Monday, November 26, 2007


Does anyone have any advice on how to gingerly deal with a literalist Christian line when it comes up in student work? When you need to give that work a bad grade because it is not good work? I am wary of this because a student at this university launched a high-profile lawsuit against a professor here, claiming that the professor wasn't respecting this student's fundamentalist faith.

I have in front of me a critical response to an article, in which the student is countering the author's claim that the Bible contains myths. (An offhand claim, by the way - biblical myth isn't the point of the article.) The student writes, "[t]his article is incorrect to say that this belief system is a myth." Erm. And then also says "God is the source of life to all" and talks about Adam and Eve as if they are his/her next-door neighbours, giving an account of what "actually" happened between them. Uhhhh. The student also says the article is characterized by "false pretences" and "should not have been published." I am not sure what to do with this, and I don't want to start up the culture wars in my classrooom. So far I want to say the following, which is likely guaranteed to further piss off the student and lead to the wars:

- Genesis may be an account of truth to you, but it also fits the standard definition of a myth - a story that functions as an explanatory framework or origin story. "Myth" is not by definition a pejorative term in this context, nor is it necessarily opposed to "truth."
- You "strongly believe in what the Bible shows": Adam was asleep when Eve was created, etc. But there is no evidence for the account of Eden that you give.
- You claim the article is characterized by false pretences, but have not provided a convincing argument for why they are false, since the counter-argument you provide is based upon speculation about what Adam and Eve were feeling and doing.
- The article "should not have been published"...?????

I can't believe I am getting into issues of empirical verification of the existence of figures from Genesis! What the hell?


Earnest English said...

Thanks for posting about this, because I almost feel like I have some ideas about this, having taught in a fair number of places where I have to interact with a number of very religious/literalist students and others. (You wouldn't believe me if I told you.)

In talking (easier than writing this) with this student, I would first try to find some common ground: not everyone believes as this student believes. Maybe these other people who aren't literalist are totally out of their minds, but they are out there. S/he should be able to agree on that. Then it's all about helping this person to see how his/her ideas are really shaped by that subject position. Then help the student to step into the shoes of one of these other totally-mistaken-from-his/her-point-of-view people. Just as an exercise. It's not about convincing the student or anything or saying one point of view is better or worse, just about seeing another point of view. From this other perspective, could Genesis be seen as a myth? Does myth have to have all those negative connotations? I think what's happening here is that this student's back is up against the wall and really defensive and scared, because these views put his/her own and his/her outsider status in the academy into harsh relief. (Maybe not, but I choose to look at it this way.) This student likely already knows that the academy and much of dominant culture doesn't believe as s/he believes. We in the academy believe with equal fervor, I would argue, that skepticism and doubt is the way to truth and are encouraged to actively doubt intuitive and nonlogical knowledges (there are many many marginalized people who point this out; also Wayne Booth). This student is going to constantly be an outsider and have to mushfake/pretend s/he believes in different knowledges to perform in college. His/her identity will constantly be tested by that space. I think it's very helpful for these students if we can sort of put on the table the fact that the way the university/academy makes meaning is very different from the way that this student makes meaning. I don't know. When I think of it this way, I always feel better about helping these students, because their identities are wrapped up in the whole thing the way, I think, a Native American's is when we're in history class and telling only one version of history. I guess since I'm in a place where the dominant narrative is that my people are all evil oppressors and therefore dehumanized, I'm more sympathetic to the way that these students' identities are on the line. (Though when I lived in Grad City, I was similarly outside of things, so I sort of sympathized then too. I've worked with a lot of very religious students, I guess.)

I hope this helps. The first thing, I think, is to find common ground with the student. Then to go ahead and point out the ways in which the academy's assumptions are not the same as the student's assumptions -- and to validate that difference. Then to encourage them to cop to their subject position. For example, if the student had written that from this perspective Genesis is not a "myth" but reality -- and could articulate the ways in which the word myth belittles his/her beliefs and do that sort of positioned work, would that have been more acceptable from your pointof view? (Then of course the student also has to be able to write about other points of view too.)

I really really really need to work on an article about this. Let me know if you think I'm on to something here. It's harder because the student is already ready to prosecute people -- but I choose to look at all that as coming out of fear of not being seen as him- or herself. I love these topics. Oh yeah. I do get jazzed about teaching. Thanks Hilaire!

Earnest English said...

Ooh I should also say that though this student is totally personalizing the issue, in some ways that's a good thing. Better that than so many students who look at their educations as academic exercises and totally outside of them.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, I've had a number of my students over the year write about their beliefs, some more effectively (for example a student who wrote a beautiful personal essay about being born again) and some less effectively (a student who wrote about abortion being wrong in an essay that was not at all supposed to be about that topic but rather was supposed to analyze a text, a text which had absolutely nothing to do with abortion or god). I wouldn't get into the student's belief system *at all* on this one. Rather, I'd focus on 1) whether the student did the assignment (and if the assignment is vague enough that you can't use the assignment to help you, revamp it for the next time you teach the class) and 2) the main point of the article to which the student was to respond. Depending on how receptive the student is to these things, you might note that it's always difficult when you write about something you really care about but that many would disagree with to convince people, particularly in a short response essay, but I wouldn't even venture into that territory unless I knew the student well.

(By the way, I just told a student that she couldn't choose as her topic for a 5-7 page paper the project of "proving that God exists," so I a) shall be going to hell, I'm certain and b) I've got a fair amount of experience with this.)

hypatia said...

I don't teach English so what do I know, but...

Focusing on the assignment seems like a good idea.

Redefining Myth seems effective to me.

Exegesis of genesis might not be where you want to go, but there is quite limited information about what they were feeling and doing and quite fantastic descriptions of shrubs and rivers.

medieval woman said...

Holy cats! Literally.

This seems to be a thorny situation (sorry, that was a bad pun - make that "prickly") - I have no advice other than what you already seem to be doing. But, it occurs to me that if this student did start to get pissy about you not respecting their faith, etc. - i.e., wanting to add you into the lawsuit in the most extreme example - then they'd begin to look more like a paranoid martyr than someone whose faith was really under attack by an individual (if indeed it was). But, maybe that's the point? It's the world against God??

This stuff gives me the heeby-jeebies. Good luck, m'dear!

squadratomagico said...

When I've had fundie students who seem reach-able -- and only some area -- then I've tried two angles of approach. The first is to stress that our context is a public university with students from many different faith commitments, as well as a fair sprinkling of atheists. They usually are able to see that it is inappropriate to privilege one outlook over another. The other tactic I've adopted is sort of similar: I explain that no one is trying to make the student renounce his/her faith, but that being educated means venturing into new intellectual territory, and part of that is grasping & considering other viewpoints and ideologies. But I always close this discussion with a reassurance that the student is of course free to reject those new viewpoints and ideologies if s/he wishes to do so -- the point is to understand them.

On the other hand, some students actively want to be martyred, as MW suggests. I had a student in my Women's History class write a paper -- well, really a screed -- about the very active, political women in Gregory of Tours. The screed argued that such women were not acting in accordance with God's will, because their public profile made them into models and "teachers" and 1 Timothy forbids women to teach. Subtle, eh?

I failed him, since the paper had nothing to do with the assignment, & he dropped the classs.

Hilaire said...

You are all incredibly helpful, and I'm going to take bits and pieces of all your suggestions and put them in my comments. And also talk to my Chair (a cultural anthrpologist) about approaches to this, specifically around myth.

Earnest! Yes! That's the thing...I hate the way this puts me in a position I don't like, of appearing not to validate non-empirical knowledge claims. I work on epistemology, for goodness sake...and in a way that is sympathetic to claims about the marginalization of such knowledges. Sigh.

Andrea said...

Good advice from everyone - one little addition. It can be very helpful to articulate clearly and sometimes more than once - that you are not disagreeing with thier beliefs. I am not saying you should pretend to agree with them, just to make very transparent that that is not the problem you have with thier essay. I have found that what seems so obvious to me as a teacher is not so obvious to students and needs to be directly articulated, often more than once. (i.e. that when we examine racist texts in class that doesn't mean that I agree with the racist perspective put forth just because I selected the texts - this is in a context of studying the racism in said texts) This will often diffuse defensiveness and fear and can allow you to focus on the academic content rather than the belief content. And if the student is being a martyr, this also covers you back.

Hilaire said...

Thanks, Andrea - Good advice! I shall do that.

TO blab more about this because I was just thinking about it on the bus to campus as I tried to craft my comments: The thing that makes me uncomfortable is not that the student is making non-rational knowledge claims. But that these are being made to stand in as "evidence" in a rationalist discourse. This seems to me to be the crux of the problem...there is no way one is ever going to be able to "prove" the things the student is citing as "evidence." This doesn't completely disavow them. But it doesn't fit with an evidence-based discourse that is being relied upon. The student needs to make such critiques in a different "register" - and then they might be very worthy indeed.

Belle said...

Agree on all. When I've encountered the problem (which I routinely anticipate and factor into the phrasing of the assignments) I make clear that this is a history class, NOT religion. Therefore, we must rely on evidence that can be cross-checked with some measure of credibility. I also emphasize that I'm not dealing with faith, but with history and evidence... and that their argument/assertions are more faith- than historically based. That seems to make them more comfortable with critiques.

Marcelle Proust said...

My experience with this sort of thing (which so far is expressed in class rather than in assignments) is in a literary context; if I talk about Christian mythology, I insist loudly, clearly, and several times over that myth is a technical, literary term for a belief system and what we're doing is examining the literary function of myths, whether Christian, classical, or whathaveyou, in the text under discussion. Personal belief, I say, does not enter into it. And addressing it head-on in class has meant, so far, that I haven't had the problem crop up in papers. But I always worry that it will. I'm sorry it's hit you; good luck!

Sfrajett said...

I always found it useful to make them defend this source like they would any other. Usually they don't know as much as they think they do--always, in fact. Sidestep the truth issue and get at rigor--what about scholarly debates as to the nature of, say, Eden? it's not as if religious experts agree on this stuff, let alone others. The entire field of medieval Scholastic philosophy debated (as we today like to paraphrase it) how many angels fit on the head of a pin. Or danced. Whatever. The point is that you can't be thrown off by this source. They're probably using it as badly as they would any other. Pretend it's just another field of inquiry. Encourage them to do their homework here as well.

Hope that helps! It always worked for me.