Like most in our discipline, I watched the God in America series on PBS. There are many elements of the series that have been discussed here and on other blogs, such as events, figures, or themes left out of the series, overly represented in the series, or given an unexpected portrayal. While listening to the commentators and following the story they mapped, I thought about American religious history narratives and how particular events can make all the difference to the story.
As a Ph.D. student at Florida State University, I get the opportunity to teach a section of the Religion in US History survey course. Each time I have taught it or assisted a professor, the narrative is different. Given our varied research interests, what we know best and what we most enjoy exploring seeps into our courses. I most enjoy teaching when pushing my students to think about the role race has played in our nation’s history and how its influence in American religion has never been neutral. And I know this leaves less time for other topics, but like all teachers, I try to negotiate it best I can. For a survey course, I find the most frustrating planning part to be: what to cut and who to leave out. Course organization varies as we decide whether to cover the history chronologically or thematically. For example, God in America chose chronologically and devoted one-third of the airtime for the latter half of the twentieth century to the present. Over six hours or fifteen short weeks, preparation decisions whittle down the story to fit the time allotted, and all the deities in the world know I wish for more time.
At the 2008 National American Academy of Religion meeting in Chicago, the Q&A during a panel on violence in American religious history brought survey course organization into the discussion. Not entirely surprising, it was a graduate student working on teaching her own undergraduate course who raised it. One of the audience members who offered guidance was Thomas Tweed, whose 1997 edited volume Retelling U.S. Religious History called the academy’s attention to the way we narrate our field. Recognizing our own voices in our work and their impact on our (hi)stories force a scholastic self-reflexivity that is also applicable to our teaching style and our relationship as a field with the public. God in America told a particular story that encourages me to reflect upon what I impart onto the undergraduates I teach.