Three Things I Love about Teaching Sociology of Religion Online

Part 3 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

Here I am again, spending my “free” time thinking how much I love teaching sociology of religion online. I’m relaxing at home, with my new MacBook Air on my lap, which is charging my Iphone, and listening to a podcast from Professor Anthony Gill’s Research on Religion Podcast series on my iPad. (FYI…I turned off my 4th Apple product–my iPod–so I can hear the Podcast on my iPad).

Front CoverFirst, now that I have overcome my initial technical challenges and anxieties, teaching online is fun. In Martin Seligman’s book Flourish, he recounts how teaching positive psychology made him realize that learning is deeper when it is engaging. I delivered my second ever online lecture this week, and I was in the flow (to borrow Seligman’s colloquial term for one dimension of flourishing–engagement). In my online lecture, my video and audio streamed live to 15 students while they watched a screen streaming the course website which I spent many hours designing. As I scrolled seamlessly through my carefully constructed website, it seemed beautiful. Engaging. Fun.

Second, my favorite new teaching tool is called a module in Sakai (my course management system). Rather than organizing my syllabus chronologically, as I have always done previously, I designed my online course to based on modules, where each module corresponds to a specific learning goal, and the content of each learning goal is presented through text, audio and video. To give you an example, Module 2 is called Classical Sociological Theories of Religion and the goal is to learn to compare and contrast the theories and concepts of religion from Emile Durkheim (Module 2.1), Max Weber (Module 2.2) and Karl Marx (Module 2.3). For Module 2.1 (Durkheim), all the content I deliver to students is one place online–lecture notes, power point slides, readings, links to podcasts and embedded You Tube videos. The Modules tool presents a complete online outline of all the course materials I provide them, and students can click through them sequentially, jump around in any order they like, or click the printer icon and print all the contents of any module . One student liked it so much she exclaimed, “Wow, I wish all my professors taught this way!”

Rather than presenting my material chronologically like I had previously, now I’ve created a separate module (Module 3) for contemporary trends in American religion and for important ways that religious beliefs and practices intersect with society and politics (Module 4). As I lectured online on Weber this week, I opened up the Modules page and scrolled up and down it, explaining to students that I expected them to a) be able to compare Weber to Durkheim and Marx (Module 2) and b) to analyze contemporary trends in American religion (Module 3) and how religion influences social change and politics (Module 3). So our learning objectives for any give day can combine content from a variety of modules which do not have to be chronologically ordered. I’ve always explained to students verbally how different sections of course content relate to each other in various ways, but to explain it verbally while I showed them visually using the Modules tool was engaging and fun.

Third, as discussed in this TedEx lecture by Villanova Law Professor Michele Piston, recorded lectures facilitate content delivery, thereby creating more opportunities for professors to use their time with students to interact about content rather than deliver content.

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I use online lectures to facilitate content delivery in two ways. If students can listen to an online lecture on their own time, then our live (or synchronous) time online can be interactive–discussions, clarifications, and applications. If lectures are recorded, then students who have a legitimate excuse for missing a lecture can go back and hear it. One student in my summer class already had an unexpected emergency and missed one lecture I delivered live (synchronously) online. When I showed her how to see the video recording online–with my face talking and the power point slides rolling, my notations appearing and students’ chat messages popping up, she exclaimed “Get outta here! How cool! Is that really the first time you ever did that? What other courses do you teach?”

I often tell my friends and family about my class lectures and discussions, but I’ve never been able to show them. Why not share some of my online lectures with others? As I recounted in my previous post, my first recorded Power Point lecture was amazingly beautiful but the file was so big I couldn’t share it by internet or email! (The perfect can be the enemy of the good). A friend who is an engineer looked at my recorded presentation and immediately told me that the quality of my voice recording was so high that I could have broadcast my Power Point narrated lecture on megachurches to an entire megachurch… But since all I need is audio quality for individuals to hear on their computers, she suggested I turn down the audio quality and save tons of space. I also learned from her that when I get excited, the volume of my voice gets so loud the microphone can’t handle it and the recording is scratched. Students always rate me high on enthusiasm, and now I have my mic and my video recordings allow me to see myself as others see me and hear me, which can only make me a better lecturer.

As my friend gave me technical tips on how to record presentations, she also listened eagerly to my lecture on megachurches playing on my MacBook Air. She stared at the pictures, scrolled back and forth across slides, examined the graphs, and asked me questions. That is exactly the reaction I wanted! If I can lecture on megachurches to undergrad students, why can’t I share that with my friends and family? The final reason I like recorded lectures is that they allow me to engage broad audiences in my teaching, generating dialogue that will make me a better scholar and teacher. Before you get too excited about seeing my lectures, however, I have to try a new program that will tone down my volume, save me space, and allow me to post lectures online. Alas, my second attempt to record a narrated lecture and upload it to You Tube didn’t work either. But as soon as I’ve figured it out how to put the lectures online, I’ll be sure to let you know!

Finally, as Professor Pistone points out in her lecture, streamlining the delivery of my lectures to my students will open up many new ways for me to interact with my students. Next week, for example, I will try to give my students voice recorded feedback on drafts of their paper using Adobe. I’ll keep trying my online teaching tools and continue to write about here.

The Centrality of Sex and the Failure of Unstable Relationships

[An excerpt from Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying]

Why do so many emerging-adult sexual relationships fail? Reasons of course are manifold, and for many it’s simply part of the script of sex, college (for some), and the natural course of modern relationships. Relationships fail, then, because at some point they’re supposed to. Sex columnist Dan Savage reminds his readers that “every relationship fails until one doesn’t.” While certainly true at face value, this is an observation that can become an imperative: people commence relationships, anxiously awaiting the sure signs of their fatal condition.

The reasons that Americans of all ages could give for their failed relationships are numerous, but one problem may uniquely plague emerging-adult relationships. It’s the role of sex (rather than solely its presence): many couples lack a clear, shared, and suitable role for the sex they experience within a romantic relationship, especially when sex is introduced early. Many testify that sex is often difficult to talk about, in part because the partners are still getting to know each other and deep conversation is considered too intimate. Yet sex becomes a clear goal and new priority–the elephant in the corner that demands attention when they’re together. It acquires an increasingly central role in the relationship while at the same time other aspects of the relationship remain immature. Compare this to the greater sense of security that a shared residence and bed entail. Having sex with one’s college boyfriend in his dorm room, only to wander home later, can be an emotionally unsatisfying sensation for many women, for good reason. Some eventually solve this dilemma by moving in together. And for many that seems a welcome–if only slightly more secure–step.

But when the habit of going out for dinner, a film, and dessert trails rather than precedes sex, even simple conversations take on a strange aura. After all, such a couple knows more about what each other looks like naked than what each other thinks about school, work, politics, religion, family, or future plans–life in general. Writing in New York magazine, Third-wave feminist writer Naomi Wolf wonders if we haven’t gotten the order of sex and familiarity mixed up:

“Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.” “Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?” “Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”

To imagine staying up late into the night feasting on a wide-ranging conversation now strikes many as something one does after commencing a sexual relationship, not before. Thus one hallmark of the classic hookup scenario is silence. Talking is perceived as potentially ruinous to the moment. When did talking get to be so sacred? When did honest, verbal communication outpace the meeting of penis and vagina in its degree of intimacy?

Apart from relationship security, familiarity, and a shared domicile, sex has a difficult time playing a supportive role in fostering intimacy and building love. Instead, it wants to be the lead character. But when left to sustain a relationship, sex typically falters. Katie, a college student from Tennessee, sensed this in her relationship with Daniel, a man with whom she was in a four-year, long-distance relationship (he lived in Arkansas). Only in the past year did the two begin having sex, and–lacking
as they were in physical proximity–Katie quickly sensed something suboptimal about it for two reasons, her own moral qualms about premarital sex notwithstanding.
First, sex within their sporadic interactions began to claim a place and priority that outstripped its natural boundaries. In most marriages and cohabitations, even in the honeymoon phase, sex plays a supporting role to the mundane activities of normal life. In a relationship where two people are not sharing lots of normal life activities–a scenario common among young adults–sex can quickly take center stage.

Katie summarized this bluntly: “I felt like I was dating his dick.” Their bonding typically ended with Daniel’s inevitable departure. Katie detected that something was clearly amiss and after several months told Daniel she couldn’t do it anymore. Most such romantic relationships do not give up sex without breaking apart, and theirs was no different; the relationship ended. Daniel rapidly became sexually active with another woman, while Katie struggled to make sense of it all, wondered about her future, and wrestled with guilt, resolving not to misplace the role of sex again. Keeping that resolution, however, is difficult, since the atmosphere in which contemporary relationships form among emerging adults is heavy with early sexual expectation. Eight months later, Katie and Daniel were back together.


The Ups and Downs of Teaching Sociology of Religion OnLine

Part 2 in a Series on Teaching Sociology of Religion Online.

I’ve just finished my first week of a hybrid in-person/online course in sociology of religion to undergraduates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Of four days we met this week, two times we met in class, one day I assigned a video and a podcast, and the fourth day we met synchronously (at the same time) for a short lecture and class discussion. Thus far, my experience has been both exhilarating and frustrating. Let’s start with the exhilarating.

First, I have flipped the order in which I present material to students and it definitely captured their attention better than before. I used to assign heavy readings, give a lecture, and then give them a podcast, video or interactive quiz to reinforce what the readings and lectures said. Although I’m using the exact same material as when I taught sociology of religion in the classroom, now for each topic we will cover I first assign a video, a podcast, or an interactive survey and require that students write a blog post in response. Once they are excited about the topic, then I assign them sociology texts that put the topic into a broader context using history, ethnography, and survey data, and I have students write short assignments applying sociological theories and concepts to the  specific topic we covered.

It’s working beautifully, so score 1 for online teaching. For example, it was exhilarating to read on my IPAD my students’ responses to the online survey they took on the the Association for Religion Data Archives website that automatically compares their responses to respondents from a national survey. One student wrote:

I was really shocked that many people believed in angels but didn’t believe in demons. I just don’t know why it doesn’t click with me. I mean, if there are good forces shouldn’t there be evil or bad forces? This quiz/survey was indeed awesome and more people need to take it!

Second, I was fascinated to read my students’ blog responses to Anthony Gill’s Research on Religion Podcast Interview with Marc van der Ruhr about megachurches, which I paired with a section on Willow Creek Community Church from Randall Balmer’s documentary DVD on American Evangelicals, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. Although I have taught on megachurches in four previous classes, I was surprised to see my students’ responses to the podcast and video on megachurches: most of the students blogged that they found the economic language used by many megachurches to be off-putting. Score 2 for online teaching: presenting engaging audio-visual prior to my lecture or analytic readings gives students a chance to form their own ideas before they have heard my interpretations or those of the scholarly authors I assign.

I was so exhilarated that my students were engaged and expressing themselves online that I rushed out to buy a new MacBook Air so I could make my first narrated Power Point lecture on megachurches. I planned to narrate the lecture over the Power Point Slides then upload it to You Tube for students to listen to, then follow up with an online class discussion. However, when looked at my previous Power Point on megachurches, I realized  it was awful. Having only every delivered that lecture in class before, its audio-visual quality was low, as I had just relied on my own voice, posture and motions to animate the slides.

How did I salvage that Power Point presentation? In about an hour, I totally updated my Power Point slides by adding pictures of some of the megachurches we read about or heard about in the podcast, video and texts, such as Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago and Saddleback. I also added 4 graphs from one of our assigned books, Mark Chaves’s American Religion, that show the underlying trends that help explain the rise of megachurches. Then I recorded my animated voice, holding notes in front of me with the quotes and figures I wanted to be sure to mention, while students watched a beautiful Power Point with images and graphs.

I practiced the narration and it worked beautifully. But when I recorded the full lecture, the audio didn’t save. Discouraged but determined, I re-recorded the whole audio lecture. This time, it saved. But when I went to upload it to You Tube, You Tube did not recognize the audio. I made a few frantic calls to tech support, and we tried desperately to upload it for about an hour, but to no avail. I had produced a beautiful product I was very proud of but couldn’t get it off my computer to show anyone.

To salvage all that work, I learned how to upload a Power Point into Elluminate (our online seminar meeting space) and lectured online, followed by discussion. Does this setback mean my time was wasted? Not at all. I knew I was undertaking a challenge, and learning all the best technology for online teaching is indeed exhilarating and frustrating. When it works, it’s amazing. Although the technology has not been flawless, I’m glad I’m trying, and my students’ responses have been even better than I imagined.

One week down, four to go. It has been great, and I it will only get better from here. Soon I hope to share that beautiful narrated Power Point on megachurches with anyone who can watch YouTube, so stay tuned.


Self-Selection into Situations and Church

In the past few years, I’ve started to notice just how often I choose to be in situations that have a lot of other people like me (age, gender, social class, etc….) I don’t think that I consciously choose to do so, rather how I express my interests in the context of the constraints and opportunities of my life end up being similar to how other people with similar interests, opportunities, and constraints do.

An easy example, I usually go grocery shopping early Saturday morning, and, lo and behold, there’s a bunch of other middle-aged guys there that time too. Same with going to the gym in the late afternoon and lots of other things that I do.

I notice this self-selection into situations the most when I end up in non-typical (for me) situations. So, if I change my shopping time, I’m surprised by how many elderly people are there in mid-morning, mothers with kids in the early afternoon, and professionals stopping on the way home from work in the early evening.

Similar principles hold in my experience with Christianity. My family and I attend a church which has a lot of people in the same general demographic categories as us. In fact, during services, we often sit among those who are most like us (think middle-aged).

This general principle–of similar people selecting themselves into religious groups–is one of the general explanations for religious homogeneity, i.e., why people in a given religious denomination or congregation or small group tend to be similar to each other.

Probably the most frequently studied form of religious homogeneity regards race. Bill Graham famously said that Sunday morning at 11:00 am is the most segregated hour of the week. This is because people feel most comfortable with similar others, and an important aspect of similarity in our culture is race an ethnicity.

So far this is rather straightforward, but here is where it gets tricky: Is this homogeneity a good thing?

On one hand, it provides a powerful mechanism for growth. Churches (or small groups or denominations) can probably grow best by targeting “types” of people. So, for instance, popular college ministries now offer different groups for students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. Likewise, I know of a mega-church that offers different services targeting different groups.

On the other hand, this homogeneity decreases our interactions with people who are different than us, and so we might miss out on some of the benefits of such across-group interactions.

I don’t know if there is a “right” answer to this, and what’s best might vary by situation, but it’s an interesting, powerful dynamic to be aware of. If nothing else, it explains to me why I keep on sitting next to fellow old guys who like to joke around (and you know who you are).



Asian Americans on the Move

I recently had a chance to see the new Avengers movie and one of the characters, Tony Stark mentioned that he had a hankering for shawarma. And that made me think: “Yeah some shawarma would be pretty good. Hmm, I could sure go for some Indian food right now too. Hey when was the last time I had it? Sigh.) You see, I had returned to an old realization. After having lived in Waco, Texas for almost 8 years now, there is still not a single Indian restaurant for over 50 miles in any direction.

I still remember the challenges in adapting to a place that looked largely devoid of Asian Americans. Indeed I wasn’t too far off the mark as the Census data from 2000 showed that about 1.4% of the city was Asian while the national percentage at the time was about 4%. When I left South Bend, IN where I attended graduate school I left one of the least populated Asian American cities (it was 1.2% in 2000, and now 1.3% or about 1,349 people), for a city that had a couple hundred more Asian Americans in the Waco area. Today Waco estimates of the Asian population are around 1.9% or 2330 people. [Read more…]