Learning to Drink Deeply from Books: Using Experiential Assignments to Teach Concepts



This article explores how to teach students to drink deeply from books. Drawing on the work of Peter Elbow, the article argues for incorporating experiential assignments that are structured to create a mediating realm between abstract concepts and concrete experiences. The bulk of the article explores in detail the author's use of such assignments first in a course on sexuality and religion and, second, in the standard Introduction to Religion course.

The Problem

I have a drinking problem. Or rather, my students do. The majority of my students come to class not knowing that a book can change their lives – not knowing that when one reads a book, something happens . . . or can. I am only now beginning to hear what students have been saying to me for years: that books feel foreign to their lives. They do not how to read themselves – their lives and worlds, discontents and dreams – into books. In fact, they have been taught not to do this, even by me. In my introductory courses, I say early and often: “It does not matter that you do not agree with _____ (insert religion here). Your religiosity is not the norm by which others are measured.” While necessary and valuable, such detachment can work against what I want most for students: to sense the subtle but significant shifts that can occur when they read a book.1

In my own life, this desire for reading stems directly from being queer (although many academics have similar kinds of stories, albeit not necessarily constellating around gender and sexuality). For queers of my generation, books provided a first and crucial way that a queer life could be lived. It has been in large measure through books that I have learnt to fashion and sustain a life that cuts diagonal to the ones I saw all around and which struck me as simply not interesting enough. Books are not the only way to do this. And such conceptual shifts are certainly not the only thing that students might want or need from professors. That said, I do want students to taste the power and peril, pleasure and spice, of a certain kind of abstraction – so much so, that I have increasingly moved away from incorporating media in my classes in order to focus more intently on what it is to be someone who drinks deeply from books: someone who is persistently, and problematically, caught by and in and through learning.

As Peter Elbow writes in his essay on “real” learning: “you don't teach anyone by feeding him [or her] information. It's processed and ‘filed,’ but whether it can ever be found again is a function of his filing and processing system which is precisely what you have left unchanged . . . You only teach someone if you affect the way he files his data, processes his information, or makes his inferences. Teaching or learning involves introducing categories” (1986, 11). While I agree with Elbow's claim about the centrality of teaching concepts, I am uncomfortable calling this “real” learning because it implies that introducing students to content is somehow false. Learning content can effect conceptual shifts. I think of a student who, before our section on Judaism, passed the synagogue in her town and imagined people inside sitting around discussing why Jesus was not the Messiah! She was overstating, but to make a point: without content she could not fully recognize Judaism as a religion of its own. For her it was a revelation to learn the content of Judaism.

Yet while Elbow's distinction between information and transformation is inexact, it does capture something important. I do think that if all our courses do is introduce students to basic content about religion, we will have failed. Gene Gallagher made a powerful case that “religious literacy must involve not only a mastery of basic information [the what of religion], . . . but also some insight into how people use that basic information to orient themselves in the world” (208) – as well as some insight into why. In order to cultivate insight into the hows and whys of religion, however, students need concepts. A concept is a way of relating to information: to return to Elbow's quote, concepts are how we file information, make sense of it, draw inferences from it, resist and refute it. Concepts can take students from feeling at a loss when they confront something that does not fit into their idea of what “religion” is – and move them toward imagining religions as forms of life in Wittgenstein's rich sense: To see a religion as a form of life is to see that the world has many vantage points by a conceptual shift. I want students to be able to say, long after they have left my classroom: “That is how norms can be violent!” Or “What if that is religion, too?” But such transferability cannot happen if students do not know how to take nourishment from abstract thought.

I started thinking about this “drinking” problem while teaching a course entitled “Sex and the Body in the Study of Religion.” The course first teaches students some key moves regarding gender and sexuality (from Freud to Foucault to Judith Butler to Anne Fausto-Sterling) and then uses these moves to think about Daoist meditation practices (because even my most “relativist” of students balk at reciting the usual “If it works for them . . .” mantra when they encounter what Daoism claims about the body). I weave the theory and the Daoism through each other, having learned that if we do not work on using theory as a second and separate step, either students never touch theory again once the course is over or students apply theory mechanically, like a sausage grinder (so that regardless of what they put in, it comes out Freud, or Butler, or whoever).

Reading their final papers last year made it clear that there was a group of students I was not reaching. I get the good students: the handful in every class who can read Foucault or Butler with me, and then, on their own, use an intellectual move from that text to make new sense of a religious phenomenon by reading it through that conceptual move. I also get the lower tier, those students who can work with school concepts only in the exact same form in which they are presented in the classroom. For those students, I construct a link between a particular theorist and a religious phenomenon. For example: one produces the identity of a “perfected being” through complex gender performances (that is Judith Butler). Or, the so-called asceticism practiced by Daoist transcendents in the name of “preserving the One” is less about renunciation and saying “No,” and more about the productivity of power (that is Foucault). While students who use one of these previously given links are not yet drinking from books as deeply as I would like, this assignment does help them take the next step toward that goal: it is enough for a C (or even a B when done well) if students can flesh out a previously given link through close readings of two difficult texts (one theoretical, one primary), and thereby acquire more precision in their understanding of each.

The students I did not know how to work well with are the middle tier: the ones who want to do more than elaborate a previously given link, but who cannot yet construct their own link by imitating me. Working with these students, it felt as if the best I could do was to structure paper assignments which brought them to the brink and then to cheer them on: “Drink! You can do it! Trust yourself! Drink!” And when they could not teach themselves how to do this, I consoled myself by saying, “You can lead a horse to water. . . .”

With that last phrase, I caught myself. And so, like anyone who knows that a good book can make a difference in life when it seems nothing else can, I read. Specifically, I came across the aforementioned article by Peter Elbow entitled “Nondisciplinary Courses and the Two Roots of Real Learning” in which Elbow takes the problem of how to teach students to drink deeply from books and breaks it into two skills. In this paper I will explore the first skill (or root) that Elbow discusses: recognition, the ability to “apply” concepts.2 Such acts of recognition are one way that students can make a concept their own by sensing its shift.

Having identified this teaching problem, I want to explore how experiential writing assignments can be structured to teach students how to learn from books. I will start by discussing the upper level “Sex and the Body” class that I have been describing. Here I will trouble the opposition between conceptual and experiential learning, arguing that what students need in order to drink deeply from books is a rich mediating realm of interactions between school concepts and their lives and worlds. In the second section I will use these ideas to consider the use of experiential writing in the lower level “Introduction to Religion” course, which I take to be one of the most challenging venues in which to teach students how to drink deeply from books.

Induction, Recognition, and the “Feel” of a Concept: The Shift-Effect

As I argued above, a concept (or category) is simply a move, an activity of relating (Deleuze 1984). Concepts are ways of reading data – doing something to and with data that renders it intelligible in a new way. In order to get the full power of what a concept (such as the “productivity” of power relations, or “religion in general”) can do, students need a rich interchange between school, or disciplinary, concepts (which are often quite abstract: disciplines are essentially built around key meta-concepts) and the more spontaneous or lived concepts that students possess operationally without necessarily being able to articulate them (Elbow 1986, 17). The ability to construct this in-between or mediating realm, and to exist among its contradictions and complications, is something my middle tier students lack. Without this intermediate realm, students cannot drink deeply from books: the chasm is too large and their reach is too small.3 I see this mediating realm as the essence of what it is to be an educated person: the most important thing we can give students is an encounter with the dynamic process of lifelong learning. I talk about “lifelong learning” to students and administrators all the time; realizing that I was not “getting” the middle tier of students in my “Sex and the Body” class made me confront the fact that I was not teaching students how to become lifelong learners – I was just hoping it would somehow happen.

Until I read Elbow, my primary way of creating interaction or exchange between abstract concepts and more concrete lived experiences was structured induction: first, placing before students a range of data which they do not quite know how to make sense of, in the hope that, second, a “click” occurs and they will come to see something in the data. “Oh, that's religion!” or “Ah, that's how you ‘do’ a gender (rather than be one)!” For students to be able to articulate and understand precisely what concept “emerged with the click . . . it is definitely a third and separate step – often requiring still more data,”Elbow suggests (1986, 16).

Elbow singles out the second, or hinge, step of “the click” as the most crucial. He notes that a mental “Aha!” is most often accompanied by a physical response of some kind (a smile, a movement, a release of tension). Thus Elbow argues: “[I]nduction produces the experience – the ‘feel’– of a concept before there are words for it. It is this nonverbal experience of a concept which enables one to recognize a huge range of instances of the concept: one doesn't need verbal cues as mediation” (1986, 17; emphasis in original).

With this last sentence, Elbow reveals the promise and failure of classroom induction. Recognizing a huge range of instances of a concept is transferability at its best: such a student is feeling and using and owning the power of what a concept can do. This is what the best students do already. For most of my students, however, classroom induction works against generating the kind of rich interchange they need to use a concept. Given the limited time frame of a class period, I tend to put concrete material before students and then to walk them through it with my words (which, to be honest, are often leading ones). Such induction, according to Elbow, “puts the experience there ‘artificially’ and vicariously with words alone” (1986, 17). And even if the words are not leading, they are still mine. Necessarily so: few of my students can read, on their own, academic articles, much less a theorist like Foucault. But the very words which give access also block them from experiencing the power of a concept: “examples of X given after it has been verbally explained sometimes refuse to feel like anything but instances of X” (Elbow 1986, 17). Structured induction gives students an experience vicariously, when what they most need is an experience of shift-effect. They need to see a picture as an old lady's hat, and then shift their gaze and see a duck. They need to see a mass of confused data which they cannot make sense of, and then see the concept create organization and order: they need to watch the concept make a form appear. This is one way to feel the power of a concept: to get a sense that something new happens– or can happen – when data is brought into focus through a conceptual lens.

One conceptualization of this problem that my middle tier students face, then, is that they never sense this shift (or click) because they do not have a realm of rich and diverse mediations between school concepts and their lives. Without this mediating realm, there is no place where a conceptual shift can occur. “Analyzing the virtue of induction shows precisely the condition behind the ability to apply concepts widely: the possession of a strong and definite nonverbal experience of the concept and a strong tie between this experience and the words – each should readily call up the other” (Elbow 1986, 17). Without books calling up their experiences and experiences calling up what they have learned in class, once I am no longer there pre-processing data for them, they cannot see anything. As a result, they will not take these concepts with them when they leave, for they have not made them their own. Such students have the potential of the concept – they can answer questions; they are not clueless. But because they do not know how to mediate texts and worlds, they do not get the concept in the sense of being able to actualize its power in their lives.

Reading Elbow's analysis of induction spurred me to rethink my use of experiential assignments. Before I read Elbow, the first writing assignment in my “Sex and the Body” class was strictly textual. I asked students to pick a term from Foucault that they thought was important; their task was to deepen, and render more precise, their understanding of that term by closely reading two or three passages in which the term appeared. “You cannot use Foucault until you have a more solid grasp of what he says,” I told them. “Your task is not to get Foucault down. That is too much to expect your first time through. But you can imbibe his ideas more deeply; you can go beyond a surface read.” Without reading a text closely and deeply, it is difficult for students to do more than use Foucault quotes to dress up ideas that they were already convinced of before reading him. “Is he just saying not to box people into categories?” they ask. “By power relations, he is talking about socialization, right?” Before reading Elbow, I assumed that close reading was the only way for students to go beyond this first step of assimilating a strange text into things they already knew. “If all Foucault is saying is things we already know,” I would respond, “he would not have to write in this way!” And they nod – that they understand. “Read him again, more deeply,” I would counsel, when what I needed to do at that moment was to teach them how to learn something new from a book. I assumed that the text was the place in which conceptual learning happens. Elbow suggests not. His intriguing phrase – the feel of a concept – shifted me from my insistence that their first step had to be strictly textual.

After reading Elbow, I revised the paper assignments. For the first paper, I pick out key texts, and ask them to read their lives through the concepts elaborated in the texts. Their task in writing their papers is to spark and grow their own in-between mediating realm that links abstract concepts with concrete aspects of their lives and worlds. For example, I quote two passages from the end of History of Sexuality in which Foucault calls sex “an ideal point” that “made it possible to group together, in an artificial unity, anatomical elements, biological functions, conducts, sensations, pleasures, and it enabled one to make use of this fictitious unity as a causal principle, an omnipresent meaning, a secret to be discovered everywhere” (1978, 154–155). After writing these quotes out, I give them the following prompt:

In the first week of class, we talked about how much more complicated people's experiences of sexuality and gender were than the language we have for them. We talked about the many different things that sex can be about: lust, emotions, family, desire, object choice, belonging, identity . . . and I'm sure you can come up with more! That is one way to understand what Foucault is saying in the quotations above: we think sex is one thing and that is physical – but in fact it is many and might well be “the most speculative, most ideal, and most internal element” in a complex experience “organized by power in its grip on bodies and their materiality, their forces, energies, sensations, and pleasures” (Foucault 1978, 155). Write a 5–8 page essay in which you explore what sex is for you: what various elements does it bring together? Why these elements and not others? What role does speech and silence play? Be careful: You can't earn your grade by your sex practices! So: you will earn your grade by your argument. In your argument, you must engage with passages from Foucault's text . . . 

Students write about all sorts of things: sexual imagery in music and advertising; the hopes and fears that surrounded their early sexual experiences; accounts of coming out, as well as accounts of coming out not (that is, of considering the possibility but ultimately deciding that they were straight). While students get excited about writing this paper, they are less excited by the grades they earn: part of the work this assignment does is demonstrate to them what I already knew from semesters of failed term papers: they have an unrealistic sense of how much they are actually working with Foucault's text. (They can rewrite this paper, with their final grade for this assignment being the average of the two grades.)

For their second writing assignment, they have the option of performing a gender (or sexual) violation, and then writing a paper in which they use Judith Butler to analyze their experiences. If the task of the paper on Foucault was for them to bring the concept into their lives, the task of this second assignment is for them to learn how to move in the opposite direction: to bring their lives to Butler's text so that they can “get” her ideas more deeply. In short, the task is for students to learn how to generate a dialogue. Thus I do not evaluate their papers based on the nature of the transformation they undergo – I am uncomfortable with that. Rather, I evaluate their papers based on the extent, quality, and richness of the interchange they construct between books and their lives. Do they cite Butler? If not, it is an F. Do they cite her, and do so more than once, but only in the manner of what I call theoretical proof-texting: do they write their experience, insert Butler, and move on? For a final paper, that kind of engagement with Butler's text falls in the C to B range, depending on the subtlety with which they engage the text. (If they cite her incorrectly, they earn a D). To reach the A level, they must actually learn from the Butler passages they cite: they must go from their experience, back to Butler's text, and then take something from her words back to their experience. They need to create a circuit: in this way, they can make a different sense of their experiences of gender and sexuality as a result of reading those experiences through a particular conceptual lens.

At office hours this spring the day before their test on Butler, one of my students took out her study guide and pointed to question eleven: Explain why Butler thinks that gender is a matter of intelligibility. “When I was reviewing for the test, I did not get this question at all,” she said. “See how I have it circled? But that was before today!” For on that day, she was doing her gender violation, and had come to campus dressed as a man (and very effectively, too: when I walked past her to open my office, I did not recognize her and had to look at her twice to see that it was her). Apparently, she had spent much of the morning being accosted by various people on campus who were trying to figure out if she was a woman or a man. “Now I know what Butler means by gender intelligibility!” she said. And we went on to her next circled question.

This is an example of a student using her experiences to help her read a difficult theoretical text more deeply. She puts something from her experience together with Butler's text so that she can “get” Butler's notion of gender as a form of intelligibility. She experiences Elbow's shift-effect, but in the opposite direction: for this student, what was most confusing and unclear was not her experience, but the class reading from Butler's Gender Trouble.

Their sex or gender violation papers try to build on these kinds of connections, which students make in class and on their tests. As I said above, my objective for this assignment is for students to have the experience of using Butler to teach themselves how to think differently about their lives due to what they experienced when they violated a norm. This is hard. Luckily, the performative aspect of this paper makes something happen in ways that the first paper assignment simply cannot. This paper requires them not just to reflect on experiences they have already had, but to actually do something they have never done before: to violate something that they themselves usually take as a norm. The assignment “gets” them – perplexes and puzzles them. This includes my middle tier students. If students can identify a violation that cuts close to the bone, even students whose test grades tend toward C's can experience a conceptual shift.

I think of one such student who decided to act like her brothers. For the family get-together on Mother's Day, she dressed in loose and informal clothes, decided where they would go for lunch, and so forth. After noting that her boyfriend asked her if she was “turning lesbo on him,” she writes:

I noticed on the car ride to the diner my grandma asked me why I was so grumpy and why I was acting so strangely. I thought it was rather funny because whenever one of the men step up and make a decision for everyone, everyone thinks it is perfectly normal. It was small details which made me realize how different it is acting like a guy. . . . After entering the diner I immediately scrambled for a seat next to my grandfather, which is almost always assigned to his youngest grandson. My cousin Freddie hovered over me expecting me to move, so I shot him a dirty look and waited for him to find another seat. Right after that my aunt actually asked me if I had my period. I wanted to laugh, but at the same time I got a little angry; why when a girl is acting differently there is basically an excuse for it? I then realized I was going to have some fun with my experiment. I sat hunched over with my legs wide open and my elbows leaning on the table. At this point I really noticed how my transgression of normal had everyone in my family a little on edge. This was not the quiet, agreeable, nice, go with the flow girl that they were all accustomed to. Something I learned from Judith Butler is that repetition is the key to performativity, so I decided to stick with it and finish out my day no matter how uncomfortable things got. . . . 

When returning to my house, after being called ugly by my four and five year old cousins and being asked by my uncle if I was on some sort of drugs, I decided to take it down a notch. Soon after I told my family it was all part of a final I had to do for school. It was a huge relief to every single one of my family members being I was back to “normal” me again. I obviously knew I was acting like a completely different person, but I didn't understand why my family was getting so offended over things I was doing, when the boys and men of my family do exactly the same thing.

She thinks it is rather funny; she gets a little angry; she decides to have fun at her family's expense; she remembers Butler on the spot and decides to stick with the difficulty; she does not understand why her family was so offended by her doing for one day what her brothers do all the time. (For my part, I acquired an appreciation of why she sat in the front of the class, but never said a word). She brought all these experiences to her reading of Butler. For her citations of Butler, she chose passages I had highlighted in class: doing original work with Butler's text was too hard. But she got things from the passages she picked – which is no small feat, particularly with a text this difficult. Do I know that her experience of the double standard that Mother's Day will change forever the ways she thinks about gender? No. But that is not the goal. In my own life, such “forevers” are hard to come by; I suspect they are impossible. But when she acted like her brothers, she experienced a shift: why, when a girl is acting differently, is she excused, dismissed, and discounted? When this assignment works (it is not magic), middle level students experience an abstract text shedding light on a real-life puzzle. This is true even if they cannot read or write well. She recalled Butler on the spot; that was huge.

Having given an example from a student whose grades usually come in at the C level, I now turn to a student in the top tier who could engage with Butler's text in an original way that went beyond citing passages I had highlighted in class. Her experiences in her sexual violation surprised her, and so led her to read several passages in Butler's text on repetition and reiteration closely. Through rereading, she arrived at a different understanding of her experience and of what a concept can do:

Imagine that you are the lead in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This role has been repeated time after time in the same way, and under the same notions of “who the character is”– their drives, their desires. But you have realized that your character is not who they seem to be at all. How do you change your performance of the character without throwing the crowd into an uproar? . . . In my own sexual practices, I decided to change one aspect of the way I perform my gender role. As a heterosexual woman, I am not required to climax regularly during sex. Rather, the man gets his fill and sex is over. If the woman climaxes, good for her! If not, better luck next time! Either way, a woman's orgasm is seen as more of a perk than a necessity. So how would sexual dynamics be different if sex were over when the woman climaxed? After experimenting with this notion in my own sex life, I found that my performance of gender, as well as the man's performance of gender, is more difficult to overcome and change than I hoped.

Surprisingly, my partner did not respond the way I expected him to. Rather than becoming frustrated, he seemed relaxed and unfazed. When I asked him what would happen if I did this all the time he responded half-jokingly, “if it happened all the time I would have to go to the bathroom and finish the job myself.” His nonchalance about the situation has me questioning the way his performance of gender was affected or if it was at all.

At this point, the student quotes Butler about how acts and gestures create the illusion of an inner core of gender identity. This illusion is discursively maintained through the obligatory form of reproductive heterosexuality. Then she turns to herself: “My own reaction to the reversal of gender performances was much different than I anticipated as well. I thought I would feel empowered by showing the man the way it feels to be left behind. But, after the act, I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of guilt and empathy (emotions I thought he would experience).” At this point, she invokes Butler's characterization of gender as “a stylized repetition of acts,” that are “tenuously constituted in time” (1999, 179). She comments:

A singular change in the repetition of doing gender will not change gender performance at all. Rather, it is necessary that we continuously adapt, change, and challenge gender performance in order to see any kind of permanent change. I feel that if my partner and I were to fully overcome the notion of a true sexual identity by continuously changing our performance, that we would feel the effects of the experiment much more deeply: he would feel guilt and I would feel empowerment. But, as things stand, I have realized that gender roles and the notion of a true sexual identity are much more difficult to overcome than expected. It takes a continuous disruption of the pattern of performance to see a change in the way we do gender.

She decides to make her boyfriend feel what she so often feels – only to find out that things are not as simple as she thought. This kind of unlearning is key to getting nourishment from books. Part of what experiential assignments do is to confront students with a problem which they thought they have solved – and provoke them to think again, more deeply. Such assignments can teach students the need for a concept. They can also teach students that one attempt is not enough. I would say that her experience suggests that conceptual shifts themselves might not be enough – but she drew a different lesson from Butler, one that stressed her ultimate agency. Either way, she tasted the experience that a concept can provide: a concept is a “What if . . . ?” that we try on and see if it helps us make a different sense of our lives and worlds.

To sum up thus far: reading Elbow taught me to redesign the experiential assignments I was already using so that students could acquire the experience of a concept: to feel, first, a keen need for a concept and then, to feel a concept's power in organizing experience. When structured to provide an experience of a concept, experiential learning is no mere prolegomena to learning categories and concepts: experiential learning is conceptual learning.

But if that is so, what about courses that address less sexy concepts, like religion? I made my job easy by discussing my “Sex and the Body” class: I do not have to convince students that sex applies to their lives. But what about the religious studies classroom? How do Elbow's thoughts about the click of recognition – and my claim that experiential learning can be conceptual learning – unfold when the subject matter requires students to cultivate both detachment and engagement?

Resentment and the Dialectic of Detachment and Engagement: “That, Too, is Religion!”

My “Introduction to Religion” course is devoted to teaching religion as a form of cultural memory. At my current institution the course is called “What is Religion?” which I tell students really means “Religion – What the *$%! . . . ,” but we could not get that title into the catalog. We do not spend our time engaging with diverse possible definitions of religion. Rather, we look at what people do with religion. I think of introductory courses as necessarily engaging students in a kind of “world-traveling” in space and in time (Lugones 1990), so that students encounter forms of religiosity that differ from whatever they have silently been taking religion to be: “Oh, that, too, is religion!” In terms of content, we explore Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, studied first in their historical contexts of emergence and then in the modern period. In terms of method, we learn a frame for ritual analysis that explores interconnections between practices and texts, and then investigate the dense (sometimes tense and other times effortless) relations through which the secular and religion co-produce each other in the modern world.

The guiding quote which holds the course together comes from Antonio Gramsci: “The personality is strangely composite: it contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy . . . The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory” (1971, 324). In my view, making the cultural inventory of which Gramsci speaks is not only central to General Education, it is also one of the most crucial contributions that religious studies makes to a liberal arts curriculum. Sensing the strange compositeness of one's personality can happen in a particularly powerful way around religion because what we call the modern secular West is in fact a Christian secular. From politics to science to sexuality, modern institutions, practices, and professions produce themselves as such by distancing from religion at the same time as they rely on (and often strengthen) religious sensibilities regarding the body and the family, intimacy and life itself.

While one of the course goals is for students to learn a certain amount of content, the main task of this introductory course (one which students take to fulfill part of their general education requirements and which thus may be the only course on religion that these students take, even though this course is also required for religion majors and minors) is to teach students “religion” as an academic concept. This often means teaching students that there is such a thing as an academic and critical approach that takes religion seriously. My hope is that students will recognize “Oh, that, too, is religion!” when they are no longer in a classroom and through that recognition, resurrect a series of skills.

These skills are epitomized in two quotes which we discuss on the first day of class (and whose import is summarized on the syllabus for students who add the course late). In the first quote, J. Z. Smith contends that “religion in general” is an abstract creation of the scholar's study (1982, xi). No one lives religion in general; people practice specific forms. Yet by placing all religions on the same plane, “religion in general” helps us see things in a specific religion that we could not see when we kept our eyes fixed on that religion alone. This is why it makes sense to group different religions, from different spaces and times, in one department. In the second quote, Nietzsche declares that there is only perspective knowing; hence, whatever “objectivity” there might be emerges out of the effort to master the pros and cons of multiple perspectives (1994, 92). Our investigation of the concept of religion takes place in the space of problematization that opens between these two quotes – one endorsing abstraction and detachment, the other contending that even the most abstract knowledge is always situated and engaged. To my mind, this dialectic of detachment and engagement is central to religious studies pedagogy. In what follows, I will explore how experiential assignments can be structured so as to help students cultivate these two stances. In so doing, students must be able to go beyond cultivating a feel of the concept (Elbow's click of recognition) and take a third, and separate, step: to identify the precise concept that emerged in “the click” and to articulate the difference that concept makes – the move the concept executes, what the concept allows them to do . . . and what it prevents them from doing.

Over the course of the semester, students do a participant observation project. In its first part, students visit one of the religions we are studying, interview a practitioner, and then do a ritual analysis (of the kind that we have been practicing in class). In the second part of the project, they reflect on the insider/outsider debate, engage in controlled comparison (of the religion they visited and one other that we have learned about), and then conclude by evaluating the pros and cons of the different forms of knowledge that we have used in the course.

The project works well – indeed, I used to think, too well. Over the years I have felt sometimes humbled, but more often bemused by the fact that this assignment is often the most important thing that students get from the class. “It doesn't matter how good my little lectures are, or how carefully I structure discussion, or how penetrating the readings are that I find – this project is where they learn most! Aren't they funny?” I am exaggerating, but only a bit: I saw experiential learning as something students needed because they did not know how to drink deeply from books in the ways that I do. My original recourse to experiential assignments in this class came largely from Paolo Freire's critique of the banking model of education (in which students are blank slates or empty vessels that are inscribed or filled with professorial knowledge) (Freire 2000, 71–86). As a result, my model for teaching was grafting: grafting academic approaches onto the knowledge students bring (including that which they think they know but must unlearn).

Reading Elbow taught me that I can do more than graft. As I argued in the previous section, Elbow's focus on the in-between moment of “the click” suggests that there is a lot more happening in experiential assignments than simply that my non-intellectually inclined students think better when they relate academic knowledge to their own experiences. I used Elbow's careful and critical analysis of induction to reveal that experiential papers can facilitate, create, and enrich a mediating realm between my students' inchoate experiences and the academic concept of “religion in general.” Without such a mediating realm, my students cannot drink deeply from books. But students also need to articulate precisely what they are “getting” from the academic concept of religion. The need for articulation is particularly important, I think, when the topic at hand is religion – at least in a culture like ours, which seems terminally confused about religion: what it is, how it works, why people bother. In the introductory religious studies classroom, there is an additional (or at least different) obstacle that needs to be developed into a problem: the resentment evoked by the very concept of “religion in general.” It is this resentment that the dialectic of detachment and engagement seeks not to solve, but to bring forward.

To demonstrate my claim, I need to tell you a little more about the semester project. The project is framed by an excerpt from William Connolly's book Pluralism, which we read at the beginning of class and then again at the course's end as they are writing the second part of their semester project. Lots of people write on pluralism: I use Connolly because he acknowledges the resentment that can arise when people face the fact that the commitments which moor them in the world and thus seem totally obvious are precisely what others, standing in different places, find most deeply contestable. Resentment at having one's own beliefs and commitments de-centered is what makes the space of problematization in a religious classroom so complex. Part of what I love about Connolly's work is that he discusses this resentment without blame: he sees it as a result of the way that we respond to the world with all of ourselves – not just with our minds, but with multiple layers of embodiment. To intervene in this resentment, Connolly advocates developing concrete micro-practices that move people step-by-step into cultivating what he calls a bicameral orientation: the ability to stand squarely and firmly in one's own existential assumptions (in which Connolly includes science alongside religion), and to use that mooring to pivot. Rather than asking us to take on a perspective that conflicts with our own (as if we could see through their eyes), Connolly devises micro-practices that can help people cultivate the ability to see alongside other points of view. My students love Connolly's example of a neuroscientist who believes only in the material world and for whom religion can have no truth value whatsoever. Connolly suggests that such a person might start developing an openness to religious people by exposing him- or herself to recent scholarship in neuroscience and religion. That is what Connolly means by a step-wise micro-practice: a small stretch that does not require someone to abandon their own commitments, but moves them sufficiently out of their comfort zone so that they can see their own commitments as contestable, thereby opening a space wherein other possibilities (for other people) can be acknowledged with generosity.

In the first part of the class project students visit another religion, interview at least one practitioner, and then do a ritual analysis of what they observed. In the second part where students evaluate the insider/outside problem, I ask them to consider explicitly whether, for them, the project functioned as a Connolly-style micro-practice by which to intervene in resentment and develop a bicameral orientation: if not, why not? If yes, exactly how? As those of you who do a participant observation project well know, the “simple” experience of seeing other people do/be another religion shifts students a tad (although often in surprisingly diverse ways). It becomes harder to take immediate recourse to the truth of their religion (or their lack thereof) as the standard, however self-evident they might hold their truths to be. Instead, they encounter forms of religiosity that differ from whatever they have silently taken religion to be. They see, for example, that some religions really do focus more on practices than beliefs. Or they see that while this religion (perhaps like their own) has a sacred text, its sacrality is lived differently, in ways which are specific to that particular religion and which they can learn to state with precision and sensitivity – because those subtle differences mean the world to its practitioners. It is one thing for me to make these kinds of broadening claims in the classroom – and quite another for them to see for themselves and in the flesh that they have been silently making assumptions about what religion really is.

In the process of rendering their understandings more precise, however, students often uncover another resentment: the resentment that they do not create themselves de novo (as is the American ideology about education). This is the resentment of history. What students take away is a felt sense of the power of religion as a historical and discursive structure that they do not speak –it speaks them. Consider the following excerpt from a student's paper. While few students synthesize all these points as articulately as she did, her paper illustrates a transformation that is widespread:

I was never baptized nor did I grow up in a religious household because my parents are not of the same religion, and rather than fighting over what I should be, they decided to let me choose my own religion once I was old enough to make meaningful decisions. Until I took this religion course, I was convinced I had no perspective on the subject of religion since it never played a big role in my life. Nietzsche of course taught me that there was no such thing as standing completely outside any perspective. Nietzsche provided me with some valuable insight, but nothing compared to the lessons I learned from actually visiting a mosque and confronting myself with the reality that I have led a partisan life and that I possess a very simple perspective after all. I would like to think that I have always been an open-minded person. But this project made me reevaluate my life– similar to the daily reevaluation that goes on in a person of Muslim faith [if they stop whatever they are doing to pray five times a day].

When one compares religion, the question becomes: what exactly does it mean to be “religious”? The course is titled “What is Religion?” and now, at the end of the semester, I realize that never before have I felt this lost trying to define the term. It is impossible to define a person and brand him with the “religious mark” because for all I know, I could call myself just as religious as the person next to me. Does the fact that a Muslim has Allah on his mind as he steps through his life make him any more religious than me? I used to think absolutely yes! But now I am beginning to realize I have a set of morals, standards and opinions – even rituals – that remain firmly in my existence and are embedded in my personality. . . . 

However, what does separate Muslims from me is the fact that particularly the women carry their religions with them openly, for all the world to see. . . . I used to think I was a very open-minded and accepting person. When I put on the hijab[as they asked me to do during prayer] though, it was like slipping into a different persona, one that was not socially accepted. I felt uncomfortable. Like somebody would judge me not for who I was, but for the scarf on my head. I think the only reason I thought that was because I was one of those people who did just that. . . . 

Although I do not consider myself religious in any way, I have been exposed to so much Christianity, that my entire being has been touched by that religion in some way. I was just never exactly aware of how much of an insider I was to that religion. To anybody studying Christianity as an outsider, however, I would not necessarily be considered an insider because I do not consider myself Christian. (Emphases added)

I quote this student at length, because she speaks with such eloquence the transformation that can occur when students drink deeply from books: the excitement, but also the disquiet. “The course is titled ‘What is Religion?’ and now, at the end of the semester, I realize that never before have I felt this lost trying to define the term.”“I was convinced I had no perspective and was open-minded, but now I see that I was one of those people who judged others for the scarf on their head . . . even though I thought I wasn't.” This paper dramatizes the complex space of engagement and detachment required to approach religion as a problem, or site, which provokes one to thought.

Engagement: Before students visit a religious site, they often think they already know Connolly's point about pluralism: are they not the generation that drank multiculturalism with mother's milk? Site visits render Connolly's discussion no longer merely academic. Visiting one of these religions forces them to think more deeply about pluralism and what they have heard all their lives – and to recognize much of it as superficial, a substitution of banality for what is actually quite profound: a struggle and a problem that they (and we as a society) are very far from having solved. Thus part of what the experiential assignment does for students is to make them reread Connolly on pluralism – only this time, they read with intent because now, after their site visit, they are vexed! They feel a need for the concept, as well as a need to get more precise about what Connolly means, when he says that micro-practices can help them intervene in responses to difference that they did not consciously will.

This kind of conceptual shift follows the same structure as the experiential assignments in my “Sex and the Body” course: helping students experience a click by putting them in situations that demand they construct a rich mediating realm between school concepts and their self-concepts. Yet, unlike in a course with the word sex in the title, I cannot count on students coming to class already engaged. Most students come to class without a lived sense of religion inhabiting their worlds and lives and with a sense that diversity is a problem their generation has solved. The student I quoted above is a classic example: she thought she was neutral, only to realize that she has been molded and shaped by the cultural hegemony of Christianity. Other students seem to experience secular forms of religiosity as absences that structure possibilities without people necessarily being aware that religion is at work: for instance, when otherwise open parents express distress that a child is dating someone of the same sex or of a different religion, race, ethnicity, or class. These various experiences of religion's force bespeak the necessity of Elbow's third step: going beyond a feel for the concept to be able to articulate precisely what the academic concept of religion can do.

Detachment: I have already alluded to one kind of detachment that students are asked to cultivate: we need distance in order to learn about other forms of religiosity (rather than always and immediately relating everything to ourselves). “World-travelling” requires developing the ears to hear perspectives that differ from one's own (where differences can be historical as well as religious or philosophical). Such detachment is not just a matter of individual respect: respect is a public feeling which is as conceptual as it is affective. Asking students to read their site visit through the concept of “religion in general” requires them to distance themselves from a particular religion (and their specific response to a particular religion) and then (in the second part of the project) to reflect on that distancing: its mechanisms, its ability to see, its blind spots. Crucial to the academic concept of religion in general is a practice of controlled comparison and contrast that puts all forms of religiosity “on a level playing field.” It is this moment that so often lands students squarely in Nietzschean resentment: it is precisely those commitments that we take to be self-evident, those ways of being that root and moor us in our worlds, which other people find contestable (for if they did not, I always say, they would be you!). Students need Elbow's click of recognition: “Oh, that, too is religion!” But in order to negotiate the resentment that standing in the place of “religion in general” can provoke, they need to go beyond the “feel” of a concept and articulate the concept that emerged with the click. Students drink more deeply from books when they can articulate the precise difference that a concept makes: the move a concept executes, and that which it leaves unmoved.

As with the experiential writing assignments in “Sex and the Body,” in the participant observation project, the outcome I look for concerns student's ability to read and engage with a text (in this case, Connolly). But how do students know they are on track? The issue of how to assess the effectiveness of this kind of pedagogy (without descending into policing, of which I say more in my conclusion) is an area where I need to do a lot more work. The most I do at present is to teach students to watch for physical markers of recognition: Elbow's click. We talk about this in class and I reinforce it in paper conferences. I tell them to look for a sense of reversal in their relationship to the material: “That ‘Aha!’ thing she just did: that is what you are looking for! When she got excited and gestured –that's how a conceptual shift feels. If you never feel that – if your primary experience while writing your paper is that you are filling in the blanks of my requirements – something is wrong.” Students originally approach an assignment by foregrounding its requirements, and rightly so. But that means that students see themselves as applying the concept . . . to apply a concept! In the concluding section of their semester long participant observation project, for example, students start out taking the vantage point of “religion in general” because I tell them they have to. But the point of comparing and contrasting specific religions is to make oneself stand back from a particular religion and stand in the conceptual space of “religion in general”– so that they can see something about religion that they could not see when they focused on one religion alone. In other words, at some point, their relation to a concept needs to undergo a reversal, so that they identify a problem and then use that conceptual move to help them think more articulately and precisely about that problem.

Student papers do indicate that experiential assignments result in enhanced ability to read difficult theoretical texts, particularly for middle tier students. But as I have noted, at present I conduct no rigorous or formal assessment of conceptual shifts per se. This is irregular, I know. My usual rule of thumb is that if I teach it, I should formally assess it. If I ask them to do something, they should earn points for it. But I do not grade or formally assess the various developmental pathways by which students enter into the process of drinking deeply from books. The task of my conclusion will be to explain why.

Conclusion: Effectiveness, Expectations, and the Ethics of Desire

I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write. (Foucault 1972, 17)

I want to bring this essay to a close by reflecting more explicitly on the perils and pleasures of using experiential assignments to teach students how to drink deeply from books. How do we evaluate our effectiveness? What can we expect? And by what means can we guard against the very real risks?

I do not expect that all students will experience a significant conceptual shift. Such shifts are neither in their control, nor in mine. Yet this contingency does not, in my view, render it wrong to devise assignments with an eye to facilitating conceptual shifts. What I (and sometimes they) want and what gets graded can be quite different. And in the particular case of experiential pedagogy, I want to keep these two separate. I do not want to grade my students' personal transformations. I have no desire to be in the business of assessing how much shift is enough for an A as opposed to a B (much less a B+). And I really do not want to set out to determine whether the reported shift in fact occurred. I am not comfortable with that level of policing; and the more intimate the classroom gets, the less policing I am willing to do. Of course, as with the distinction that Elbow draws between information and transformation, there is a bit of a ruse here: it is precisely because experiential learning and book learning are connected that I use experiential assignments. But I see this separation between what I want for students and what I grade as a variation of the standard practice in a religious studies classroom: students earn their grades, not by their positions or beliefs (or lack thereof), but by the arguments they make in conjunction with the texts we read. Likewise, in experiential assignments, I grade not their personal experience (or lack thereof), but the extent, quality, and richness of their engagement with the text(s).

How I handle this expectation differs, depending on the course material. In my “Introduction to Religion” course, I do require all students to visit a religion that is not their own. As a result, I talk about this paper every day during the drop/add period, for there are many valid reasons to decide that such a project (and therefore this course, at least at the current time) is not for you. By staying, students agree to take on the task of “moving themselves out of their comfort zone.” But as Marx pointed out, behind any fair contract lie the ruses of power and production. Students do not really know what they have consented to when they have signed on to experiential learning – and cannot know. As a result of this constitutive non-knowing, it is important for students to control the particulars in which they carry out my expectations.4 Each student (sometimes in consultation with me, sometimes not) decides where their comfort zone is and how far they want to diverge from it. Precisely because such learning is not safe, we think together about protections – for themselves and for the people whose religions they will be visiting. Do they go with others (students or friends)? Do they interview someone they already know or a stranger? Would they feel more comfortable simply showing up at a ritual? (If so, I rule out those sites for which appearing unannounced would be neither respectful nor possible.) Do they want to reveal that they are doing this for a class? Do they want to visit a site near school, in Manhattan, or at home? What format will they use in their interview: phone, email, or in person? Do they prefer to interview someone at the site, or do they prefer to schedule an interview, perhaps even with a religious leader? To what degree do they want to participate and to what degree do they prefer to observe? Through asking these questions, students decide where their comfort zone ends, what they want to risk, and which protections they can give themselves and others.

I handle expectations differently in my “Sex and the Body” course because of the enhanced vulnerability that the material evokes. In this course, experiential assignments – including the gender/sexual violation paper – are never required. I present two equal paper options, one experiential and one whose format is more traditional. Options are particularly important for the gender/sexual violation paper (even though the vast majority of students opt to do a violation). Students decide to what degree, if at all, they want to write in a first person mode. They also decide what constitutes a violation for them. I spend a lot of time with students at this stage, because the success of their project depends heavily on what they decide to do. There are also some violations I rule out. Every year there are a few students who want to cross-dress and use the bathroom of the gender they are presenting. This I rule out: bathrooms are one place where people get hit. So we talk together about how to assess danger, and how to distinguish physical threat from psychological projections and fears. I also suggest several violations for students who want to take the experiential approach, which do not require them to put their body on the line in the same way. For example, they can find out what a student would have to do to change their gender on their school records. Or they can find out what the local hospital does when an intersexed baby is born. Or, if they insist on the bathroom, they can try to get one unisex bathroom in each building on campus. Yet even with all this explicit care in setting parameters and in identifying safeguards and resources to cultivate courage, surprises happen. This sort of pedagogy is built on surprise. Sometimes the form taken by surprise is that no shift occurs. This, too, is an acceptable experiential assignment – and has to be, lest students think that they need to make up a “click” if a moment of recognition does not occur! While most of the time, a moment of recognition does happen, such moments cannot be “the gradable point.” Students do not get their grade from experiencing a shift, but from engaging with the text. And they can engage with the text even if their violation “fails,” or fails to move them.

When we talk together about the risks such assignments involve, including the risk of failure, I often reveal that the course which made the largest difference in my life when I was a student was a course that I hated at the time. It raised questions and thoughts and feelings that I wanted to explore, but about which I also felt deeply ambivalent and resistant. In retrospect, I see that I used to eat a huge breakfast before class so that I would have that bloated, sleepy, not quite present, post-Thanksgiving dinner feeling, which let me risk some things while still securing some distance. Resistance is not to be cut through, but learned from and respected.

As I have pondered the ethics of asking students to risk something in their education, I have thought often of words spoken by a long-term union organizer whom I encountered in North Carolina (a state in which labor organizing is still risky). I was part of a group of graduate students and progressives in Durham who were planning to organize service workers on Chapel Hill's campus. We spent a great deal of time constructing safeguards for workers, and rightly so. But when we laid out our plans before a veteran organizer for his feedback and approval, he said: “You also always have to give the worker the chance to stand up.” I have never forgotten this. A balance must be struck between protections and risk. I am suspicious of learning that disturbs no one. And I am continually impressed by the way that students know what they can and cannot handle – if I construct a space where they can listen to themselves and to others, a space which takes those incipient feelings and fears, doubts and desires, seriously. So while this is a time intensive – and heart intensive – pedagogy, I have also been in enough faculty discussions about experiential assignments to feel suspicious of the tendency to over-dramatize the risks.

That said, the risks are real. I think of a student who put herself “in the closet” for three weeks (by not revealing the gender of the person she was seeing). Her friends were very clear with her that if this was not “just an assignment” for class, she would lose them as her friends. She did not blame me, or the course. But other students have. Moreover, the intimacy that develops in this pedagogy can mislead students into thinking there are no boundaries – when in fact I am drawing boundaries, but different ones from those to which they are accustomed. This kind of teaching and learning can produce intense and unforeseen connections and changes. It can explode – and when it has, I was astounded at how painful things became for all involved. And messy. Very, very messy, because this intimacy is cut through by complexly unequal power relations and projections. I am not sure I have anything insightful to say about handling such explosions. In the face of that explosion, I thought long and hard about the kinds of risks I run with certain students and why I am committed to risking certain things (not all things). In the end, what I learned is simply that I am not willing to be a professor, if I do not do this kind of learning and teaching. This is the place where I agree with Elbow's talk of real (and by implication, false) learning. If I cannot do experiential teaching and learning in some classes with some students some of the time around some issues, I would rather stop teaching and earn real money: for me, it would be tantamount to the same thing. Ultimately, experiential assignments are about desires – mine and theirs. I am deeply uninterested in regulating desire. To learn how to desire intelligently, and to despair intelligently in the face of failure – that is why I read. And that is why I want my students to be able to drink deeply from books.


  • 1

    I wish to thank Patricia Killen, Gene Gallagher, and Tom Pearson for the SOTL colloquy in which this paper first took form. I also want to thank the members of my department who have read and commented on this paper: Balbinder Bhogal, Julie Byrne, Stephanie Cobb, David Kaufman, and John Teehan. Finally and most importantly, I owe a special debt of gratitude to the three students who graciously allowed me to cite (and think with) their work: Morgan Anderson, Amanda Gianelli, and Laura Wesley. (To readers, I acknowledge that I cleaned up grammatical errors in the passages I cite.)

  • 2

    The second “root” that Elbow identifies concerns invention, or the ability to create concepts: to construct new words from experience and thus to transform one's life by reading it through a different set of conceptual moves. For reasons of space, I will discuss this skill in another paper in which I will explore comparison as a keystone to religious studies pedagogy.

  • 3

    It is controversial, I know, to postulate such a sharp dichotomy between experience and school. While I acknowledge that the classroom is also a space of experiential learning, I am insisting on this sharp dichotomy not because I agree with it or want to further it, but because my students have been saying this to me for years and I have not been listening, not really. In the last part of their participant-observation project (which I will describe in the next section), I ask students to evaluate specifically the pros and cons of the different ways of learning that we have used. They consistently speak about books as having the kind of estranging function that I experience when I write by hand, enter the text into the computer, and then read the print out. My words become an object, less mine: or as they put it, “objective.” My aim in this paper is to tackle the juggernaut for the kinds of students I teach: the book.

  • 4

    Student autonomy has drawbacks. I currently teach on Long Island: rare is the student who opts to visit a mosque. Yet one of the most common statements students make when they assess their project is that if there was one thing they would do differently (now that they know that they can handle visiting someplace strange), they would explore an Islamic Center. When I first started doing this project, I had students visit two different religions; as department chair, I cannot handle the additional interpersonal work that a second visit involves, but requiring a second visit helped with this.