As a scholar and a teacher of religion, I endeavor to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange. I approach religion as one of the many social, economic, political, and ideological structures that constitute us as human beings. Religion is both entirely commonplace and totally peculiar. I aim to show my students that the “religious” in its many forms – religious people, religious ideas, religious places, religious practices, religious objects, religious language – is everywhere, constantly present, sometimes glaringly but often inconspicuously. I begin each course that I teach by prompting students to reflect on their own definitions, perceptions, and examples of religion. As a class, we construct word clouds that visually represent our sense of religion and how we identify it around us. By asking students to consider their personal associations with and considerations of the religious, I stimulate students to bring to the surface and share with each other their preconceptions of religion, and I cultivate a classroom ethos for openness to the nuances and subtleties of what “religion” may entail. My teaching philosophy pivots on helping students to spotlight the strange and the familiar, so that I may shed light on what they don’t understand and guide them in re-evaluating what they think they already know.
My desire to be a professor of religion grew out of surprising and illuminating experiences with my own undergraduate professors. In a course on Millennium, Apocalypse, Utopia, one professor presented the class with material not only on apocalyptic “cults” like the Oneida Community and Heaven’s Gate but also with Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and the art of Hieronymous Bosch. Another assigned us to an urban religion scavenger hunt, searching block after block of New York City for any symbol, any nod to religion. Inspired by my teachers, I encourage my students to remap their ways of knowing religion. In my upper-level undergraduate seminar on Religion and Violence, I assigned my students to visit a Chicago-area museum, to find an artifact, a display, or an exhibit that evidences the intersection of religion and violence, and then to write a short paper that relates that curio to our class material. This exercise requires undergraduates to consider theories studied in class and to apply them beyond the university setting. Moreover, it asks them to reassess what they recognize as religion and to reflect upon why they recognize it as such. Because my studies of religion have been and continue to be encounters with the unexpected, I strive to extend that experience to my students.
As a teacher of religion, I instruct my students to explore religion through the diverse methodologies and disciplinary perspectives with which I conduct and analyze my own scholarly research. I ask students to decipher primary texts, work through critical theory, assess material artifacts, and engage in ethnographic practices. No matter the class, I always encourage my students to anchor the subject matter in its historical and geographic contexts. I urge my students to understand religion as inseparable from other spheres of life, interwoven with politics and economics and culture, situated in time and place. The humanities in general, and religion in particular, necessitate contextualization and historicization. I structured my course on Religion and Violence such that each week explored a different category of violence. However, rather than studying the category writ large, I assigned students to learn about a single case study within that week’s category. For our study of “bad” religion and “cults,” for example, students read about People’s Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. By combining theoretical material with a single concrete historical case study, my students analyzed violent incidents holistically. They attended to issues of socio-economics, politics, and historical lineage, consequently complicating their understandings of “religious violence.”
When encouraging my students to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange,” I ask them to reflect on their own life experiences and encounters with religion. I believe that despite the emphasis on scholarship in religious studies courses, these classes are at their core about people. Thus, I foster a classroom culture of respectful listening and thoughtful self-reflection. We address ways of interfacing with people whose opinions differ from their own, and we contemplate how we might work through and benefit from difficult exchanges. Encountering “the other” – in theoretical readings, in subject matter, or sitting across the table – entails grappling with difference. As an educator in the humanities, I lead students in remaking moments of uncertainty and unease into opportunities for mutual understanding and personal growth.
Likewise, my dedication to the humanities broadly has led to my prioritization of higher-order learning. In part, my work is to help students retain details about the pillars of Islam or elucidate theories about the nature of the “sacred.” However, on par with teaching factual and theoretical material, I endeavor to support my students in building their abilities to read critically, to think analytically, and to write with more care. Using formative assessments and substantive feedback, I work to ensure that my students practice and improve upon these skills throughout the quarter. Students in my Religion and Violence course wrote weekly response papers in which they summarized the weekly theorist’s argument and then reflected upon it to highlight its utility, its drawbacks, and emergent questions. I stressed quality thinking over conscientious writing, so that students would focus on putting their ideas on paper. The assessment ensured that all students completed the readings and took time to think about them. It gave students a platform for forwarding points of confusion and accustomed them to writing regularly. When speaking with students during my office hours, a few told me that while they felt that the weekly papers were time-consuming, they appreciated having the venue for organizing and expressing their thoughts and that through this assignment, they “actually learned.”
I find helping students learn incredibly fulfilling and rewarding, but I see teaching as fundamentally reciprocal. Through my work with students, I learn about new subject material, differing perspectives, and alternate insights. I also look to my students for feedback on my teaching, and I take their comments seriously. Although I required my Religion and Violence students to submit a final paper draft and conduct a peer review before revising and resubmitting, many struggled to express themselves lucidly and fluidly. Students informed me that more time learning about writing would have helped greatly, and my training at the Searle Center for Advanced Learning and Teaching taught me that students learn better through scaffolding lessons. Subsequently, I learned that in order to realize my objective to help students improve their writing, I should emphasize consistently conscientious, quality writing, even in weekly response papers.
As a teacher of religion and of the humanities, I aim to demonstrate to my students that learning about religion can and should prompt us to reconceptualize our world. By helping my students theorize religion, I encourage them to ask new questions and to find new connections in and through religion, religions, the religious. Why is the American flag a sacred object? How does ISIS relate to the Crusaders? What do “foodie culture” and “selfies” have to do with anatman (the Buddhist concept of no-self)? By supporting my students in advancing their reading and writing skills, I guide them in evaluating and improving how they think and the means by which they express themselves. My approach to teaching religion entails questioning what we think we know, reconfiguring what we think is fixed. Through the study of religion, I urge my students to probe the strange and the familiar, critically considering the things they take for granted and engaging more sensitively and reflectively with the worlds in which they live.