“You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don’t let you off homework today. I assure you that if you die, you need not hand it in” – Minerva McGonagall
(J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)
I am in a research-only postdoc, but one morning I woke up and I decided to start an endless and pointless bureaucratic journey to teach a class in Religion&Media.
Since some folks asked for it on Twitter, I make here available Religion&Media Syllabus, which I comment and explain below in the post:
While choosing some non-retributed and tiresome extra teaching work can seem masochistic at best (and utterly stupid in most cases), I have to say that teaching this class has probably been the most rewarding thing I did professionally in this semester. I use to write in my (mostly unsuccessful) job applications that I believe research and teaching always go together, and I really think this is true (as it is all I write in job applications, obviously).
Because teaching is basically a hobby for me, I could structure my class as I pleased. I had nobody telling me which manual to use or which topics I should address. I put together all my favorite Religion&Media readings, starting with “Religion in the Media Age” by Stewart Hoover (the book which got me in the field in the first place, so it has a nostalgic touch) and ending with the theory of Third Space, also by Hoover and my advisor Nabil Echchaibi. I structure the class thematically and I asked my students to reflect on the very definition of media. Indeed, media can be considered material objects, spaces for transmission and representation, as well as technological tools for the creation of meanings and communities.
What I hope my students understood is that religion and media have influenced each other in various ways, and that it is impossible to think about religion without addressing processes of communication and media use. Technological changes bring new challenges and opportunities, adoptions and rejections, but ultimately religion always needs mediation to communicate messages and create communities. For this reason, I explored both historical and contemporary examples of Religion&Media, and I introduced some of the main theories in the field, in particular mediation, mediatization, and religious-social shaping of technology.
Something about the class: it is for MA students, even if I accepted also BA students. Most of the students major in religious studies, but some come also from different disciplines (such as theology or history). It is a discussion-based seminar with a small group of students that are supposed to talk about the readings for the day. I often structure some class activities and/or asked students to think about and discuss practical examples. For instance, I had them think about a media event they witnessed, or watch a movie to check how religion is represented. In some cases, I asked students to prepare discussion questions or I divided the class in groups to foster discussion. I did some lecturing, too, especially to introduce them to media theory as very few had already some notions of communication.
I make the syllabus available now because the semester just ended (and yes, you folks who started summer break in May, you can pity me). The syllabus might seem a little strange for a US-based class because there are very few assignments: here in Bochum, students only need class participation to earn 3 credits, and to write a final paper to earn 6 credits (the term “credit” is part of the European HE system that clearly aims at using an economic jargon to instill in the students some fear of debts, since they don’t have ACTUAL loans as their American cousins). In my opinion, having only a final paper is REALLY nice because it takes away so much time from grading and let me focus on actual pedagogy. Plus, I don’t have the feeling that the students are learning less than they would with more tests. On the contrary, they are more relaxed and have time to focus on properly read and understand the material, and on developing critical thinking instead of memorizing notions for quizzes.
You might also notice that the syllabus is full of white males, some so old that they are dead. I am aware of this and I made my students aware, too. I would have liked to integrate more diverse voices, especially because we talked a lot about representation and diversity. However, one constraint was the fact that we give only about 30-40 pages/week (usually an article or book chapter). That’s because students take a lot of courses for semester and the load cannot be too high, and also they need more time to read as it’s not their native language (to give you an idea: if you’re a native English speaker, read Foucault in French and then tell me how long it took to complete 40 pages). As a result, I could not include many texts I wanted my students to read and I realized too late I had sacrificed many non-white/non-male viewpoints (which also says something about having to check my own biases). However, I tried to correct this by making the material that was cut from the syllabus available for my students. Also, I gave each of them personalized articles to use for their final paper and I made sure to include more diversity. In any case, I do accept suggestions to improve the syllabus in this sense.
Also, it has been easy to teach because the students are really good. They still need to write the final paper, so obviously I might be jinxing it writing this, but class participation has been just great. And here a small digression on Germany: I teach in an area that is very diverse, multicultural, traditionally working class. The predominant high school education is public, as it is the university (in fact, it is COMPLETELY FREE for everyone). I have students that commute and work. They always come to class prepared, do all the readings, have a lot of good ideas, and they all do this in English which is not their native language. I’m never going to admit it, but some of them might have read Adorno more often than I did. Also, I had ZERO (zero!) annoying students pestering me with useless questions whose answer was already in the syllabus. They even clap at the end of classes (or better, knock on the table, because Germany can be a little weird sometimes). Clearly, I cannot generalize, as this experience is very limited, but I might say that I’m extremely pleased to teach here.
In sum, I might be stupid and masochistic but teaching this class was just great. So much that I’m repeating the experience next semester with a class dedicated to religion and the Internet. I hope the syllabus can be useful for others, and you can feel free to download it and use it for inspiration. In this post I put a couple of slides I used in class. If you have comments or suggestions, please let me know