The Graduate

Paul Harvey

This one goes out especially for you grad. students out there, but perhaps veterans would have some responses as well.

Historiann has a typically engaging post on "Modern Graduate Studies and the Value of Historiography." I recommend it to all.

(Since we're historians, a little history: This post follows up on a discussion initiated last year, in which I participated a bit, on our annoyance at the cult of assessment and some of the rhetoric [not all, by any means] that emanates on occasion from teaching and learning centers [which inspired a rant of my own, "Why the More Time I Spend Doing Assessment, the Worse I Become as a Teacher, and Vice-Versa"]. Having just filled out another of those reports, I'm ready to rant again, but will restrain this time; don't get used to that).

Historiann's latest reflections occasion two thoughts here. First, the best teacher I ever had -- my graduate advisor Leon Litwack -- broke every rule in the "teaching and learning center" handbook; so did one of my other beloved teachers, the late Russian history scholar Martin Malia, who was about as far afield ideologically, personally, pedagogically, and professionally from Prof. Litwack as it is humanly possible to be. When we had a conference to honor Litwack some years back, I reflected on this very fact, asking the question, "how do you emulate the un-emulatable"? The answer, of course, is that you don't; but the answer also is that great teaching is singularly related to (albeit not guaranteed by, more on that below) absolute mastery of a field.

That's not to say the rules in those how-to-be-a-good-teacher-books and workshops don't have a lot of useful suggestions, nor that attending teaching/learning workshops isn't a good thing, nor that others who also break all those rules also happen to be horrible teachers (although I can only think of one that I ever saw at Berkeley who fit the stereotype of the fabled superannuated professor reading off outdated yellow notes to audibly bored undergraduates; it was impossible to restrain laughter at seeing such a stereotype so perfectly enacted in person). It's just to say that teaching liberal arts is an awfully mysterious and wonderfully personal art. May it ever remain so, even when we have to quantify "outcomes"; nay, especially when we have to do so. One of my goals is to foster confusion and ambiguity, and I have yet to figure out how to quanitfy that "learning outcome." Like Mario Savio and Charlie Chaplin, a little throwing of our bodies onto the machine is a good thing, as long as you get off in time.

Historiann's post also made me reflect on what kinds of "training" people have to teach American religious history. Anybody care to comment? Here's the training I had: none, nada, zilch. I was doing American history, and southern history, and back in the day we didn't really have anything, at Berkeley anyway, called religious history. Some other places probably did, even then; a lot more do now, either as separate programs, as sub-units within larger American history departments, or within ye olde Department of Religion or Religious Studies.

I have no idea what discussions are like among those training to research/teach American religious history, and whether there are moves afoot to fundamentally change something about graduate study in the field (especially along the lines of linking training more directly to teaching). Anybody want to share experiences in this regard. Rants welcome; for once, I've turned off my rant-o-tron. Does training to teach American religious history (or studies, or whatever) look like training for any other field of history? How about in Religious Studies?

Update: Last year Deg did a great series on his "uncoverage" approach to American religious history. Today, Historiann issues her own "Manifesto Against Coverage," this more generally in the American history survey. So in addition to the invitation for comments on the post above, feel free to talk about how you deal with the devil of "coverage" in the American religious history context.


Brad Hart said…
Well, I imagine that the teaching of religious history has a lot to do with WHERE you are teaching, and/or studying (at least that is my assumption). For example, the History Department of Liberty University states the following with respect to its academic purpose:

"It is the purpose of the Department of History to teach and train students toward a Christian worldview of history. Offering general education courses, major programs and graduate courses, the Department gives comprehensive instruction in history and historical methodology, encourages students to develop an integrated Christian worldview, equips them for service, and prepares graduates for further education and careers."

One can only wonder how many of David Barton's books are assigned reading for the early American block.

Now I am sure that this is an extreme example, but I do think it illustrates the fact that the teaching of religious history has a lot to do with WHERE you studied. Is it a stretch to assume that a graduate of BYU will take a different angle to his/her teaching than a graduate from Notre Dame? Maybe I am wrong or guilty of assuming too much but I think that a topic as complex as religious history has to be influenced by where the student received his/her training.
Mike Pasquier said…
I come from a religious studies graduate program in American religious history at Florida State University. By the second or third year, every student teaches his or her own class called "Religion in the U.S.". It's really a sink-or-swim situation, and I would say 9 times out of 10 it's a positive, highly constructive experience. We're practically given free reign, meaning that some teach in a more conventional, chronological fashion, while others experiment with more thematic approaches and ethnographic projects. I don't know of too many programs that cut their students loose at such an early stage, but I can't thank my advisers enough for doing so. By the end of my time at FSU, I had also taught courses in World Religions, American Catholic history, and the history of religion in the U.S. South. They put a lot of trust in our knowledge of the field and our ability to teach, and I think I'm a better scholar and teacher for it. They let us be ourselves, to develop our own narratives of American religious history, and, in the process, become more confident of our place in the field.
deg said…
I was given free reign as well at UGA since nobody had taught American religious history since the early 1990s here (at least that's what I heard). The syllabi I was given bespoke of the datedness of previous offerings. They weren't bad classes, by any means, but they were all entitled "Religion in the United States" and basically started with the Puritans. So, I was given the job of updating them according to more recent scholarship, which meant I could fit my class into my own reflections on the field and where I thought it needed to go next.

Still, in all honesty, my first time around I had no idea what made for a "solid" American religious history course. So, I just taught it from Native Americans to 9/11, with as much shoved into 15 weeks as I could feasibly do. That worked well enough, but as I've written about here before, I was unsatisfied. After experimenting for a term with the "uncoverage" process, I've split the difference between a coverage and uncoverage approach. My religion class now takes a more topical approach that uses a goodly number of primary docs to direct our study from topic to topic. I think it's a bit more disconnected class than it used to be, but it allows my classes to dig deeper into the major problems that American religious history offers.

I've done a decent amount of reading on teaching college-level history, but haven't found anything helpful on teaching American religious history in a university setting. It's a good question if there's any thing particular about teaching the subject, as opposed to other subjects like labor history or immigration history or civil rights history. I certainly take the position in my classes that religion is an uniquely sensual form of human experience, something heard, felt, and seen by people. Hence, my classes have a healthy audio-visual component to get across the intangible aspects of religious life and connect them to tangible things like, say, skyscrapers, cotton prices, and ballot boxes. But I'd certainly like to read more reflection on that question or particularist vs. universal pedegogy.
I work in a teaching and learning center, and I just want to point out that at the best of these kinds of centers, we work very hard to get faculty to break the rules. Many faculty come in for "teaching tips" on lecturing or writing exams or whatever, and we're happy to help, but much of the time we're trying to be more revolutionary in helping them to really engage and inspire students.
Paul Harvey said…
Leslie: Many thanks for your comment, and I hope my little rant (left over from this previous discussion, as noted on the post) did not come off as dissing all teaching/learning centers. Very glad to hear you're a rule-breaker!