Alma Wilson Teaching Fellows

The Alma Wilson Teaching Fellowship offers one graduate student in the Divinity School each year the opportunity to design and teach a course of his or her own choice in the University of Chicago's Undergraduate Program in Religious Studies.

Divinity School graduate students interested in applying for the Alma Wilson Teaching Fellowship should submit a syllabus proposal in January to Lucy K. Pick, the director of the Undergraduate Program in Religious Studies. Each syllabus should be accompanied by a letter describing the student's potential and the names of at least two referees who are willing to speak to the student's qualifications as a teacher. Proposed courses will be selected on the basis of their merit, and by how well they fit the rest of the undergraduate program.

 Philippa Koch, a Ph.D. Candidate in History of Christianity, reflects on her year of teaching. 

Last spring I taught “Health and the Body in American Religions” to a large, eager, and engaged class. In ten weeks, we moved across five centuries of the history of American religious communities and theirinteractions with sickness, medicine, sexuality, and food. We crossed oceans with early modern explorers and nineteenth-century missionaries, perused contemporary evangelical dieting websites, and read the medical and self-help manuals of religious leaders such as John Wesley, Mary Baker Eddy, and Elijah Muhammad.
The students brought a variety of interests and backgrounds to the subject. Some were interested in medical careers, some were curious about religion, yet others were historians of medicine. All of the students were very passionate about the question of how society and culture shape bodies and health today. I wondered, however, whether they would bring this passion and excitement to the first half of our course, as we delved into stories and peoples from early American history. I wondered if they would be able and willing to situate present developmentsand concerns within the larger story of religion, health, and the body in America.
In fact, scholars within the burgeoning field of religion and medicine focus overwhelmingly on movements from the late nineteenth century to the present. New Thought, Christian Science, Yoga, and evangelical fitness: these are the subjects that most often pique curiosity, and my students proved no exception in their introductions and first-day comments. I became anxious to make the case for the relevance of early America to the subject matter and to the method of the emerging field.
Despite my anxiety, however, the sources and our conversation made this case for themselves.analyzing the ways explorers and colonists described Native Americans’ religions, bodies, and medical practices, the students recognized how religious and medical orthodoxies overlapped, how these orthodoxies created and policed boundaries, and how these boundaries could be used to exert authority or autonomy. These same themes were central later in the quarter, then, when we discussed religion in The True Story of Kaluaikoolau: As Told by His Wife, Piilani, an account of a Hawaiian family who suffered leprosy and faced separation and forced exile by the provisional government. We returned to themes of orthodoxies and authority again when we staged a debate between Christian Science practitioners and medical authorities of the late nineteenth century.


The earlier sources also challenged students to explore the interaction of religious ideas and medical practices, which are too often treated as separate or even mutually antagonistic. We examined deeply providential accounts of sickness and medicine from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as the Puritan Cotton Mather’s writings on smallpox inoculation and The Daughter of Affliction: A Memoir of the Protracted Sufferings and Religious Experience of Miss Mary Rankin. The students reflected on how early American writers described God’s providential direction over sickness and health while, at the same time, pursuing with great personal agency medical treatments and advances. Understanding the ways in which providential thought and human agency in health could go hand in hand allowed students to comprehend the ways in which providential thought still informs religious understandings of health and wellness.

Developing our method and approach with sources from the past gave us important insights for ourstudy of the present. Although the students were usually motivated by contemporary interests, it was contemporary movements and issues that students had the most difficulty assessing in a critical and fairway. They were passionate on topics such as abortion and immunizations, and they brought a liberaldose of skepticism to televangelists and Christian weight loss advocates. But through our study of the more distant past, the students had also learned how to read about modern movements with eyes keen to unpack the ideas and practices of these movements. Students analyzed debates over Humanae Vitae in the United States, for example, with attention to natural law, Catholic thought, and the mid-twentieth-century social contexts of American Catholics. This approach also allowed them to make comparisons to understandings of birth control within other religious communities, including the Nation of Islam.
Likewise, in our study of diet and evangelical women’s ministries, some students were initially dismissive of our sources; discussing the theological resources of authors and leaders like Lysa Terkeurst and Gwen Shamblin, however, helped the students to take these sources and their messages seriously as part of the longstanding story of connections between religion, health, and the body in American history and culture.
In their final exams, many of these students chose to reflect on the question, “Why should historians and doctors, hospital administrators, and experts in healthcare policy—study religion, health, and the body in America?” I was surprised by how frequently the students cited some of the sources that had seemed most “other” to them in the course of our study and conversation. Several students were moved, for example, by the story of physicians who worked with Old Order Mennonite communities grappling with Crigler-Najjar syndrome. The students were impressed by the ways in which a physician’s respect for a community’s religious ideas and practices actually opened opportunities for treatment, care, and research. Another student focused on medical authorities’ responses to the late-nineteenth-century growth of Christian Science and the handling of leprosy in Hawaii. The student wrote that she had come into the course dismissive of religion, viewing it as a “tool” used to control and condemn people, but had developed a new appreciation for the varied roles religion could play in peoples’ lives. “The point of engaging with religion,” she wrote, “ is to learn how effectively and respectfully to interact with religious people.”


Reflections by past Alma Wilson Teaching Fellows Joseph Ballan and Alexander Rocklin (click on the images to enlarge).