Theorizing Religion on the Local Level: A Classroom Assignment

I just finished teaching another run of my “Theories in the Study of Religion” course at the University of Washington. I had just under thirty undergraduate students, each coming into the course from a range of backgrounds and areas of study. This was one of the most energetic and dynamic groups I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years and it was such a delight to walk into each class session. I already miss the learning community we built together.

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One of the most successful and, from the students’ perspective, enjoyable assignments is what I call the “PNW Scholar Project”. Most of what we do in this course is to look at the historical development of various theoretical approaches or frameworks in the study of religion (mostly comparative religion) over the past two hundred years. A general premise of the course is that all theory is a product of the historical, cultural, and epistemological context of the scholar. Thus, theory is contingent rather than universal.

This broad approach—historically and geographically—risks making “religious studies” a vague and disconnected field of study for the student. The PNW Scholar Project, on the other hand, allows us to zoom our focus to the local or regional level by looking at the study of religion in the Pacific Northwest. Here is the assignment description from the syllabus:

PNW Group Scholar Project

In studying the academic study of religion, it is helpful to look at our own local intellectual climate. Thus, students (in groups) will select (first come first serve basis) a scholar from the Pacific Northwest to study. This can be a scholar at UW or beyond (e.g., SU, PLU, WSU, Univ. of Victoria, Willamette, Concordia, etc.). The group will analyze this scholar’s work, career, thinking, methods, etc. and offer a critical analysis of how this particular thinker “fits” into the broader discipline. Scholars may work within religious studies departments, but they can also be located in other disciplines – such as political science, anthropology, sociology, classics, literature, the natural sciences, etc. – as long as this is a scholar who has a particular focus on “religion” as her or his object of study.

 All selections must be approved by the instructor.

 Ideally, the group will conduct an interview with the scholar if possible (in person or by email), but as coordinating such interaction with a busy academic may be difficult, this is not a requirement (though it is desirable).

 The class presentation will be a 25 to 30 minute presentation. This should involve the whole group as far as possible and lead into a discussion. You have a maximum of 30 minutes to present (including discussion) – so ideally give us 15 minutes of presentation and 15 minutes of discussion.

***

In the past, I’ve also required a ten-page paper on the selected scholar. Students have usually selected a scholar from our own university, though once they expanded their choice to a nearby university. Thankfully they have also been able to conduct a personal interview with the selected scholar. We have the group presentations on the last day or two of the course, as a kind of fun way to pull the course together. Students are told to treat the scholar as data, just as much as they would with others that they’ve studied in the course (e.g., Frazer, Lang, Eliade, W. C. Smith, Wiebe, Warne, Owen, McCutcheon, Hidayatullah, etc.).

As I reflect on the assignment, there are several advantages I see with it. Let me highlight just a few:

(1) The students have a chance to apply meta-critical analysis to living scholars in various disciplines, thus seeing scholars not as authoritative voices but as data to theorize. I never want my students to simply accept what a professor or scholar says because they are scholars or professors. To empower students to independence of mind, they should be allowed and encouraged to analyze the scholarly material presented to them (including the very act of such presentation). In the end, we are all data.

(2) We get a chance to see what “religious studies” (in part at least) is on the local, regional level. I think this assignment allows students to “get a taste” of what it would be like to study religion here in our part of the world in our current intellectual, political, and cultural climate. For those going on to other religious studies courses, or who may encounter religion in a course in another discipline (e.g., political science or women’s studies courses), such students will have a more critical appreciation for how “religion” is constructed and utilized within our “local academic culture”. My hope is that students will continue to theorize scholarship as data wherever they encounter it.

(3) Relevance of theory is vital. Too often theory, especially in religious studies, is treated as an overly abstract, meaningless game of intellectual self-obsession. And sometimes that can be very true (especially when I look at RS theorists whose self-reflexivity is so engaged that they end up cycling through the same debates and points that we’ve been debating for almost thirty years, yet without advancing the discussion even one step; to be honest, it’s frustrating to watch). But theory can and should serve an important role both in academic endeavors and when interacting with the broader political landscape that we live within. I’m not suggesting that theory be equated with method. That conflation has been a problem. Rather, I want my students to explore deeper structures and conceptual frameworks by which knowledge is created and rendered commonsensical and normative (even authoritative). Through the PNW Scholar Project, students get to theorize such epistemological dynamics right here, in the now, just next door. That look at real life academics (and not just dusty old names in a textbook or course reader) helps make theorizing religious studies more real and relevant.

(4) The generosity of my colleagues has been amazing. Without their kindness, the projects would have collapsed. However, the benefit goes both ways. The feedback I’ve received from colleagues, including from this most recent run of the assignment, is that it helped them as academics to reflect on their own assumptions and frameworks when studying religion. Several of them have gained new insights into their own work and how they have changed over the years in their own “theory” of religion (mostly without even realizing that they have a theoretical and methodological disposition).

So, the assignment has been successful, I think. The inspiration for this assignment was my own training as a graduate student. When I took at theory course at Wilfrid Laurier University under Michel Desjardins (now just retired), we were required to read works from local scholars, including those in our own department. We also had two significant theorists from the University of Toronto visit us (Marsha Hewitt and Don Wiebe) after we had read and analyzed a sample of their work. My own take on this “introducing local scholars as data” to students has taken a slightly different form, of course, mostly to highlight my own understanding of “theory” in the study of religion. But I think that this assignment has been a good one. I look forward to tweaking and running this assignment in future theory in the study of religion courses.

 

 

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