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.

As an Alma Wilson Fellow, I taught a course entitled “Religions of the African Diaspora” in the University of Chicago College. The course was designed to offer students a first glimpse of the wide range of religious traditions that have emerged from African migrations around the globe.  Rather than attempt a comprehensive exploration of each of those traditions, it approached them through issues that are central both to the lived experiences of practitioners and the work of scholars of religion: race, gender, sexuality, the body, and representations in popular media.  By introducing students to a variety of sources, from primary documents and ethnographies to films and theoretical works from history and literary studies, I hoped to teach them to think widely and critically about African diasporal religions, and religion and religious studies in general.  

On the first day of class students arrived to find the chalkboard divided into three sections, one for each of the course’s three constituitive categories.  At the end of the board there was a map of Africa.  I asked them all to consider what, if anything, they knew about the categories and about Africa as a continent.  After a few moments of silence, one brave student raised her hand and said, “Well, I don’t really know anything except that there’s a country in Africa called Sierra Leone.”   

“Yes!  There is indeed a country called Sierra Leone,” I said.  I marked it on the map and then asked, “What do you know about Sierra Leone?” 

She started at me, looked a bit abashed, and then replied, “Umm…nothing, really.  Just that it’s the name of a Frank Ocean song.” 

I responded to the student, “Alright, a pop singer as an academic source.  That’s cool; we all start somewhere.”  Everyone laughed, and right then, like magic, the first-day-of-class jitters seemed to fade away.  We weren’t strangers anymore; we were a group of people on an adventure together, and all knowledge was welcome.    

Other responses trickled in: 

“Isn’t there a Disney movie about voodoo?”   

“A lot of Africans came to the West through slavery.” 

“Africa is a continent, not a country.” 

“Religion is what people believe about God or spirits.” 

“I know what religion is, but I don’t know how to explain it.” 

 As their answers suggest, most of the students were relatively uniformed about Africa, religion, and diaspora as academic categories.  None of them had ever taken a class in religious studies or African studies, and the term diaspora was especially mysterious to them. Still, their life experiences and the cultural norms with which they had been raised had shaped their understandings of the course topics; it was my job to help them interrogate those expectations, and to expand them in critical, informed ways. 

Over the ten-week quarter, we traced the movements of African peoples and religions across vast amounts of space and time.  We traveled from West Africa to the Caribbean to the United States, from the 14th century to the present.  We read articles on Santeria and Condomble and watched films about Haitian Vodun; we debated about who had the right to call Africa home and what it means to be “religious.”  Our explorations raised fascinating, important, and sometimes painful questions about the religions of Africans across the globe, and I was routinely impressed and humbled by my students’ abilities to treat those topics—and each other—with sensitivity and respect.   

On the last day of the course we reprised our first exercise.  I drew three columns on the board, handed over the chalk, and asked the students to share what they knew.  Their writing filled the board, looping and scrolling into every open space.  

“Religion is not a native category.” 

“It’s the scholar’s job to define religion.” 

“Religion is an idea constructed by outsiders, obscuring practitioners.” 

“Africa is simultaneously a geographical space, a memory, and a metaphor.” 

“Must look at who is using the term Africa, what the motivations/goals are.” 

“Diaspora refers to both literal and non-literal displacement of peoples.” 

This last exercise made apparent the shift I had felt during the quarter: my students had taken command of the material. Through close reading, active questioning, and intense collaboration (and reading a lot of J. Z. Smith), they had really gotten it.  But more remarkable than their mastery of the course content were their scholarly dispositions: they were confident, they were fiercely critical, and they no longer took for granted the assumptions they had brought to the class.  

As I have spent time writing this piece and reflecting on the experience of teaching the course, I am left with the same thought I offered to my student who referenced Frank Ocean: we all start somewhere.  As a teacher, I started in Swift Hall, surrounded by great pedagogical talent.  As I tried to establish own teachings style I found myself imitating some of my teachers and mentors.  I copied Professor Lucy Pick’s method of drawing out quiet students—repeating previous comments back to them or referencing something they’d written, mirroring their successes in an attempt to engender further participation.  I channeled Professor Wendy Doniger in the stories I told, trying to invite my students into the rich worlds of our interlocutors as I have seen her do in her classes.  I borrowed from Professor Curtis Evans in encouraging students, time and again, to strengthen their claims with evidence directly from the text.  From Professor Sarah Hammerschlag I took the idea that even the most rigorous teachers can—and should—be generous with their students. 

Most of all, I emulated Professor Bruce Lincoln, my doctoral advisor and the most skilled and inspiring teacher I know.  Like him, I built each class around the students’ responses to our reading, drawing from them the framework from our discussion. By taking seriously both what we read and what we said to one another, I tried to convey that there is something deeply important at stake in the work were doing together, that the classroom is a space for revolution, and that, when done well, asking a question and attempting to answer it is a political act with profound implications for the world.  Of all the things I tried to teach them, it was this that I think was most important, and that I most hope they learned. 

I’m certain that, even on my best days, I didn’t live up to the talents of any one of these genuinely remarkable teachers.   In attempting to teach in their styles I was struck with how easy they make seem this difficult task, and how much work they themselves have put into their own techniques.  Still, when the quarter ended and I was alone in the classroom on the last day, I was left with the realization that I was proud of what we—my students, my teachers, and I—had accomplished together.  If we all start somewhere, I’m glad to have started here, with them, at Swift Hall.