How and Why Should You Bring Culture on The Edge in the Classroom

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Pierre Bourdieu, in his 1998 book On Television, wrote: “There is nothing more difficult to convey than reality in all its ordinariness…Sociologists run into this problem all the time: How to make the ordinary extraordinary and evoke ordinariness in such a way that people will see just how extra-ordinary it is?” (21) This is one of my favourite quotes, one that, as a social theorist, drives my teaching approach.

How do you make the students who come to your Religious Studies courses from all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of knowledge of what religion is (to name just one word, because I think the struggle to deal with popular knowledge is something common across the humanities), question that knowledge and the self-evidency that lies therein? This is where Culture on the Edge’s blog posts, I think, can play a crucial and very helpful role.

First of all, there is a variety of data to choose from on the site since the seven members of Culture on the Edge come from different disciplines yet all work in the academic study of religion, something that makes Culture on the Edge relevant not only for Religious Studies courses but for courses across the humanities that engage their students in social theories and critical thinking. From historical examples to what’s in the news today, the posts are all relevant and timely.

Blog posts are a fairly new genre, of course, and they could be used in classrooms in various ways:

  • Introduce a theoretical point in a way that it will spark a discussion, since most of our examples are familiar to the students and they are written to provoke their curiosity.
  • Make useful, even unexpected comparisons. A blog post can serve as an example by which students can be asked to see if the point raised in the blog has application somewhere else, to something from the every day life of the students, something they can now see (in light of the blog post) as strange and therefore curious. That is, to see the familiar in a way that they haven’t thought of before.

The above two can also be helpful to:

  • Regain students’ interest at crucial moments during the course.
  • Assess what they have learned.
  • Provoke critical thinking.
  • Provide examples of self-analysis and socio-analysis.

What makes the CoTE blog posts ideal for classes, is that they are often written with undergrad and grad students in mind and in such a way as to engage students by drawing from examples that are in most cases from their everyday world and in a way that one can introduce a complicated theoretical point in a simple, easily identifiable way. The blog posts then can bring a wide variety of human doings, activities (i.e., other worlds) into the classroom and the classroom into the reader’s world.

One of the most difficult and important things for students is to know if what they learn in a classroom has a practical applicability in their everyday life. Ultimately, then, the question that arises is why should a student take a religious studies course or for that matter any course in the humanities?

To give but an example consider introducing the idea that description and definition is not an innocent act, neither being as self-evident as one might think. Although there are plenty of posts one could cite as an example of this, Steven Ramey’s “The Curious Case of Flappy Birds” draws on an example that students are familiar with, a “game,” but it is also an article that does a lot more work than just describing or defining (an act that is not so unfamiliar when someone tries to describe or define “religion”). I have often heard that what we do in Religious Studies classrooms is disconnected from the “real” world (although I don’t doubt that that might sometimes be the case but only in the way professors teach their material at hand) but Ramey’s post is a great illustration of how everything is connected by comparing, defining “game” to defining “religion,” showing what this act of defining can accomplish, thereby allowing teachers and students alike to further elaborate the comparison in the classroom. That means that students are trained in critical thinking—applying findings from one area to make sense of another. What that further means is that everything in their world can become an occasion to reflect upon, problematize, analyze and not just receive passively as self-evident.

Efficient teachers and professors, in my experience at least, have been those who draw on examples from something familiar, contemporary and present it in a way that students haven’t thought of before, that is, in a controversial or counterintuitive manner; and, as far as I know, counterintuitive in cognitive sciences translates into something that will be memorable. Those teachers and professors who did this certainly gained my attention and curiosity. And like Ramey on games, this is just what so many of the blogs do at Culture on the Edge.

A blog post, or better said our blog posts, are not, of course, the ultimate analysis one can offer to one’s students, but instead they should be approached as a venue for brainstorming, a teaser of a theoretical point that can further be analyzed in the classroom or they can even serve as assignments to students that complicate some point further through a comparison to a data set of their choice and with a more detailed analysis.

Given the benefits that we see deriving from the blog posts both as a resource for professors but also as beneficial to students who are now being exposed to the academic and (I would add) critical study of religion, we at CoTE have initiated a series of books entitled, “Working with Culture on the Edge.” They are designed to be little books that can also be used in classrooms as resourceful material, in which a main theme (for example, the issue of origins) gets complicated through a series of blogs written originally on the site by the Culture on the Edge members but now accompanied by invited responses and commentaries, even critiques and elaborations, from some of our graduate readership; the first volume, due out in 2015, is comprised of ten dialectical pairings that each complicate for the readers a central theme in different social and historical sites.

The “Working with The Edge” books therefore take the idea of the blogging (succinct, provocative pieces that are timely and relevant) to another level because we now have, in one volume, not only the voice of the author but that of the reader as well; in fact, it is difficult to differentiate between the two when reading these pieces, for they are all now authors for yet other readers and so on.

To conclude, and to come all the way back to Bourdieu, CoTE blog posts demonstrate to students what it means to be a social theorists; of course, making the strange familiar and the familiar strange is only the first but very important step in becoming critical thinkers not only in the Academic Study of Religion but I would dare say in the humanities in general. For following flappy birds there will undoubtedly follow further training in fair description and argumentative analysis, all of which is aimed at making the ordinary fascinating.

This post originally appeared on the Practicum blog.

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