I’ve shared syllabi in the past and I thought I’d do it again this semester. Below is the syllabus for my Honors Introduction to Religion Course this semester. As always, I’d love to hear feedback from folks and feel free to steal this and use it as you see fit. No twitter or blogging this time around–saving that for my upper level seminar.
I’ve already posted about it on Facebook and I think someone sent out a tweet about it but I’ll post it here and make it official. I’m happy to announce I’ve accepted a one year faculty appointment in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama for 2013-1014. I’m really excited to join such a great group of faculty members for what should be a great year. I’m even more excited because I’ll get to teach a seminar on Asian Religions in American Culture that I’ve wanted a chance to teach for some time now. I’ll also be teaching the honors introduction to religion course, which should be a blast.
So, I guess all that’s left to say is….Roll Tide!
I should have posted this earlier, but I’ll be speaking as part of the great Eat Talk Teach Run series at Emory. ETTR combines four short (4 minute limit) talks on teaching with free lunch and frozen yogurt. It’s awesome. Come check it out. Details:
Eat. Talk. Teach. Run!
An event to energize grad student teaching at Emory.
Wednesday, October 31. 12 PM – 1 PM.
Eat. Yogurt Tap frozen yogurt and bánh mì sandwiches from Buford Highway!
Talk. Meet grad students from across campus.
Teach. Hear short 4-minute flashtalks from other grad students.
Run. Get back to the lab or library on time!
Few Hall G27, convenient for scientists, humanities, and everything in between!
Find Few Hall G27 here:
Grad Student Speakers:
Michael Altman (Religion)
Kate Doubler (English)
Laura Mariani (Neuroscience)
Cassy Quave (Ethnobotany, Post-doc)
RSVPs Appreciated at:
“Like” Us at:
I have always said that the best time to experiment as a teacher is in graduate school. In many cases your course load is lighter than as an adjunct or tenure track faculty member and your student reviews won’t go in your tenure file. Instead the bad ones can go in the recycling bin. There is a safety net and, hopefully, lots of wise faculty members to help you along the way. It is an important time to test out things that may or may not work and hone innovative strategies you can share on the job market.
To that end, I began to experiment with social media in my Religion 100 course last semester. The official title of the course was “Introduction to Religion: Christian and Hindu Traditions.” In the course I used both a public class blog, Twitter, and Skype. Things went really well and I learned a lot. I have even been asked to share what I’ve learned with faculty and graduate student’s here at Emory. Now I want to share my thoughts on social media and how it can be especially helpful in religious studies classes. I also want to explore the idea of “the social” both in our media and in our classrooms–a question I did not think through at the beginning but have returned to in looking back on the course.
But why use any form of technology, social media or otherwise, in your teaching? My basic approach to using technology is based in the metaphor of the tool belt. Technologies are just like any other tools we use in our teaching–tests, assignments, or readings. So, the question is not “How can I use Twitter in my class?” Rather, the question is “What do I want to do in this class?” In some cases the best technology is a whiteboard while in others it could be something a little higher tech. In any case, you start with the goal or problem, not with the tool.
In Religion 100 I had 4 goals (these were separate from but related too the learning objectives of the class):
- I want to figure out what students are getting out of the reading BEFORE I lecture in class.
- I want to open up the classroom. That is, I want to get students thinking about class outside of the the class period and get outsiders thinking with my class.
- I want to teach them to be able to connect course material with the world around them. ( I think of this as a civic pedagogy.)
- I want them writing across different genres
As I considered the above goals I came up with three social media tools that would help me: a blog, Twitter, and Skype. I’ll start with Twitter in this post and address the other two in a subsequent post or posts.
So here’s what I did. You can find the whole syllabus for the course at the link above but here’s the section that outlined the Twitter assignment:
We will use Twitter as a way to share thoughts on the reading, comments or questions in class, links to possible blog stories, and for general communication. You are required to send out three course related tweets per week using the hashtag #REL100. These three tweets must relate to content in the course. They could be comments that come to mind as you read, a question about the reading material, a comment or question during class discussion or lectures, a link to something you’ve found online that relates to themes we covered in class, or a response to someone else’s tweet. Retweets without further comment do not count. Messages or mentions to me about details (i.e. “@MichaelJAltman What time are your office hours tomorrow?”) do not count.
If you are not a very talkative person and do not enjoy speaking up in class, Twitter is a great option for you to participate in class. Class participation is part of your grade and Twitter may give you a more comfortable platform for asking questions, making comments, and joining in the discussion. I will be monitoring #REL100 during class and responding to comments and questions that appear there. You are not required to follow the Twitter stream during class.
I will spend time in class explaining how to use Twitter so everyone feels comfortable with the platform. I will also briefly cover how to write a good “thick” tweet.
I was surprised how quickly students got the hang of a “thick” tweet. I was also surprised at how hard it was to follow the stream while also lecturing. I eventually gave that up. I used the now defunct Twapperkeeper to archive the tweets which means that I had them during the semester but they are now gone into the internet ether. I think The Archivist would work if I was doing it again and I also think a simple RSS feed for the course hashtag would have been sufficient. For more on these nuts and bolts issues check out the links on my teaching page.
So how well did it work? A few things went really well. First of all, it did open up the class. Students were thinking about the course materials for a few extra minutes each week. I could tell this because I could see the tweets and their time stamps. Also, a lot of students tweeted links to things they found around the internet that related to class. They began to see the course material in the world around them (more on that when we get to the blog). While not a lot of outsiders joined into the Twitter conversations, I do know that there were folks following our discussion and so in that way it opened up our class to the outside.
Beyond opening up the class, the tweets made my lectures better. Many students tweeted as they read with questions, ideas, and thoughts. It was like I could see their marginalia before I had completed my lectures. I knew which parts of readings needed emphasis or explanation in class and I got their first impressions so that I could begin the process of pushing their thinking to a deeper level. While some students commented that they enjoyed the Twitter activity itself, overall the class reviews almost unanimously cited the lectures as the best part of the class. Little did they know that they were helping write those great lectures. I also got comments from students that the 140 character limit forced them to really boil down their thoughts. This reminds me of some of the creative writing assignments I had in college where you had to write a short story using only one syllable words. Constraints can force critical or creative thinking.
I did learn a few things that I would do differently the next time around. First, I would have been more clear about why I was having them tweet and how their tweets were informing my lectures and improving the class. I think a few people felt that it was busy work because they didn’t realize that their were real benefits for them in the tweets. Second, I would spread it out. I had a few students who would wait until the weekly deadline and then send out three tweets in a row or three quick responses to other people’s tweets. A group of late night religion tweeters began to assemble every week right before the deadline for a Religion 100 tweetfest. I think next time I will require students to tweet X number days, instead of times, to spread it out. Finally, less is more. I think two tweets a week or even an average of two tweets a week throughout the semester would have been a better assignment. They would have had less to do and I would still have had enough tweets to use in my lecture writing.
I think Twitter was very successful tool for accomplishing my goals. It improved my lectures, opened up the class, helped them connect material to their world, and got them writing in a new genre. I think it worked well because I made sure to bring interesting tweets into the classroom and reference them in lectures. I also think it worked because I restrained myself as much as I could. I tried to hold back and not answer their questions. I tried not to respond to their thoughts too often or too quickly. I tried to sit on my hands and make Twitter stream more their space than mine.
Twitter became a “third space “in the class. When I used to work a certain giant green northwestern based coffee company they would refer to their stores as a “third place” between work and home. You could get a coffee and sit on a couch or you could write on your laptop and check emails. It wasn’t home but it wasn’t work. That’s how Twitter functioned in our class. It became a third space where students could float ideas, try to make connections, and ask questions. Because I restrained myself and let them respond and answer each other it became more their space than mine. It wasn’t their personal space but it wasn’t the classroom space where right answers are rewarded and I maintain control. It was a 3rd space between their thoughts/notes and the classroom. It was also a very productive space for them.
I think this third space is especially important in religious studies classes because of the nature of what we teach. Twitter was a place where confessionalism (still within certain boundaries) was tolerated more than in the academic classroom. For a class on Hinduism and Christianity, it gave my Hindu and Christian students a place to work out how the course materials related to their own religious identities and practices. We don’t often have time to let students work out these sorts of questions within the confines of our classrooms or written assignments but Twitter acted as a pressure valve that allowed students to make sense of the course in terms of their own subjectivity. A conservative evangelical student was able to take issue with an essay we read on early Christianities without disrupting class time by tweeting to me about it. The whole class saw the tweets and my response and so he felt heard, the exchange was respectful, questions were answered, and we moved on. That could easily have been a twenty minute distraction if it happened in class. Instead it was a teachable moment. My restraint at other times made my interventions into the Twitter conversation more productive.
I definitely think I will use Twitter again in the classroom. For my lifestyle and my teaching style it proved itself as a constructive tool for achieving my goals in the classroom. As a piece of social media, Twitter gave the course a congenial feeling that we were all in this together and that it was a safe space for discussion and disagreement. Also, I’ve found that if given the choice to comment on a blog post or write their own blog post of the same length, most students will simply write their own because it is easier to come up with their own thoughts than read, understand, and respond to someone else. Not the case with Twitter. The short tweets actually make it easier to respond and thus build a conversation than a message board or blog. But the biggest advantage was the ways it narrowed the gap between the student’s thoughts on the material and my presentation of the material. Overall it enhanced the social aspects of the course. That works for my teaching style and, from the responses students gave, it worked for them too.
[Image: Plate 113 of Birds of America by John James Audubon depicting Blue-bird. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]
UPDATE- This post has been updated with new sites. (2/20/2014)
I gave a couple of talks around Emory last week about my experience teaching with social media last semester. In the wake of those I’ll be posting some resources for folks looking to use blogging or Twitter in their classes. Here is a list of good sites I recommended to students for looking for articles/posts to write their posts about. While I didn’t require them to use these, almost every one of them did and they had great results.
Sacred Matters: http://scholarblogs.emory.edu/sacredmatters
Sacred Matters twitter feed: https://twitter.com/sacredmatters
Religion & Politics: http://religionandpolitics.org
Religion Dispatches: http://www.religiondispatches.org
CNN Belief Blog: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com
NPR Religion: http://www.npr.org/sections/religion/
Religion News Service: http://religionnews.com/
Huffington Post Religion: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/religion/
Religion in American History: http://usreligion.blogspot.com
The Immanent Frame: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/
The Revealer: http://therevealer.org/
Killing the Buddha: http://killingthebuddha.com/
The Anxious Bench: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/
American Society of Church History- History of Christianity: http://www.churchhistory.org/blogs/
John Fea, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: http://www.philipvickersfithian.com/
Warren Throckmorton: http://wthrockmorton.com/
Pardon the self-promotion:
Introductory level courses here at Emory are not famous for their enthusiastic levels of participation, attendance or commitment. Often these classes are big, too drafty or, let’s be honest, just too early in the morning to meet the same standards of discussion and debate set by upper-level courses and seminars.
Professors in these classes face a unique challenge: getting a large group of students, often from many majors and years, to take an active part in class discussion and lecture.
The Religion 100: Introduction to Religion course taught by Ph.D. student Michael Altman this semester is meeting this challenge head-on. The class is growing from the more conventional, old school homework assignments by injecting the curriculum with technology and the hallmark social networking of our generation.
Twitter and blogging are given an academic spin in the effort to boost class involvement, enthusiasm, and engagement.
So, I’ve made it into the student newspaper. Now, let’s just see how the course evaluations turn out…
I finally finished the syllabus for REL100. Good thing, too. The first day of class is tomorrow morning. It’s all filled up–40 students. Here goes nothin’!
REL 100: Introduction to Religion
Christian and Hindu Traditions
Michael J. Altman
Office Hours: Thursday 9am-noon, Callaway S220 (or by appt.)
I. Course Description
This course introduces the academic study of religion through a comparative approach to Hindu and Christian religious cultures. The central question of our course is “What is religion?” We will attempt to answer this question by drawing on a range of examples from Hindu and Christian religious cultures. These case studies will come from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in both India and America and range from Hindu pilgrimage to Catholic devotionalism to yoga to evangelicalism. These case studies will be organized around three themes: the body, ritual and devotion, and space and motion. In each case and through each theme we will pay special attention to the ways “religion” is constructed, authorized, and maintained. Turning to the ways religion was constructed in the past will shed light on the ways it is understood today. By the end of the course we will have an understanding of the rich variety of religious cultures found within Christianity and Hinduism while also gaining theoretical tools for analyzing various constructions of “religion” in public discourse and culture.
II. Course Outcomes
We will develop expertise in interpreting the plurality of religions (especially Christianity and Hinduism) in their historical settings.
We will critically assess the influence religions (again, especially Christianity and Hinduism) exert in shaping experience and society.
We will investigate the diverse of ways of “being in the world” in Christian and Hindu traditions.