So, I took the train down to NYC last week. Not to see Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party (which looks hilarious), but rather to present my work to the Columbia University Seminar on Religion in America. (I love trains and seminars. Better than plains, rowboats, and/or webinars any day.) The seminar, founded over ten years ago, “explores the role of religion in American society from cross-disciplinary perspectives, including history, anthropology, literature, sociology, theology, and material culture.” In a posh faculty house that looked like a country club, minus the golfers, I talked about my paper, “‘A great many theologians’: Premillennial Authorities and Modern American Evangelicalism.” I benefited tremendously from some wonderful critique and q and a. The questions that historians and religious studies scholars ask can be quite different. So, it’s always a plus to take in the advice of those in other, related fields. Some wanted to know how representative are the evangelicals my co-author and I focus on. Others wondered about what makes a given leader an “expert” or an “authority.” Was all very good food for thought. Dinner afterward—food for stomach—offered a nice chance to get to know those in attendance. (One of them, Daniel Vaca, a PhD student at Columbia, was a fantastic host.)
While in NYC, I also had some time to catch up with a close friend who works at Cooper Union and pop into McSorleys. In addition I had the pleasure of attending Randall Balmer’s survey course on American religious history at Barnard College. If you teach American religious history, you probably don’t have too many opportunities to bounce ideas off others who teach the same, or get new light on old topics from colleagues in the field. (Though, this is one of the most amazing benefits of the Young Scholars in American Religion program.) I enjoyed hearing and seeing how Balmer conducts his class. It was filled with about 100 students from Barnard and Columbia. He covered the rise of utopian communities in the 19th century, bringing in the Shakers and the Oneida Perfectionists (the Shakers’ polar opposite? I wonder if any Shakers ever went over to John Humphrey Noyes’s unbuttoned camp). Then he concluded by showing part of Ken Burns's elegiac classic, The Shakers.
After the class, I sat down with Balmer in his office to ask him some questions about teaching the American religious history survey and to pick his brain about other courses he's offers. The interview here is divided into two parts (part 2 is here). Balmer speaks about drawing students into the story. He also describes some new courses he’s taught in recent years and focuses in on what he’s learned from a new course on Mormonism. His comments got me thinking a little bit about how teaching new courses can lead to surprising, new research interests. My course on America in the 1960s has certainly led me in some surprising directions. (I still have not perfected my plans to teach that class on Rosicrucian Trapeze Artists in Late-19th-Century Pennsylvania. There's always next year!)