Teaching American Religious History Online
Charity R. Carney
Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I teach online.
Online learning has become an important part of American education, but it is often regarded as the redheaded stepchild of the traditional university system. Despite its reputation, it is playing an increasingly important role in training the American workforce and offers important advantages and opportunities to expand the role of the faculty. As online education grows, it behooves us to take a moment to understand the opportunities and challenges presented by the online classroom, especially in regards to teaching subjects as vital and provocative as religious history. I’d like to encourage more dialogue, in other words, between the online and traditional religious history folks in the hopes that we can learn from and grow with each other to expand the reach of our discipline.
One thing to know about online education is that it’s not all the same. There’s no cookie-cutter U, much like brick and mortar schools. Just as you have SLACs and R1s and CCs, in the online world you have profits, nonprofits, public, private, competency-based, credit-based… there’s as much diversity amongst these virtual institutions as there is in the residential campus environment. Perhaps there’s more because the online model is so versatile. Since it’s so distinctive and diverse, let me give you a bit of background about my institution that will provide some context for my perspective.
I teach history at a nonprofit, private online university which utilizes a very different model. When the university was first introduced a little over 15 years ago, there were a lot of doubts as to the appeal of the model, but as it was tried and tested it demonstrated its efficacy. The university is also quite proud of the types of students that it serves serves: the average student is 37 but ages range from 17 to 85 years old; they come from all 50 states as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, plus our military students who are serving overseas; 34% are categorized as low income, 68% work full time, 42% are first-generation college students, and 73% are “underserved.” The school currently has over 30,000 students enrolled and is projected to have 80,000 by 2015. In this model, students are working on a “competency” based education in which they must demonstrate that they are competent in a certain area before they move on in their program. This can mean taking a comprehensive exam, writing a series of essays, and completing a lab or project before the “competency unit” can be checked off of their degree plan. To support the large number of students, the structure of the school is disaggregated, meaning that faculty have different roles within the institution. I am currently a “Course Mentor” and am full-time faculty (we do not have adjuncts, which I view as a very positive step in the right direction, and Course Mentors must have a terminal degree in their discipline). There are other areas of expertise that have their own place within this faculty model—with some faculty devoted to pedagogical aspects of the curriculum and others who have coaching skills dedicated to advising students. The grading is also not done by the regular faculty. There are “evaluators” who are trained in grading by rubric standards who dedicate their time to passing or failing student work.
This disaggregated model and the distinct parameters of the online classroom lead to a particular kind of professor-student relationship that I have come to really appreciate. One of the most powerful motivators for me is the diversity of the students. Since regional ties and many financial barriers are removed, students from all over the country from very different socioeconomic and religious backgrounds end up in my classroom. I have built some rewarding one-on-one relationships with students that enable me to probe their diverse experiences a bit more than I would in a physical classroom environment and to offer more personalized ways for them to relate to past/present faith traditions. Within these relationships, however, there is the interesting phenomenon of the “invisible student”: students who are faceless which creates a different kind of classroom dynamic. All of these factors make teaching religious history particularly interesting and exciting. I’ll touch on each of these points briefly and then will look forward to expanding on these ideas in future posts.
I think that the most significant change that I felt leaving a traditional university environment for an online university was the diversity in the student body. Having the entire country as your classroom can create extremely interesting interactions and learning opportunities. This diversity provides a wonderful opportunity for me to stretch myself and to discover new ways to incorporate various historical perspectives in my lectures and discussions with students. Within the course of one week, I spoke to the following individuals: a former FLDS man in Montana who wanted to discuss the ways that gender and religion intersect, a younger gentleman from Mexico who was interested in expanding his knowledge of Catholic missions, and a mother in the Bronx (with her kids begging for her attention in the background) who expressed fascination at the different faiths in her own neighborhood and who wanted to learn more about the connection between religion and immigration. When you can get these voices in a classroom together, it keep you on your toes but it also makes for some fascinating dialogue and a rich experience for the students. Certainly, I can teach students about other faiths and encourage empathy, but for them to be able to actually hear the voice of an individual in a completely different time zone from a different faith background contributes to experiential learning.
While anecdotal, the many stories that I have gathered in my almost two years with my current institution makes me cringe at certain criticisms offered by faculty at other institutions who have not experimented with the online model(s). In a New York Times article, one critic claimed, “There’s lots of porn and religion online, but people still have relationships and get married, and go to church and talk to a minister.” I would contest that most online schools are definitely not comparable to Hustler.com or the Church of the Latter-Day Dude. Are there some online offerings that are for-profit and expedient? Sure. But online schools should receive the same kind of consideration and rankings as brick-and-mortar institutions. Some are better than others. Some are the pits. Many (mine included) have a ton to offer. Case in point: Even if we never meet in person, I find that I am much more accessible for my students now in an online classroom than I was at the traditional university at which I taught for several years before making the transition. I have one-on-one meetings that can last a half to a full hour that I could not have afforded during my office hours before. And my classes tend to be smaller now than in the traditional survey course. This means that for students who are interested learning more about the history of their own beliefs or delving deeper into the history of other religions, I have the luxury of spending time with them to learn more about their lives and perspctives and to break down important concepts in a way that will be meaningful to them. For instance, I recently found myself talking to a mother of three who just put her littlest down for a nap so that she could work on her studies. “Who are these Puritan guys again?” she asked, and I saw it as an exciting opportunity to teach someone about a subject that I love (who doesn’t get into predestination?!). There’s also a moment where one must recognize and respect the fact that this young mother who already had her hands full with personal responsibilities was taking time out of her very hectic life to learn about predestination. That’s a win.
The one complicating factor in all of this is the notion of the “invisible student.” Even though I know that my student is a mother because she’s volunteered that information (and there’s an attention-seeking toddler making trouble in the background), there is still the dilemma of her being an “invisible” to me. As it stands now, I have no other information about her. In the traditional classroom, we can take stock of our audience and adjust our message accordingly. We can also observe reactions when discussing controversial topics. But the online aspect removes that kind of face-to-face connection and all you have to rely on is voice. That reliance can build intimacy, however, and can create a kind of bond between professor and student. We’re both entering into the relationship with the same sense of the unknown and that can help draw us together. One moment where this “invisible student” concept came to mind was when I delivered a lecture on religion and the founding fathers, admittedly a tricky subject in many American classrooms. It was both liberating and daunting to not have the student stares/glares/head-nods to indicate their reaction to the subject. You know when you reach that deism part of the lecture and you fell collective blood pressures rise?... But in the online classroom you can’t feel that energy build as much and so it plays less of a role in your delivery. It begs the question as to how much we rely on physical cues and even appearances in the classroom to indicate student biases or backgrounds, and when those indicators are removed it does alter the way that that both professors and students approach difficult subjects like religion.
All of this being said, I frequently glean insight from the Teaching American History blog and wonder if history professors in a traditional setting would also gain new tools and perspectives from learning about online teaching as well. Online education is a reality. If hundreds of thousands of students are electing to learn history in an online format—and many have to because of their family and work commitments as well as financial restraints—then we should take note of both the challenges and rewards of online education to inform our future choices. The professor-student relationship is not at stake, in other words, but is instead in flux and it is a perfect time for us to really contribute to the national conversation about the future of our place in higher education.