Teaching

Some pedagogical resources, info on courses that I teach, and a statement on teaching:

Page contents (click on the list to move down the page)

Pedagogical Tools (click on each title to download a copy)

  • Paragraph Response Sheet – I use coded rubrics as feedback devices. This handout has 35 numbered comments addressing topic sentences, clarity of writing, use of sources, inclusion of main points, etc. (odd numbered comments are thing to improve; even-numbered comments are strengths). I write the numbers rather than the comments on student work. The sheet (posted on-line at the beginning of the term) also serves as a rubric for students to use in drafting their work and preparing for tests, because it does a good job of describing my expectations for “good” paragraphs. Of course, specific comments are still required on each piece of student work, but this sheet saves a significant chunk of time.
  • The Writing Process – This is a set of tips on how to navigate the process of writing, based on my years of experience as a writing tutor and on the tutorials on writing that I include in many of my classes.
  • Essay Rubric – This is a fairly standard assignment rubric, spelling out the difference between excellent, average and marginal work with respect to a series of criteria.
  • Reading Images – This is a handout that I developed in a joint project with art educator Irene Naested. It sets out a method for reading religious images by looking for the fit between visual elements and religious concepts.

Courses

I teach the following courses at Mount Royal University (MRU), depending on the term:

  • RELS 1101 – World Religions: Western
  • RELS 1105 – The Nature of Religion
  • RELS 2208 – Religion and Popular Culture
  • RELS 2215 – World Christianity
  • RELS 3305 – Esotericism, Magic and the Occult
  • RELS 3322 – Religion in the Americas
  • RELS 3333 – Religion, Death and Mortality
  • HUMN 2297 – Issues in Science and Religion
  • GNED 1203 – Cultural Perspectives on Science

Sacred Spaces in Calgary

SSC header

Several of these courses use my Sacred Spaces in Calgary website, a sort of on-line textbook organized around five virtual tours of religious buildings in Calgary. The site was designed with experts from MRU’s Academic Development Centre, with financial support from the Kahannoff Foundation, and it won the NAWeb2002 (North American Web Conference) Educational Internet Site of the Year award.

naweb1


A Sample of Conceptual Work

This diagram illustrates one sort of tension that can be very useful as a reflective exercise near the end of classes, especially those where the students have been excited by what we have studied together and where they have really grappled with some of the complexities of “religion.” The diagram problematizes relations between naturalistic and relational views of religion (on the left) and ideological critique (on the right).

graphic1


Teaching Statement

My teaching is shaped by six main goals.

1. ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITIES. I take very seriously a set of ethical responsibilities that I believe are incumbent upon post-secondary instructors:

  • treating students with respect and fairness, including equitable treatment regardless of identity or background;
  • maintaining an effective, respectful and productive learning environment in the classroom;
  • facilitating the learning experiences of students with disabilities and special needs;
  • making myself available to students for consultation outside of class time, and maintaining a proper focus on teacher-student relations in those consultations (advising students of the availability of counselling, wellness, study skills, advising and other services where students bring up broader issues that impinge on their learning experiences);
  • making students aware of MRU resources, outside our classroom, that might be of service to them;
  • making course policies, student expectations and criteria of assessment explicit and clear, and then adhering to these;
  • representing course material fairly and accurately;
  • maintaining consistency with respect to standards of evaluation and assessment, both with reference to other courses in my department and to the discipline more broadly;
  • not imposing any normative or interpretive bias on the material presented (i.e., not “indoctrinating” students), yet making explicit the normative frameworks that necessarily shape post-secondary courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences in Canada (see below under 3);
  • in addition, as a Religious Studies instructor, demonstrating respectful yet critical (in the intellectual sense) appreciation for all religions, without favouritism, preconception or prejudice.

2. FACILITATING AN UNDERSTANDING OF COURSE MATERIAL. I teach with an eye to three distinct levels of course- and discipline-specific learning outcomes. I make these explicit on my course outlines and in introductory lectures, underlining their relation to the various forms of assessment. Religious Studies courses aim to help student learn to compare, contrast, interpret and discuss religious phenomena. My courses (like my Sacred Spaces in Calgary website) are generally organized in two ways: (1) by religion (e.g., Islam or Spiritualism); and (2) by sacred dimensions (e.g., sacred space, sacred time, sacred roles, sacred ritual, sacred scripture, and sacred symbols/artifacts). My three course-specific outcomes move from specific to general knowledge.

a. Students learn specific facts about the religions studied, including definitions of terms (e.g., Rabbi, resurrection, Qur’an, fundamentalism), details about rituals and artifacts (e.g., Sun Dance, Eucharist, talit), important internal variations (e.g., Sunni/Shi’a, Catholic/Orthodox), social and institutional forms (e.g., Episcopal vs. Presbyterian), and historical events (e.g., hijrah, Protestant Reformation). This first level of learning is assessed by, for example, on-line quizzes and vocabulary tests during midterms and final exams.
b. Students learn to contextualize these facts in two ways: (i) relating concepts of different types to each other, e.g. relations between doctrine and ritual; and (ii) situating concepts within the history and variations of each religion. That is, they are expected to be able to discuss each religion in relation to other aspects of the same religion. This second level of learning is generally evaluated by short-answer questions written in class.
c. Students learn to compare/contrast religions using general categories and concepts from Religious Studies. The first two levels involve a single religion; this third outcome is comparative, drawing on the first two with the general comparative concepts used in the discipline of Religious Studies (e.g., ritual, social function, transcendence). This third level of learning is generally evaluated with a short essay.

3. PROVIDING A SENSE OF THE NATURE OF MY DISCIPLINE (RELIGIOUS STUDIES) AND OF ITS PLACE IN ITS BROADER CONTEXT. Only a small minority of my students go on to major in Religious Studies, and even fewer pursue graduate work in the field. The point of explicitly discussing the nature and context of Religious Studies is not to serve this minority but rather to lay bare certain presuppositions that characterize the field and, hence that shape students’ experience in our classes. In all my classes I, at least briefly, point out the far from coincidental relation between the discipline’s “objective” comparative approach and the legal and social context symbolized and shaped by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Insofar as I feel an ethical obligation to not impose any normative framework on the course, I feel it necessary to point out the discipline’s unavoidable resonance with a privatized view of religion-as-personal-choice that must be respected among other choices. In other words, Religious Studies (like the Canadian legal system) treats all religions equally. This necessarily involves treating some unfairly in their own lights: e.g., bracketing as “examples” any statements made by conservative Muslim or Christian students who assert that their faith is the one true path to salvation. This  levelling process is, arguably, an appropriate response to religious and cultural pluralism in a country shaped increasingly by transnational flows and globalizing forces. But it is important that students recognize that our disciplinary commitment to treating all religions as equal for the purposes of study comes at a price: it necessarily fails to respect the most basic claims of some of the traditions that we study.

4. OFFERING A VARIETY OF MATERIALS AND TEACHING STYLES. I use a variety of teaching materials and approaches, reflecting (i) my beliefs that variety keeps up interest, and thus helps in learning and retention, (ii) my recognition that student bring a variety of distinct learning styles to the classroom, and (iii) the multi-faceted nature of religious phenomena themselves: e.g., required and optional readings (textbooks, reading package, handouts, and /or websites), lectures, small–group work, discussions, student presentations, work-shopping critical summaries, in-class writing practice, PowerPoint presentations, websites, videos and clips, artifacts, slides, music and audio clips, site visits, computer lab work with the virtual tour site, etc.

I pay specific attention to writing. Writing leads students beyond rote learning, helping them to engage the material and to critically formulate their own ideas. For example, short in-class writing assignments are an effective way to help students to consolidate key points from a lecture or to examine cases from a given theoretical perspective. We generally spend time in class discussing practical writing skills, discipline-specific aspects of writing, and resources available to students on campus. This involves a range of activities: e.g., going over the elements of paragraph construction in a tutorial session; free-writing and brainstorming exercises; showing strong and weak paragraphs from student work in previous terms (with those students’ permission); group work where each set of students comes up with a topic sentence and a list of points for a single assigned issue and writes these on a a projected word-processor document, allowing the entire class as a group to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each (without specifying which attempt is from which group); and analyzing introductory paragraphs of published articles, some of which are not very good.

I also focus explicitly on techniques for interpreting art and images, drawing upon an exercise developed with MRU’s Irene Naested. This is useful given the prevalence of visual materials in the study of religion. For example, it is explicitly integrated with one variation of the capstone essay in my introductory course, in which students interpret the symbols and architecture of the sacred spaces either through a site visit or as presented on our virtual tour site.

5. MODELLING AND ASSISTING IN DEVELOPING CRITICAL THINKING SKILLS. I model and try to help students practice three dimensions of critical thinking. First, I describe and model the three distinct levels of discipline specific course outcomes (e.g., re-framing what students say in class discussion using those concepts). I explicitly assess the ability to work reflexively with these concepts in student writing. Second, we work consistently over the term with sociological concepts of authority (especially Weber’s triad of traditional, institutional and charismatic) and with the concept of ideology, often using the classroom and university itself as an example and looking for comparisons between religion and other social spheres. Third, students learn to read critically, distinguishing, e.g., between primary and secondary sources, authors’ claims and cited claims, valid and sound arguments, etc.

6. FOSTERING A REFLEXIVE AND ACTIVE LEARNING PROCESS. This process begins with our first meetings, where we begin to draw out the conceptions and misconceptions about religion that students bring to the classroom. It continues with attention to the relation between study skills, course material, and modes of assessment. For example, we discuss how to take notes using the study guide as a means of focusing on tests and assignments and also how to use various colours or marks to differentiate types of material when taking notes or reading course texts (a technique that I developed and on which I have published). Finally, we consistently emphasis relations between the study of religion and other courses that students are taking as well as to the broader issues that they encounter, and will continue to encounter, outside the university.



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