For this first lunchtime session on teaching in Religious Studies, we discussed methods for encouraging student participation.
Frances and Pamela introduced their experience with blogging in upper level undergraduate and/or graduate courses. Frances described courses in which each student is required to maintain a blog that is an ongoing record of interpretations of and reactions to the readings and course discussions. Students composed a one-three page paper each week on the readings, but instead of handing it in to the instructor, they posted this onto their blogs, which eventually became a continuous log of all their papers throughout the semester. Other students were required to read and respond to those papers. Students are assembled into permanent "commentarial groups" of 5 or 6, and group-mates are required to respond to each others' blog entries every week. These postings and discussions took place several days before the class meeting dedicated to that topic or set of readings, so by the time of the class meeting, considerable writing and discussion had already taken place.
Frances' pedagogical goals for the use of this approach include (1) to encourage interpretive creativity, where students learn to gain as much from each other as from the instructor, and to allow her contribution to the class meetings to be, to a certain extent, guided by the needs and interests of the students (this is sometimes referred to as, ahem, "facilitating a sense of student-centered community" in the classroom), (2) to engage students in intensive and sustained discussions about course materials that continue beyond the classroom walls, and (3) to facilitate the active participation of shy students.
Before a given class meeting, Frances would read all the blogs from the class and then organize certain issues from them into themes or arguments, which would then be the basis for class discussion. At given points in a discussion, she could refer to the writings of certain students, sometimes quoting them, for example, thus bringing into the classroom the voices of even the most shy students.
Courses in which this technique has been used can be seen at http://ccnet.utoronto.ca/20069/rlg404h1y/ , http://ccnet.utoronto.ca/20049/rlg372h1f/, http://courses.ece.utoronto.ca/20041/rlg372h1f/, http://courses.ece.utoronto.ca/20041/rlg236h1s/.
Pamela reported good success with this approach too, and wondered if it could be an effective approach in other courses in the department - for example, could it be used in tutorial sections for our large undergraduate courses? A few graduate student instructors thought that might be a very helpful way of encouraging discussion. Others wondered if this technique is better for upper level courses, where students are better able to engage in creative analytical thinking and writing without quite as much assistance.
There was some discussion about what sort of writing is encouraged in blog assignments. Frances favored bloggin as a very free and creative writing venue where students could develop their own interpretive personality over the course of a semester; she wants them to use this forum as a way of finding their own personal voice for their writing, which they can then learn to insert into more academic writing styles. Pamela wondered if more structure ought to be given.
Michael brought up privacy issues, wondering if there is something potentially dangerous about requiring students to post their work online for the world (or even just the class) to see, especially in Religious Studies courses where content can sometimes be sensitive. (Does this mean that I should delete the links above?) Others agreed that this is something we ought to think more about, although not wanting to restrict students' ability to communicate with each other in ways that are familiar to them (i.e., online). Apparently, however, there are some very extreme laws (? can someone provide links?) that actually prohibit us from all sorts of things in the name of privacy, such as - be careful - speaking students' names out loud in class... It was suggested that we ought not sit back and accept such laws.
Ken described an effective technique he called the "minute round". He passes a watch around a small seminar class, and each student has a minute to introduce a topic of discussion or a provocative issue to address. If the class is small, this could be completed in 15 minutes, and then the rest of the class could be taken for discussion of these issues. This allows all students to own some part of the discussion. If the class is large, Ken has asked subsets of the class - groups of 10, say - to do the minute round on a given class meeting, then rotating through subgroups.
At the end of the discussion, we discussed possible topics for future meetings. These included:
- should there be a department style book or set of standard resources, posted on our website, for example? if so, what would it include?
- approaches to the teaching of World Religions courses (and what should such a course be called?)
- approaches to the teaching of Method and Theory courses
- negotiating the issue of religious sentiment among students
- the relationship between text and practice; assigning "religious practices" as coursework
- discussion of specific topics within religious studies
- assignments and testing
- grading essays, and evaluation in general
It was decided that we will meet once more this semester, in about a month, and then we will adjourn until the fall. At the next meeting, we will take up the last of these topics listed above. People might bring in their essay evaluation schemes to share, if they have such things. A notice will be sent around with the date of the next meeting. Thanks to all for a productive discussion!