The Blog Assignment: “Authentic” Learning about Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion?

In this first post of a two-part series Sharday Mosurinjohn reflects on the outcome of a new assignment that was intended to invite students to write in a way that was both familiar to their usual online communication (short and social media-based) and scholarly. The results led her to rethink the meaning of “authentic learning” (pedagogical approaches that empower learners to collaborate with one another...

By Sharday Mosurinjohn

Sharday Mosurinjohn is an Assistant Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University, Kingston, ON. She is an assistant editor for the NSRN blog. Her research uses the thought of existential cultures - religious, spiritual, and not - to theorize the aesthetic, affective, and material conditions of contexts that are marked by late modern modes of temporality and attention, information technology, and metaphysical disenchantment. Her current book manuscript and a related website project take the heuristic idea of “boredom as a spiritual crisis” in order to explore problems of meaning in an age of overstimulation. Other recent work has examined art exhibitions that use Indigenous spiritual ontologies to challenge settler canons and institutions (Brendan Fernandes’ Lost Bodies 2016; Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice 2018); considered how social justice movements that sacralize liberal humanist values trouble the boundaries between concepts like “spirituality,” “the sacred,” and “new religious movements”; and refigured the concept of enchantment for religious studies through affect theory. Together with Richard Ascough, Sharday is co-teaching a new course on religion and art that integrates their respective expertise on ancient and contemporary material culture. With a grant from Queen’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, they are researching “threshold concepts” in the study of religion. In their other research collaborations, they are engaged in theory-building in the field of affect using ancient and contemporary artefacts as touchstones.

Sharday Mosurinjohn

Sharday Mosurinjohn is an Assistant Professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University, Kingston, ON. She is an assistant editor for the NSRN blog. Her research uses the thought of existential cultures - religious, spiritual, and not - to theorize the aesthetic, affective, and material conditions of contexts that are marked by late modern modes of temporality and attention, information technology, and metaphysical disenchantment. Her current book manuscript and a related website project take the heuristic idea of “boredom as a spiritual crisis” in order to explore problems of meaning in an age of overstimulation. Other recent work has examined art exhibitions that use Indigenous spiritual ontologies to challenge settler canons and institutions (Brendan Fernandes’ Lost Bodies 2016; Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice 2018); considered how social justice movements that sacralize liberal humanist values trouble the boundaries between concepts like “spirituality,” “the sacred,” and “new religious movements”; and refigured the concept of enchantment for religious studies through affect theory.

Together with Richard Ascough, Sharday is co-teaching a new course on religion and art that integrates their respective expertise on ancient and contemporary material culture. With a grant from Queen’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, they are researching “threshold concepts” in the study of religion. In their other research collaborations, they are engaged in theory-building in the field of affect using ancient and contemporary artefacts as touchstones.

In response to:

The Blog Assignment:

“Authentic” Learning about Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion?

Sharday Mosurinjohn

In this first post of a two-part series Sharday Mosurinjohn reflects on the outcome of a new assignment that was intended to invite students to write in a way that was both familiar to their usual online communication (short and social media-based) and scholarly. The results led her to rethink the meaning of “authentic learning” (pedagogical approaches that empower learners to collaborate with one another – and in this case, professional scholars – to engage real-world complex problems) when it comes to digital information and communication technologies. In the second post, she and colleague Richard Ascough (School of Religion, Queen’s University) will discuss strengths and weaknesses in students’ digital literacy and explore how understanding one of the weaknesses might actually help us understand a particularly troublesome religious studies concept – what they consider a “threshold concept.”


One Monday late in the Winter semester I got an email from a student in my Spirituality, Secularity, and Nonreligion course that contained only the line: “So this will probably be the coolest thing to happen to me today.” She had received a note from the NSRN’s (and RSP’s) own Dr. Christopher Cotter about a reply she’d made to Madeleine Parkes’ post about secular spiritual care in hospitals. It wasn’t the ideas in her reply, exactly, that had prompted the correspondence, but rather the nature of it: it was long, cited, and, most unusually in the academic blogosphere, in tandem with several others. I was thrilled to see how excited my student was to realize that she was truly participating in a public scholarly conversation and that her participation was being recognized – but in the moment my main emotion was actually relief. When I scrolled down I saw that Chris was only “pleasantly intrigued” over the flurry of blog activity, whereas I had feared he might be “moderately annoyed” at being trolled by my fifty-odd students whom I’d set about this assignment without seeking permission from any blog administrators. Of course my student’s post wasn’t inflammatory or off-topic, but she had actually voiced her concern about being publicly critical of someone else’s scholarship, and that became the basis of digital pedagogy lesson one for me from this assignment. As the various members of the class began finding blogs of interest and making their replies, I realized that many of them were concerned about what was fair game to post – was it okay to be critical? how critical? did they have to be critical? wait, what did you say in Week 1 that “critical” really meant? But having invented this assignment new (for the first offering of a new course I had just designed) I had failed to anticipate how this kind of parallel processing (Ascough 2014) could have been built in to support one of my learning outcomes, which was “practice your scholarly writing skills … by participating in the ongoing, public conversation about topics in this field.” But before I say any more on this, I should tell you what the assignment actually was.

The “Blog Assignment” went like this:

Sign up to a topic (max. 4 students/topic) and comment on a relevant post from a list of blogs I give you. Choose one group member to be the “original commenter.”  The others will reply to that comment. Comments should be ~500 words, and include: a critical question about the material to which they are responding; a counter-argument to a claim; or a critical insight to extend an idea developed in the material. Citations should follow the format of the blog author. Post a timestamped screencap and URL in the class website forum.

I had actually thought that having my students do an assignment that took place in public as part of the “real world” of the profession would make them more careful than they might have otherwise been in the confines of the classroom, whose preparatory nature seems sometimes to lead to the tacit assumption that what’s done there is only for grades, not for the values propounded by the scholarly guild. At the very least, I supposed that the online visibility might keep certain parts of the class honest who might have otherwise phoned it in directly to me. The spectre of shame-based learning proved feeble in this case, however, and that fact remains a mystery to me. I found, for example, that all but a handful of students misidentified the author of their chosen blog as the site administrator who had posted it. This, despite there being a bio note and photograph of the scholar in each post. A few groups approached me to ask whether they could respond to a blog that was posted on a site whose description was “Backpackerverse gives you the best backpacking, hiking, and camping tips, tricks and news. You also get up to date reviews and recommendations on outdoor gear.” Just as many of the assignments turned up unpolished and riddled with typos as would have if it were an essay. Now, I know that I’m temperamentally what David Foster Wallace termed a “snoot” – a language fanatic who suffers for their love so much that, as Donovan Schaefer recently elaborated, “when I see a mistake on a page, it breaks the flow of my reading, warping my field of vision and pulling my eyes back to it. Especially when the error makes the meaning of a word or sentence truly ambiguous, I feel this strange pulse, this force compelling me to fix it, to correct” (2018, 71). But such mistakes aside, I also noticed there was no marked improvement in students availing themselves of the course content that would have helped them make their point. Why didn’t these holes trip them? Why didn’t the shabby appearance of their contributions make them blush?

I did notice, though, that pretty well everyone engaged with the substance of the blog post and the thoughts of their peers in the comments thread. So the public, collaborative element of the Blog Assignment did achieve some of its intended effects. Some students volunteered to me in conversation that they liked the opportunity to do an “unusual” assignment, though I had assumed that as unusual as it might be in terms of coursework, the task itself would be far from unusual to them. Rather, I had thought, blog commenting would fit into the way they really communicated in their day-to-day lives. But digital literacy, it turns out, means many things, just as traditional literacy does, and here is lesson two for me: just because most of my students are “digital natives” it is not the case that they have high levels of digital literacy. Or rather, it is not the case that their digital literacy reaches all corners of the digital information and communication world.

To be continued…

References

  • Ascough, Richard. 2014. “The Parallel Process.” Teaching Theology and Religion 17(4): 346-347.
  • Schaefer, Donovan O. 2018. “Beautiful Facts: Science, Secularism, and Affect.” In Feeling Religion, ed. John Corrigan, 69-92. Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

 Fund the RSP while you shop! Use an Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com affiliate link whenever you make a purchase. There’s no additional cost to you, but every bit helps us stay on the air! 

We need your support!

Want to support us directly? Become a monthly Patron or consider giving us a one-time donation through PayPal

Other EPISODES YOU MIGHT ENJOY

Embodied religious practices, child psychology and cognitive neuroscience

Podcast

Bahler discusses the notion of ritual as a locus of power in terms of structure and agency. His recent book, Childlike Peace in Levinas and Merleau-Ponty. Intersubjectivity as a Dialectical Spiral (Lexington Books, forthcoming) focuses on neuroscience to grasp the topic power relations at the confluence of religion and other social influences on one’s trajectories.
Religion and American Law

Podcast

In this interview with Brad Stoddard, Professor Eric Mazur discusses a variety of issues relating to religion and law in the USA, such as the evolving state of First Amendment jurisprudence, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, dominant trends in the study of religion and American law.
The secularization of discourse in contemporary Latin American neoconservatism

Podcast

In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a widespread in the region shaping not only the political power plays of religious institutions but the people's daily experience of the world. Recently, however, neoconservatism has managed to develop a language of its own that blends science and philosophy with historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape to become an significant religio-cultural force.
Religion and Multiculturalism in Canada and Beyond

Podcast

Through personal stories and historical accounts not always included in the telling of multiculturalism in Canada, Fletcher explores the merits of belonging. Defining the term "belonging" we learn the reality of Canadian multiculturalism and re-conceive how Canada can move forward to truly be an inclusive society. Fletcher explains the importance of her work in this book, and how is can be use by religious studies scholars in the current political landscape.
Religion After Darwin

Podcast

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species was published in 1859, and had an immediate and dramatic effect on religious narratives. Traditional religions were forced to adopt an evolutionary worldview, or to go on the offensive; whereas New Religious Movements like Wicca or New Age adopted an environmental concern as a central part of their belief. And possibly, ...
Global Flows, Local Contexts: Pentecostalism in Australia

Podcast

How are Brazil and Australia connected by global flows of Pentecostalism? In this episode, Dr. Cristina Rocha shares her work on transnational Christian communities in Australia.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The views expressed in podcasts, features and responses are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Religious Studies Project or our sponsors. The Religious Studies Project is produced by the Religious Studies Project Association (SCIO), a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (charity number SC047750).