I’m currently in my second full term teaching UGA’s Hist3150 course, a drive-by survey of American religious history. When crafting the course the first time around, I was high on the idea of “covering” as much as I could in a term – a common rookie mistake. Although my students reported last term that they “enjoyed the course” and “appreciated my lecture style,” they were overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material we blew through. They felt that they had a broad, but not very deep, understanding of America’s religious past. In short, they had signed up for a survey, had gotten a survey, and were telling me that, well, they didn’t want a survey.
This is a common problem for the U.S. history survey, and re-thinkers like Lendol Calder have advocated an “uncoverage” approach as the solution. Concerning the American religious history survey – or, heck, any religious history class – his ideas might work even better. Teaching American religious history at least adds another adjective in the course’s title, which cuts down on questions and concerns. But which books or documents will best relate to students a sense of the questions and concerns that we, as the “senior students” in the class, are interested in? What techniques or assignments?
An even more challenging prospect might be teaching them to think historically about religion. A friend of mine – a historian of sexuality – once expressed that his field and the field of religious history have a lot in common. We both see our subjects – sexuality and religion – as historically contingent, and we both often teach students who do not necessarily share that view. How do we sensitively teach about religion’s socio-economic, racial, and gendered context and the impact of that context on religious beliefs and practices, without leading our students into either reactive resistance to that notion or a sort of resigned relativism? What sort of pedagogy best encourages critical, yet measured, thinking about religion in American history? How do we teach them to create their own perspective on that history, to craft their own “histories of the unseen”?
For most of our students, our classes are the only examination of “religion in American history” they’ll ever encounter. Might as well put our heads together to make sure that encounter is as good as it should be.