Assigned Reading



14 comments
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?

14 comments:

Mark T. Edwards at: July 25, 2014 at 1:14 PM said...

Sounds like a great line-up, Emily! Do you also show the film Black Robe? It's a staple in my early US survey courses.

esclark at: July 25, 2014 at 1:20 PM said...

I haven't shown the film. I've thought about showing the final scene ("if you love us, baptize us") after the class finishes the book. The film version would also do well in a course on Native American Religions.

Paul Harvey at: July 25, 2014 at 3:51 PM said...

On the primary source trail: Davis Houck just turned me on to this primary source, great speech by Fannie Lou Hamer (better than some of her more famous ones) which you can read but also have students listen to: http://voicesofdemocracy.umd.edu/hamer-were-on-our-way-speech-text/

Paul Harvey at: July 25, 2014 at 3:53 PM said...

hit them strong with New Orleans material, Emily - but I'm guessing you already are.

Randall at: July 26, 2014 at 5:21 AM said...

This sounds like an excellent course. I've always wondered about using Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain. I've had good luck with selections from the PBS doc film This Far by Faith. http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/

esclark at: July 26, 2014 at 8:53 AM said...

Thanks for the heads-up Paul. I've played parts from FLH's "Songs My Mother Taught Me" before in a course. And yes, there's probably more NOLA in my course than there would be in most others (except maybe Pasquier).

And Randall, you're the second person to suggest using parts of "This Far by Faith." While I'm away at AAR, I might have the class watch parts and write a reflection on it.

Monica L. Mercado at: July 26, 2014 at 1:11 PM said...

I used fiction for the first time in a women's history class I taught for art students in the spring (figured I had more liberty to stray) but it worked so well I can't wait to do so again. I'm always excited to see more teaching conversations on the blog - thanks for this, Emily!

Charlie McCrary at: July 26, 2014 at 6:36 PM said...

Regarding primary/secondary sources, I think the course level matters. In a survey course, there's so much to cover that scholarly debates sometimes have to take a back seat to just learning facts (of course, everyone strikes a different balance here.) I've assigned a lot of primary sources and then used class time to contextualize them.

For an upper-level course, which I'll be teaching for the first time this fall, I'm hoping that secondary sources will work better. We're reading four monographs. Juniors and seniors should have some background knowledge (whereas with freshmen we must assume basically none) and should be able to engage scholarly arguments.

I don't have much teaching experience, though, and none with upper-level courses yet, so maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'll write a post after the semester about how the monographs worked.

David True at: July 26, 2014 at 7:58 PM said...

Thanks for sharing your thought process about texts/sources. I'm trying to make decision for a spring seminar on "The Religion of MLK." The particularity of one figure might seem to discipline my choices, but with King it seems to just the opposite. I've been wondering about fiction, so good to hear of your experience.

esclark at: July 26, 2014 at 10:04 PM said...

To Charlie's comments, I definitely think the course level matters. As a graduate student I never taught above a 2000/200 middle course level and my courses this fall are both 200 level as well. And with an upper level course, you can hope for more background knowledge and a couple department majors too. I hope you do write a post about your experience teaching an upper level course.
I think the kind of courses your department offers also matters. I'll be the first Americanist at my institution, and so I get to work on building that part of the curriculum. And this will be the first semester.
Maybe I'll write a follow-up post at the end of the semester. I will likely also be offering African American Religions in the spring, and (knowing me and my past teaching experience), I will change at least one book.

And David, thanks for your thoughts too. MLK - I'm sure you're wading through a lot of choices on books. What fiction were you thinking of going with?

esclark at: July 26, 2014 at 10:14 PM said...

And to Monica too - What book did you use and what was the course title?

Tom Van Dyke at: July 28, 2014 at 10:58 PM said...

I don't know what effect they had on Af-Am religion on the real level, but Frederick Douglass's indictments of America's "Evangelical Alliance"

http://www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1083.htm

and monograph "Bibles for the Slaves"

http://tinyurl.com/kjccqxh

are devastating.

Monica L. Mercado at: July 30, 2014 at 7:07 PM said...

Emily - I designed and taught a Chicago-inspired history based course at the School of the Art Institute, called Women in the City. But I do remember *taking* my very first Religion in American Culture college class, where we read, in addition to scholarly monographs, The Damnation of Theron Ware and Death Comes to the Archbishop...

jodi at: July 31, 2014 at 7:58 PM said...

I've been using both memoir and fiction (and secondary sources) in assorted undergraduate classes. I teach a class on religion and children's literature with a heavy African American studies component---one book that is elegant and quite helpful is Jacqueline Woodson's YA novel Feathers. In a course on women and religion, I've used The Book of Mormon Girl with great success. Thanks for sharing your ideas and reflections.

newer post older post