The classroom is a dynamic space for testing ideas, a laboratory where students exercise their abilities as independent critical thinkers. Students in my classrooms get excited about thinking through problems people faced in the past. Engaging my research interest in the visual and material cultures of American religious history, students in my courses frequently encounter real things that provide tangible points of connection to history. Students see and hear and feel the visual and material artifacts of religious life in America, such as images, objects, and songs. They come to realize that history is about real people who sang, felt, cried, loved, hated, and frequently made mistakes. Students in my classes laugh as often as possible at the human foibles, oddities, and frailties we share with the people of lost times.
Follow the link to watch a sample lecture from my Introduction to Religion online course.
My approach to teaching clusters around three practical, student-centered goals.
Goal 1 – Engage Primary Sources
Through critical discussions and creative assessments, students in my classes explore ideas, texts, practices, things, and sensing bodies that don’t always fit our conventional narratives about American religion. In every class session, students engage with a variety of primary source materials. Dollar bills provide occasion to think about the role of freemasonry in the early republic and the “religious” origins of the nation. Studying the granite of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, DC anchors discussions about race and American civil religion. A printed menu reveals the complex negotiations between tradition and innovation that gave rise to Reform Judaism.
In an “Introduction to Religion” course I taught online in 2016, students read for themselves a variety of historical sources who addressed the question, “what is religion?” Download the Introduction to Religion syllabus here. They learned how to apply theoretical approaches to the study of religion in application papers, which required them to visit a religious service and use theory to interpret their experiences. They learned that old-fashioned theorists like Emile Durkheim or William James could provide them with real insight into their experiences with living religious traditions today. Download the theory application assignment guidelines here.
Goal 2 – Teach Transferable Skills through the Humanities
Students want to develop transferable skills that will serve them in their lives beyond the classroom. By asking students to write short research papers based on historical primary sources (view sample essay prompt), I enable them to develop critical writing skills. I provide detailed feedback on graded materials so students can improve their work. I also provide clear rubrics so students understand my assessment criteria before they do their work (view sample rubric).
Short essays also help students develop the transferable skill of formulating complex arguments in clear, concise prose. In this age when students demand “return on investment” from their college education, students in my classrooms develop crucial writing skills. Whether they go on to careers in law, medicine, government, ordained ministry, professional blogging, or computer science, my students become creative thinkers who can convey arguments effectively in writing.
Goal 3 – Make History Matter
In the wrong hands, history can be boring. Worse, it can slip into irrelevant antiquarianism. More and more, students are asking, “So what? Why do I need to learn about the past?” They wonder how learning about Thomas Jefferson’s Bible helps them when they want to be protesting police violence against black people. They say, “I’m not Jewish, why do I need to learn about Jewish immigration in the 1880s?” Students in my classes learn why should matter to them today.
I have found that students get the most out of history when they have “significant learning experiences.” That is, they care more about history when they have meaningful personal experiences with real things from the past. Because of my research focus on religious visual and material culture, I have found it effective to have students examine real historical artifacts like this “Things Go Better with Jesus” patch from the early 1970s. When they can see and touch history, students develop an embodied connection with the course material. In several of my courses, students have been required to conduct an ethnography of a religious tradition unfamiliar to them personally (view ethnography assignment). This meant that students had to visit a religious service of a tradition they had never believed/practiced. Students came away from this assignment with broadened perspectives on religion in American history. In five years, students probably won’t remember how to spell Walter Rauschenbusch’s last name. But they will always remember their visit to the mosque, the church, the synagogue, the botánica, the temple, or the meditation center.
Becoming a good teacher involves constant reflection and adjustment. While completing my PhD, I have also enrolled in Duke’s certificate program in college teaching. Through coursework, peer teaching reviews, and professionalization workshops, this certificate program works to create educators who are self-reflective about teaching and learning. The certificate in college teaching places a premium on effective use of instructional technology. I don’t use technology for its own sake, but only to increase students’ ability to achieve learning outcomes. I’ve made it my business to learn powerpoint, prezi, wordpress, sakai, qualtrics, and other digital teaching platforms. I often show youtube videos in class, like this one of the fundamentalist preacher Billy Sunday in action. Whether through new technological or “old school” means, I am committed to improving my teaching and developing creative assessments for learning objectives.
Courses I have Taught:
- Introduction to Religion (theory and method)
- Religion in American Life (survey)
- Religious Reform in Modern America (c.1890-1965)
Courses I would Like to Teach:
- Religion and Materiality
- Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism
- Anthropology of Religion
- Supernaturalism and American Culture