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?”


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