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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

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JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Gaining my religion

Posted by Miriam Jones on 10/19/05 at 09:06 PM

Well, okay, that is overstating. Really overstating. Monkeys-are-nothing-to-be-ashamed-of overstating. Please don’t de-link me P.Z. Myers overstating.

But my classes have been interesting lately, and in part because some of the students are bringing their religion with them.

Let me back up. I am sure I am not the only teacher of English literature who feels that dealing in the classroom with religious material is a minefield.

Once, during my first or second year of teaching, I read out some passages from the Book of Revelation as part of a class on Yeats’ “The Second Coming.” How could I not? It’s all there. Anyway, I read it, neither rolling my eyes nor shaking my finger, and a student wrote, in the teaching evaluation at the end of the course, that s/he had not liked my reading from the Bible. Now, whether s/he thought I was proselytizing or being disrespectful by reducing the Bible to literature, I am not sure; that was all s/he wrote. I continue to read from the Book of Revelation when teaching that particular poem, but now I twist myself into an embarrassed pretzel beforehand explaining what I am, and am not, doing, by standing in front of them with that resonant black volume. (It probably doesn’t help that I have an old Bible that belonged to my father, aged and portentous looking. The Bible, not my father. Perhaps if I squinted at a computer print out and stumbled over the words. Ah, but it feels so good in the hand.)

That course was an introductory survey with lots of modern and contemporary material. How does one negotiate these issues when teaching earlier periods?

Throw our particular students into the mix: New Brunswick has apparently one of the highest, if not the highest, rates of church attendance in the country, as well as a relatively homogeneous population. When I taught in Toronto I always assumed a certain level of world-weariness with any religious elements in literature, on the part of my students. Though to be fair, I could have been projecting. Also, the student population was much more diverse, and for many of them, if they had any interest at all in such things, it was academic. Here, however, I am more worried about stepping on my students’ toes, than boring them. (Side note: a friend of mine who teaches Romantic literature at a good university in a solid farming part of the country has got up the noses of the campus Christian fellowship people and is periodically invited to debate the campus chaplain about the existence of a deity, à la Huxley and Wilberforce. So far, he has wisely declined.)

I have found, over the years, a modification in my own attitudes toward religious elements in literary texts. When I was a student I skimmed over them, much as I click past any televangelists who darken my screen when I channel-surf. But how long can one allow oneself to wilfully ignore elements that were certainly important to many of the writers themselves, as well as to their readers? And so I have comfortably settled into discussing “religious discourse,” “Christian ideology,” the Christian “world view” or “mythos” (if I am feeling daring), and the like.

But something odd, and interesting, is happening right now. Well, since the summer, really, when I taught a course on post/apocalyptic sf. It was a small class, a very small class, and at our first meeting I wanted to find out what sorts of sff they had already read. Some said “none,” so I started throwing out various possibilities — Stephen King, fairy tales, and so on (yes, I know I’m stretching it) — and the Left Behind series came up. Well, three of them who claimed they wouldn’t know an sff text if it bit them on the rump had read books from that series; one of them had read them all. These students then identified themselves as Christians and that became part of the discourse of the class. Then again, I began with the Book of Revelation (will I never learn?), but still, the shape the class took was a surprise. These three students by no means imposed or dominated — in fact, they were all markedly diffident — but that a relatively significant proportion of the class brought a Christian perspective, of necessity shaped our discussions, particularly given our subject matter. I mean, you can’t write the end of the world without going to the source. In retrospect, I am proud that they all felt comfortable “coming out,” particularly as I think I am pretty clear that my own perspective is more Marx than St. Mark. (Okay, that fell flat. Moving along ... )

This term I am teaching 18thc prose and poetry and writing by women before 1800. In the former I put in as much Wilmot, Behn, Manley, and Haywood as possible, but there are some other sorts of texts one needs to read. And as we know, with reference to the second course, religion was a clear entry point for early modern women seeking to write without being run out of town or branded as whores. I have been used to teaching such texts as examples of using the masters’ tools (take that, Audre Lorde). You know: discourse, ideology, mythos, rhetorical strategies, discursive tactics. Well, and haven’t some of the students just blown me out of the water by actually engaging with these texts on their own terms? Read some of their blog entries, if you please. Anne Askew and Margaret Fell Fox — the latter a “gutsy gal” — are right-on heroines. Hannah More is “bold and compassionate.” Part of me wants to pull them up short and say, “you need to engage with these materials critically!” But another part is gleeful — gleeful! — that they are so involved with these texts, many of which, to be truthful, have always been quite opaque to me in any affective way. I mean, I put up with students admitting to crushes on Mr. Rochester with great good humour, even tacit encouragement (read! connect!). This engagement with the religion of our writers is new, but exciting. Certainly I will shape and channel the discussion as best I can, but how satisfying that there is a discussion in the first place. I am in the odd position of wondering if the other students — the ones whose world views are much closer to my own — are feeling silenced. So between trying to make room for everyone, and deflecting the person who keeps snorting that the idea of transubstantiation is ludicrous, much to the irritation of the Catholic students (and you thought that old chestnut died when Anne Askew did), it is proving an interesting term.

Mind you, even the devout students draw the line at Margery Kempe.

[cross-posted at my blog]

Addendum (20/10/05): At my blog, Sharon Howard referred me to Carrie Hintz’s “Satan is Not A Literary Character: Teaching Early Modern Literature to Religiously Committed Students,” about her experiences teaching early modern lit. at Queens College/CUNY. A thoughtful, useful piece of writing.


Whenever you link to the Book of Revelation, I suggest that it might as well be to Apocamon.

By on 10/19/05 at 10:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Now that’s brilliant.

By Miriam Jones on 10/19/05 at 11:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I see what bothers you about these student reactions, in their different directions.  The non-Christians don’t like the idea that, to approach Yeats, they need to assimilate some alien religious ideas.  And the Christians think the work of approaching e.g. Hannah More is done because because they’re already at home with the ideas.  It seems they’re all taking it too “easy”, in the sense that Miriam Burstein has been noting (here and here).

One would like to bring both groups to see that there is work to be done in approaching a poem, and that that this work is valuable (indeed, pleasurable).

By on 10/20/05 at 02:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That “apocalypse” syllabus is fairly tame, though. One wonders how they’d have reacted to, say, Dhalgren or The Gas ...

By Jim Flannery on 10/20/05 at 03:21 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I taught Dhalgren one year. I would not do it again at the undergraduate level; there was practically a revolt. (Same thing with Crash.) The Gas? Better you than me. But yes, point taken. We read and watched a couple of quite civil apocalypses, at least at the beginning of the course. Though I did have trouble with A Boy and His Dog. One student had an emphatic answer to the “exposing misogyny, or participating in it?” question and could not bring herself to see the film after reading the story. I think I would teach it again, but I would prepare the ground more.

By Miriam Jones on 10/20/05 at 08:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I always thought that if I were to teach a class a lit class I’d approach the sublect of religion form the Borges/CXampbell angle, religious writing as a class of fantasy or mythology with psychological underpinnings. But then, I’mnot a teacher, and I’m sure their are some aspects of curriculum building that would make taking that route a little more difficult.

By Keith on 10/20/05 at 12:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions!

Your jaw will drop!

By on 11/05/05 at 07:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions!

At:  http://www.angelfire.com/crazy/spaceman/

Your jaw will drop!

(I forgot the URL in 1st comment).

By SecretRapture on 11/05/05 at 07:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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By on 02/20/10 at 02:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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