My ‘Religion in the United States’ class has been an interesting experiment. It’s in its second year now. The first year went splendidly, in part, because I have some upperclassmen who were (1) very invested in the topics we studied; (2) opinionated and ready to talk. In addition, one was a senior who was taking or had taken my colleagues class on government.
This year’s off to a bit of a slower start. The class is larger but the engagement hasn’t been as strong (which might correlate). It’s not been bad, just not as lively. In part, I wonder how much this has to do with my students sense of familiarity with the context of the class. Last year I had underclassmen—freshmen and sophomores—who wouldn’t have taken many classes exploring United States history, so I might be wrong about this.
In short, I created this course to be a genealogy and not a history. What do I mean by this? It’s an idea I got somewhere else but I’m struggling to remember the source. In short, a history is an overarching narrative constructed to make sense of events that appear to be related. A genealogy is a series of related snapshots where a similar topic is examined but not necessarily in a way that organizes them around an extended narrative. Both tend to be held together by a common theme or themes but a genealogy connects one point to the other much more loosely than a history.
To teach a genealogy, you have to assume that students can place the snapshots in relation to a history—or, at least this seems to help. Last year, a senior, whom I’ll refer to by his initials, W.G., was like a teacher’s aide. He contributed a ton of knowledge. He filled in the blanks with his observations. I think this helped other students. This year I don’t have someone like W.G.
So, what to do? Well, I’ll have sometime to think about this before teaching it again in spring 2021. Presently, I’m considering:
- Eventually, requiring that students who take this class be juniors or seniors. That way they’ve received the necessary knowledge to make more sense of the class.
- Replacing my current textbook and homework readings with readings that supplement my student’s knowledge of broader United States history.