My Teaching Philosophy

I’ve received a few emails asking about my approach to pedagogy. These are mostly in response to my “Dear Liberal Professor” essay published at Vitae, in which I call for empathy in the classroom and take down the silly suggestion that students are the center of all that ails higher ed. I haven’t written about pedagogy in awhile because I’ve been out of the classroom for two years now, so I’m posting my teaching philosophy statement from 2012. I still stand by most of what I say here.

Teaching Philosophy

“The human capacity to injure other people has always been greater than its ability to imagine other people”—Elaine Scarry

“We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there.”—Avery Gordon

Teaching is as much art as it is embodied practice, engagement, and content knowledge. This craft is flexible and variant, and it shifts from class to class, student to student, evolving not only from worn lecture notes and expected PowerPoint slides but also to our shared performance as students and teacher. Pedagogy feels like some sort of happening that appears as experimental and meaningful as it is multi-variant and chaotic. No classroom experience is ever the same as I describe, redescribe, and recreate my content, my expertise, to mesh with the interest, the varying levels of student expertise, and the classroom atmosphere.

Yet, my courses, no matter what the content, share a common emphasis on empathy and critical thinking. To imagine what life is like for other people is the first step for engaging their lives, and I would argue it is first step toward critical thinking and close analysis. If we cannot imagine what their lives might be like, we cannot begin to comprehend the historical and cultural forces that place them and us where we happen to be.

If we cannot imagine, we cannot analyze.

Empathy becomes a crucial component of work in the humanities. The ability to imagine one’s self in the space of another is not a vapid, disinterested act, but rather a conscious attempt to comprehend what the world of another is like. The ability to imagine, to conjure and receive what it is like for those who are not you, is valuable skill in a world increasingly strange, fragmented and intimately connected. We start with empathy, not sympathy, to imagine what the world might be like in other places, times, and cultures. To imagine is to connect.  This is not an individual enterprise. It takes collective effort to create new visions, new performances, and new approaches to knowledge. I am not a singular auteur (seriously, 2012 Kelly, seriously?), but rather the curator of our collective knowledge and experiences. Imagination, then, becomes the gateway to analysis, critique, reflection, and comparison

My pedagogy hinges on creating a community for each of my classes where we know, respect, and engage one another. This engagement with students as individuals and as communities makes them my colleagues as we do cultural interpretation together.  Collegiality, respect, empathy, and a good dose of humor allow us to connect and work together to create a space to foster and encourage knowledge as well as keenly needed interpretive skills. Treating students with dignity and compassion means that we can discuss the thornier issues of religion in American life together with less conflict and strife as a community of interpreters working together. I understand that students can only participate in empathy and respectfulness, if it is modeled for them. To trust one another in the classroom means that we learn together from each other. My goal is to not only to share my expertise, but also to teach them how to analyze religious people, objects, history, and events with careful attention to encourage them to become cultural analysts as well.

To accomplish this classroom environment of collegiality and analysis, my courses are all multi-modal including smaller lectures, required discussion, class debates, media analysis, group work, and group research projects.  Working in groups and focusing upon discussion creates a more approachable classroom climate as they get know one another and me more directly.

Additionally, my scholarly research further molds the style and substance of my courses. In my own work, I make use of ethnographic methods to enrich historical study and to scrutinize and recreate the worldview of historical actors. Ethnography is a valuable tool for students as well as me because it complicates historical methods with the emphasis on in-depth engagement of a culture and the world of another. I employ ethnography to introduce my students to religious worlds of various individuals and religious movements to showcase the diversity, logic and contradictions of these movements. Moreover, my interest in media and content analysis appears most clearly in my upper level classes, in which students complete a media analysis project. The media project cajoles students into analyzing what is at stake not only in how media is constructed from newspapers to advertisements to music to fiction to film but also what is at stake in our consumption of media. My syllabi reflect not only the necessary knowledge of the subject matter but also the scholarly trends in interpretation of this material, so content and method become equally important.  There is also malleability to my course planning and strategies, so I constantly evaluate which material works best for my students.

Outside of the classroom, I make myself available to students as well to foster relationships and provide guidance and encouragement. At the University of Tennessee, I advise both the Religious Studies Association and the Muslim Student Association. I have moderated and participated in panels about religious intolerance and Islamophobia. Last spring, I moderated a series of campus discussions of religion and race, a student-driven initiative to find better ways to discuss and engage one another about diversity. Relationship building has become of my key strategies in and out of the classroom to make students know that their scholarly work and their concerns are important to me. I want them to become better students and better people, and this engaged relationship hopefully allows this to happen.

Here are some additional posts on my teaching:

“I’ve tried to recover a sense of humanity…”

Conspiracy Theory in American religions

Creating Boundless Classrooms

Gender Matters

Gender Me, Gender Religion

Embodying Identity

Teaching Bodies and Embodiment

“What’s belief got to do with it?”

 

Running In The Rain

Today, I ran (and walked) in the rain. A whole 5K with Chris, who is training me up to a full run. We are on week three of a nine-week plan. I have tried to start running many times before. I always quit.

Week three is usually the point where I mumble “screw it” while out of breath and go back to walking. Or decide that my particular human body is not meant for exercise. Or sob about how out of shape I am. Or proclaim that I am not a runner. I usually fail, not spectacularly, but gradually. I make excuses. I avoid work outs. Then, I decide that I’m a failure at running just like I’m a failure at bead work, knitting, all kinds of crafts really, academia, writing, and my life.

I am a master at self-hate. I am my worst critic. One small failure sets off a cascade of critical evaluation of how I got HERE. Whether it is on the side of the road heaving for breath, pondering the end of my academic career, or worrying that I lack the hustle to be a writer. I am remarkably good at accounting failures and doubts; I seem to pay little attention to successes.

This morning, I woke up and heard the pitter-patter of the rain on my window. I cursed that today was a running day. I hate running, I mumbled. I hate rain, I moaned. I hate being wet even more, I thought as I scowled. Was I really going to run today in the rain with the slick streets and puddles filled with pollen? I wasn’t sure.

I decided to put on my running clothes anyway. “Let’s get this over with,” I told Chris. I strode out the door with gritty determination that I would not be defeated by the rain or running. I would get through this run, damn it. And I realized something as the light rain covered me.

I’m tired of being (and feeling) defeated. This run nor the rain would defeat me today. I would be successful.

So, I ran up and down the hills of our neighborhood dodging puddles. I ran as my shoes filled with water and squished with every step. I ran as my water droplets coated my glasses and obscured my vision. I walked to recover from my running, but I kept running. I was completely soaked by the time we reached home. It was glorious.

Today was our fastest pace so far: 14 minutes and 48 seconds. This is only ground-shattering record for me, and that’s okay. I did something that I wouldn’t have imagined I would ever do. This is not because of my lack of imagination, but rather a reflection of the limits that I set and reinforced for myself. I have cultivated a habit of limiting myself, of creating boundaries that I won’t cross. I make it about identity rather than about ability.

After all, I was a not a girl who ran. As a child, I had asthma. I suffered from deep, lung-rattling coughs, wheezing, and lack of breath. This coughing, and the fear that I might stop breathing, made my mom overly cautious. When my asthma flared up, I slept in an upright recliner hacking and wheezing in attempts to breathe. I doubt my mom slept at all. Her fear that I might not catch my breath meant a moratorium on running and athletics. I can remember being scolded about running or even walking too fast. My cousins would run around the yard while I sat and watched them. My early brush with asthma compounded my already bookish tendencies. I was terrible at athletics. I was clumsy. I wanted to turn attention away from my body rather than toward it.

Running was not for me, but I wanted to run to so badly.

I was not a woman who ran either. I attempted running in college, in graduate school, and after graduation. Every few years, I would try to finish a couch to 5K plan. I never managed to make it to my desired 5K. Running was too hard. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t do it, so I stopped trying.

Still, I yearned to run.

Three weeks ago, I decided to try running again with Chris’s help because he’s an avid runner. He’s also practical. “No one likes running when they first start,” he said. “You have to train your body to run,” he offered. “You’ll eventually be good at running,” he said with a smile. I didn’t believe him.

When I started training, I would chant my hate of running in every footfall. Hate, hate, hate, hate, HATE. I would never like running. I would never be good it. By the end of the week, I realized that I didn’t actually hate running (jogging really). I enjoyed the movement. I liked to MOVE.

Today, I ran, not jogged. In the rain. With my partner who loves me and encourages me. I’m beginning to peak beyond those limits I created for who I’m supposed to be.

I am a woman who runs. I would have never expected that. Clearly, my expectations keep me from reaching. It is time to break them down and create new ones that reach beyond what I thought to bigger visions what might be possible.

The Elusive I

I’ve been thinking about academic writing and the absence of the I, the signifier of the first person. Some disciplines find the I useful as a method to that places you, the author in the text. The scholarship marked explicitly by your person, as if it could be any other way. Religious studies, however, is not entirely sure what to do with the I.

For some, relying on the first person becomes a marker of confessional identity, religious commitment, or activism. For others, like ethnographers of religion, the I is a necessary part of their practice. The scholar must be present because of the interactive relationship between you and subject. You must use the I to place yourself in conversation, events, and analysis. Sometimes, you need to note where you are and what you think. Often, this will require a shift to the first person.

My own training in American religious history seemed nervous about the I. For a long while, I was also nervous about what the use of I in my own scholarship and writing might mean.

My own journal articles (except for my article on evidence), my book (except for the introduction and afterword), book reviews, conference papers were all shorn of the author’s presence. I deleted (almost) every instance of the I.

In graduate school, advisors explained that “I think” “I feel” “I believe” weakened your arguments. This made you seem wishy-washy, ambivalent, or unconvincing. Make claims forcefully, they told me. Don’t qualify your analysis with I. Yet, I wanted to seem ambivalent because I was. I wanted to signal that this was my opinion, not a definitive statement about the subjects that I researched. I wanted less certainty, not more.

What I came to realize was that inserting your self into academic work made one’s work somehow lesser. Absent authors made bold arguments. Who needs visible qualification when you can stay hidden behind your evidence and arguments?

Graduate training eroded my presence in my scholarship. Not all of my courses sought to remove the I, but most massaged the personal pronoun away. The I slipped away in edits, revisions, and finished papers.

Our scholarship was not about us (but it always is). Objectivity was dead (except we played at it anyway). Subjectivity was an apparent flaw in the system; it couldn’t be avoided (but we tried to valiantly to eliminate it). Scholarship was about something bigger than us, perhaps nobler. It was a product of intellect, work, sources, and analysis, not bounded by the limits of our bodies and experiences (except it always was).

The I drifted away.

Even though I resented these unembodied approaches to scholarship, I acquiesced anyway. Sometimes, I still fought. I tried hard to include “I think/I feel/I argue” in early drafts of my dissertation. This was my perspective; I was fallible. Why couldn’t my prose reflect my own ambivalence, my tentative assertions, and my attempts to figure out things that might not have easy answers?

Yet, I removed the first person in draft after draft; the partialness of my scholarship smoothed away with a quick tap of the delete key. My claims and analysis appeared more assured than I ever really felt. The I was the bearer of my uncertainty, so I excised it. False sense of certainty took up residence in my work. My arguments appeared more and more convincing while I felt less convinced.

I faked certainty. I wished for doubt.

When I decided to take time away from academia, my writing transformed. The I exploded upon the page. I couldn’t contain my use of the first person. I, marked by the use of the I, appeared in every piece that I wrote speaking to doubt, heartbreak, pain, and ambivalence. Finally, I found a place in the text. I shuttered myself for too long, so now I reclaim my voice, my person, in each essay. What would my scholarship look like now? I’m not entirely sure.

What I now wonder (and fear) is that the removal of the first person in academic writing is an attempted removal of our selves from our scholarship. Editing out the I becomes a way to separate our selves from what we research, write, and analyze. Yet, what might we lose in this removal? How does the shift from first person to third person affect the way we write about our subjects and how we construct our scholarship? What happens if bold arguments can only occur with a shift away from the first person? Why don’t we want to mark our uncertainty and our ambivalence? Perhaps, we should start.

 

Gendering Brilliance

Writing specifically about merit and gender in academia, Linda A. Krefting, a professor of business at Texas Tech University, notes that stereotypes of women often “put competence and likeability in opposition.” What happens, then, is that competence appears as a problem for women, but not for men. Being too competent is coded as aggressive and assertive while appearing too feminine becomes a marker of incompetence.

Joan C. Williams, author of What Works for Women at Work and a law professor at the University of California at Hastings, describes that same phenomenon as “the tightrope” that working women have to navigate. It is a pattern of bias, in which women who appear and act too feminine are judged incompetent but women who appear and act too masculine are judged as lacking necessary social skills for the workplace. In particular, academia prizes brilliance and originality. For men, assertiveness can signal brilliance and confidence in one’s work. When women act assertive, we’re not brilliant, we are just bossy or lack social skills.

When I talked to Joan last year about her book, she specifically mentioned the gendered nature of “brilliance” in academia. She asked me, “How can you [a woman] be brilliant, deferential, and nice?” I admitted that I never mastered all three simultaneously.

How can academic women meet traditional gender norms in the workplace while also taking pride in our work, promoting our accomplishments, and showcasing our original scholarship? To be more blunt: Can academic women ever appear “brilliant” if that term — used to showcase high-level intelligence — is understood as a masculine trait?

Read more.

Monsters

I’ve been thinking about monsters. Not the zombies I usually research and write about, but the language of monsters that lurks in our everyday speech. The rhetoric of horror is so pervasive and so present. It comes to us when we have something to speak that seems unspeakable. It is deployed to justify violence and harm. It is used to vilify and to distance. It appears in moments of trauma. The language of monsters is disastrously unavoidable.

I’ve been thinking about how we create monsters and ultimately about how we destroy them. Creation and destruction tangled together, dependent on one another. Their ubiquity begs for explanation when I have no words to give.

I’ve been thinking about monsters because I also can’t quit thinking about Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown.

Like so many people, I was heartbroken over the grand jury’s decision last week. I was also enraged and frustrated. I keep looking at my children and imagining the suffering of  Brown’s parents and all the parents that fear the same fate for their children. I don’t know their anguish; I can’t really. But, I’m haunted by autopsy sketches, the pain etched into his mother’s face, and the wounded bodies of protesters. I hug my children a bit tighter and hold them more closely. I also realize that their white skin offers them protection that Brown did not have.

I keep coming back to monsters.

In his testimony for the grand jury, Wilson described Brown, “it looks like a demon.” Dexter Thomas notes the dehumanizing language that Wilson employs with both “it” and “demon,” which resonates with a larger history of denying the humanity of African Americans. Thomas describes how the events in Ferguson feel like a bad movie playing out exactly like we feared it would. Spoilers aren’t an issue, if the pattern is the same.

Continue reading Monsters