particular moments of the 19th century, for example, as well as scenes depicting Malcolm X's religious conversion from Spike Lee's important joint, while I showed segments from the new documentaries Sister Aimee, The Mormons (read more about it here) and Jonestown. I was slightly over a year old when Jonestown happened, so for those of you who have seen this documentary and remember how this event was reported at the time, feel free to offer comparisons for us in the comments. How many people know, apparently, that Jim Jones began his public career preaching racial integration in the 1950s and 1960s, and, according to the documentary, he and his wife were the first people to adopt interracial in the state of Indiana? Interesting.
I also showed several chapters from Briars in the Cottonpatch: The Story of Koinonia Farm, which prompted significant discussion. I wanted to get to the new film about the most famous hippie-for-Jesus you've never heard of, but really didn't have time. Each of these resources provided for great discussion.
In addition to students turning and presenting briefly their research papers, we will discuss megachurches and other dimensions of contemporary American religion in the final class meeting.
Feel free to chime in, and offer your own thoughts or resources on/for teaching American religious history.