Religion and the Fall Semester

Jonathan Den Hartog

Much of my thought in the past weeks--as, I suspect has been the case with many readers--has been dedicated to preparing for the fall semester. (This is apparently a teaching week--thanks, Michael Graziano and Charlie McCrary!)

This fall I have the opportunity once again to teach my "Religion in American History" semester-long course. Due to scheduling issues and a sabbatical leave, it has been several years since the last time I had offered it. It has been invigorating to go back to my syllabus, recall what had worked, and figure out how to refresh and enliven the topic.

It has been good to go back to some reliable resources, old academic friends. I'm happy to use again the great teaching tool which is Edwin Gaustad and Mark Noll's Documentary History of Religion in America. It is hard to go wrong with Chaim Potok's The Chosen. I also think Mark Massa's Catholics and American Culture teaches quite well, while at the same time introducing theoretical concepts in an accessible way (bonus points that it features the University of Notre Dame football team). I even think I'll still have a few things to say about the significance of religion and the Federalist party.

At the same time, it has been great to rework some pieces of the syllabus in light of new scholarship in the field and conversations even from this site. As I indicated this spring, I'm assigning George Marsden's Twilight of the American Enlightenment, both for its picture of the 1950s and because it ties into themes we'll be developing in the course. To point students to contemporary debates, though, they will also have to respond to several pieces from Molly Worthen. I hope this will produce some good discussion. I'm also excited to be teaching Larry Eskridge's God's Forever Family, on the Jesus People movement. Although my students might be too young to resonate with the book, I think it brilliantly captures a moment of important development for American evangelicalism and the nation as a whole.

that's our quad...really!
It has also been good to rethink teaching strategies. I have doubled-down on putting the onus of discussion on the students. These upper-level students should be well-equipped to wrestle with the readings, and so I expect them to take the lead, repeatedly. Further, it's important to me to keep students writing and thinking, through a variety of forms.

I'm glad we'll have chances to practice hospitality, as we welcome outside speakers into the class.

I will also be increasing the amount of multi-media I intend to work into the class. I look forward to introducing this group of students to sections of the "God in America" documentary and to the always-fascinating documentary on Lonnie Frisbee. With the Eskridge book, I think some Larry Norman and 2nd Chapter of Acts songs will have to make their way into the aural environment of the class.

This semester is also a great time to rework how the class engages with religion on the internet. I should set it as a goal to make them all devoted readers of this site. Further, a new class is a good reminder to update old links. Those articles asking pressing questions in 2009 seem a bit stale--they need some updating. The "contemporary" moment is changing, and so a few newer links are in order.

Finally, this moment is a great time to redouble my commitment to prod my students to see the pressing, real-world connections of this course. Given that I just had a conversation with a student about the Mercersburg Theology, I hope that I'm on the right track.

So, best wishes to all who are beginning semesters, and I'd be happy to hear your best recommendations in the comments section!


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