Saturday, August 04, 2007

Teaching: The Art of Learning

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.


Anonymous said...


Hey Phil,

Lots of cool stuff there in that class of yours. I am familiar with a few of the the authors you mentioned such as Wacker, Balmer, Baldwin and Du Bois. I also know of Sister Aimee and the Jonestown tradegy. Sad trivia piece here. While doing some research on our family tree one of our cousins mentioned several family members who were amoung those who perished there in Guyana.

We are going to visit Koinonia Farms next week as part of our road trip to our Family Reunion in Georgia. I mentioned that infamous hippie and the controversial documentary about him on my site last year.

Being that contemporary church history is my favorite hobby, I find this stuff fascinating, to put it mildly.

Thanks for sharing this post, it was fun taking a brief excursion down memory lane.



Phil said...

Thanks for the feedback. That's amazing and tragic you had relatives in Guyana. Glad to hear about your visit to Koinonia next week; perhaps some blogposts about it in the future? I'll check out your archives to read about Frisbee.

Safe travels down to GA.


Edward Carson said...

Nice and resourceful bibliography here. I was already planning on using Prothero’s religious literacy quiz with my students this fall. I am curious to see how Christian private school and fairly church based students will do. I hope to explore some of your methods and resources on American Religion. We shall see. Here is a blog I wrote about Prothero:

Phil said...

Yes, the context of where one administers the quiz is an interesting question. It might be interesting to add some questions to the quiz as well, depending on the context. Still pondering this one.