Experiential Learning: Teaching Race, Religion, and Ethnicity

By Karen Johnson. It is Palm Sunday in the heart of Chicago’s Austin community, a west-side inner-city neighborhood.  Children welcome the congregation into the gym, one dressed as Jesus riding on a donkey (for all you Color of Christ fans, Jesus, in this case, is black).  Pastor Robert Stevenson encourages the congregation to sing their praises to God, dance their praises to God, play instruments in praise to God.  Technical difficulties prevent a song from playing well from the speaker system.  The atmosphere lacks the professionalism of most suburban churches, but the praise is heartfelt.  People pass babies.  My own son makes it to the front of the church when Pastor asks the man holding him to pray over the service.  The prayer quiets the congregation, a moment of comfort for many of the visitors in the audience who are my students from a suburban liberal arts college.  For many, this is a cross-cultural experience.  The students are part of my class on the history of race and ethnicity in the United States, and they are on an experiential learning field trip.

Why a field trip – especially with all the work it requires?  The answer lies in our calling as teachers.  “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it,” said James Baldwin.  This semester, we have studied the history of race and ethnicity not only to learn it, but to learn how to use it.   But how do we “use” history without being presentists?  Part of the answer lies in the question of why we teach.  Teaching should not just transfer knowledge, but help students be transformed.    Experiences teach students in ways that reading and analysis cannot.   As one student commented, “a woman who had attended the church for over 20 years said, ‘Sunday’s the most segregated day of the week.’  It struck me not only that there was some truth to that statement, but that I have lived my entire life experiencing segregated Sunday church services.”   The present has a history– to understand why Sunday is so segregated, and why Rock Church was such a powerful experience for the students, they needed to know the history.

This course was structured around the question “how does the history of race and ethnicity change what we know about American history?”  I joined the class halfway through (back from maternity leave!) and started us off with the transition from white races to “the white race.” We used primary sources from Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color, watched Al Jolson put on black face in The Jazz Singer as he distanced himself from his Jewish heritage, and critiqued The Gentleman’s Agreement in which the main character, a Gentile, passes for a Jew, all the while proclaiming Jewishness as a religion and not a race.  Then we shifted our focus to the civil rights movement and learned about the extent of white supremacy by reading oral histories of civil rights workers in Mississippi and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.  Baldwin’s work was very powerful for students, many commenting that it helped them see in a personal way the insidious way the “innocents” perpetuate destruction.  Throughout, we have used Ed Blum’s and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ, which students reported they planned to keep on their shelves.  (One word to the wise, students do better when reading the book if they have context going into the chapter, and analyzing the images on the book’s website was very fruitful.)  In our final weeks of the course, we will look at the historiographical debate (primarily using Christians and the Color Line) set off by Michael Emerson’s and Christian Smith’s Divided By Faith in order to explore the connections between evangelicalism and race.

Our field trip set us up for the last part of our class, looking at how the history of race shapes our understanding of evangelicalism.  My intent in taking the class there was twofold.  First, I wanted students to see how race has been inscribed in geography.  Rock Church is located in Chicago’s Austin community, where the per capita income is $16,289, compared to, say, Lincoln Park (home of the Chicago History Museum) where per capita income is $73,130 (for more data on Chicago, go here). Austin transitioned from a nearly all-white neighborhood to an all-black neighborhood block by block in just a few years in the late 1960s.  We took the train and walked Austin’s streets so students could get a feel for the neighborhood.  This puts flesh on the overview of housing and mortgages we’re exploring (for the classic work on that, see Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier  But in order to counter the stereotypes of race and class that so many have about Austin, I had students talk with members of the church who lived in the community.  One student commented, “It seems you really need to be embedded in the community and engage in intentional relationships for misperceptions to be corrected.”  My second intent was to give the students some hope.  The history they have explored can make things seem hopeless sometimes.  They have been exploring a history that is largely about the (unstable) creation and maintenance of whiteness and “non-white’s” often creative responses to the oppression.  Rock Church is an interracial church whose members largely acknowledge the past and their racial experiences, but also seek to move beyond the past to create what Chris Rice calls a “new we.”

This field trip took all of us out of our comfort zone.  As a historian, I have only occasionally done ethnographic work, but I required that of my students.  At a liberal arts college, crossing disciplines and making connections should be a way of life.  If you’re considering leading students on a field trip like this, I’d recommend drawing from Studying Congregations for guidance.  I also spent a day preparing the students for the field trip and a day debriefing the field trip.  This time allowed us to process the experience, assess the extent of their learning, and find ways to enhance the entire experience for future trips.

Students saw racial hierarchies broken down.  One said, “The most revered man was the pastor, a young black man.  This is powerful in undermining social hierarchies of race, which have been in place in America for hundreds of years.”  Another commented that, “this field trip made more concrete the subject of race and concept of racial brokenness/reconciliation.”  Another wrote that she learned from a church member that “no one is ignorant about race; people are just ignorant about how to talk about race in a healthy constructive way.”   

Students’ responses to the field trip convinced me to do structure experiential learning into my classes regularly.  I wonder, what types of field trips and/or experiential learning have you all done, and how successful have they been?  And also, what books/readings have you used in courses on race and ethnicity?  Please share so we can learn from one another.


Unknown said…
This sounds like a great activity, and a timely one for me as I design an experiential assignment for my History of World Religions class, which I teach next Spring (at a regional state university with only a fledgling religious studies minor and no RELS faculty). This is a survey course focused mostly on acquiring a surface knowledge of a broad range of religious traditions. This assignment, however, pushes students beneath the surface as they explore the life of one specific religious community. Through textual research, participant-observation, and oral interviews, students will meet group members, listen to the stories they tell about themselves and their community, and look at how they identify themselves in relation to the “outside world” and other religious groups. One of the goals of the assignment is to foster empathy or social knowledge through which students come to see the world at least partially from the perspective of the people they are studying. This requires bracketing our own values and assumptions, active listening, openness, personal reflection, and curiosity, all of which we practice in the course generally. I'm anxious and excited about the assignment. Like you, I'm a historian (early American, actually) not an ethnographer, so I have a lot to learn about participant observation and look forward to reading the Studying Congregations book.
Karen Johnson said…
Peter, your assignment sounds fantastic. I've thought of something similar for my urban and suburban history course because it's an upper level course. Enjoy your class and let me know how the project goes! Perhaps you could post about it?

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