Bulletin for the Study of Religion: guest lecturing in geographies of religion: interviewing my colleagues’ students, focusing on tangents

I am very thankful to Philip Tite at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion for inviting me to revise and publish two previous posts on this professional blog as part of a Tips for Teaching series in his journal. My article focuses on my experiences guest-lecturing on geographies of religion in both his class and in Steven Hu’s at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Here’s the abstract:

This ‘Teaching Tips’ article focuses on my recent experience of guest-lecturing in colleagues’ classes. Influenced by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, my initial guest-teaching revolved around posing an argument about geographies of religion as ‘grounded theologies’ as a problem for students to challenge. However, my recent guest lectures have involved interviewing my colleagues’ students to discover why they find grounded theologies interesting. I show that this new mode of guest-lecturing – also influenced by Freire – has opened up new conversations at a primal ontological level through a wider breadth of topics discussed, including occupy movements, Game of Thrones, Black Nordic Metal, and modern imperialist ideologies. Following Sam Rocha’s folk phenomenology, I suggest that the primal depths that this interview-lecture style of guest lecturing is perhaps worth a try, even though I plan to use the argumentative lecture in the future as well.

I hope that readers of the Bulletin will find it helpful, especially in thinking about how to guest lecture as a pedagogical exercise. I also hope that geographers of religion will also find it useful for thinking through how to teach our discipline to students with a variety of interests. Many thanks, Phil, for generously allowing me to pitch in my two cents!

Guest lecturing in Phil Tite’s UW class

Yesterday, I gave a guest lecture in Dr Phil Tite‘s class at the University of Washington (UW) on Theories in the Study of Religion, a course listed in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies as JSIS C 380. Here’s Phil’s recap from Facebook – I won’t share the actual post because the settings are limited to Phil’s and my friends, but the text is a thank-you note I appreciate very much:

Thank you, Justin Tse, for another excellent guest lecture (via Skype) on geographies of religion. This is the third time Justin has done this for my Theories in the Study of Religion course and each time is excellent (though very unique). And each time I learn a little something more about cultural geography. I’m glad I can incorporate this emerging theoretical approach to my course.

This is indeed the third time that I’ve given a lecture on what cultural geography has to do with religious studies in his class. However, each time has been different. Perhaps this has to do with how I am constantly learning new things about geography myself, and maybe it has to do with how geographers are constantly expanding the boundaries of the discipline more generally. It may also have to do with the kinds of questions that students ask me in each class.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve stumbled onto a new style of guest-lecturing recently. It may have to do with the ways I’m developing as a teacher more generally, but I feel a greater sense of freedom in letting go of my lecture material and engaging the interests of the students in relation to the material. In previous iterations of this lecture in Phil’s class, for example, we tended to stick to the material I prepared, which means that students often contested me, for example, on whether bodies constitute a place (such as whether Muslim women wearing headscarves is an act of placemaking) and how theologies can be grounded in secular sites. It’s all very interesting stuff, but I am starting to see guest-lecturing as an opportunity to parachute into a class that I’m not teaching and to learn something from the encounter. With the two latest guest lectures I’ve given this week (the previous one in Steven Hu’s UCSB class),  what I’m starting to discover is that guest lectures give me the chance to learn about why topics that I find interesting would be of interest to undergraduate students who are not experts in the fields where I work. The result, I am discovering, is that we dig deeper into the discipline itself as student interest guides the way.

After the experience of guest-lecturing in Steve’s class on Monday, I consciously thought about how I would structure this lecture for Phil’s class in order to learn from the students why they might find cultural geography interesting for their study of religion. We got through one section on what geography is (where I explained to them what the ecumene, the inhabited world, was – see here for an explanation I did for another class) and what religion has to do with geography (everything). As I asked for questions, we found ourselves drawn into conversation about how understanding the ecumene at the existential (or ‘ontological’) level often raised theological questions. For some reason, this led into an extended discussion of A Song of Ice and Fire and how geographies of religion could be understood throughout the series, both in the book and on the HBO show. The students emphasized to me that their mouths were all wide open (jaw hit floor, that is) when we started talking about this, and I emphasized to them that this was neither my original idea nor my fully developed research (although, as a point of announcement, Game of Thrones is factoring into my postdoctoral work on politicized civil societies and theological communities more than I have anticipated). For this allusion, I acknowledged the work and teaching of Susan Johnston at the University of Regina for helping me take this series seriously (note to Susan: I’m still reading and catching up, and to be honest, I’m still only at the beginning of the first book! Ned Stark is still alive for me!). I also took similar questions about topics that are more tangential to my area of study (which means that the students took the time to educate me), such as neo-Nordic religiosity (such as belief-but-not-really in Wodin) in Black Nordic Metal, nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism in Eastern Europe and the Middle East (maybe hanging out with Eastern Catholics is helping with this one, though – also, I invoked Timothy Snyder‘s work and basically called him a new cultural geographer for his attention to ideology and the making of place in the ‘bloodlands‘ of Eastern Europe), cataclysmic events in the physical environment (we talked about Jared Diamond and his detractors), and the ancient accounts of the Flood.

Photo on 2016-05-12 at 12.19 PM #2

The interesting part is that this led to us talking about key themes in human geography that I often don’t cover in my survey of geographies of religion. For example, Phil pointed out that what I was describing was a ‘relational’ geography of religion, and while Phil came up with this independent of the literature, this is indeed the word that is widely used especially in UK geography, especially by Gill Valentine. We also talked about the ‘activation of landscapes,’ which is a term that is sometimes used by geographers, though I don’t think it’s technical. What is more of a technical term, though, is stuff – geographers do have the debates about the materiality of stuff (and ‘shit,’ for that matter), although I have to thank Sam Rocha for drawing my attention to how important the word stuff is as a serious word.

What I took away from this conversation is that the students in Phil’s class are into the grand epic narratives and operating fictions in our contemporary society. We had some debate in our exchange about whether secularization really could be thought of as a theological process and whether secular social theory really could be understood (pace Milbank) as theology, but there was no question when we got down to the nitty gritty that in the fantasies and fictions that permeate our everyday lives, there is something theological going on, even if few actually believe in them. In some ways, this is a Žižekian insight – reality is ‘less than nothing‘ because ideologies can still operate even if nobody believes in them.

I want to thank Phil for the opportunity once again to work these thoughts out on screen and for his class for being so open to exploring these avenues in geography with me. I think I will stick to this approach to guest lecturing; it seems to bring me through more material than the stuff I prepare in advance, and because of that, we actually get to try to do geography together.