Emily Suzanne Clark
Though the summer still feels in full swing, the fall semester is rapidly approaching, and it’s thinking about my fall teaching schedule that led to this post. This fall semester I’m teaching a new course for me to a student body that will also be new to me (going from Florida State University to Gonzaga University). This course in particular has been on my mind. More specifically, and more generally, I’ve been thinking about what I assign my students to read and why. And I’m curious to hear from fellow bloggers and readers of the blog about this: what do you assign and why?
What I ended up going with for this course (African American Religions) was: Al Raboteau’s A Fire in the Bones (a collection of reflections and essays), Milton Sernett’s African American Religious History (a documentary reader), and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (2 short essays from the early 1960s). I’m supplementing this with a variety of other readings: excerpts from the FBI files on the Moorish Science Temple, theoretical articles on the field, black liberation theology, and material from my own research on Afro-creole Spiritualism in New Orleans. I like using lots of primary sources, and I think that will work especially well in this class. Right now the enrollment is small; in fact, the smallest class I’ve had to date. I’m looking forward to organizing some of our meetings more like a seminar than a typical undergraduate class and have group discussions about the conclusions and interpretations we can make based on the primary sources we have.
What I didn’t assign this term—and came close to—was fiction. In my Religions in America course this fall, I’m assigning Brian Moore’s novel Black Robe. In almost every iteration of this course that I’ve taught thus far, I use this book. I “blame” Amy Koehlinger for this. When I watched her teach this book and other works of fiction in her classes, I noticed how students responded to it. It seemed like they actually read it and liked it. Since Black Robe was inspired by The Jesuit Relations, students still got some history but they also got a clear story. I could have easily assigned fiction in the African American Religions class. I considered Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain and Zora Neal Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain. I went with The Fire Next Time because (and I know this isn’t the most sophisticated rationale) there’s a power to it. It’s honest and prophetic. And it’s a book that I think will stick with my Gonzaga students. For the last two years, Gonzaga has ranked number one for alumni that go into the Peace Corps for the small colleges and universities category. The emphasis on social justice is alive and well at GU, and I anticipate Baldwin’s prose will unsettle them.
I’m curious to hear how others make decisions about what readings to assign in class and why. Fiction? Non-fiction essays? Secondary literature? Primary Sources? Does enrollment shape your decisions? Would you pick the same books if it was a class capped at 100 as you would if the class was capped at 15?