Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part III
This week we studied “Religious Encounters.” To start us off, I dropped the students into the middle of Black Robe, a film that details the fictional journey of a French Jesuit priest to a Huron mission in the 1630s. Aside from certain inaccuracies and oversimplifications, this Hollywood portrayal does a decent job of presenting both the complete and incomplete conversions that often resulted in the “middle ground” of post-contact America. Hence, I asked the students to take “field notes” of what they saw, listing the specific beliefs and practices of the Jesuit missionaries and the Algonquin, Iroquois, and Huron. Then, they had to explain why conversions did or did not take place.
Documents from Gaustad and Noll’s A Documentary History of Religion in America complicated matters further, but also, I think, offered more perspective. The tendency (honestly come by, to be sure) to see the result of religious encounters as a historical given faded for most students after reading these documents, each of which presents a more complicated – but no less disturbing – portrayal of religious encounters in New France and New Spain. Their papers on the documents showed a greater willingness to consider why religious encounters unfolded as they did, instead of merely restating their initial reactions to Black Robe, which mostly simplified those encounters into a one-way history of inevitable conquest.
After our discussion of these documents, I reiterated their conclusions via a lecture and slideshow, but also reminded students that going overboard with some of their conclusions wasn’t advisable either. Just because we noted that “religious encounters” were often unpredictable and messy didn’t make the history under study any less unsettling. We must strive, I reminded them, both to understand why religious encounters in colonial American unfolded as they did, but also why they resulted in more religious deletions than religious accommodations and adaptations. Given that our next section will deal with all sorts of religious conflicts and collusions between colonial Christianities, I stressed the point more than I initially intended, and I believe they grasped it. I suppose I’ll find out next week and down the road when they’re working on their final assignments.
This was the first “graded” week of classes, as well as the first week where students encountered the “uncoverage” pedagogy in full force. Fortunately, I was able to speak with a few students as the week went on and gather some initial impressions from them. One described the class as “interesting,” while another assured me that the pedagogy was a “refreshing” way to look at history. I had a longer discussion with another student, however, who wanted more context for the documents we studied. Her concerns were apt and well placed, and, frankly, I sympathize with them. Historians often start with documents first and use them to form conclusions about the economic, cultural, and/or political context second. But is that the best way to teach history? Admittedly, it gets students to “do history” as we do it, with all the fun and frustration thrown in. But should we grant more context up front, or let them come to their own conclusions – within appropriate limits – about that context via the “raw” history under study? That’s an issue I’m glad the student raised for me, and one that I will no doubt continue to consider.