This one goes out especially for you grad. students out there, but perhaps veterans would have some responses as well.
Historiann has a typically engaging post on "Modern Graduate Studies and the Value of Historiography." I recommend it to all.
(Since we're historians, a little history: This post follows up on a discussion initiated last year, in which I participated a bit, on our annoyance at the cult of assessment and some of the rhetoric [not all, by any means] that emanates on occasion from teaching and learning centers [which inspired a rant of my own, "Why the More Time I Spend Doing Assessment, the Worse I Become as a Teacher, and Vice-Versa"]. Having just filled out another of those reports, I'm ready to rant again, but will restrain this time; don't get used to that).
Historiann's latest reflections occasion two thoughts here. First, the best teacher I ever had -- my graduate advisor Leon Litwack -- broke every rule in the "teaching and learning center" handbook; so did one of my other beloved teachers, the late Russian history scholar Martin Malia, who was about as far afield ideologically, personally, pedagogically, and professionally from Prof. Litwack as it is humanly possible to be. When we had a conference to honor Litwack some years back, I reflected on this very fact, asking the question, "how do you emulate the un-emulatable"? The answer, of course, is that you don't; but the answer also is that great teaching is singularly related to (albeit not guaranteed by, more on that below) absolute mastery of a field.
That's not to say the rules in those how-to-be-a-good-teacher-books and workshops don't have a lot of useful suggestions, nor that attending teaching/learning workshops isn't a good thing, nor that others who also break all those rules also happen to be horrible teachers (although I can only think of one that I ever saw at Berkeley who fit the stereotype of the fabled superannuated professor reading off outdated yellow notes to audibly bored undergraduates; it was impossible to restrain laughter at seeing such a stereotype so perfectly enacted in person). It's just to say that teaching liberal arts is an awfully mysterious and wonderfully personal art. May it ever remain so, even when we have to quantify "outcomes"; nay, especially when we have to do so. One of my goals is to foster confusion and ambiguity, and I have yet to figure out how to quanitfy that "learning outcome." Like Mario Savio and Charlie Chaplin, a little throwing of our bodies onto the machine is a good thing, as long as you get off in time.
Historiann's post also made me reflect on what kinds of "training" people have to teach American religious history. Anybody care to comment? Here's the training I had: none, nada, zilch. I was doing American history, and southern history, and back in the day we didn't really have anything, at Berkeley anyway, called religious history. Some other places probably did, even then; a lot more do now, either as separate programs, as sub-units within larger American history departments, or within ye olde Department of Religion or Religious Studies.
I have no idea what discussions are like among those training to research/teach American religious history, and whether there are moves afoot to fundamentally change something about graduate study in the field (especially along the lines of linking training more directly to teaching). Anybody want to share experiences in this regard. Rants welcome; for once, I've turned off my rant-o-tron. Does training to teach American religious history (or studies, or whatever) look like training for any other field of history? How about in Religious Studies?
Update: Last year Deg did a great series on his "uncoverage" approach to American religious history. Today, Historiann issues her own "Manifesto Against Coverage," this more generally in the American history survey. So in addition to the invitation for comments on the post above, feel free to talk about how you deal with the devil of "coverage" in the American religious history context.