May 14, 2012

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

Part II: Assignments

By Quincy D. Newell

Last time I checked in (in part 1 of this occasional series), I had tentatively articulated some learning outcomes for my Religion in the American West (RELI 3400) class.  I was getting ready to give the course some structure – divide it into units, add some assignments – and some content (actual readings, and films, and stuff).  The challenge was to shape all the stuff so that it would actually achieve the goals I set out in my learning outcomes.  So let’s review those outcomes, shall we?  I said: 
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.

Now, please keep in mind that this was a DRAFT.  Right now, these outcomes are too wordy.  And I’m not sure they totally express what I mean to say.  But for now, they’ll do.

As it turns out, staring at these outcomes was not particularly helpful for figuring out assignments (with one major exception, about which I’ll write much more below).  This is an upper-level class, so my usual practice is to assign papers instead of giving exams.  (And, the class will be small enough that papers will be manageable.)  The assignments thus suggest a structure of three or four units, each concluding with a paper, but they don’t help me much in figuring out what content to put in the class. 

For content, I started thinking about some of the conversations our seminar has had, and about Brett Hendrickson’s post last fall, and some of the points that really resonated with me.  What did I want my students to be thinking about and writing about? 

The first thing that occurred to me was that I want my students to do some sort of analysis of a “non-traditional” religious group/event/something – Burning Man, maybe, or curanderismo.  Something that doesn’t always qualify as “religion” in Judeo-Christian terms.  This will get directly at outcome #2.

I also want them to write something analyzing the relationship between religion and the land (or landscape) in the West, probably looking at a dispute over land.  It’s likely that this will also get at outcome #2, but since it will almost certainly bring in the federal government, too, it may also get us to outcome #3.

Finally, I decided I wanted a paper about transnationalism, too.  The fluidity of American borders is particularly important to think about these days, and I want my students to wrestle with that idea.  So this paper will get at outcome #3.

These topics started to suggest units to me: innovations, locations, and migrations.

But none of these papers really help with outcome #1, the synthesis.  For this goal, I dreamed up a different assignment.  I can’t decide whether this is a good idea, so please weigh in with your comments!  Here’s the scoop: as a class, we will produce a digital project, a website hosted by the University of Wyoming, that tells the (or really, a) story of religion in the American West.  So, as a class, before spring break, we will discuss how we want to organize this website: Should we break the story we tell up by region?  By time period?  By theme?  By something else I haven’t thought of?  I will ask consultants from the relevant units at the university to join us for the debate, so that they can help us think through the technical aspects of the choices we’re making.

Once that decision is made, the class will be divided into groups and each group assigned a section (region/time period/theme/etc.).  Their first task, as a group, will be to research their section and come up with a prioritized list of people, places, events, etc., that they think deserve an “encyclopedia entry.”  After meeting with me, each group member will write one encyclopedia entry, which will be hyperlinked to their group’s section of the website.  Their encyclopedia entry will be peer-reviewed within their group, but each student will be individually graded on this assignment.

As a group, students will have to come up with an introduction to their section of the website, synthesizing their section of the story.  This will take the form of a short film.  I haven’t decided yet whether I want them to do live-action films, or use a website like to do animated films, or whether any form is okay.  I decided on a film because it will give us something we can post to the website that can convey a great deal of information without giving site visitors yet another thing to read. I frequently have students do class presentations, and I am often frustrated by the ways in which students in the audience are distracted by elements unrelated to content: how presenters dressed, or how they behaved when they weren’t speaking, and so on.  Using films, I think, will eliminate these distractions.  I’m not sure, though, what new distractions it might introduce.  (This is one argument, I think, for making all the students use the same kind of film and making the process as simple as possible.  Ultimately, I’m not interested in producing filmmakers – I want to use the films as a tool for practicing thinking skills and learning content.)

Right now, the digital project starts with a week before spring break and then (once unit 3 is finished) takes up the last three weeks or so of the semester.  But, as I said above, I haven’t decided whether it’s actually a good idea.  What do you think?  Am I allowing myself to be seduced by the lure of new(ish) technology?  Or might this work as a learning experience (for the kind of learning I’m intending)?

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