Ethnography in Religious Studies Classroom


For at least seven semesters now, I have assigned all my Religion classes an ethnographic project, which is basically a one-time field visit to a religious service of their choosing (but it has to be outside of their own tradition). As papers are closing in on me and my desk appears disheveled if not unkempt, I have began to ponder how to improve this assignment. This was not a concern 80 papers ago when I thought this assignment was flawless, and I scoffed arrogantly at those who would not include such a valuable experience in their classroom. My students love the project, and I love grading them.

These projects secretly functioned within my own research agenda. I am fascinated with applying ethnographic method to history, and I equally intrigued by how my students apply their field visits to their larger understandings of my courses. Does religion lose some of the mystery and intrigue when viewed from a pew or from the well-worn carpet of a meditation center rather than when understood simply through my attempts to paint pictures with the words of my lectures? Does the experience of a foreign religious tradition help them ingest the copious amounts of information that they have heard and read? Or perhaps, to put this much more bluntly, why do my students enjoy these projects so much? (I have only had two students abstain from the project and request another assignment.)

This is when I get nervous. Am I feeding into voyeuristic impulse by sending them to worship centers? Am I making them pluralists by exposing them to religious traditions beyond their own? How much responsibility do I have for what they get out of this project? Most students embrace this has a one time step-out-of-my box sort of experience in which they provide me with paeans to religious tolerance, which I think that they think I want to hear. Some barely do the assignment and provide me with a play-by-play of the service, which makes me feel like I am reading transcripts from a sporting event. This majority is convinced that they learned more in one class visit than in a whole semester of lectures. Ouch, doe this sting my ego or what? Really, I ask, you learned more in 45 minutes than you did in a 16 week semester? They usually smile and nod to my incredulity. This project uplifts the experiential, and my students bask in the possibility. Through experience, they assure me, they learn more. This proves to be particularly bothersome not just because of the bruised ego, but because of what it suggests to me about how they view learning. For many, not all, of my students, you can only learn when you experience something first hand.

The logic progresses that they can only know religion when they see, hear, and feel it first hand. This sensual process gives them access to knowledge that no book or instructor can provide. After grading these papers, my anxiety gnaws at me. What have I done? Have I invalidated my classroom by allowing them to seek out religious services as a grade? I want them to realize that you can learn about religion through lectures and readings just as much as you can through the field visit, but I am afraid this does not come across.

Additionally, in the last couple rounds of papers, I have had students, who have found religious validation in this short visits. Students have been saved by the healing power of Christ, had their hearts warmed by an energetic praise band at non-denominational services, and found an inner peace through Buddhist meditation. What am I to do with these papers? I meekly explain that this not the intended goal of the field visit, but I feel somewhat responsible for these religious conversions. As my spouse so aptly puts it, are you bringing students to Jesus? Again, this is not the goal, but what am I to do? The question I have for the blog readers is how do we navigate the choppy waters of real live exposure to religious movements and the students' attempts to use these visits to find religion? How do I make them realize that we can study religion with or without the experience, and that either is legitimate.


Seth Dowland said…
Kelly - Thanks for this post. Have you ever tried assigning the ethnography visit as a group project? I had students visit religious communities in groups of three a couple years ago, and they produced some rich essays and presentations. And visiting in groups seemed to increase the likelihood that they would treat it as an academic project and not as a religious quest.

Even so, I had plenty of students say that their visit to the religious community was far more valuable than my lectures--you're not alone in that respect!

In spite of the risks inherent to such an assignment, I really do think it's worth doing. Most (but not all) students do learn a lot from these projects.

Great post.
Kelly Baker said…

Thanks so much for your comments. I think I will make it a group assignment in future semesters. And I definitely don't want to discard it. This semester in particular I had a student who was highly skeptical of Mormons for various reasons, so she took the plunge and went to a service. Surprise, she realized they were not the scary after all :)
Jason said…
Frankly, and we've talked about this before, I've always found this assignment troubling. You've identified some of the reasons in your post, and I think that perhaps the most compelling one is that it undermines your classroom work. Why do sixteen weeks of work convincing students that history has something to do with religion (a difficult task in its own right) and then turn around and send the message that you can learn something about what religion is by an "experience" unrelated to history?

Leaving that aside, I wonder what students, even the best students in the best circumstances, can learn during these visits? It seems like the best outcome you are going to get is a paper connecting whatever they observed to what was learned in the course. Did they really need to do yoga to get that?

You also suggest that the exercise plays into their baser instincts that "experience" is superior to its negation (whatever that is -- thinking perhaps?). The reason for this problem is that the assignment is based on the idea that whatever goes on in the church or religious building is religion; that religion looks a particular way that is different than what happens in the classroom. But in fact we both well know that historically religious practice has included both church theatrics involving snakes (or stretching, or whatever) and the intellectual exercise that happens in and around the classroom.

This isn't to say that I think there are not reasons to leave the classroom. How about forcing the students to go important historical sites related or (seemingly) unrelated to religion and then having them write about what the site has to do with religion? Or make them attend a meeting of some local political body, such as the city council, and analyze its proceedings for religious content. There are a number of places you could send them, but it seems to me that church is the worst.
Phil said…
Interesting post, Kelly, and keen thoughts from both Seth and Jason. A group ethnography sounds promising, yet a focus on the experiential in the spaces of a church or other "formal" place of worship or devotion, as Jason suggests, may pose problematic issues as well.

Looking for, or observing religion in "unlikely" places like shopping malls or other consumer space may prove equally interesting.

I assigned an observation assignment this summer in an upper-level American religion class, and this conversation so far has provided much to think about for next time.

As for your final comment Kelly, it seems that Robert Orsi was quite correct in _Between Heaven and Earth_ when he writes about blurring the lines between being a participant and an observer. It can be quite muddy, and that's what makes it so interesting.
Tom said…
Just wondering why your students should pick a religious tradition outside of their own? I've found that giving them the option of choosing their own tradition gives them the opportunity to see their religion in a new and/or deeper ways.