Teaching Religious Autobiography

Michael Utzinger 

 Several months ago I wrote a review about Eboo Patel's autobiographical work, Acts of Faith.  I noted in my post that my intent was to teach a new course (for me) on religious autobiography.  The course ended last Fall, and, I am taking a little time to think about the readings and structure of the course for next Fall.  I had a wonderfully sized group of seventeen students.  Hampden-Sydney is a college for men, so there was no gender diversity in the classroom (i.e. all the students were men) but there was ethnic and religious diversity.  I decided that a key element in the class would be students learning the practice of writing autobiographically about religion, as much as reading and contextualizing it.

So, while the students would learn how to be critical about the genre they would also learn by doing.  Each student wrote five short essays of around 1000-1200 words.  The five topics were: "This I believe" (in the NPR tradition); an Aha! moment; a religious experience or experience of religion with a point; religious origins; and a critical essay on one of the texts we read.  I allowed the students to write the essays in any order they wished.  The students also had a final project in which they had to create video using one of the essay they wrote during the semester. 

I appreciated Trevor Burrows post on the use of autobiography on this blog.  So, here are some of my "take-aways" that I had from teaching the course for the first time. I would really love to hear more of your experiences or thoughts as I begin to plan for next year, especially form you veterans who teach or use autobiographies. 
1.  Public presentation of student work was the best vehicle for understanding the critical issues in the genre.   In other words, I made every student read their own essays aloud in class (at least twice).  Further, the students got into a habit of critically responding aloud as well.  I always led the response to each essay by asking three questions: what is the essay type (of the five assigned); what is the thesis; and did the essay have its intended result?  We would usually listen to two (sometimes three) essays, and it would take about 30-45 minutes of a 90-minute class.  One student came to me soon after the class began and stated that he liked the class but did not want to share his private religious views with the class.  I was blunt: if so, then you have to drop to course, since, as I reminded the whole class constantly, autobiography is a "public" genre. You must choose what you are willing to read aloud.  Students making their work public, I believe, more than anything else in the course, helped them to develop a critical eye.  They realized by doing that they carefully chose about what to write.  They in fact did not include "everything." They also asked one another why they chose not to engage certain ideas, skirted around them, or simply ignored them.  This really came home to me, when John Peale, visited the class to talk about his autobiography, Just How Far from the Apple Tree.  The students read the book and were very interested about his relationship with his famous father.   When John visited the class, one student remarked, "Dr. Peale, you write about the anger and love you felt for your father.  But I noticed you call your father, "dad", but you call your mother, "mother" and "gatekeeper."  Why then did you write so little about her?"   It was a joy to see them ask of our texts' authors what they naturally began to ask of the themselves and each other.  One student even published his essay on a student online journal after having all the feedback from the class.
2.  Creating rules for class discourse was really important.  "Respect, honesty, and charity."  My students came from different religious backgrounds, albeit typically southern versions of these traditions.  I had conservative Catholics, mainline Protestants, Greek Orthodox, evangelicals, agnostics, mixed religious homes (Jewish-Christian), "non-religious" theists, Pentecostal, and African-American Baptist traditions.  And, although many of your schools might have even more religious diversity in a typical classroom, I found students knew precious little about traditions beyond their own.  So, on the one hand, I did not want to squelch inquiry.  On the other hand, I wanted to teach and insist on respectful discourse.  We made clear that asking honest questions about personal issues was not disrespectful, but we also insisted that simply asserting something was weird, strange or wrong without an explanation (that itself would always be under critique) was not to the caliber of discussion we should accept.  Everyone was also afford the ability to say, "I don't know; I'll have to come back to that," as well as "oops, I want to retract that."  The "oops" rule was employed many times.  We generally do a good job in the academy of demanding intellectual honesty from our students.  The students certainly did not let one another off the hook for reading, writing or responding in particular ways with particular ideas.  Charity, however, is a virtue we should encourage more.  The lessons in charity usually sounded something like this: "You may be right that the author failed to make that point.  However, shouldn't we argument with the best possible version of the argument.  How could make the argument the best it could be?"  Or, "What technique or tactic would you have employed to get the point across better?"  Employing rules of respect, honesty, and charity generally made the classroom a safe place.  Students opened up about very personal issues.   It's hard for me to know to what extent having a single-sex classroom also contributed to a feeling of a safe environment.  I would be curious from others who teach in a single-sex environment (or not) whether you think this may make a difference.
3.  Students needed categories and language with which to think religiously in an autobiographical form.  All but one of the readings I gave them were modern texts.  This I think this was wise, because it allowed students to use and explore their intuitions critically,  Of the sorts of introductory material I used two resonated with the students.  Although I provided them with models of religion, Robert Wuthnow's After Heaven provided the students with categories they seemed to resonate most for them: "seeking" and "dwelling."  I found these ideas popped up in essays often, even with one student consistently exploring his religious life noting that he did not believe he fit either category.  I wonder, given the success of students learning to be critical of autobiography by constructing essays themselves, whether they could equally learn to be critical of models of religion the same way?  We also considered some theoretical and ethical issues surrounding memory and to what extent autobiographical writings can be understood as true (and for whom).   I found creating a dialogue between Elie Wiesel and Miroslav Wolf brought fine relief to the issues surrounding the ethics of memory and worked pretty well for the students.  Philip Roth's The Facts engages quite brilliantly the line between fiction and autobiography, the nature of truth in writing, and the issues surrounding the constructed nature of autobiography.  Even so, I thought it was too complicated to teach in a short period of time. 
4.  I had too many books.  I had the student read all or most of Augustine's Confessions, Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness, Victor Frankl's Man’s Search for Meaning, C.S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, Eboo Patel's Acts of Faith, and John Peale's Just How Far from the Apple Tree?  I also had autobiographical book chapters or essays from Carlos Eire, W.E.B. DuBois, Carolyn Briggs, Jerry Weintraub, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I know this is the perennial problem for a new course: assigning too much and left feeling that one has cover too little.  Augustine was the only non-modern text I used, but its influence was obvious in all of the Christian texts (especially Day, Lewis, and Eire).  I toyed with using Simon Wiesenthal's The Sunflower, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Mel White's Stranger at the Gate, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X.   There are a cornucopia of great texts, but I choosing fewer texts to teach the course is the challenge.
5.  The video project worked way better than I thought it would.  First, however, it is important to know students are not technological natives in the way we often like to say they are.  I prepared the students for this by having our media librarian come and help them understand the way to make a video.  Students not only needed to learn software options but also understand a little about timing, script writing, and camera work.  Second, content was key.  They were asked to use one of their essays or a combination of something they wrote for the video. This meant the videos were as long as their essays: around four to five minutes.   One student conducted a video with his significant other debating a religious concern.  Another, wrote a tribute to his mother, who he believed still guided him spiritually.  Some were better than others, but those who wrote well did not necessarily do the best videos.  This project allowed a few of my students who did not write as well as other to really shine in a different medium.


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