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Theses on Making a Shift

by Russell T. McCutcheon 

An earlier version of these theses was first presented to the 2021 American Examples cohort, to begin the first workshop devoted to teaching, in May 2021.

In my experience, too many undergraduate classes presume that the students are budding specialists in whatever the topic of the course happens to be, instead of taking seriously that, in many cases throughout the Humanities (and often the Social Sciences as well), this may be the only class in the topic in which the majority of students will ever enroll. If so, it is worth asking what such courses should be teaching students—or, better, how faculty can use their own historical, regional, and ethnographic expertise to introduce students to the study of broad topics of culture-wide relevance (classes that will therefore have application in a wide variety of other settings). For while our classes, regardless their content, provide sites to investigate such complex issues as how to define, describe, compare, interpret, and explain, they are also sites where students learn how groups form, are reproduced, and inevitably come to an end, let alone the workings of such things as status, power, and identification—topics that have wide application, whether that’s in or outside of the university classroom. 

The following theses—deeply influenced by the pedagogical spirit of Jonathan Z. Smith’s work in the study of religion (to such an extent that some now read to me like my own paraphrase of his writing)—focus on the use of juxtaposition with unexpected analogues as a pedagogical strategy to demystify and thereby historicize our subject matter, as a first step toward seeing it as representative of wider issues that deserve attention in the classroom. This, of course, does not mean that a faculty member game to make such a shift does not make full use of their own hard-won expertise when planning their courses and teaching their students; instead, what it means is that such material never stands alone but is framed for the students as always illustrative of wider processes that will undoubtedly be addressed in their other classes, in other disciplines, let alone found elsewhere in culture and history. 

1. Despite commonplace rhetorics to the contrary, the items that scholars study are not self-evidently interesting nor are they unique; instead, they are all exemplary of moments of ordinary human doings (or the artifacts that remain from past doings). 

2. The study of religion, when practiced in this register—one that no doubt will be controversial to some—is but one way into the broader study of people—how they organize, how they identify, and how they authorize, reinvent, and, inevitably, contest their organizations and identifications. 

3. Any specific item that we happen to study, happen to write about, or around which we happen to develop a course should therefore always be seen as exemplary of wider social and historical forces and human situations. 

4. Such an approach requires that scholars should always be ready to find what might at first seem to be unexpected analogues, where the unfamiliar will help them to say something new about the familiar. 

5. The comparative method is therefore a scholar’s constant companion, but it is a comparison not animated by an ahistorical hunt for sameness (a trait found in much earlier work, to be sure, but one which remains prominent to this day); instead, it is one that looks for similarities and differences among an array of human doings—similarities and differences that are probably unthinkable to those who approach their subject matter as unique or obviously interesting. 

6. Such a comparative method is animated by a self-reflexive interest in why something is curious to the researcher, interesting, and therefore deserving of their, their colleagues’, and their students’ time, i.e., we aim to identify the wider issues (which will likely be of interest to colleagues who do not share our specialty and to students who do not yet share our expertise) of which the discrete human doings that we happen to study are useful examples. 

7. Such scholars therefore go about their research and teaching assuming that there are surely analogues all throughout culture which will more than likely exhibit similarities or differences with their particular subject matter—analogues that may help to illustrate something previously unknown about both their specialized topic and people in general. 

8. All such work (regardless the setting—whether research or teaching) therefore has a pedagogical aspect, inasmuch as scholars who make this shift invite those who may assume some item to be one of a kind, obviously significant, and thus self-authenticating to see it anew, as all too human and therefore as connected to moments and situations that may at first seem far afield; identifying these otherwise overlooked connections enables us to create new knowledge about human doings. 

9. Our research and our teaching, then, should regularly employ novel, even surprising and seemingly counterintuitive e.g.s—sometimes studied in historical depth and ethnographic detail—that can be placed into controlled relationships with the known, all so that the processes of familiarization and defamiliarization prompt us to see something new in both the known and the unexpected. 

10. The American Examples research workshop explored how making just this shift could impact our research and our publications; the teaching workshop explores how it can impact our classrooms and our students. 

11. But don’t be fooled—this is not solely about research and teaching; both are, yes, merely two e.g.s of sites where developing an infectious spirit of curiosity about why something is seen (by ourselves or by others) as significant and worth remembering, repeating, and redoing. The application of this curiosity, and the skills required to satisfy it, are widely (and perhaps surprisingly) relevant.