Recently, The Immanent Frame has initiated a series of conversations around teaching, including two previous “off the cuff” discussions: “What are you teaching?” and “Digital projects in the classroom.” Readers have often reported that they view TIF as a teaching tool, insofar as it has introduced them to new scholarship or served as a source of essays they assign to both undergraduates and graduate students. We are hoping to embrace and further cultivate the site’s function as a teaching resource.
For this conversation, we asked respondents: How have you used TIF in your teaching? What has worked, for which students and classes, and why?
The contributors to this discussion are:
Nandini Deo | Political Science, Lehigh University
Sonia Hazard | Religious Studies, Franklin and Marshall College
Charlie McCrary | John C. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics, Washington University in St. Louis
Samira Mehta | Religious Studies, Albright College
Erik Owens | International Studies and Theology, Boston College
L. Benjamin Rolsky | Religious Studies, Monmouth University
If you have used The Immanent Frame while teaching undergraduate or graduate students—or you have suggestions for how the site might serve better as a teaching tool—please share your reflections in the comments section or write to the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments will be monitored by the editors.
Nandini Deo, Lehigh University
In my upper level course “Religion and Politics,” students are eager to dive into current controversies over the role of religion in the public sphere. And I am eager to offer them a critical perspective on secularism, the construction of religion, and the way in which so many debates about religion are the means by which secularist societies define themselves.
To tell the story I want to and to enable us to have more productive discussions over today’s headlines, I find it necessary to tell students something about the histories of secularism in the West and the West’s encounters with its global Others. Obviously, this task itself entails covering hundreds of years of history and intellectual thought. How to accomplish it quickly enough so that we can get to contemporary critiques of secularisms?
Last semester I assigned students an excerpt from Mark Lilla’s Stillborn God paired with reviews of the book from TIF by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd and James Smith. I followed this with an excerpt from Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood and a review of that book. By pairing these two texts I invited the students to think about the history of Western secularism in conjunction with world histories of religion, the state, and violence.
By having the students read Lilla’s own work and commentaries on it by two scholars of secularism I was able to help them read between the lines and against the grain. They were able to identify the assumptions and elisions that weaken Lilla’s argument, which they otherwise would not have known to identify. Reading the dialogue between scholars also models for them how to read critically—absorbing a set of ideas and testing them out against new data in order to refine theory. The forum for such debate and discussion that TIF provides is a very useful way of introducing students to scholarly debate and a lesson in how to “speak back” to experts. A final benefit to this reading is that their final assignment is to write a scholarly review of a recent book on religion and politics of their choice, and now they have examples of how to do just that.
Sonia Hazard, Franklin and Marshall College
What does it feel like to live in an immanent frame, in a world in which we face one another as buffered selves, impervious to tangible enchantments? In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains that for many moderns, that feeling is malaise: “we could sum up the malaise of immanence in the words of a famous song by Peggy Lee: ‘Is that all there is?’” The image is a haunting one. The mood of the secular is like that of the unmoved Peggy, watching her childhood home burn, wondering when she can start drinking.
“Is this all there is?”—the title prompt for a TIF feature last year, edited by Courtney Bender and Nancy Levene—is a great question, and it is especially great for teaching. It was a question that got under the skin of my students in my Introduction to Religious Studies class last semester. Teaching Taylor worked, first because his thesis has the ring of the familiar: the students themselves are interpellated as his subjects, and who has not experienced alienation? But also the way Taylor poses the singer’s question begs for pushback. Answering “yes” seems callous. The “no” offers the pleasures of critique while coaxing alternative accounts. This group of students came alive with vivid descriptions of porousness in their lives. One sophomore counter-theorized that modernity enables the moving back and forth between states of porousness and bufferedness: when she visited the Islamic Community Center of Lancaster for an assignment, she was hit with a sense of permeability in encountering a new religious world that required post hoc rebuffering (!).
Fortified by that response to A Secular Age in my class, I turned to Bender and Levene’s series in an independent study on Religion, Materiality, and Modernity with one of our senior majors. For one session, I asked my student to choose four essays to read, teach me about, and discuss together. I liked the idea of directing an enthusiastic undergrad to TIF, first because it performs nerdery in public, establishing a point of connection between nerd-sphere and public sphere. I also liked how the stylish format of the series encourages scrolling and clicking, cueing the excitements of discovery and abundance.
And then there is the tone of the articles themselves. Without any explicit prompt to go personal, the question seemed to invite that sort of reflection, just as it had for my introductory students. Scholars discussed their despair, their pets, and the novels that helped them survive the summer. A surprising (to me) number described their own flushes with the supernatural. It is also clear that Peggy’s question touched a nerve. Its moodiness, its yawning nonchalance at this moment of modernity in which things are not fine, brought out raw expressions of anger and anxiety rarely seen in academic writing. It was meaningful for my student to see how scholars reckoned with the same concerns that mattered to her. The series, then, is especially useful for modeling and guiding students toward my hopes for them: that they are able to forge connections between the material and their lives; tackle tough ideas with passion and pleasure; and take themselves seriously as thinkers.
Charlie McCrary, Washington University in St. Louis
The Immanent Frame, like a good course, consists of sustained engagement with ideas and other people. A conversation. In all my courses, but especially the upper-level ones with lower enrollment numbers, I try to teach students to have better conversations: to listen generously and carefully, be clear and precise, and offer productive contributions. Scholarship and society are at their best when based on conversation and exchange. Good conversations are hard, and they take practice. When I lecture, I try to model the type of thinking I want students to learn and practice. But I cannot model conversation by myself. So I turn to TIF.
The “Exchanges” work well in the classroom as models for conversation as well as fodder for new conversations. In past semesters, I have assigned these forums (this, this, and this one; I hope to use this one soon, which comes with a teaching guide!), requiring each student to read the introduction and then at least one other essay. In conversation with their classmates, students see how the essays’ authors are in conversation with each other, just as we undertake the collaborative intellectual activity of “placing them in conversation” with each other, with other materials from the course, and with our own ideas. My Religion, Race, and Ethnicity course last semester read and thought in conversation with the “off-the-cuff” forum on “Religion, secularism, and Black Lives Matter.” Each student read twelve short pieces, so there was no shortage of arguments and angles for each of them to key on, and this variety made for a dynamic discussion in class as well as written work.
Next spring, I will teach a course titled Sincerity, Authenticity, and American Religion. Following Elizabeth Markovits’s critique of sincerity’s role in politics—wherein fixation on “telling it like it is” and the affect of a “straight shooter” forestalls critical evaluation of the substance of political claims—the course will discover and analyze sincerity’s Protestant-secular roots. A very TIF-y sort of argument. At the same time, we will work to create the sort of conversations TIF models and generates: careful, civil, and generous, but always clear about what we really mean, not just whether we really mean it.
Samira Mehta, Albright College
I last taught African American religious history in Fall 2017. Knowing that I wanted to have at least one class address religion and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and on the advice of Matthew J. Cressler of the College of Charleston, I turned to The Immanent Frame’s excellent roundtable on “Religion, secularism, and Black Lives Matter.”
The roundtable provided an interdisciplinary collection of readings addressing the construction of religiosity and secularity in the BLM movement. While each perspective was fewer than eight hundred words, I knew my students would not be willing to read so many separate takes nor would they be able to deeply and carefully engage with so many voices. What to do?
The diversity of voices caused me to innovate one of the most successful class sessions of the semester. Each student read one of the pieces in the roundtable so that in class they could debate from the perspective of that author. I did not care about whether they agreed with their assigned author but rather whether they could answer questions from that person’s perspective. And then I posed questions that they needed to be able answer and debate: Does your person think BLM is religious or secular? Why or why not? What does that understanding say about how the scholar understands African American religion, religion in general, or the relationship between religion and social movements in particular?
My students loved the exercise because the short but rigorous pieces were perfect for their needs—they could grapple with difficult material, but in bite sized pieces that were not too frustrating. They drew connections between BLM and other themes of the course—thinking particularly about what “counts” as religion and the intersection of media portrayals of social movements and the politics of respectability. And they learned. As one student put it, “There is politics in whether you say BLM is religious or secular.”
Erik Owens, Boston College
I have admired and appreciated The Immanent Frame as a platform, and consumed its product, for nearly a decade now. It has become a solid part of my rotation as an academic reader, and I have seen it grow into a prominent part of an ecosystem of intellectual exchange about religion and secularism that connects books, blogs, academic panels, public events, and journal articles.
Over the years I have used a variety of TIF materials as a teacher for the same reasons I use them as a scholar: they help to contextualize challenging books and inspire new approaches for reflection on complex subjects. In a recent doctoral seminar on American political theology, for example, I assigned Joseph Blankholm’s interview with Philip Gorski (“American civil religion in the age of Obama“) as we read Gorski’s book American Covenant. I frequently use TIF materials when discussing religious freedom and US foreign policy in my undergraduate course Ethics, Religion and International Politics. The 2013 “off-the-cuff” series on “Engaging religion at the Department of State” still sheds light on important issues. And my favorite TIF material to use these days is the forum for Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s book Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion. Opened in March 2016, the forum produced nine essays over four months, until Hurd’s response in early August closed out the series. Benjamin Schonthal’s brilliant piece, “The uncertainty principles of Heisenberg and Hurd,” and Noah Salomon’s terrific article, “The new global politics of religious freedom: A view from the other side,” hum with intellectual energy.
These essays and others from TIF have stimulated great discussion among students, along with the sort of deep, thoughtful pauses every teacher loves. They inspire graduate students to write such pieces, and they help undergraduates wrestle with what can be new and challenging concepts. I look forward to more of the same in the coming years.
L. Benjamin Rolsky, Monmouth University
I first encountered The Immanent Frame through another SSRC Religion digital project, Frequencies, a “collaborative genealogy of spirituality,” as a graduate student at Yale University. Scholar of religion Kathryn Lofton had just arrived, and much of my coursework unfolded within her general purview. I witnessed the collaborative venture unfold virtually firsthand. The topics were endlessly fascinating, yet when considering the usefulness of this online collection for the classroom, a couple of specific applications come to mind.
The project was and is collaborative in nature. Over and against the largely solitary productions of academia, this project sought a different type of insight, one that was constituted by a multiplicity of disciplines, scholarly vantages, and compositional styles. This scholastic eclecticism was most evident in what and how the contributors wrote. Compared to more routinized academic prose, Frequencies featured experimental writing—a genre of cultural criticism less concerned with formal dictates and reasoning, and more in touch with reflective investigation and analysis.
I have used both Frequencies and The Immanent Frame to model collaborative and creative work, and draw from both resources for a formal writing assignment in seminars on Religion and American Spirituality as well as on American Religion and Politics. By the end of the semester, I use less technical academic scholarship and more free-flowing pieces in order to illustrate the range of scholarly work. I assign TIF and Frequencies pieces as both aspirational models and sources of class instruction.
The students’ assignment is to first choose an object of American culture that might not otherwise be included in formal study, exchange their selections and early drafts with a colleague for editorial revision, and then compose an experimental reflection on that object that resonates with the style of the online pieces. The result is twofold: 1) students grapple with and think about how best to articulate their scholarly voices according to their own writing styles, and 2) it illustrates the elasticity of the term “scholar” in her ability to speak through various platforms to an array of diverse audiences. In these ways, both collections can and should be deployed in the classroom in an effort to broaden our students’ scholastic horizons and knowledge while reinforcing the importance of audience awareness and prose style.