April 9, 2012

The Religion in the American West Syllabus Project (an occasional series)

Part I: Enduring Understandings and Student-Centered Learning Outcomes

By Quincy D. Newell

I don’t remember how, precisely, the job ad was phrased anymore. I do remember that Wyoming was looking for someone who knew about religion in the American West. I remember thinking, “that ad describes exactly what I do!”

I applied and, lucky me, I got the job.

This is where the people who signed my hiring papers work.
[Full disclosure: not only is the University of Wyoming my employer, but the Religious Studies Program at UW is also a sponsor of the Religion in the American West Seminar's website.]

As the job ad portended, I was hired at the University of Wyoming with the expectation that I would teach a class on religion in the American West. Seeing as how I describe myself as someone who studies religion in the American West, that seemed like a reasonable thing. But I have a confession: I have taught “Religion in the American West” all of two times in my eight years at Wyoming. It’s my specialty, true, but I have yet to come up with a syllabus that I’m happy with. (In contrast, I’ve taught “Theory of Religion” seven times, I think. In fact, I’ve taught just about every course in my rotation more than I’ve taught “Religion in the American West.” Holy avoidance, Batman!)

As it happens, I’m also a participant in the “Young Scholars in American Religion” program run by the good folks at the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. One of my tasks for that program, is to produce or significantly revise a syllabus. So I chose to rework my Religion in the American West syllabus (the last iteration of which you can see here, along with the Religion in the American West Seminar's collection of syllabi). I’m on leave this year, which means I have the luxury of time to think through this task carefully and attend to both the pedagogy and the content of the course. And I’ve got some extra motivation: I’m scheduled to teach Religion in the American West (RELI 3400) for the third time in Spring 2013. Third time’s a charm, right?

So I’m working on a syllabus, and I’m inviting you along for the ride.

Before I turned my attention fully to the writing, I noticed a series of blog posts on syllabus creation by Tona Hangen, who does American religious history at Worcester State University. (Here’s part 1, part 2, part 3, part 3a, and part 4.) Hangen boiled the process down into an easy to follow, broadly applicable process and reading her posts was really helpful as I planned my attack. Following her lead, I began working on articulating some “student-centered learning outcomes.” What would the result of my course be, for my students? The goal here was to articulate some results in which students would be active participants. (So, not “this course will introduce you to the skill of underwater basketweaving,” in which the students passively have information stuffed into their heads. Instead, something like “by the end of this course, you will be able to weave rudimentary baskets under water,” where students actively participate in the achievement of the objective.)

I should note here that throughout this process I have had to constantly resist the urge to lapse back into an older model of syllabus building, and an older model of this course, which started from the content: I chose readings based on what I wanted to talk about, and assumed a set of writing assignments that would draw on the readings. While I did want students to learn, the decisive factors in syllabus construction did not include the effects on student brains. Each time I have felt myself resisting an idea, cringing at a verb, gaping at the chaos some statement could cause, I have reminded myself that nothing is (yet) set in stone, that this is a process, that I am trying to do things better than before. I was unhappy with previous iterations of this course, remember? So I should do something about it.

Despite my best efforts, I was quickly stymied in trying to articulate those student-centered learning outcomes, so I backed up even further to another blog post, this one by Mark Sample on the ProfHacker blog. This urged me to consider what “enduring understandings” I wanted my students to take from the course. Ten years after taking “Religion in the American West,” what did I want them to remember? This task, surprisingly, was easier (though I did not find it, by any means, easy).

I played around with several “enduring understandings.” It helped to remember that I should be able to phrase an enduring understanding in a declarative sentence. The first thing I wrote down was this:

The religious history of the American West is both similar (connected) to and different from that of the country as a whole.

When I looked at what I had written, I shuddered. How on earth would I teach students enough stuff for them to be able to make a valid comparison without just cramming information into their brains? It occurred to me that maybe I should be thinking less about content and more about method – I wrote in the margin of my notes, “Maybe this class is about religious studies, not about American religion/the West?”

That question also made me shudder (I don't want this to be a theory/method class that just happens to look at religion in the West), but it freed me up to try out this enduring understanding:

The study of religion in the American West requires that we think creatively and analytically about sources and methods, because the history is not our traditional story.

Okay, so maybe I want to think some about method/theory, but I realized that the crux of this statement for me was not how we get at the story of religion in the American West, but rather the wide variety of it. I wanted students to have some grasp of the diversity involved.

That insight led me to this enduring understanding:

The study of religion in the American West includes a wide variety of historical actors and a diverse array of beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, practices, objects, images, places, sites, etc. that may be recognized as “religious.”

Ultimately, I refocused and tightened that statement, and I added a second one, plus a skill that I wanted students to take away:

1. The religious history of the American West includes a wide variety of historical actors and an array of modes of being religious, including some forms of religion that don’t look religious at first glance.

2. The history of the American West has been deeply shaped by religious behaviors. (And American religion has been deeply shaped by the West.) 

3. Enduring skill: How to analyze religious texts/behaviors in historical context

So yes, this is a religious studies class (see #3), but it’s not so focused on theory/method (see #1-2). I’m still uncertain about #2 – it feels too vague – but it will do for now.

Having taken a crack at the enduring understandings, I came back to the student-centered learning outcomes, which proved more yielding this time around. The idea of learning outcomes, and even the idea of student-centered learning outcomes, is not a foreign one for me: I taught fourth grade for two years before fleeing to grad school, and I learned in that context to articulate goals and objectives for my lessons in the language of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which helpfully ranks thinking skills from lowest (recall, define) to highest (evaluate, assess). Still, I had to not worry too much about the language at first. Instead, I wrote a series of sentences, all answering the question “What do I want?” and all beginning with “I want them [by which I meant students in RELI 3400] to…”

Here’s what it turns out that I want:

• I want them to know something about the religious history of the American West – the basic information.

• I want them to be able to recognize religious stuff that doesn’t fit “eastern” models (Protestant/Christian models) – stuff beyond churches/institutions. And I want them to be able to think intelligently about it.

• I want them to think critically about what makes the West distinctive and how that affects/is affected by religion. (LAND is a key component here.)

• I want them to be able to write a good argumentative paper.

Using these “wants” and referring back to my list of “enduring understandings (and skills),” I could really tackle my learning outcomes.

Here is a draft of the student-centered learning outcomes for Religion in the American West:

By the end of RELI 3400, students will…

1. Describe the religious history of the American West by identifying key figures, groups, and events and linking these together in narrative fashion, paying particular attention to the role of religion.

2. Recognize and analyze manifestations of religion that do not fit traditional (usually Christian/institutional) models, as they are found in the West, by identifying non-traditional modes of religious expression and appropriate forms of evidence for analysis.

3. Assess the distinctiveness of religion in the American West by identifying factors (religious or otherwise) that distinguish the American West from other regions and evaluating what (if any) impact these factors have had on religion in the West and how (if at all) religion has affected the impact of these factors on societies and cultures (ecosystems?) in the West.

According to Hangen, the next step is to connect these outcomes to “artifacts” or assessments – things that the students will do that will demonstrate their mastery of these outcomes. So I invite your comments (in fact, I implore them!): what do you think of the learning outcomes? How would you revise them? What did I leave out? And what sorts of artifacts or assessments would you include in the course to evaluate students’ mastery of these outcomes? (I’m sure papers will be in there somewhere, but if you have thoughts about particular formats or assignments, I’d love to have your suggestions.) If you’d like to move a few steps ahead, how would you envision organizing this course into units? What would those units be? What materials would you assign for reading (or viewing, or listening, or otherwise consuming)?


Joshua Paddison said...

Quincy, I too am revising a syllabus on religion in the American West for our upcoming Young Scholars meeting, and I've been going through a similar process as the one you describe. The main reason I have wanted to teach a course like this, other than the obvious fact that it is my own primary area of research, is that I believe the west's complex diversities help students think about some pretty big and very interesting religious studies questions: what is "religion" anyway? What is "conversion"? How and why do religions change over time and space? What's the relationship between religion and other social forces like race, gender, and nation? The west is certainly not the only place that raises such questions, but it is a particularly good place.

Quincy D. Newell said...

Josh, I'm looking forward to seeing your syllabus! I think you're right that the west gets us to some of those big religious studies questions and forces us to think about them in complex ways. I'm finding myself leaning away from doing anything about missions/conversion in this particular syllabus, oddly enough, though your comment makes me worry about that decision. (More information in my next post, which will likely come sometime in May.)

Tisa Wenger said...

Quincy, this post is really helpful to me, as I've struggled with the same questions in my own course on religion in the American west. My biggest question about your learning goals is one that you raised yourself earlier in the post: how are students supposed to think about how the west differs from "traditional" models (goal 2), or how the west differs from other regions (goal 3) if they don't have a pre-existing knowledge of the traditional (or U.S. Northeast-oriented) narratives and patterns? Is there a way to reorient this yet again to be less focused on the distinctiveness of the west, and more on simply exploring how "religion" and "religious difference" has been constructed in the west? Questions of uniqueness/distinctiveness/comparison may still come up, but only to the extent that students bring relevant knowledge or assumptions to the class. I'm not sure about this at all- just pondering.

Quincy D. Newell said...

Tisa, great points. In goal #2, what I'm trying to get at is that my students will come into class with some pre-existing ideas about what "religion" looks like (and I admit, I'm assuming that those ideas look pretty "traditional"), so I want to get them to move beyond those ideas in this class -- to expand that definition, perhaps, or at least raise it to a level of consciousness so that they can think about it carefully. As far as goal #3, you're right -- I fell back into that first "enduring understanding" without really realizing it. I'll have to think about this some more. Hmmm...

John-Charles Duffy said...

Miscellaneous late-night thoughts:

* You say you want students to be able to "think intelligently" or "analyze" manifestations of religion. What do you mean by that more concretely? What intellectual sub-tasks are involved in what you envision them doing?

* When you say you want students to "describe the religious history of the American West...in narrative fashion," what does that mean in terms of genre? Do you want them to be able to write an encyclopedia article, for example? If you can give students a sample of the genre you have in mind, they'll be better equipped to emulate it.

* Learning outcome #3 ("Assess the distinctiveness of religion in the American West...") looks like it has some exam essay questions planted in it, waiting to grow. If you can draft those questions for yourself at the beginning of the course (rather than waiting til test time--which, unwisely, is my usual m.o.), that could make your teaching helpfully directive, i.e., you'll know from the outset what exam questions you're equipping students to be able to answer.