So today, I did something magnificent- I led my first section as a TA! The class is called Exploring the New Testament. You can probably guess what it’s about. Let me preface this by noting that I laughed way too loud exactly twice in class because the professor made jokes that were hilarious to any religious studies graduate student. Perhaps no one else. So much for keeping my cool.
Teaching felt similar to starting a half marathon. When I looked around the room at 35 faces, I started to feel nervous. Then we divided up into our groups and I felt SO nervous. In my mind, I babbled on like a broken fountain. Hyper-awareness of who spoke and what they said and was it smart and what did they say again swirled around me. At one point I did challenge a student to define what he meant by “sacred” and he finally came to the conclusion that the term was ambiguous. Silent high five! It was a fascinating experience.
Our purpose in class today was to problematize how we “know” what we do about the New Testament. We talked about textual criticism, issues with linguistics and language, and the evidence we have- manuscripts don’t match. What do we do with all of the conflicting information? More importantly, what do we do with silences? Our professor passed around papyrus and animal hyde so we could understand how manuscripts survived. We talked about garbage. Not a dull moment occurred in the hour and twenty minutes of class.
The discussion went fairly well, I think. The students seem eager to learn and talk to each other, even argue their points in productive ways. After we wrapped up, a student asked me a question I failed to answer well. In essence, she asked, “How can I treat the Bible as a moral compass when I haven’t spent years learning Greek and Hebrew and studying texts- basically, when we don’t know?”
This is a question we could apply to any text that exegetes truth claims. How can we use a text as an ethical guide when what we believe about it is upended? I sent the student off with some reading suggestions and an enthusiastic “you’re a budding religious studies scholar!” However, I don’t know if I really answered her question because there isn’t an answer. The answer is that maybe we derive morals from asking questions, not listening to what one text says.
I think I’ll enjoy teaching and probably be exhausted by it in no time at all. For all the theory and strategies and activities to implement in each class, ultimately the material masks what students really need, which is to find their voices and feel uncomfortable. I have a feeling more questions that have no answers are coming my way. What is awesome is how it makes me reflect on why I love this subject. The stakes can be high. It’s cool to be a curator of conversations that matter.
This past weekend, I traveled all the way across the bay to the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley for the American Academy of Religion Western Region Annual Meeting. That title sounds intimidating to me, but the meeting itself was great.
Why was it great? Well, there WAS a bookstore around the corner. First of all, every panel I attended had more POC presenters than white people, more non-men presenters than cis-men, and the audience felt empowered to participate in deep conversation after each presenter finished their paper. The papers all mattered- they told stories from unheard actors, suggested how the way we do things in the academy and elsewhere is perpetuating harm, and offered alternatives. Keynote speaker Dr. Jane Iwamura led us through meditation in her talk on kindness. The audience members told their stories to gentlely tweak or further a presenter’s point of view. People didn’t feel afraid to put themselves in their work. Overall, I found myself at home in this space as a listener and learner (and especially an un-learner).
I also found something bugging me, that I myself need to unpack and unlearn. While the meeting was one of the least-white of any academic I have been to, whiteness still permeated the spaces. That isn’t surprising. One of my classmates developed the hashtag #maleconferencing a few weeks ago after a particularly egregious all-white, all-male panel responded to all-white, all-male audience questions. That hashtag definitely surfaced here too. Beyond the visible panel-audience relationship, I have found that white people who feel “aware” or perhaps as allies or “hopeful allies” find ways to confide in other white people to whom they feel “safe” admitting things. Better than putting the burden on a POC. The problem is when we separate ourselves and our “knowledge” from “those people.” We lift ourselves up by putting others down.
This comes in a few forms. At the meeting, I presented a paper on college chaplains and how they cross boundaries to serve students. What my research showed was a lack of real intention, in some cases, toward students’ racial, ethnic, gender, ability, and other identities. In my paper I didn’t make a value judgement on this because it is “research” and I was channeling what my subjects shared with me. But the audience rightfully didn’t buy that. They wanted to know who served students without thinking about this. “Maybe this is obvious, but mostly white men,” I told them. “White men, white women, and Christians.” The people for whom the institution of chaplaincy was built. After the panel ended, a few folx found there way to me. They started telling me about “a terrible person who did ____.” How heartbreaking and shameful. In doing this, we white people uphold white supremacy. We just do it a little differently.
I struggle with this because something I’ve been socialized and taught to do is “be an expert.” Not to mention focus on strengths and not weaknesses. Skills not growing edges. The idea has always been to further hone what I’m good at and forget what I’m not good at. Most all white people are not familiar with admitting their own harm and reflecting on it. I definitely avoided it for a very, very long time. My goal was always to prove “how much I listened.” Truly, the only thing I prove is how much privilege I hold in being able to learn from the folx who taught me. It seems so laughable now, but I write this because I hope to nudge the folx that look on disgusted at white people who perform acts of racism to self-reflect more. We all perform them, and letting go of our need to separate ourselves begins to break down supremacy in ourselves.
Another week of reading and writing and pretending I know what I’m talking about! The third week of the quarter floats away into the distance, drawing the looming final papers, conference presentations, book reviews, grant proposals and other exciting checklist items menacingly closer. At least the sun stays out longer.
As a first year PhD student, one of my constant learning goals is how to design strong syllabi for courses I would like to teach one day (could be next quarter, could be next year, could be in thirty years). I enjoy pouring over potential books and articles. The experience throttles me back to my favorite classes at USC. It’s easy enough to google syllabi for similar courses, but in order to really hone a spectacular combination of readings, assignments, and learning outcomes, I have to pay attention to detail. Campus cultures are very different. Students learn in different ways. Heck, the quarter system creates a storm of issues- you only get ten weeks, minus intro week one and wrap-up week ten. What if a holiday falls on class day? All questions to consider. In this recent quest, one question yanks at me with every reading I assign. Representation.
By representation, I mean who gets to speak via the texts listed under each weekly heading. As the curator, I hold a substantial amount of power in my pen (ok, keyboard) to introduce students to material that will assist them in discussion, dialogue, even debate. Of course, not every source makes it to the homework section (that’s an understatement. Ask my older colleagues about paring, paring more, paring even more). Our vast knowledge proves too much for a semester-long course. It should. We work for years to make it that way. But with power comes responsibility and for me that responsibility is to represent identities that often don’t have a voice. I’ll use gender here, because inserting more texts written, edited, and translated by non-males has been my focus this week. Recognizing that every discipline splits into sub-disciplines and subsequent areas of focus, some folx might have more difficulties than others. I’m not a listicle writer (though I love a good one that features gifs of sassy animals), but I think this merits some bullet points for suggestions that have helped me. And while I focus on syllabi design because of my profession, I think this question expands to many different fields. Who is in the room, at the table, has the mic? Who makes those decisions?
So. How do we think about better representation on our syllabi?
Do a LITTLE research. Think Creatively about Where You Find Your Sources.
Ahem, pardon my sarcasm. Of course we do research. But are we keeping a critical eye out for authors and speakers who may have been passed over because they aren’t white men? Someone once trashed a book I chose for a week on Muslim experiences in the United States because it was a memoir, ie, not academic. The thing is, academic books about “the” Muslim experience tend to be written by non-Muslims. There is nothing wrong with this. But there is a difference in someone’s own story- we get vulnerability and the chance to make connections with someone who might be different from us. Pro-tip: working at a university is great because we have colleagues who may study very different subjects but these subjects intersect at points. I remember reading a theological text in my Arabic class during my master’s program, for example. If you can’t think of any sources written by women, pop over to a colleague’s office and ask for suggestions. Ask for a translation. Ask them to lunch. Hey, lunch date!
Change Unit Weekly Topics or Themes to Make Sources Relevant.
But the quarter is only ten weeks! We have to get through units 1, 2, and 3 and that’s pushing it in ten weeks! Putting in a source written by a woman throws a wrench in my WHOLE jam here! Ok, I hear you- learning goals and outcomes are important. We usually write them for administrators because students don’t read them (why should they? They’re usually bland!). Maybe you can’t change these outcomes/goals. You can change the topic of Week 5 instead (NOT to “women/females/anyone not male in ___ subject. See point below.) and make it work with the source. Use a source that reveals a kind of methodology in the field. I might have trouble finding a source about a religious community that doesn’t allow women (or maybe we just don’t know) in a specific place and time period. Think classical Taoist texts, for example. I have this other text that dates later, but comes from the same general area and falls under the general theme of the course. Instead of “Classical Taoism” Week, I get rid of the word classical and say “early.” Or I find a secondary source that talks about the Daode Jing as a potentially feminist text. I have the students debate whether this makes sense after they read some sections.
Don’t Pigeonhole Gender to One Day/Week/Topic.
Please don’t do this. I can just see the sense of accomplishment. Alright, I found not one but TWO sources written by women about women in ____ field. I organized a WHOLE class period to discuss it. I even invited a women SPEAKER to come talk about women! I’m amazing. Ok, you know what this feels like? It feels like pity. It feels like when you leave the food waste out for the raccoons (no offense raccoons. Y’all are cute.). It feels like the only time women get to be represented is when we are talking specifically about gender and that in any other theme, women just aren’t allowed or important. Representation matters on every.single.level. I’m not saying all the sources need to be written by women. I’m saying think about who speaks through the sources every single week. Looking further than the usual suspects means I get to have more innovative discussions with my students. I might even learn something new. Learning? That’s not…that’s literally my job. Yay.
If You Really Can’t Find Any Authors, at Least Look for Texts Written about Non-Males.
I’ve looked EVERYWHERE, taken my colleagues to lunch, poured over other syllabi, picked through the archives. There just aren’t any women who have written about _____. Unfortunately, given the history of oppression and gatekeeping for non-male scholars, writers, thinkers-anyone with a voice, really-sometimes the sources don’t exist. It’s not acceptable to just revert back to the all-male cast. Are there any texts written about women? And they don’t have to be about a superhero. I fell into the trap earlier of getting frustrated because I couldn’t find a “strong” female character in a set of texts. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any. That means my students should learn to engage with how writers depicted women and not just label them “sexist” without further examination of context. Let’s be honest (as honest as we can, given the limited material we have) about experiences that run the spectrum of heroic to traumatic to “mundane.” The point is my students learn to ask questions, not assert unfair judgments about cultures they do not know.
Thanks for your consideration. Now go out to lunch so you can grade those midterms.