June 25, 2012

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

Part III: The Denouement and the Cliffhanger

By Quincy D. Newell

Well, my syllabus is turned in. Along with Joshua Paddison’s syllabus on Religion in the Nineteenth-Century American West, my syllabus will soon be posted online for all the world to see. (I’ll add the direct links here as soon as they are available, but for now, here’s the Young Scholars website with syllabi from previous cohorts.) That doesn’t mean this syllabus won’t see further revisions before it lands in my students’ hands, of course, but for now, it is finished.

I’ve refined the learning outcomes for the course (which I wrote about in the first installment of this series), and I’m pretty happy with them at this point (and I’m grateful to Tisa Wenger and John Charles Duffy for their comments on my first draft). As they are stated in my syllabus, by the end of the course, students will:

1. Synthesize the religious history of the American West by identifying key figures, groups, ideas, and events and explaining the connections between them.
2. Evaluate how the physical, social, and cultural environments of the West have affected the presence and practice of religion, and vice versa.
3. Recognize and analyze manifestations of religion that do not fit dominant institutional models.

Last time I wrote, I was uncertain about the digital project that I was thinking about using as a tool to both achieve and assess outcome #1. After much hemming and hawing, I have decided to run with it. If it works, it will be great; if it doesn’t work, I think it will still be a learning experience (for both the students and me), and I think even then I can keep the frustration levels to a minimum for all involved.

My hope is that future students in this course will be able to build on the website that this year’s students create, critiquing and revising it as they see fit. I think that this strategy will allow me to include more material in future iterations of the course, while still concluding with a synthetic, web-based component. Experience suggests that asking students to critique other students’ work, and asking them to create something in the knowledge that it will be critiqued by future students, will give them a sense of having more of a stake in what they create – more “skin in the game,” as it were.

My next goal is to write good paper prompts for my students’ first three papers. I’m putting this task off for a while – there are many other things to do this summer, and this class doesn’t start until January. Still, I hope to have the paper prompts in place before the semester starts. And I hope to write prompts that really get at the second and third learning outcomes that I identified for this course, while producing papers that allow students to learn during the writing process. (And, of course, I want them to produce papers that are interesting for me to read!) If anyone out there has ideas about how to write paper prompts like that, please let me know – leave your ideas in the comments!

Perhaps, next spring, I will blog about actually teaching this class – we’ll see. In the meantime, many thanks to those of you who have commented on this series of posts, and thanks in advance to those of you who will comment on this one.

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