By Phillip Luke Sinitiere
One of the current threads over at H-World is about sharing teaching strategies and best practices in the classroom: what teachers and professors do on the first day of class to introduce world history.
Some have a class discussion to define world history; others use string to illustrate human history and the scope of universal time. Some even give geography/map assignments as a way to introduce the breadth of world history.
The H-World thread thus prompts this query: What do you do on the first day of class to introduce American religious history? What strategies work best? Why? And these questions are for students, too: what first day assignments or activities have you found most interesting and intriguing in American religious history classes?
In the past I've posed the question, "When you think about religion in America, what comes to mind and why?" The answers are always interesting, and usually prompt engaging discussion.
I've also brought up the question of religious (il)literacy, passing out Stephen Prothero's 2005 Christian Science Monitor article, "A Nation of Religious Illiterates" (a very short, concise version of the larger argument in Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-and Doesn't) for students to read and discuss. (You may also want to show Prothero's interview on The Daily Show from March 2007; it is just under 7 minutes.) I followed this discussion (for last summer's class) by giving students the 15-question religious literacy quiz from the Appendix of Prothero's book. While I don't formally grade this quiz, I do discuss the answers with students-again an occasion for lively conversation.
To engage discussion, I might ask questions such as: Why does Prothero make this argument and what evidence does he cite? What exactly is religious literacy, and why does it matter? As for the quiz, I ask students to think about what religions and/or religious practices do not appear on it, and why they think this is the case? I also ask them to propose one or two questions they think should be added to the quiz (and why).