Thoughts on Teaching – Talking about Religion – 9/28/2013

I am, again, late on discussing what I am doing on a week-by-week basis in my class.  This week, my excuse is that we had an accident last Friday.  In the rain, we hydroplaned on the freeway and were hit by an 18-wheeler.  Everyone came out ok, but the car is going to be in the shop for a while.  So, blogging has been kind of the last thing on my mind as we’ve been dealing with the fallout from the accident.

But, I do want to talk about what I am doing each week in my hybrid class, and so, this is what we did in Week 4, even though we just finished up Week 5.  The topic for the class was — religion.  I set up the discussion with a disclaimer.  From my experience, religion is something that is just not discussed in much detail in most history classes, except in a mostly cursory manner.  I will take out two of the classes this semester and talk exclusively about religion, once with the First Great Awakening and once with the Second Great Awakening.  Yet, discussing religion in class is hard.  It is an extremely personal subject, and it is hard to discuss it without people making it about themselves.

To set up the discussion, I had the students do two things — watch part 1 of a documentary called God in America and read a sermon from the First Great Awakening.  As to discussion, we approached religion in two ways.  First, we looked at the impact of the clash of religions between the arriving Europeans and the people who were already there.   There were two basic things we took from that:

  1. That you cannot believe in a religion without believing that you are completely correct and that people who believe otherwise are wrong.
  2. That the idea of evangelicalism in religion is a difficult thing to achieve, as it is based upon the assumption that you simply have to tell people who have not heard the good word before simply have to hear about your religion and they will then convert.

With those two things as our base starting point, we worked from there.  We discussed how religion shaped the colonies as they developed, looking at the assumptions on both sides and the rise of a religious idea in the colonies.  We then moved rather quickly forward to the First Great Awakening, talking about what the older forms of religion had become by a century or so later and what the new ideas of the Great Awakening were.  We talked about why the people in the Awakening felt that there was a religious problem in America by the mid-1700s and what their solution was.  I did not do as good of a job here as I would have liked to, as I never really brought in the sermons explicitly.  That’s a bad idea, as I need to hold the students directly responsible for the readings that I assign them.  Still, the discussion went reasonably well, especially with the two points above in the bank already.  We talked about the importance of the ideas of the Awakening in moving toward a new form of American religion as well as the push toward a break with old English ways that would be important for the ideas of the Revolution.

Overall, I think the class went reasonably well.  We finished up tying everything back to the theme of unity or division in the colonies, and we left with the good historians answer — yes and no.  The Awakening unified because it was a common experience among the colonists, yet it divided as the Awakening ended up dividing many in America over religious ideas.  I closed everything with my final thoughts on the Awakening, that it was one of the most important pre-Revolutionary movements that is really not talked about very much in a lot of history classes.

As I mentioned above, the only problem I really have with it is that I did not actually directly discuss the documentary or the readings that much.  I need to be holding them more directly responsible for the assignments that I have set for them.  It is hard, as I know that a lot are not doing anything, yet, I am encouraging them not to do anything by not holding them responsible.  It’s a bit of a catch-22.

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About Scott Williams

I am an educator, community-college instructor, thinker, husband, parent of four, student of life, player of video games, voracious reader, restless wanderer, and all-around guy.

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