Posts

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk,Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, ritual paraphernalia, model airplanes, and more.

The First Rule of Adjuncting is…

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.[1]

The second rule of adjuncting is… you don’t talk about adjuncting!

If you have seen the film Fight Club, a visually stunning piece based on Chuck Palhnuik’s book by the same title which savagely critiques modern consumerism, you know that I am making a link here between this film and the role of the adjunct in American higher education. In the film, this underground fraternal club revolves around cage-fighting style matches between two men in abandoned warehouses. These brutal bouts act as therapy for these men who feel emasculated by modern consumer culture. What does that have to do with adjuncting? Nothing and everything.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

If you have read my two pieces on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, then you know I have recently come out of the closet as an adjunct. You may not know what an adjunct is. Here is a blurb where I explain the adjunct plight in higher education.

An adjunct is a part-time knowledge worker who teaches 76% of all college courses in the US. We are contract workers (picking up jobs by the semester or year), transient populations (going where the jobs are), we rarely get benefits, are rarely hired in full-time capacity (because this would require we receive benefits), and we often don’t know if we will have work from semester to semester. Many of us have PhDs; some of us, like myself, only have a MA degree. Many of us have written for esteemed journals, published alongside tenured professors, and even written our own books.”

The closest equivalent in the U.K. is perhaps the fixed term temporary lecturer who primarily teaches. This is not to be confused with the more esteemed lecturer position which is more open-ended, fairly stable, and allows for both teaching and research. It seems there is a great deal of confusion regarding nomenclature even within similar systems. In the U.S., students and parents often have no idea how an adjunct (limited term, lowly paid, MA or PhD, instructor with few research opportunities) is different from other faculty… such as full professors (not limited term, well paid, PhD, who usually teaches and does research the rest of the time). Students only see what we do in the classroom… often they assume that those teaching their classes are not part of this underclass, if they even are aware such an underclass exists. Adjuncts don’t usually complain about their situation because they are already living month to month… and they can’t risk getting fired. This allows departments to pay them less and less. The tide is shifting though. Today, adjuncts are fighting for benefits, better wages, and representation in the university. In many small community colleges, adjuncts make up the majority of the faculty and work in less than ideal conditions (no benefits, low wage, no offices or shared offices, and no way to get out). In these cases, the 76% number rings true… where adjuncts teach a majority of the classes. In more prestigious state schools, like where I taught the last two years, about 17% are adjunct (this number is based only on part-time faculty). The count of annual contracted adjuncts is much harder to ascertain. I am sure you can imagine why, no college wants to advertise their use of this contingent labor. Some thinkers warn that the continued corporatization of the American academy is systematically undermining the values of higher education. Even Congress is worried.

So now that you know we exist and that you know that I was one (I taught 52 courses in 10 years at 3 different Georgia universities and colleges) I will explain why you might not have known that I was an adjunct.

Simple…I didn’t want you to know.

Why would I hide my identity as an adjunct? Hello_my_name_is_AdjunctM-773510

1. Fear: Speaking out makes your employers look bad. The first rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting. The second rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting! Why? Because if you talk about being underpaid, having no health insurance or benefits, no representation or recourse in administration, your department will be shamed by this disclosure (as they should be) and there will be retribution. I, like other adjuncts, who are disclosing what has happened to them, fear losing our current jobs and we fear that speaking up will make us social and professional pariah. We fear retribution. We also know that by disclosing this information we are burning bridges… I most certainly cannot ask for a letter of recommendation from a department which I have critiqued for unethical employment practices.

2. Shame: Speaking out makes you look bad. I never introduced myself as an adjunct because adjuncting is seen as the dying lands for academic stragglers. It is a job which slowly squeezes out the undesirables from academia. This is a way of culling the herd in the academic world. To say you are an adjunct is to risk being viewed in this negative light. If you are an adjunct, full-time professors want to know why you are an adjunct. They want to know what is wrong with you. If you are a perpetual adjunct, you must be damaged goods. Academia is a lot like high school… who you know, who you sit with, work with, present with… is indicative of your own academic status. Many academics only want to associate with other academics that can raise their scholarly stock. Associating with an adjunct might make your scholarly stock plummet.

So why would I speak out? Why say anything, if it is in my best interest to be silent?

It is no longer in my best interest to be silent. I tried that route and it didn’t work. I have decided to leave adjunct teaching. After all that work, I have finally had it. I had my Towanda moment. I like to call it my Breaking Bad moment… minus the whole becoming a homicidal drug lord part. Once I saw that my department was now hiring annual contracted ‘lecturers’ (PhDs who will teach full-time for up to seven years before a possibility of promotion to senior lecturers), I realized that now that departments could get PhDs to teach classes for pennies on the dollar, they would not need me. Oh they would continue to hire me on a part-time basis semester to semester when these lecturers leave two weeks before the semester starts for a better job. I would still not get benefits. I still wouldn’t be able to even cobble together a living by teaching, tutoring/ etc. at various state schools. I would still need to get a signed letter every single semester from my department so I could check out books from the school library.

adjuncts-e1342612896160

I may be leaving adjunct teaching for a living wage and benefits but I am not leaving academia. I love higher education but I can no longer pretend to be blind to the exploitation in my midst, to the exploitation happening to me. I love to teach, write, and research about religion but the cost of this part-time living is too high. I am personable, resilient, skilled, published, and highly educated… and now fully employed. Most adjuncts are so crippled, emotionally, finically, and physically… that by asking them to fight back you have only given them another job… another job for which they won’t be paid, a job which will likely get them fired and shunned.

I will still speak for adjuncts.

I am breaking the first rule and the second rule of adjuncting.


[1] *editors note: ‘Adjunct’ is a term used in America to denote a college professor who typically has the same and/or greater teaching responsibilities as a tenured professor at a university, but lacks anything even approaching the job security, benefits and stipend of a tenured professor. As Kate has mentioned, 76% of all college courses in the US are taught by adjuncts. Even many PhD’s are adjuncts. As the number of tenured teaching positions in academia continues to shrink, it is likely that most wishing to at least ‘earn a living wage’ will either have to find jobs outside academia altogether, or accept being a contingent laborer who not only teaches but has to compete with the very students they teach for jobs at a local pub for minimum wage – just to make ends meet. You should care about adjuncts for many reasons, but as tenure positions appear more like pipe dreams it’s likely that, if an academic career is your dream, you yourself may be in a similar position one day trying to make ends meet.

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

There be Spoilers Here: Durkheim, ‘Breaking Bad,’ and the Uncertainty of Religious Theory

Have you been watching ‘Breaking Bad’?

It had been six years since Professor Strenski and I had spoken.  Six years since I sat in the back of his Method and Theory course at UC Riverside, and since I had first read his Thinking about Religion.  I had recently decided to ‘apply myself,’ had returned to ‘academia,’ gotten lost on the way toward a very rewarding degree in Art History, and was, for the first time, learning about the varying methods and theories of religious study.  It was in that class where I first heard of Emile Durkheim.  As I would discover later, Professor Strenski’s style of teaching, the way he explained that particular Frenchman’s social theory, about his unified system of beliefs, his elementary forms, was different from the usual method.  Rather than merely prattle on about relative-to-sacred–this, and set-apart-that, Professor Strenski taught us about the man.  Biography was the key.  Knowing why Durkheim defined religion as he did, rather than just how, would give us a fuller understanding, a clearer focus, on the subtle elements binding his definition to his distinct worldview.  

The question of whether I had been watching ‘Breaking Bad’ had two parts: had I seen the most recent episode; and was I able to watch the show at all while living in Scotland?  My answer was in the affirmative—though I chose not to share with him the ‘quasi-legal’ means of my viewing.  He responded with an excited smile and we talked a moment about the writing, the plot points leading up to the finale, the inevitable demise of Walter White.

When I think back on it, one thing I truly enjoyed about Professor Strenski’s book—as well as his teaching style—was his ability to tangentially veer off topic while not losing complete track of the subject at hand.  Tangents, I have always felt, are the instructor’s greatest tool.  Not only do they assist in keeping the student’s attention, but as metaphor, paint the instruction in different hues than mere black and white.  For instance, when we look at the underlying components of Durkheim’s theory of religion, his idea about ‘God and Society,’ it becomes reducibly contextualized by means of the socially problematic milieu of his academic upbringing.  In his Thinking about Religion, Strenski emphasizes this influence by exploring the political backdrop against which Durkheim spent his “formative years:” a France sunk in national depression; the eastern départements of Alsace and Lorraine lost to the Prussians in the defeat of Napoleon III in 1871; a “national humiliation and desire for revenge;” all of this especially significant to a young secular Jew growing up on France’s eastern border with Imperial Germany.[1]  It is not difficult, then, to follow these sociological actions toward Durkheim’s equal and opposite reaction from “traditional religious loyalties” toward becoming a “truly religious devotee of France.”[2]  We see here the origins, the chemical elements combined to form in Durkheim’s theory a focus toward establishing a “secure and viable social order in modern France.”[3]  Society, social structure, sociability, all necessary components in establishing not just an identity, but a national dignity, a challenging cohesion of social and individual; these things were etched into Durkheim’s psyche as he wrote his notable texts, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).  

We focused our discussion on the writing, on the elegance and patience demonstrated in Vince Gilligan’s unwillingness to rush the narrative along.  How his use of music, of song lyrics, revealed a sort of meta-narrative.  Ours were isolated voices.  Upon hearing my colleague in the study of all things Atheism, Chris Cotter, would be doing an interview with the Professor who introduced me to Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Weber, et al. at the joint BASR/EASR in Liverpool, I insisted he pass along my regards.  More than that, Mr. Cotter ensured we’d have a few moments to catch up.  Having enjoyed the conference’s gala dinner, the Professor and I withdrew ourselves from the dining hall/college bar for a quiet space to recollect.  Once alone, I noticed our American accents no longer seemed so alien.  In our short discussion, even on ‘Breaking Bad,’ it was pleasurably refreshing to hear a similar accent, an analogous vernacular returned back to me.  We had created, in our brief chat concerning an American drama about a chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin, a sort of fusion of consciences: two Americans, in England, at a joint European and British conference on Religion, Migration, and Mutation enjoying a shared and direct experience, an isolated circle of ‘home.’  Our conversation turned to themes in the narrative.  He remarked about the ‘science’ in the show, the metaphor of Walter White referring to himself as Heisenberg, the oft-misunderstood principle about uncertainty.  We returned to whether ‘Heisenberg’ would die in the final episode.  Would all his scheming, his obsession with ‘taking care of his family,’ his murders and mayhem, actually pay off in the end?  Or, more likely, was this all leading to the only possible conclusion: his death, either by the cancer choking his lungs, or through the choices he had made in the last two years of his life?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beM28FLdAzk]

Concerning Durkheim’s social theory of religion, Strenski demarcates two views: a reductionist and a non-reductionist reading.  The former reveals a rather clear reduction of the “object” of religion to society.  As a consequence, Durkheim believed that “religious experiences” were really just “misperceived experiences of social forces.”[4]  Thus, there is “no experience of God”—at least none that we could prove—but rather “shared and direct experiences of society,” the power of which “feels” like an experience of God.[5]  In the context of ‘identity,’ Strenski labels this reading as ‘D1’ for Durkheim no. 1.  ‘God≡Society.’[6]  Concerning causation, this equation concludes that the “underlying reality of religious experience,” and thus the “nature of God,” is society.  In contrast, the non-reductionist reading, a mirrored perspective of the first, flips the equation: ‘Society≡God.’  Durkheim no. 2 expresses “nothing less” than the idea that society has a “religious, or at the very least, spiritual, nature.”[7] 

Our conversation was brief, but cordial.  He was departing the conference early and I had at least two more bottles of wine to ingest.  Yet, all that evening, and into the hangover of the next day, I kept thinking about the implications of the subject of our chat.  Walter White—‘Heisenberg’—argued from the very beginning that chemistry was the study of change, not matter.  It was the study of growth and decay, of transformation, migration, mutation.  Even up to his almost perfectly composed death, Walter White believed he was actively involved in the physical study of change.  Cancer, chemotherapy, cooking, wealth, power, murder, and eventual termination.  These elements formed his social milieu, his split identity, his life’s continuing uncertainty.  If nothing else, I suppose my conversation with Professor Strenski further reminded me that uncertainty is indeed a universal principle.  The more we focus on and attempt to understand a thing (the position), the farther we get from actually making any sense of it (its momentum).  Durkheim witnessed this, and I believe we see it repeated over and over in the context of religious study.  As we think about religion, then think about thinking about religion, then so on and so forth, we engage in a trans-generational discourse, a social discussion that enigmatically matches the very theories we seek to understand.  We become, in that very process, aspects of those theories, especially in the ways we translate them, teach them to each other, engage in tangents.  The more we change, the more they change, the less certain an original meaning ever seems possible.  Perhaps, then, Durkheim was right.  Perhaps my shared and direct experience with Professor Strenski, two Americans abroad, discussing a culturally popular, and truly ‘American’ drama, formed some sort of experience of God.  Perhaps our experience is an ideal example, a tangent, on how one might explain Durkheim’s theory of equating society to God and vice versa. 

I’m not entirely certain.  Perhaps it’s best to think on it a bit more. 

Readings

  • Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion.  Malden: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, John A. Spaulding and George Simpsons, trans.  New york: Free Press, 1979
  • Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Carol Cosman, trans.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Werner Heisenberg. “On the Perceptual Content of Quantum Theoretical Kinematics and Mechanics.” Zeitschrift für Physik, Vol. 43 (1927): 172-198. English Translation by John A. Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, eds. Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983: 62-84.
  • Vince Gilligan, Creator, Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-5, Produced by AMC.

[1] Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 290.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 295.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, the ‘≡’ symbol here denotes in physics, particularly in relation to an identity, a sense of equality.  See also Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 295.

[7] Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 296.

Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

mec2As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 8 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online (6 May 2013)

This podcast explores the nature of learning within online learning and the benefits and disadvantages of this type of curricular design. The interview was conducted with Doe N Daughtrey an instructor at Arizona State University and at Mesa Community College. While her work falls within a wide range of topics from Mormonism to new forms of spirituality, she speaks to the student and instructor experience of teaching online courses, particularly within the field of Religious Studies. Certainly the online medium in Higher Education has grown exponentially over the past 10 years.  As an instructional tool, it creates some new challenges for the instructor never before encountered within academia. An obvious example noted by Daughtrey is in relation to student interactions within discussion boards. In more traditional classrooms, students are cognizant of their behavior and their exchanges with other students. However, within the virtual world, students appear more bold and vocal in their opinions. Some students struggle not only with writing but proper projection within writing. When writing and responding to fellow students in an online forum, students may not be mindful of others perception. It is difficult for the instructor to instill in students a cultural sensitivity of others who are different from the student.  Congruently, the instructor also has to deal with the permanency of such exchanges as textual exchanges. In a traditional classroom, such exchanges, if they do occur, come and go and the instructor can immediately address and correct inappropriate behavior. Another issue addressed by Daughtrey is the issue of time as related to the course. In traditional classroom exchanges, students and the instructor are in a space together for a specific time frame (McKeachie, 1999). In the online world, the exchanges can be potentially 24 hours depending on the availability of each student and instructor. As far as inappropriate exchanges are concerned, students can have heated or controversial disagreements during times when the instructor is not online to monitor the exchange. Much can happen during that period of time with the potential to spiral into a much larger situation before the instructor is able to intervene.

In addressing such issues and concerns, Daughtrey implies that the textual space of the online course creates a communicative void typically filled with body language and voice inflection in traditional classrooms. As a potential solution to such situations, Daughtrey has used voice recordings in lieu of textual responses for her students. This at least provides the students with her voice inflection in which to infer intention from her feedback. She notes that this has been helpful in her online courses. Another solution Daughtrey proposes is for students to keep a private online journal of their thoughts. This helps keep sensitive discussions and thoughts out of the online forums insuring smoother online courses.  Finally one of the other telling themes of Daughtrey’s podcast is the limitation of online resources for Religious Studies courses. Daughtrey argues that there are many online resources which can assist in the construction of online courses, but that there is no content specific support for Religious Studies. Such support would help in the delivery of student education. She suggests that more should be done to address content and curricular issues in detail.

In reviewing this podcast, there are a couple of issues which arise. I think it is important to provide the reader with my own background here, as much of the conversation speaks to experience and not simply to instructional design and implementation. My own education has been a nexus of three fields of study: Psychology, Religious Studies, and Education. Much like Dr. Daughtrey, I have taught online courses in a variety of fields including Religious Studies online. Many of the concerns that she notes within the podcast are a common theme in teaching Religious Studies at a secular institution. Certainly when coupled with a largely conservative religious landscape among the student body, issues of ontology will certainly arise. Online learning provides a much more personal space in which to communicate opinions and ideas. In this regard, some students may assume that radical opinions and a lack of social mindfulness have no implications. For instructors such assumptions create issues. Certainly the formality and etiquette of the classroom may not translate into the online medium of instruction. I would propose an alternative method for addressing such issues. Many of the concerns related to behavior and content are related to the asynchronous method of online instruction. This method is called asynchronous because the content is unidirectional. For example discussion boards, YouTube videos, even this Podcast is an example of a unidirectional delivery of information. Its antithesis is called synchronous learning. It is a real time exchange of information. Examples of this might be a video conference on Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, a live chat room in real time, or even a phone conversation.  I would suggest that online instruction should be a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous delivery models for optimal learning. Certainly if a university does not have the resources for synchronous online instruction, there are some free open source alternative programs to assist an inspiring instructor.  This at least allows the interaction between student and teacher and presents information in a traditional format of instruction. Instructors can then project their personality into their instruction beyond a textual exchange. Moreover, students can interact in real time learning the social expectations of the instructor.  This is important when considering the challenges of teaching a controversial topic such as religion (Carlson and Blumenstyk, 2012).

While religion is a social norm for many in the United States and beyond, certainly social norms and classroom culture are a complex issue for many instructors. Not all students ascribe to a post-modern paradigm of different yet equal among the growing multicultural and multiethnic American and Western European populations. Some regard their coexistence with those who view religion or even race differently as a necessary evil of public education. Much of the confusion noted by Daughtrey in regards to online education is that the online world may be implicitly perceived as our private space of interaction, where the rules and values we ascribe to within daily interactions do not apply in the online discussion board. We as instructors are no longer simply Teachers or Professors but a combination of Information Technology Professionals and Cultural Advocates all wrapped into one role. While I cannot speak to the religious landscape of Arizona, I can speak to the Southeastern United States. I, too, teach in secular college and university. Much of the curricular agenda is dependent on accreditation and course objectives.  Still, instructors must create the perception of value for Religious Studies education and encourage students to learn more about the world in which they live. In my own courses, such discussions are heated simply because religion is equated with Christianity. The idea that other religions would be academically equal to Christianity can be offensive to some students. For many of my students, religion is a form of personal identity. It is who we are, not simply a belief or what we do. Many cannot compartmentalize it or objectify their belief. Therefore to have such discussions, academic or otherwise, requires a new paradigm of behavior and inquiry in religion’s examination by students. This type of student internalization of religious identity and perceived threat is not limited to the field of Religious Studies.  For example, a colleague of mine and psychologist of religion Michael Nielsen at Georgia Southern had a similar experience.  As Nielsen (2012) has noted, many students come to courses on religious topics either assuming the content will confirm their ontological position or to argue for their belief as the dominant truth. Nielsen’s perspective is but one of many examples where students do not understand the overall curricular purpose and goal of academic explorations of religion. They want to internalize it in some way.

This Podcast primarily focuses on instructional issues related to teaching Religious Studies online. These issues are certainly juxtaposed within the secular state-run institution of higher learning. It is likely that there are differences in the liberal arts and religiously affiliated styles of Higher Education. I would suggest that they likely differ in their curricular goals depending on the overall mission of the college or university. It is unclear how these differences translate in online learning and education. Certainly, it would have been interesting if Dr. Daughtrey would have addressed such differences within her podcast. Additionally, I am left with the question of curricular structure. What are some of the different ways Religious Studies are taught and the resources which may be available to a new instructor charged with online learning? It would be nice to see a conversation which goes beyond the politics of religious identity and online learning (although this is certainly an interesting topic overall).  With differences in Religious Studies educational theory, there may yet be another layer to the instructional onion we call religious education. With these criticisms in mind, this is not to say that the experiential perspective is not useful in education. In fact, this is the meat of an instructional design model. As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction. While one may argue that a good instructor should always be learning, there is likely a point of diminishing returns in which the instructor is expending energy in acquiring new instructional skillsets such as the various Online Learning Systems (OLS) while also tracking and evaluating student performance within their course. Professors may not have the time to devote to learning all the features of OLS and therefore the overall instructional product may suffer from skillset limitations. Additionally, institutions may be tempted to increase enrollment in online classes to save money, further diverting the instructor from exploring their research areas as well as gaining additional OLS skills. So certainly the economics of online learning play a role here too.

There is no doubt that OLS models of learning have benefits and disadvantages in academia. As a former Information Technology Professional and, typically, an early adopter of new technologies, I view online learning with circumspect. If it is to be incorporated, it should be a hybrid delivery model with classroom and online time for the students. If that is not possible, then the instructional design should include synchronous and asynchronous delivery of material. Evaluation of student performance is not simply about assignment quality and test accuracy, but it is about the real-time monitoring of learning, the observation of the student as they make their academic journey. Online learning loses the thrill of watching students achieve their “Aha” moments. There needs to be a technological solution found to incorporate the human aspects of the classroom in online learning.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

mec2Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu. He is also an Assistant Editor at the Religious Studies Project, and has conducted a number of interviews, and previously written the piece A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning for the website.

References

  • McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Nielsen, M. (2012). Teaching Psychology of Religion at a state university. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Newsletter, 36(2), 2-5.
  • Carlson, S. & Blumenstyk, G. (2012). For Whom is college being reinvented? The Chronicle of Higher Education. 59(17).

Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online

Doe DaughtreyAs online communications technologies become more pervasive and sophisticated, this provides new opportunities and challenges for the creation of alternative learning environments which may differ in significant ways from traditional face-to-face environments. In this interview, Doe Daughtrey talks to Kevin Whitesides about the issues surrounding this increasingly important aspect of academia.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Doe Daughtrey is currently based at Arizona State University. Her field is religion in the Americas, with an emphasis on the gendered experience of religion, new religious movements, and religion and popular culture. More specifically, the intersection of Mormonism and the New Spirituality in North America, how women with backgrounds in Mormonism supplement, combine, or replace Mormonism with “New Age” and/or earth-based beliefs and practices. You can find out more about her research at her blog. She is also on Twitter – @popularreligion

The World Religions Paradigm

There can’t be many listeners who haven’t come into contact with the “World Religions” paradigm, either through the podcast or in their own undergraduate studies. The idea that we can classify religious traditions into a hierarchical schema goes back to the earliest days of anthropology and sociology. Although, C. P. Tiele defined “World Religions” as those which had spread outside of their original cultural context, today the term is taken to mean the “Big Five” – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Frequently this is complimented by Indigenous Religions and New Religious Movements. Yet despite the fact that this approach originated in the Victorian era under the influence of colonialism, it is still the dominant framework in pedagogical approaches to the study of religions.

Yet this categorisation assumes a number of problematic criteria. Most obviously, it favours “traditions”, and especially those which have straddled more than one ethnicity. Secondly, there’s an implicit weighting towards religions with books, temples, founders and other things which can be easily quantised – and perhaps not coincidentally, like Christianity. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it assumes that “religion” is a thing which can be recognised and catalogued, and not a term which is mostly concerned with the exercise of power, as scholars such as Chidester, Asad and McCutcheon have argued. Is the World Religions paradigm, then, as Max Müller argued, simply how “the vast domain of religion must be parcelled out”? Or, as Terry Thomas put it, is it less a case of “know thy enemy” as “know thy trading partner”? To discuss this important issue, we were delighted to invite back Professor James Cox.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

James Cox is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. In 1999, he was appointed Reader in Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and was awarded a Personal Chair in 2006. From 1993 to 1998, he directed the University of Edinburgh’s African Christianity Project which included eight African universities in southern and western Africa. He has held prior academic posts at the University of Zimbabwe, Westminster College, Oxford and Alaska Pacific University. In 2009, he was Visiting Professor of Religion in the University of Sydney. Professor Cox was de Carle Distinguished Lecturer in the University of Otago in Dunedin for 2012. He is completing a book to be published by Equinox in 2013 under the title, ‘Inventions of God in Indigenous Societies’. He has been previously interviewed by the Religious Studies Project in one of our most popular podcasts, discussing the Phenomenology of Religion.

Podcasts

The Fate of Earthly Things

Aztec religion at the time of its encounter with the Spaniards in the early 16th century was a sophisticated mix of ritual and symbolic imagination. In this interview with Molly H. Bassett, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, listeners are treated to a glimpse of a society where human sacrifice was a tool for encountering the divine, priests turned into gods and goddesses, and death held radical meanings for religious agents.

At the beginning of the interview, Dr. Bassett shares how she became involved in Mesoamerican studies thanks to her mentor, Davíd Carrasco. “Hardly anybody… in religious studies” works in this area, she says, instead they are in allied fields such as anthropology or history. Stressing the power of mentors on her career, Bassett reminds all scholars of the role a devoted teacher can have on one’s life. And, as the interview unfolds, the value of this disciplinarity is on display as Bassett is able to ask different questions of the Aztec sources than previous scholars have been.

After providing an overview of the many shared features of pre-Columbian cultures from Southern Texas all the way to Honduras that became known as Mesoamerican thanks to the work of ethnologist Paul Kirchhoff. Stepped pyramids, pictographic writing, ballgames, sacrifice, and common linguistic families are just a few of the traits that reveal the roots of this cultural area. Bassett’s work has included a focus on linguistics and especially through the study of texts employing pictograms (sound and symbols) as in the Florentine Codex and Codex Mexicanus. The Florentine Codex was composed by spanish speaker missionaries who encountered Aztecs, and then learned and translated Nahuatl into Spanish with the help of tri-lingual scribes into volumes that contained both text and commentary.

One of the most fascinating elements of these early codices is its portrayal of Spanish conquistador Cortez’ encounter with Aztec leader Montezuma. Bassett’s work on this encounter, especially in her recently published The Fate of Earthly Things, argues that the codices present this ritual occasion as one where the Spanish were presented as “teotl” or gods. For scholars this has been a challenging interpretative moment. Did the Aztecs really think the Spaniards were gods? No, says Bassett, and by asking what the Aztecs meant by “teotl” she reveals the potency of teixiptla or local embodiments of god(s). Montezuma, she claims, may have used the gift exchange with the Spaniards as a way to prepare Cortez for sacrifice and transformation into a teixiptla.

By the end of the interview, Bassett comes to articulate the value of Mesoamerican studies for undergraduate and graduate students. Her own experiences coming to establish material from a religious studies’ perspective suggest the importance of discipline and method in defining the questions we can ask and therefore the answers our subjects can provide. In the classroom her graduate students–often not even Americanists and rarely Mesoamericanists–are challenged by this material, especially by primary materials that have been approached by methods from different disciplines. For many scholars who teach method or theory courses, Bassett’s presentation of a primary source and the way different disciplines’ methods can limit or expand our inquiries is an excellent model for teachers in all areas and subjects.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk,Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, ritual paraphernalia, model airplanes, and more.

The First Rule of Adjuncting is…

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.[1]

The second rule of adjuncting is… you don’t talk about adjuncting!

If you have seen the film Fight Club, a visually stunning piece based on Chuck Palhnuik’s book by the same title which savagely critiques modern consumerism, you know that I am making a link here between this film and the role of the adjunct in American higher education. In the film, this underground fraternal club revolves around cage-fighting style matches between two men in abandoned warehouses. These brutal bouts act as therapy for these men who feel emasculated by modern consumer culture. What does that have to do with adjuncting? Nothing and everything.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

If you have read my two pieces on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, then you know I have recently come out of the closet as an adjunct. You may not know what an adjunct is. Here is a blurb where I explain the adjunct plight in higher education.

An adjunct is a part-time knowledge worker who teaches 76% of all college courses in the US. We are contract workers (picking up jobs by the semester or year), transient populations (going where the jobs are), we rarely get benefits, are rarely hired in full-time capacity (because this would require we receive benefits), and we often don’t know if we will have work from semester to semester. Many of us have PhDs; some of us, like myself, only have a MA degree. Many of us have written for esteemed journals, published alongside tenured professors, and even written our own books.”

The closest equivalent in the U.K. is perhaps the fixed term temporary lecturer who primarily teaches. This is not to be confused with the more esteemed lecturer position which is more open-ended, fairly stable, and allows for both teaching and research. It seems there is a great deal of confusion regarding nomenclature even within similar systems. In the U.S., students and parents often have no idea how an adjunct (limited term, lowly paid, MA or PhD, instructor with few research opportunities) is different from other faculty… such as full professors (not limited term, well paid, PhD, who usually teaches and does research the rest of the time). Students only see what we do in the classroom… often they assume that those teaching their classes are not part of this underclass, if they even are aware such an underclass exists. Adjuncts don’t usually complain about their situation because they are already living month to month… and they can’t risk getting fired. This allows departments to pay them less and less. The tide is shifting though. Today, adjuncts are fighting for benefits, better wages, and representation in the university. In many small community colleges, adjuncts make up the majority of the faculty and work in less than ideal conditions (no benefits, low wage, no offices or shared offices, and no way to get out). In these cases, the 76% number rings true… where adjuncts teach a majority of the classes. In more prestigious state schools, like where I taught the last two years, about 17% are adjunct (this number is based only on part-time faculty). The count of annual contracted adjuncts is much harder to ascertain. I am sure you can imagine why, no college wants to advertise their use of this contingent labor. Some thinkers warn that the continued corporatization of the American academy is systematically undermining the values of higher education. Even Congress is worried.

So now that you know we exist and that you know that I was one (I taught 52 courses in 10 years at 3 different Georgia universities and colleges) I will explain why you might not have known that I was an adjunct.

Simple…I didn’t want you to know.

Why would I hide my identity as an adjunct? Hello_my_name_is_AdjunctM-773510

1. Fear: Speaking out makes your employers look bad. The first rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting. The second rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting! Why? Because if you talk about being underpaid, having no health insurance or benefits, no representation or recourse in administration, your department will be shamed by this disclosure (as they should be) and there will be retribution. I, like other adjuncts, who are disclosing what has happened to them, fear losing our current jobs and we fear that speaking up will make us social and professional pariah. We fear retribution. We also know that by disclosing this information we are burning bridges… I most certainly cannot ask for a letter of recommendation from a department which I have critiqued for unethical employment practices.

2. Shame: Speaking out makes you look bad. I never introduced myself as an adjunct because adjuncting is seen as the dying lands for academic stragglers. It is a job which slowly squeezes out the undesirables from academia. This is a way of culling the herd in the academic world. To say you are an adjunct is to risk being viewed in this negative light. If you are an adjunct, full-time professors want to know why you are an adjunct. They want to know what is wrong with you. If you are a perpetual adjunct, you must be damaged goods. Academia is a lot like high school… who you know, who you sit with, work with, present with… is indicative of your own academic status. Many academics only want to associate with other academics that can raise their scholarly stock. Associating with an adjunct might make your scholarly stock plummet.

So why would I speak out? Why say anything, if it is in my best interest to be silent?

It is no longer in my best interest to be silent. I tried that route and it didn’t work. I have decided to leave adjunct teaching. After all that work, I have finally had it. I had my Towanda moment. I like to call it my Breaking Bad moment… minus the whole becoming a homicidal drug lord part. Once I saw that my department was now hiring annual contracted ‘lecturers’ (PhDs who will teach full-time for up to seven years before a possibility of promotion to senior lecturers), I realized that now that departments could get PhDs to teach classes for pennies on the dollar, they would not need me. Oh they would continue to hire me on a part-time basis semester to semester when these lecturers leave two weeks before the semester starts for a better job. I would still not get benefits. I still wouldn’t be able to even cobble together a living by teaching, tutoring/ etc. at various state schools. I would still need to get a signed letter every single semester from my department so I could check out books from the school library.

adjuncts-e1342612896160

I may be leaving adjunct teaching for a living wage and benefits but I am not leaving academia. I love higher education but I can no longer pretend to be blind to the exploitation in my midst, to the exploitation happening to me. I love to teach, write, and research about religion but the cost of this part-time living is too high. I am personable, resilient, skilled, published, and highly educated… and now fully employed. Most adjuncts are so crippled, emotionally, finically, and physically… that by asking them to fight back you have only given them another job… another job for which they won’t be paid, a job which will likely get them fired and shunned.

I will still speak for adjuncts.

I am breaking the first rule and the second rule of adjuncting.


[1] *editors note: ‘Adjunct’ is a term used in America to denote a college professor who typically has the same and/or greater teaching responsibilities as a tenured professor at a university, but lacks anything even approaching the job security, benefits and stipend of a tenured professor. As Kate has mentioned, 76% of all college courses in the US are taught by adjuncts. Even many PhD’s are adjuncts. As the number of tenured teaching positions in academia continues to shrink, it is likely that most wishing to at least ‘earn a living wage’ will either have to find jobs outside academia altogether, or accept being a contingent laborer who not only teaches but has to compete with the very students they teach for jobs at a local pub for minimum wage – just to make ends meet. You should care about adjuncts for many reasons, but as tenure positions appear more like pipe dreams it’s likely that, if an academic career is your dream, you yourself may be in a similar position one day trying to make ends meet.

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

There be Spoilers Here: Durkheim, ‘Breaking Bad,’ and the Uncertainty of Religious Theory

Have you been watching ‘Breaking Bad’?

It had been six years since Professor Strenski and I had spoken.  Six years since I sat in the back of his Method and Theory course at UC Riverside, and since I had first read his Thinking about Religion.  I had recently decided to ‘apply myself,’ had returned to ‘academia,’ gotten lost on the way toward a very rewarding degree in Art History, and was, for the first time, learning about the varying methods and theories of religious study.  It was in that class where I first heard of Emile Durkheim.  As I would discover later, Professor Strenski’s style of teaching, the way he explained that particular Frenchman’s social theory, about his unified system of beliefs, his elementary forms, was different from the usual method.  Rather than merely prattle on about relative-to-sacred–this, and set-apart-that, Professor Strenski taught us about the man.  Biography was the key.  Knowing why Durkheim defined religion as he did, rather than just how, would give us a fuller understanding, a clearer focus, on the subtle elements binding his definition to his distinct worldview.  

The question of whether I had been watching ‘Breaking Bad’ had two parts: had I seen the most recent episode; and was I able to watch the show at all while living in Scotland?  My answer was in the affirmative—though I chose not to share with him the ‘quasi-legal’ means of my viewing.  He responded with an excited smile and we talked a moment about the writing, the plot points leading up to the finale, the inevitable demise of Walter White.

When I think back on it, one thing I truly enjoyed about Professor Strenski’s book—as well as his teaching style—was his ability to tangentially veer off topic while not losing complete track of the subject at hand.  Tangents, I have always felt, are the instructor’s greatest tool.  Not only do they assist in keeping the student’s attention, but as metaphor, paint the instruction in different hues than mere black and white.  For instance, when we look at the underlying components of Durkheim’s theory of religion, his idea about ‘God and Society,’ it becomes reducibly contextualized by means of the socially problematic milieu of his academic upbringing.  In his Thinking about Religion, Strenski emphasizes this influence by exploring the political backdrop against which Durkheim spent his “formative years:” a France sunk in national depression; the eastern départements of Alsace and Lorraine lost to the Prussians in the defeat of Napoleon III in 1871; a “national humiliation and desire for revenge;” all of this especially significant to a young secular Jew growing up on France’s eastern border with Imperial Germany.[1]  It is not difficult, then, to follow these sociological actions toward Durkheim’s equal and opposite reaction from “traditional religious loyalties” toward becoming a “truly religious devotee of France.”[2]  We see here the origins, the chemical elements combined to form in Durkheim’s theory a focus toward establishing a “secure and viable social order in modern France.”[3]  Society, social structure, sociability, all necessary components in establishing not just an identity, but a national dignity, a challenging cohesion of social and individual; these things were etched into Durkheim’s psyche as he wrote his notable texts, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).  

We focused our discussion on the writing, on the elegance and patience demonstrated in Vince Gilligan’s unwillingness to rush the narrative along.  How his use of music, of song lyrics, revealed a sort of meta-narrative.  Ours were isolated voices.  Upon hearing my colleague in the study of all things Atheism, Chris Cotter, would be doing an interview with the Professor who introduced me to Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Weber, et al. at the joint BASR/EASR in Liverpool, I insisted he pass along my regards.  More than that, Mr. Cotter ensured we’d have a few moments to catch up.  Having enjoyed the conference’s gala dinner, the Professor and I withdrew ourselves from the dining hall/college bar for a quiet space to recollect.  Once alone, I noticed our American accents no longer seemed so alien.  In our short discussion, even on ‘Breaking Bad,’ it was pleasurably refreshing to hear a similar accent, an analogous vernacular returned back to me.  We had created, in our brief chat concerning an American drama about a chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin, a sort of fusion of consciences: two Americans, in England, at a joint European and British conference on Religion, Migration, and Mutation enjoying a shared and direct experience, an isolated circle of ‘home.’  Our conversation turned to themes in the narrative.  He remarked about the ‘science’ in the show, the metaphor of Walter White referring to himself as Heisenberg, the oft-misunderstood principle about uncertainty.  We returned to whether ‘Heisenberg’ would die in the final episode.  Would all his scheming, his obsession with ‘taking care of his family,’ his murders and mayhem, actually pay off in the end?  Or, more likely, was this all leading to the only possible conclusion: his death, either by the cancer choking his lungs, or through the choices he had made in the last two years of his life?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beM28FLdAzk]

Concerning Durkheim’s social theory of religion, Strenski demarcates two views: a reductionist and a non-reductionist reading.  The former reveals a rather clear reduction of the “object” of religion to society.  As a consequence, Durkheim believed that “religious experiences” were really just “misperceived experiences of social forces.”[4]  Thus, there is “no experience of God”—at least none that we could prove—but rather “shared and direct experiences of society,” the power of which “feels” like an experience of God.[5]  In the context of ‘identity,’ Strenski labels this reading as ‘D1’ for Durkheim no. 1.  ‘God≡Society.’[6]  Concerning causation, this equation concludes that the “underlying reality of religious experience,” and thus the “nature of God,” is society.  In contrast, the non-reductionist reading, a mirrored perspective of the first, flips the equation: ‘Society≡God.’  Durkheim no. 2 expresses “nothing less” than the idea that society has a “religious, or at the very least, spiritual, nature.”[7] 

Our conversation was brief, but cordial.  He was departing the conference early and I had at least two more bottles of wine to ingest.  Yet, all that evening, and into the hangover of the next day, I kept thinking about the implications of the subject of our chat.  Walter White—‘Heisenberg’—argued from the very beginning that chemistry was the study of change, not matter.  It was the study of growth and decay, of transformation, migration, mutation.  Even up to his almost perfectly composed death, Walter White believed he was actively involved in the physical study of change.  Cancer, chemotherapy, cooking, wealth, power, murder, and eventual termination.  These elements formed his social milieu, his split identity, his life’s continuing uncertainty.  If nothing else, I suppose my conversation with Professor Strenski further reminded me that uncertainty is indeed a universal principle.  The more we focus on and attempt to understand a thing (the position), the farther we get from actually making any sense of it (its momentum).  Durkheim witnessed this, and I believe we see it repeated over and over in the context of religious study.  As we think about religion, then think about thinking about religion, then so on and so forth, we engage in a trans-generational discourse, a social discussion that enigmatically matches the very theories we seek to understand.  We become, in that very process, aspects of those theories, especially in the ways we translate them, teach them to each other, engage in tangents.  The more we change, the more they change, the less certain an original meaning ever seems possible.  Perhaps, then, Durkheim was right.  Perhaps my shared and direct experience with Professor Strenski, two Americans abroad, discussing a culturally popular, and truly ‘American’ drama, formed some sort of experience of God.  Perhaps our experience is an ideal example, a tangent, on how one might explain Durkheim’s theory of equating society to God and vice versa. 

I’m not entirely certain.  Perhaps it’s best to think on it a bit more. 

Readings

  • Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion.  Malden: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, John A. Spaulding and George Simpsons, trans.  New york: Free Press, 1979
  • Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Carol Cosman, trans.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Werner Heisenberg. “On the Perceptual Content of Quantum Theoretical Kinematics and Mechanics.” Zeitschrift für Physik, Vol. 43 (1927): 172-198. English Translation by John A. Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, eds. Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983: 62-84.
  • Vince Gilligan, Creator, Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-5, Produced by AMC.

[1] Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 290.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 295.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, the ‘≡’ symbol here denotes in physics, particularly in relation to an identity, a sense of equality.  See also Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 295.

[7] Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 296.

Young People of ‘No Religion’ and Religious Education Beyond Religious Belief

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 30 October 2013, in response to Abby Day’s interview on Believing, Belonging, and Academic Careers  (28 October 2013).

Divided into two distinct halves, Christopher Cotter’s interview with Abby Day begins with a discussion of her research on the nature of belief and what ordinary people in a modern western society actually believe; and concludes with advice on publishing journal articles and acquiring funding for research projects. In my response, I’ll focus on some of the points raised concerning belief, suggest how Day’s work could benefit youth and education studies and, in particular, explain how I’ve found her approach to the study of belief helpful in my own exploration of the lives of young people who identify as having ‘no religion’.

For Day, the concept of belief has often been taken for granted in the study of religion. Rarely do we ask, what do we mean when we talk about belief? As David Morgan has observed, the academic study of religion in the West has been ‘shaped by the idea that a religion is what someone believes’, and that this amounts to a ‘discrete, subjective experience of assent to propositions concerning the origin of the cosmos, the nature of humanity, the existence of deities, or the purpose of life’ (2010, 1). Although there have been a number of scholars and researchers, particularly within anthropology, who have critiqued this view of religion (Needham 1972; Ruel 2002; Lindquist and Coleman 2008), such an understanding persists and remains prevalent within religious education (RE) in secondary schools. Day’s research not only raises questions about what we mean by belief; she also demonstrates how religious identity is often more complicated than assent to propositions. And both of these insights could be of great value to the study of religion and belief at school, as well as to researchers’, teachers’ and policy-makers’ understandings of the nature of belief within the lives of both religious and ‘non-religious’ young people.

The initial impetus for Day’s interest in what people actually believe came from the 2001 Census in England and Wales, in which 72% of the respondents identified as ‘Christian’. In what appeared to be an increasingly secular society, it seemed puzzling that such a large proportion of the population would self-identify in this way. Day decided to explore more deeply what some of these census respondents meant in their adoption of a Christian identity, by examining what they actually believed. Introducing herself to potential participants as a social sciences researcher rather than a researcher of religion, Day also began her interviews by asking people ‘what do you believe in?’ rather than ‘what is your religion?’ It was only at the very end of her interviews that she raised the topic of religious identity in connection with the 2001 Census. This approach enabled her to focus on belief without asking religious questions. And, by focusing instead on values and meaning, as well as what was important to her participants, Day was able to learn much more about how belief functioned in their lives.

Day’s study of belief beyond ‘religious belief’ encouraged me to adopt a similar methodological approach in my own research with 14- and 15-year-olds who report ‘no religion’, exploring how ticking the ‘no religion’ box related to their wider lives without asking questions about religion. I wanted to learn about the people, places, objects, activities and times – the material cultures – that were significant to these young people, as well as to understand their beliefs and values, their methods of constructing narratives of meaning and purpose, and the influence of family, friends and society on their lives and identities. My primary research method was photo-elicitation interviews, in which the photos taken act as ‘prompts and supports to participant narrative’ (Liebenberg, 2009, 448). But I also wanted to avoid any tendencies to take photos that specifically focused on participants’ ‘non-religiosity’ or illustrated their attitudes towards religion. So I embedded the religion question from the 2011 Census alongside questions that collected other seemingly unconnected data and left explicit discussion of participants’ reasons for self-identifying as having ‘no religion’, as well as of their understandings of ‘religion’, to the end of the interview.

Just as Day discovered, however, where it remains important, interview questions about ‘belief’ or ‘life’ more generally still enable participants to talk freely about religion. But, while Day found that religion and religious beliefs played a relatively unimportant part in the lives of some participants who nonetheless chose ‘Christian’ as their religious identity in the 2001 Census, my research with young people who ticked ‘no religion’ indicates that some who self-identify in this way nonetheless find religion and religious beliefs to be significant in their lives.

Day’s research offers valuable insights into some of the reasons people in a modern western society choose to adopt a ‘Christian’ identity when surveyed. For some, it acts as a ‘social marker’ that helps them to feel secure within their communities, creating a boundary between themselves and others; being Christian is something that they are born into, akin to an ethnic identity. This position is nicely illustrated in her interview with ‘Jordan’, a 14-year-old who she describes as an ‘unbelieving Christian’. Although he states ‘I don’t believe in any religions’, Jordan identifies as ‘Christian’ because ‘on my birth certificate it says I’m Christian’. Day explains that, for him, ‘Christian’ doesn’t mean much, he doesn’t do anything that is typically ‘Christian’, and his understanding of a Christian is ‘someone who believes in God and Jesus and Bible and stuff’. While he does not believe in these things, his grandparents do because they are ‘Irish and really strong Christians’. This understanding of what being a Christian entailed is perhaps not surprising, considering Jordan was ‘reflecting how the term “belief” has become associated with “Christian” over the centuries’ (Day, 2009, 266-7). Day’s research provides a welcome corrective to an understanding of belief as primarily propositional and Christian, illustrating the various ways belief functions in all our everyday lives, cutting across conventional boundaries between the religious and the secular.

Although Jordan differs from my participants in that he identifies as ‘Christian’ rather than as having ‘no religion’, understandings of the Christian religion and of what a Christian identity entails are similar. In many of my interviews, it became clear that participants reduce ‘religion’ to metaphysical, existential and/or ethical belief systems that are either true or false. Since participants do not hold these beliefs, they tick the ‘no religion’ box. For some, in order to identify as Christian it is not only necessary to believe everything within that religion, but to have a strong faith in those beliefs. As one 15-year-old girl told me, ‘I don’t think my belief in God is strong enough for me to tick “Christian”. … If there was a sort of “in between” box, I probably would have ticked that. But to categorise what I believe, I’d say I don’t really have a religion’.

My research interests in the lives of young people who report ‘no religion’ dovetails with the emerging field of Nonreligion and Secularity Studies. Lois Lee has provided a working definition of ‘non-religion’ as ‘anything that is primarily defined in a relationship of difference to religion’ (2012, 131), indicating the necessity of reflexivity not only about specific relationships of ‘difference’ but about understandings of ‘religion’ itself. Day is right to emphasise the importance of clarity in relation to the term ‘belief’, but perhaps she could have spoken more during the interview about what she means by ‘religion’. This would then assist further discussion of her proposal that ‘belief’ crosses conventional boundaries between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’, making religion, as she says, ‘a subset of belief’.

For the young people of ‘no religion’ that I interviewed, ‘religion’ is understood as consisting of impossible propositional beliefs that are displaced by scientific knowledge. Religion requires acceptance of all its beliefs and cannot incorporate participants’ diversity of beliefs; as another 15-year-old girl said, ‘there would never be a religion for everything I thought’. Religion demands restrictive ethical beliefs, behaviours and belongings that limit autonomy and authenticity. And even when religious ethics are admirable, participants separate ethics from religion because religion remains reduced to primarily metaphysical beliefs.

Although there were a number of reasons that these young people viewed religion and belief in this way, one influence on their understanding clearly came from what they were taught in school. In state-maintained secondary schools in England, some form of RE is mandatory and one of the ways in which schools meet this requirement is through exam courses at GCSE. ‘Philosophy and Ethics’ is one of the most popular strands of exam RE, with pupils being tested on their knowledge of how religious adherents are supposed to live and act, and on their ability to critique religious truth claims and provide rationale for their own beliefs about what is true. For example, the following questions have been set on recent exam papers:

Explain why some people say that religious revelation is only an illusion (AQA GCSE Religious Studies Short Course Specification A, June 2010)

Explain why most Christians are against euthanasia (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Do you think the universe is designed? Give two reasons for your point of view (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies Religion and Life, May 2010)

Although this might help pupils develop their critical thinking skills, this approach to the study of religion seems to reinforce the notion that religion is concerned with private, individualized beliefs of an ontological, epistemological and/or moral nature. It does not provide room for pupils to consider how ‘religion’ might be broader than assent to propositional beliefs or to explore further the nature of belief and how it can function in all our everyday lives. As Day writes of Jordan, ‘[He] had many beliefs, although not in God, Jesus, the Bible and “stuff”. He believed in doing well at school, helping at home, being with his friends’ (2009, 267).

In recent years, there has been increased debate about the inclusion of secular philosophies within the RE classroom. As I have argued elsewhere , there seem to be a number of problems with some of the recommendations that have been made in this debate, specifically that it repeats the assumption that belief (whether religious or secular) is tantamount to assent to propositions. But exploring the nature of belief more broadly would seem to be one way in which young people could understand religion ‘beyond belief’ and start to recognise the role that beliefs play in all our lives, rather than viewing belief as solely propositional and peculiar to religion. Space within the curriculum should perhaps be found, therefore, to encourage pupils to explore the nature of belief as not only a marker of religious identity but also of social or relational identities, as Day suggests.

Towards the end of the interview, Day discusses some of the ways in which academics can disseminate project findings, as well as give back to the communities they have involved in their projects. Day’s research into what people actually believe has made a valuable contribution to our understanding of how belief functions in the everyday lives of ordinary people. My research with 14- and 15-year olds suggests that it would be helpful if more of these insights could reach not only researchers of religion but also educationalists and policy makers, in order to benefit young people studying religion and belief at school.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

  • Day, A. (2009) ‘Believing in Belonging: An Ethnography of Young People’s Constructions of Belief.’ Culture and Religion 10 (3) 263-278
  • – (2011) Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Lee, L. (2012) ‘Research Note: Talking about a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’ Journal of Contemporary Religion 27(1):129-139.
  • Liebenberg, L. (2009) ‘The visual image as discussion point: increasing validity in boundary crossing research’. Qualitative Research 9:441-67.
  • Lindquist, G. and Coleman, S. (2008) ‘Introduction: Against Belief?’ Social Analysis 52 (1) 1-18
  • Morgan, D. (ed.) (2010) Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief. London: Routledge.
  • Needham, R. (1972) Belief, Language and Experience. Oxford: Blackwell
  • Ruel, M. (2002) ‘Christians as Believers’ in Lambek, M. (ed.) (2002) A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

mec2As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 8 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online (6 May 2013)

This podcast explores the nature of learning within online learning and the benefits and disadvantages of this type of curricular design. The interview was conducted with Doe N Daughtrey an instructor at Arizona State University and at Mesa Community College. While her work falls within a wide range of topics from Mormonism to new forms of spirituality, she speaks to the student and instructor experience of teaching online courses, particularly within the field of Religious Studies. Certainly the online medium in Higher Education has grown exponentially over the past 10 years.  As an instructional tool, it creates some new challenges for the instructor never before encountered within academia. An obvious example noted by Daughtrey is in relation to student interactions within discussion boards. In more traditional classrooms, students are cognizant of their behavior and their exchanges with other students. However, within the virtual world, students appear more bold and vocal in their opinions. Some students struggle not only with writing but proper projection within writing. When writing and responding to fellow students in an online forum, students may not be mindful of others perception. It is difficult for the instructor to instill in students a cultural sensitivity of others who are different from the student.  Congruently, the instructor also has to deal with the permanency of such exchanges as textual exchanges. In a traditional classroom, such exchanges, if they do occur, come and go and the instructor can immediately address and correct inappropriate behavior. Another issue addressed by Daughtrey is the issue of time as related to the course. In traditional classroom exchanges, students and the instructor are in a space together for a specific time frame (McKeachie, 1999). In the online world, the exchanges can be potentially 24 hours depending on the availability of each student and instructor. As far as inappropriate exchanges are concerned, students can have heated or controversial disagreements during times when the instructor is not online to monitor the exchange. Much can happen during that period of time with the potential to spiral into a much larger situation before the instructor is able to intervene.

In addressing such issues and concerns, Daughtrey implies that the textual space of the online course creates a communicative void typically filled with body language and voice inflection in traditional classrooms. As a potential solution to such situations, Daughtrey has used voice recordings in lieu of textual responses for her students. This at least provides the students with her voice inflection in which to infer intention from her feedback. She notes that this has been helpful in her online courses. Another solution Daughtrey proposes is for students to keep a private online journal of their thoughts. This helps keep sensitive discussions and thoughts out of the online forums insuring smoother online courses.  Finally one of the other telling themes of Daughtrey’s podcast is the limitation of online resources for Religious Studies courses. Daughtrey argues that there are many online resources which can assist in the construction of online courses, but that there is no content specific support for Religious Studies. Such support would help in the delivery of student education. She suggests that more should be done to address content and curricular issues in detail.

In reviewing this podcast, there are a couple of issues which arise. I think it is important to provide the reader with my own background here, as much of the conversation speaks to experience and not simply to instructional design and implementation. My own education has been a nexus of three fields of study: Psychology, Religious Studies, and Education. Much like Dr. Daughtrey, I have taught online courses in a variety of fields including Religious Studies online. Many of the concerns that she notes within the podcast are a common theme in teaching Religious Studies at a secular institution. Certainly when coupled with a largely conservative religious landscape among the student body, issues of ontology will certainly arise. Online learning provides a much more personal space in which to communicate opinions and ideas. In this regard, some students may assume that radical opinions and a lack of social mindfulness have no implications. For instructors such assumptions create issues. Certainly the formality and etiquette of the classroom may not translate into the online medium of instruction. I would propose an alternative method for addressing such issues. Many of the concerns related to behavior and content are related to the asynchronous method of online instruction. This method is called asynchronous because the content is unidirectional. For example discussion boards, YouTube videos, even this Podcast is an example of a unidirectional delivery of information. Its antithesis is called synchronous learning. It is a real time exchange of information. Examples of this might be a video conference on Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, a live chat room in real time, or even a phone conversation.  I would suggest that online instruction should be a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous delivery models for optimal learning. Certainly if a university does not have the resources for synchronous online instruction, there are some free open source alternative programs to assist an inspiring instructor.  This at least allows the interaction between student and teacher and presents information in a traditional format of instruction. Instructors can then project their personality into their instruction beyond a textual exchange. Moreover, students can interact in real time learning the social expectations of the instructor.  This is important when considering the challenges of teaching a controversial topic such as religion (Carlson and Blumenstyk, 2012).

While religion is a social norm for many in the United States and beyond, certainly social norms and classroom culture are a complex issue for many instructors. Not all students ascribe to a post-modern paradigm of different yet equal among the growing multicultural and multiethnic American and Western European populations. Some regard their coexistence with those who view religion or even race differently as a necessary evil of public education. Much of the confusion noted by Daughtrey in regards to online education is that the online world may be implicitly perceived as our private space of interaction, where the rules and values we ascribe to within daily interactions do not apply in the online discussion board. We as instructors are no longer simply Teachers or Professors but a combination of Information Technology Professionals and Cultural Advocates all wrapped into one role. While I cannot speak to the religious landscape of Arizona, I can speak to the Southeastern United States. I, too, teach in secular college and university. Much of the curricular agenda is dependent on accreditation and course objectives.  Still, instructors must create the perception of value for Religious Studies education and encourage students to learn more about the world in which they live. In my own courses, such discussions are heated simply because religion is equated with Christianity. The idea that other religions would be academically equal to Christianity can be offensive to some students. For many of my students, religion is a form of personal identity. It is who we are, not simply a belief or what we do. Many cannot compartmentalize it or objectify their belief. Therefore to have such discussions, academic or otherwise, requires a new paradigm of behavior and inquiry in religion’s examination by students. This type of student internalization of religious identity and perceived threat is not limited to the field of Religious Studies.  For example, a colleague of mine and psychologist of religion Michael Nielsen at Georgia Southern had a similar experience.  As Nielsen (2012) has noted, many students come to courses on religious topics either assuming the content will confirm their ontological position or to argue for their belief as the dominant truth. Nielsen’s perspective is but one of many examples where students do not understand the overall curricular purpose and goal of academic explorations of religion. They want to internalize it in some way.

This Podcast primarily focuses on instructional issues related to teaching Religious Studies online. These issues are certainly juxtaposed within the secular state-run institution of higher learning. It is likely that there are differences in the liberal arts and religiously affiliated styles of Higher Education. I would suggest that they likely differ in their curricular goals depending on the overall mission of the college or university. It is unclear how these differences translate in online learning and education. Certainly, it would have been interesting if Dr. Daughtrey would have addressed such differences within her podcast. Additionally, I am left with the question of curricular structure. What are some of the different ways Religious Studies are taught and the resources which may be available to a new instructor charged with online learning? It would be nice to see a conversation which goes beyond the politics of religious identity and online learning (although this is certainly an interesting topic overall).  With differences in Religious Studies educational theory, there may yet be another layer to the instructional onion we call religious education. With these criticisms in mind, this is not to say that the experiential perspective is not useful in education. In fact, this is the meat of an instructional design model. As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction. While one may argue that a good instructor should always be learning, there is likely a point of diminishing returns in which the instructor is expending energy in acquiring new instructional skillsets such as the various Online Learning Systems (OLS) while also tracking and evaluating student performance within their course. Professors may not have the time to devote to learning all the features of OLS and therefore the overall instructional product may suffer from skillset limitations. Additionally, institutions may be tempted to increase enrollment in online classes to save money, further diverting the instructor from exploring their research areas as well as gaining additional OLS skills. So certainly the economics of online learning play a role here too.

There is no doubt that OLS models of learning have benefits and disadvantages in academia. As a former Information Technology Professional and, typically, an early adopter of new technologies, I view online learning with circumspect. If it is to be incorporated, it should be a hybrid delivery model with classroom and online time for the students. If that is not possible, then the instructional design should include synchronous and asynchronous delivery of material. Evaluation of student performance is not simply about assignment quality and test accuracy, but it is about the real-time monitoring of learning, the observation of the student as they make their academic journey. Online learning loses the thrill of watching students achieve their “Aha” moments. There needs to be a technological solution found to incorporate the human aspects of the classroom in online learning.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

mec2Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu. He is also an Assistant Editor at the Religious Studies Project, and has conducted a number of interviews, and previously written the piece A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning for the website.

References

  • McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Nielsen, M. (2012). Teaching Psychology of Religion at a state university. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Newsletter, 36(2), 2-5.
  • Carlson, S. & Blumenstyk, G. (2012). For Whom is college being reinvented? The Chronicle of Higher Education. 59(17).

Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online

Doe DaughtreyAs online communications technologies become more pervasive and sophisticated, this provides new opportunities and challenges for the creation of alternative learning environments which may differ in significant ways from traditional face-to-face environments. In this interview, Doe Daughtrey talks to Kevin Whitesides about the issues surrounding this increasingly important aspect of academia.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Doe Daughtrey is currently based at Arizona State University. Her field is religion in the Americas, with an emphasis on the gendered experience of religion, new religious movements, and religion and popular culture. More specifically, the intersection of Mormonism and the New Spirituality in North America, how women with backgrounds in Mormonism supplement, combine, or replace Mormonism with “New Age” and/or earth-based beliefs and practices. You can find out more about her research at her blog. She is also on Twitter – @popularreligion

The World Religions Paradigm

There can’t be many listeners who haven’t come into contact with the “World Religions” paradigm, either through the podcast or in their own undergraduate studies. The idea that we can classify religious traditions into a hierarchical schema goes back to the earliest days of anthropology and sociology. Although, C. P. Tiele defined “World Religions” as those which had spread outside of their original cultural context, today the term is taken to mean the “Big Five” – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Frequently this is complimented by Indigenous Religions and New Religious Movements. Yet despite the fact that this approach originated in the Victorian era under the influence of colonialism, it is still the dominant framework in pedagogical approaches to the study of religions.

Yet this categorisation assumes a number of problematic criteria. Most obviously, it favours “traditions”, and especially those which have straddled more than one ethnicity. Secondly, there’s an implicit weighting towards religions with books, temples, founders and other things which can be easily quantised – and perhaps not coincidentally, like Christianity. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it assumes that “religion” is a thing which can be recognised and catalogued, and not a term which is mostly concerned with the exercise of power, as scholars such as Chidester, Asad and McCutcheon have argued. Is the World Religions paradigm, then, as Max Müller argued, simply how “the vast domain of religion must be parcelled out”? Or, as Terry Thomas put it, is it less a case of “know thy enemy” as “know thy trading partner”? To discuss this important issue, we were delighted to invite back Professor James Cox.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

James Cox is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. In 1999, he was appointed Reader in Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and was awarded a Personal Chair in 2006. From 1993 to 1998, he directed the University of Edinburgh’s African Christianity Project which included eight African universities in southern and western Africa. He has held prior academic posts at the University of Zimbabwe, Westminster College, Oxford and Alaska Pacific University. In 2009, he was Visiting Professor of Religion in the University of Sydney. Professor Cox was de Carle Distinguished Lecturer in the University of Otago in Dunedin for 2012. He is completing a book to be published by Equinox in 2013 under the title, ‘Inventions of God in Indigenous Societies’. He has been previously interviewed by the Religious Studies Project in one of our most popular podcasts, discussing the Phenomenology of Religion.