BY KELLY BAKER
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.