Helping Students Think Like an Academic Scholar of Religious Studies—Serguei Dolgopolskii (2008)
A religious studies professor modifies both courses and course work structures ranging from introductory to graduate-level classes, so he can model, reflect, and effectively teach academic protocols of studying religion.
When I first began teaching at KU, I assumed that students would understand quickly the difference between an academic and a lay study of religion and that the superiority of an inquiry-based, academic approach as opposed to a simplified, lay version would be obvious to students. This was not the case, so for several semesters I have been revising my courses in an attempt to guide student to discover and engage in the scholarly process of generating knowledge.
I made changes in two key areas: course structures and assignments/activities. Each change was based on the personality and academic level of the course. As I discovered the extent of support students needed to engage with course materials the way I wanted, I made more significant changes to course designs to encourage students to become actively engaged in the production of knowledge.
As I made more and more changes to my course structure and teaching approach across semesters, more students began turning in discussion questions and papers indicative of their critical engagement with texts. More papers and reading responses were handed in which suggested not only that students understood what I expected of them, but also that they were doing it.
Now that I have begun better supporting students’ learning, I feel I can start expecting a higher level of work from them. I want to get better not only at getting across my message and my expectations, but also at recognizing where students are at in their learning process. If I can find ways to meet students where they are, I can better help them reach the goals I have for them.
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This is a portfolio about attempting to transform students from passive consumers of information to active producers of knowledge. While information is easier to learn, the process of creating knowledge is more difficult and novel for students. This narrative covers several semesters and reflects the process of my inquiry and teaching as I attempted to guide students to discover and engage in the scholarly process of knowledge creation in the academic study of religion. The puzzle I am trying to solve is how to build both a course and course work structure so that they model, reflect, and thereby teach academic protocols of studying religion.
To contextualize my overarching goal across the semesters, a brief explanation of the process of knowledge production in the study of religion is required. There is not one universal protocol of academic study of religion, but speaking in very general terms, in the academic study of religion, scholars bring a particular methodology to studying both primary and secondary sources. Whereas the affiliated (or lay) study of religion focuses on the religious norm illustrated by a text, and often also includes understanding the chronology of events and the historical progression of beliefs, an academic study of religion revolves around asking and answering questions with arguments developed from a careful study of primary and secondary source material while maintaining the difference between the two. Of critical importance in successfully producing knowledge as an academic would be the ability to read and interpret and evaluate primary sources about religion, and to formulate and advance arguments based only on such evaluation. In other words, at an appropriate level, students should be able to analyze primary sources critically, to create evaluative statements about them, to review secondary sources about the same material in a critical way, and to identify differences in methodology and reasoning between their interpretation and that forwarded by the secondary sources.
When I first began teaching at KU, I assumed that students would understand the difference between the academic and affiliated study of religion with just passing mention in the first class, and that the superiority of an inquiry-based approach to studying religion by asking questions as opposed to a simplified, lay version of historical approach based on chronology alone would be obvious to students. My experience quickly made clear that this was not the case, and in subsequent semesters I made more and more changes to my courses in order to improve students’ abilities to generate knowledge.
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I modified my teaching in several ways in an effort to engage students in the actual activities of knowledge production, each reflecting the personality and academic level of the course. Changes also had greater impacts on my course design, as I discovered the extent of support students needed to engage with course materials in the way I wanted and to ultimately become actively engaged in the production of knowledge. I made changes in two areas: the structure of the course, and the assignments/activities I asked students to complete.
Changes in course structure:
When I first described the difference between the affiliated and academic study of religion, I found that simply stating that there was a difference was insufficient to produce a change in student beliefs and behavior related to the study of religion. The first step I took was to provide time and structure to explore the difference between primary and secondary sources. This was difficult for students.
During the Spring 2007 semester of my Introduction to Religion (REL 107) course, I spent the first class period discussing the academic study of religion in detail with the students. I hoped that by making the distinction between the academic and affiliated study of religion explicit, students would recognize what I expected them to do. I did not notice a significant improvement in student performance, however. Many students continued to want me to tell them what to know instead of attempting to critically engage with course materials in a way that would produce original knowledge.
In order to better help students understand the scholarly approach to studying religion, I decided to change the course structure to better reflect that process. Thus, during the Summer 2007 term for the same Introduction to Religion (REL 107) course, I divided it into two parts: a study of primary sources and a study of secondary sources. I did this with hope that this structure would more clearly help students understand the difference between the two types of sources, and also the differences in how they are used.
This was a difficult step for students, but it also was insufficient to move them towards being more critical in their thinking. I realized that I was bringing more to the discussion than just an appreciation of the differences in types of sources. I had my academic method of inquiry which guided my behavior. Thus, I realized I also needed to make the method obvious and include it in the course structure.
I next taught REL 107 during the Summer 2008 term, and for that offering, I added a third section to the course structure: an opening unit on the method of scholarly inquiry. I explicitly taught and modeled how scholars approach the reading and interpretation of texts and the construction of arguments. I discussed the importance of disagreement as a signal for deeper study and further questioning, rather than stronger attempts at persuasion. I wanted students to appreciate the importance of evaluating the ideas and arguments authors made in the texts, rather than students focusing on their personal reactions to the text.
For more information, see this summary of changes in course structure for REL 107.
Changes in course assignments:
In addition to changing the course structure to resemble a scholarly approach to studying religion, I also wanted to engage students in scholarly activities with my class assignments and projects. I initially began by asking students to complete discussion questions/responses to readings and submit them to me by email. The level of thought exhibited in the discussion questions was not what I wanted, however, and the private dialogue of email did not seem to produce the level of in-class discussion I desired.
During the Fall 2007 semester I decided to make the reading responses public, so that the entire class could see each response. There was initially resistance to reading and discussion responses being made public. I dealt with this by creating a culture and expectation for sharing (I told them, “This is how it’s done in Russia”) and by keeping answers anonymous. Even so, students tried to remain passive. Students wanted me to talk—to tell them “the truth”—so I again had to make explicit the importance of dialogue and discussion as an active part of the academic process. I continue to make these reading responses visible and am currently exploring using prompts to guide students in the creation of their reading responses. In my higher level courses, I have even incorporated panel-type discussions of the reading responses in a further effort to support students in engaging in a scholarly approach to studying texts.
For more information, see this summary of changes in course readings.
An additional problem I have faced is that working with ancient religious texts introduces the dilemma of relevance—being able to see how the work applies to today’s world, or rather to students’ experiences of that world. Rather than me providing the relevance, in my Special Topics in Religion (REL 602) course during the Spring 2008 semester, I introduced the idea of scripts, letting students do the work by letting them meet the text at the middle ground, between the text and the terms of experience which are more familiar and thus more relevant for the students.
During that course, students were placed in small groups and assigned excerpts from primary sources from the course. They were asked to imagine themselves as one of the members of the original intended audience of the text, or as one of the people participating in the legalistic-theological discussions surrounding the creation of the text. Then, they wrote a script to reflect the dialogue that might have taken place at the time of the creation of the source. After the scripts were written, the groups acted out the scripts in front of the entire class as a starting point for a class discussion of the text. To further engage them in the activity, I asked the groups to come to a meeting of one of my lower-level classes and act out the scripts for the students in that class.
Translating the original text into a new context allowed the students to explore the problems and issues of the original writers, often through staging them in contemporary situations, such as coffee shops or car trips to Chicago. It allowed them to see that the creation and interpretation of works like the Talmud was active and involved a dynamic logic (dialogue and the actions of those compiling the texts), rather than a remote and abstract argument. It also highlighted that primary texts were the creation of people who themselves had reasons and opinions shaping their decisions and language. For more information see this example of a student group’s script (pdf).
I found the scripts to provide a useful window into the thinking of the students, helping me see which students were critically engaging with the texts and identifying not just the information conveyed, but also the arguments and logic of the text and the likely biases and perspectives of the text’s author. Students also seemed to enjoy the activity. Discussion following the performances was good. I plan to continue using these script-writing activities in this and other courses.
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There are two primary places that I looked for evidence that students were beginning to critically engage with course materials and produce original arguments the responses they completed about the readings, and the final paper project (both the proposal and the paper itself). Both types of assessments offered students an opportunity to engage with primary and/or secondary sources in a scholarly way, and I examined the level at which they did so. Please see the rubric I used to evaluate their ability to generate scholarly knowledge. While the actual grades students received were based on more general criteria (Completion, Was the work informational or argumentative? Did the writer only present original texts, or also critically engage with them?), this rubric represents a more sophisticated account of what I wanted my students to be able to do.
Rather than presenting multiple examples of student work across each of the several classes I taught, there are simply three examples of each type of assignment. These represent the types of work I saw and range from lower-level student performances indicating very little engagement with the texts to very high-level performances indicating an appreciation and use of the scholarly methods of studying religion. The examples of work are taken primarily from my Introduction to Religion classes, as I feel that the most benefit is had by teaching and encouraging these skills to students in lower-level classes. It should not be a surprise if students in a graduate-level course can produce work of high scholarly quality, but to demonstrate that students in lower-level classes can do so is important and valuable. For more information, I've included several examples of each type of student work, along with my commentary about them:
- Reading response—highest (pdf)
- Reading response—high (pdf)
- Reading response—low (pdf)
- Comments on reading responses
- Final paper—highest (pdf)
- Final paper—high (pdf)
- Final paper—low (pdf)
- Comments on papers
As I made more and more changes to my course structure and teaching approach across semesters, more students began turning in discussion questions and papers indicative of their critical engagement with the texts of the course. More papers and reading responses were handed in which suggested not only that students understood what I expected of them, but also that they were doing it.
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Presently student grades are based primarily on very general evaluative criteria, but I would like to move towards basing student grades on the more specific evaluative rubric. Especially now that I have begun better supporting students in understanding my expectations and providing more opportunities for them to engage with and practice the scholarly approach I want to encourage, I feel I can start expecting a higher level of work from them.
I still face difficulties with the lower-level courses, because students in those classes are often surprised by the level of the expectations in my course. They often believe they know better what an introductory-level course should look like and can be resistant to being asked to do so much work. I also struggle because some students appear to be satisfied with learning only how to write a good discussion question, or write a good paper, but they are not engaging in the scholarly inquiry which requires a reflection on why they should write or think in a certain way.
I want to get better not only at getting across my message and my expectations, but also at recognizing where students are at in their learning process. If I can find ways to meet students where they are, I can better help them reach the goals I have for them. I struggle knowing how to reach middle-level students and am continuing to strive to find additional ways to foster their critical engagement with the course materials. I want to help all of the students recognize the relevance of the texts and to identify and evaluate authors’ arguments rather than just agree or disagree with them. I hope to expand on the activities that I have seen create such engagement (script-writing and acting, panel discussions, polemical discourses, etc.) across all of my courses.
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