July 23, 2012

Three Vignettes on Teaching and Narrating the Religious History of the American West

By Brandi Denison

Vignette 1

Last week, my husband and I watched the movie “Smoke” for the first time. For those of you who don’t remember or didn’t see this 1995 movie, it is a collection of vignettes of people who come through a Brooklyn cigar store. Harvey Keitel plays one of the central characters, Auggie, who has been taking daily pictures of the same street corner at the same time for over 4,000 days. In this clip, he shows his friend his photo albums. He says, “It’s one little part of the world, but things take place there everyday, just like everywhere else.” When his friend pages through the album quickly, Keitel advises him to “Slow down—you’re not seeing anything.”

This scene struck me as being particularly descriptive of problem readers of this blog might face when presenting scholarship on religion (to some, an overly narrow lens to view the world) on the American West (to outsiders, another narrowing and limiting factor). (And yes, I recognize the irony of using a clip about a Brooklyn street corner to think about the American West, but I’m not a regionalist. Some of my best friends are New Yorkers.) To detractors, the study of an unwieldy and indefinable region of the United States is similar to Auggie’s unexplainable devotion to one street corner. I suspect, however, many of us would like to think that we are slowing down and focusing the camera lens in order to gain a deeper perspective on larger issues. After all, religious things take place every day in the American West.

Vignette 2

 I spent the month of May happily tucked away in libraries in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. As I was shifting through documents, Quincy Newell was leading us through her revision of her Religion in the American West syllabus. Quincy’s project was on my mind as I read my sources. While at the Utah Historical Society, I tackled LeRoy Hafen’s immense collection. Hafen (1893-1985) received his Ph.D. in history from Berkeley in 1924 and spent the next thirty years as the Colorado State Historian, serving as the director of the Colorado State Museum, editor of the Colorado Magazine, and as a history professor at the University of Denver. He was also one of the founding members of the WHA. His long tenure as the Colorado State Historian meant that he left a lasting impression on the way that Colorado history is presented in museums and other forums for public history. He oversaw the establishment of Colorado’s historical highway markers and directed numerous WPA projects during the Depression. Additionally, Hafen was attentive to the West’s religious history. As a student at BYU, he wrote about the handcart pioneers and throughout his life, published works on Mormon history. His interest in religion extended beyond Mormonism. As the editor of the multivolume History of Colorado, he included pieces on Catholicism, Judaism, Native American Religions, and a variety of Protestant denominations. I am interested in Hafen because of the mark he made on narrating Colorado history, but this collection made met think more deeply about teaching religion in the American West. In his research notes, there are several folders dedicated to his thought process on teaching Colorado history. This class was taught at the University of Denver in the 1940s. Hafen’s justification of the course was brief. He stated: “A knowledge of the region in which one lives lends interest to one’s surroundings. A knowledge of the background of that region—its history—gives understanding of the present, appreciation of the past, and a basis for a vision of the potential future. An understanding of one's locality forms an excellent base for studies farther afield.” By today’s standards, Hafen’s course justification is thin. It would be lovely to be able to state that my courses are simply aimed at increasing student interest and provide a basis for their future visions. In current era of focus on teaching assessments, measurements, and benchmarks, I found myself resentful of Hafen’s seemingly easier teaching tasks, particularly of a subject matter we all work so hard to justify.

Vignette 3

 This is where it all comes together, if we are to believe Hegel.

Now that I’m home and thinking through the research I gathered, I am less resentful of Hafen’s seemingly easy task of constructing a syllabus. Unlike Quincy’s revised syllabus, which focuses on the skills she wants her students to develop, Hafen’s class focused on the content knowledge he wanted his students to learn. In fifteen weeks, his class marched chronologically through Colorado history, without giving pause to why the story was narrated in a particular way, or to the many standpoints from which one could understand Western history. It would be as if Harvey Keitel’s character unquestionably assumed that everyone should be interested in his 4,000 pictures of the same place, simply because it documented what happened in a place near where the observers lived.

Instead, Keitel provided some context for his hobby, one that became a metaphor for the rest of the movie. Through focusing on the intimate lives of individuals at a smoke shop, one might be able to gain a deeper perspective on larger questions facing humanity. Now, as an academic, I resist the argument that by focusing on a narrow slice of human life we can learn something deeper about “humanity.” After all, “humanity” is something that is determined through social, economic, and historic contexts.

Nevertheless, there are a few valuable nuggets here. First, I think there is real value in articulating justifications for teaching about religion in the American West through course objectives. Beyond the pedagogical and institutional importance, this exercise forces us to look beyond the lens of our cameras, dutifully trained on the “West,” in order to more clearly communicate the reasons such a study is a necessary piece of a religious studies education. Without this pressure, the study of Religion in the American West could easily become the province of local historians. That is, the study of Religion in the American West would be at risk of becoming a history that merely aims to capture the fullness of the facts without the richness of relevance or analysis.

Second, and this is perhaps idiosyncratic to my approach of the study of Religion in the American West, by using a limited range of data to focus outward, we can avoid the petty debates of defining where (or what) the West is. The justification for the study of the West does not rest in its particularity, but in how the West can allow us to focus on broader issues of American religion and on religious studies itself. By focusing our scholarly camera lenses on the West, we have the potential to see new narratives, not just about the West, but about religion more broadly. What better way to teach students about the skills, methods, and theories of religious studies then to have them slow down and focus on one geographical area?

1 comment:

Joshua Paddison said...

I love this! Especially your last paragraph. I totally agree that studying the west with students is really just a way to slow down and pay attention to some really interesting Big Questions.