Dispatches from LeConte Hall 323 – Part VIII
by Darren Grem
Things are winding down in our “uncoverage” study of American religious history. Breaking into the late twentieth century this week, we studied the religious underpinnings of political activism, focusing on the civil rights movement and women’s movement. Another selection – Freedom Faith – from the PBS documentary This Far By Faith started us off. I wanted students to consider more than just the notable leaders of the civil rights movement, so they took notes on how this film portrayed the religious activism of African-Americans in the rural and small town South of the 1960s. By giving them some leading questions to guide their note taking, I tried to tie this film back to what we had studied previously about African-American religions and politics, as well as more theoretical concepts like the “religion of the American Way of Life” and “civil religion.” They were more successful at the former analysis than the latter, sometimes skipping completely over questions about how these activists both criticized and utilized notions of “religious freedom,” “religious individualism,” and “civil religion.” Only a few students caught on to these more conceptual connections, and this problem continued as they analyzed documents from the civil rights movement and women’s movement. Utilizing selections from King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Malcolm X’s “Letters from Abroad,” and Mary F. Daly’s Beyond God the Father, I wanted them to consider the overlap between notions of “religious freedom” and “religious liberation.” How are the two connected? How might the former notion, however defined in various religions, inform similar or different interpretations of the latter notion? Oddly, our discussion of these matters was decidedly unsatisfactory, at least from my seat. Even though I graphed out some of their ideas on the board, this didn’t enliven our discussion much in either the morning or afternoon class. When thinking back, I believe I was asking the wrong questions – or too vaguely put questions – to elicit responses that helped them understand - or debate - the nuances of the material better. But I think their difficulty with this section was also symptomatic of another issue I’ve been having recently with certain aspects of this course’s “uncoverage” design.
Most history classes flow from lectures into discussions. “Uncoverage” works in the reverse, starting with discussions of “raw” history and then following with a concluding lecture. Although I think this reorganization is great for jolting students out of their comfort zone early in the term, I’ve increasingly come to believe that it grants diminishing returns later in the term. Students need scaffolding, and, frankly, nothing like straight-up lecturing grants that. That’s not to say that I’m going to return to a lecture-driven pedagogy for smaller classes like this one; rather, I want to reintroduce lectures at the beginning of specific sections of the class, particularly ones where I think the broad historical context is a necessary foundation for understanding a given set of documents, a film, etc.
There’s a number of other edits that I want to make to the course, but I’ll relate those later, after I get back the end-term course evaluations. We’re moving through our last section of the course – Religion in “Culture War” America – this week, and will finish things off with their writing portfolios and final assignment in the next. Until then…