Classroom Conversions & Canonical Refuse

I play this song on day 1 as the students enter and write their ideas on slips of paper to be used in the “Canonical Refuse” exercise described here. At the end of class, after we’ve completed the exercise and done a very quick syllabus review, I return briefly to the opening song. I ask students to think with me about what they want to do with the “dust” of histories piling up everywhere around us, on us, in us. Breath it in? Bite it? Sweep it away? Push it around like paper on our desks? Let it overtake you, suffocate you? Ignore it as just so much traffic, noise happening somewhere else apart from us?

“What would it look like to teach as though your goal is to expand your field to more students?”[1] I love this question, initially posed by Carleton Green and Alice Donlan. I love it because of how it reframes enduring and urgent questions about introduction and inclusion. I also love it because it has led me to think again about classroom conversions.

Conversion is a familiar subject for the scholar of religion. For a historian like me taught to remain critically attentive to the Christonormative conjures and capital conveyances of my field of study, the converting techniques of field expansion are not uncomplicated. The missionary enterprises of higher education in the U.S. (and beyond) have longstanding and enduring ties to ecclesiastical structures, colonial projects, and racial capitalism.[2] Green’s and Donlan’s opening question thereby returns me to these histories and my present occupation with(in) them. What kind of missionary am I? What kinds of conversions do I seek? How do my expansive goals look different (or not) than those that have historically framed not only my field of study but the project of “higher” education more broadly? What about you, and yours?

To be clear, I have no final answers to these questions, but the interrogation is not merely rhetorical (though they are questions of rhetoric to be sure). “To be trained as a scholar of religious studies is then to practice a postcolonial methodology of a profoundly colonial subject,” one historian of the (inter)discipline convincingly argues.[3] To expand the field to more students means to bring them into that postcolonial practice and to introduce them to both its colonial problems and decolonizing endeavors, including how (historical) change (over time) is wrought. Does that change (always, ever) look like Christian conversion? Does expansion (always, ever) look like a colonial mission? Or, might they look different—and if so, how do we make them so? As the Religious Studies department here at Sewanee describes: “No study of religion is complete without a serious wrestling with its implications in the intimate histories and cultures of atrocity, imperialism, resistance, and indifference.”[4] To wrestle seriously with these challenges—of history and inclusion—is the very work of the field. How then to do that work? This, of course, is to return yet again to Green’s and Dolan’s question.

For most students, Religious Studies is an unfamiliar and frequently misunderstood field of study. Often “a discovery major, not a destination major,” students typically discover it only after coming to college.[5] Unlike other fields, it is rarely taught in high schools, is not well-understood as distinct from theological training, and is not often considered as a potential major until after encountering it at Sewanee as part of a general education requirement. This reality is, again, part of the defining bounds of the field itself, a frame into which students must be introduced and invited into. It is also a frame that students must be supported and encouraged to press back against, resist, or remake for themselves. Any conversion to the field is—and must be—a conversion of the field, too.[6] This is part of what I understand to be at stake in Green’s and Donlan’s question as part of their “fearless framework” for inclusive pedagogy.

Unsurprisingly, there are no small number of texts designed to help do that work. I have already cited one such example (The Religious Studies Skills Book), which I have also assigned in classes. There are many others. Scholars have endeavored to confront the question in journals like Teaching Theology and Religion and The Wabash Center Journal on Teaching, not to mention the field’s flagship publication, The Journal of the American Academy of Religion.[7] But to assign such readings to students rarely has the intended effect. As Eric Thurman recently argued, “abstract theorizing at the beginning of the course squelches their enthusiasm.”[8] (Perhaps the same is true for blog posts?)

Prof Thurman is right. I am convinced by his commitment to the concrete, even if I continue to struggle to squelch my own enthusiasm for “abstract theorizing” (witness the structure of this post).  

What follows, then, is a practical example from my own classroom, offered as an admittedly partial reply to Green’s and Donlan’s exigent question, and inspired by Thurman’s practiced approach to introductory pedagogy.[9] This teaching tactic is a deliberate attempt to navigate my own pedagogical interests in small teaching and big questions. So, too, it is an endeavor to begin again the work of (re)introducing the field of Religious Studies and expanding it to more students, amid all the converting complications of that—of our—mission.

Teaching Tactic – Canonical Refuse (a first-day-of-class exercise)

I use this tactic on day one of my Religion in American History course, but I think it could be used for many introductory courses, especially those for which students come in with a fairly strong, if sometimes under-informed or even mistaken, set of expectations about specific content to be “covered.”

I first distribute small strips of blank paper to each student as they enter the classroom. After welcoming them to the class, I ask students to spend two minutes thinking of as many people, movements, events, or themes as they can, which they think or hope will be on our syllabus, and to write each one on a different slip of paper. After the two minutes has lapsed, I walk over and pick up the trash can from its typical location and move it ceremonially to the top of a desk in the middle of the room. I explain that I am now going to ask for volunteers to read aloud one item that they wrote on their slip of paper. After doing so, that volunteer, along with anyone else in the class who also wrote that same (or a similar enough) item, then crumple up their slip of paper and, without leaving their seat, try to throw it in the trash can. I ask for volunteers until no one has any left-over slips of paper.

As students read an item aloud, I affirm the nomination in some way. The exchange becomes a simple and straightforward way for students to express and hear aloud their individual voice in the college classroom (for many it’s the very first time) and to get both an honest and positive bit of feedback for their contribution. Nearly every student will name familiar examples: the Salem Witch Trials, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr, the Episcopal Church. Students see quickly and concretely that they are not isolated in their ideas. Some, though, will raise not-so-obvious proposals, and in those moments, they will also find affirmation, having offered up a unique subject or distinctive idea: nationalism, American football, or Kanye West. Admittedly, this can also occasionally require some intellectual somersaulting and scholarly redirection (like the time a student volunteered Winston Churchill).

After all the papers are tossed toward the trash (very few, if any actually ever make it inside), I ask them to reflect on why we might be doing this. We ask about what we do with the presumptions we carry and how successful we are in tossing them away. We notice together how popular certain subjects are as they come sailing toward the garbage can from all directions at once, and we discuss why some subjects (e.g. Puritans…always the Puritans) come to mind so readily and widely. During this conversation, many student-generated ideas also help surface the ways that historical narratives are reproduced and consumed (in textbooks, monographs, documentaries, and the many spiraling venues of pop culture), and conversation in the room typically turns not only to what has been offered and why, but also what was not, the subjects more frequently forgotten or more often overlooked.

One thing I especially value about this brief exercise is how it helps illustrate the historical effects of canon in the archives of American religion. As we survey the scene—a floor scattered with the scraps of our presumptions—we reflect together on the material ways history litters and lingers in our lives, and how we continue to contribute to it in our renderings and rememberings. Students are immediately brought into big questions for the class about not just what is included in the annals of American religion (though, yes, that too) but who decides, and it urges students into the work of authorizing history. We also broach questions—even in this very first class—about what we do with the refuse around us. Tidy it up antiseptically in a neat and clean chronological order? Watch it pile up like Benjamin’s angel of history? Sweep it all apocalyptically away to start again, anew? Something else entirely? How, we ponder (abstractly? concretely?), might we begin to take up the “matter of being historical differently”?[10]

More generally, this exercise has offered students and me together a concrete moment of material connection to one another and to our historical materials—to the historical heft we inherit, carry, toss around, live with, and labor amid. Sometimes students near the garbage get knocked with the scraps careening toward the can, offering moments of thought about who and how history hurts and when it is hurled at others. The exercise helps set up a tone of serious play as we delve into the syllabus, one we aim to extend and deepen together throughout the term. It is also a valuable touchstone to which we can return, particularly later in the semester as students begin to devise research projects and pursue subjects of their own choosing, as a way to recall the dynamics of subject selection and canonical refuse in the archives of American religion.

Kati Curts, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

[1] Carlton E. Green and Alice Donlan, “A Fearless Framework for Infusing Inclusion Throughout Your Course,” Sewanee, University of the South, 16 August 2021.

[2] Elizabeth A. Clark, Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Tomoko Masuzawa, “The University and the Advent of the Academic Secular: The State’s Management of Public Instruction,” After Secular Law (Stanford University Press, 2011); Lucia Hulsether, “The Grammar of Racism: Religious Pluralism and the Birth of the Interdisciplines,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 86.1 (2018): 1-41.

[3] Kathryn Lofton, “Religious History is Religious Studies,” Religion 42.3 (2012): 384.

[4] Thanks go especially to Tam Parker for her help in authoring this part of the department description and in being such a crucial conversation partner for me and for so many Sewanee students about these important subjects.

[5] Eugene V. Gallagher and Joanne Maguire, The Religious Studies Skills Book: Close Reading, Critical Thinking, and Comparison (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 16.

[6] I thank Eric Thurman for helping me think more clearly about this particular phrasing.

[7] See, e.g., Nancy Levene “Courses and Canons in the Study of Religion (With Continual Reference to Jonathan Z. Smith)” Journal for the American Academy of Religion 804 (2012): 998-1024.

[8] Thurman, “What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Religion’,” Teaching Tactic, The Wabash Center Journal on Teaching 1.2 (2021): 106.

[9] It is also crucial to note that my thinking about this exercise was influenced by conversations with Sid Brown and with her own published teaching technique, which also uses cards tossed and thrown into the center of the room. A Buddhist in the Classroom (State University of New York, 2008), 46-47.

[10] Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (University of Chicago Press, 2005).