The Assignment Wasn’t About Jesus

Horace, an assistant professor of English, was teaching his university students about Romanticism. He assigned his students a paper about the works of Kant, Burke, Shelley, Blake, Wordsworth, and the like.

He received a number of papers discussing… someone else:

For this assignment specifically, I get a lot of students who reference both the language of, and often the fact of, their personal relationship with their lord and savior Jesus Christ.

I can’t help but roll my eyes when Blake and his visionary cosmology, or Wordsworth and his “semi-atheism,” or heaven forfend, the outspoken atheist Shelley, are revealed to be Christians along the line [of] Joel Osteen and my parents.

Let’s get more specific:

Three papers in a row this evening found references to poets’ beliefs that were both counter to all evidence in their biographies, to what was discussed in class, and which are completely ahistorical: the kind of personal teddy-bear god that has inf(l)ected a lot of popular American religious discourse–especially for teens. I learned that when wordsworth speaks about nature in Tintern Abbey, he really means “Jesus,” that the Tyger solves the problem of evil because it shows us that all of creation is part of God’s Work, God’s Plan and God’s Love. The third paper references the author’s desire to find “the presence of God in Blake’s writing,” but then finally acknowledges that this isn’t an appropriate strategy. I’m not entirely sure why the author felt the need to signpost a rejected interpretive strategy, but I wish more students understood this.

What is the reason for this?

Horace isn’t sure:

Are they witnessing to me? Do they believe that they are taking a stand? Are they so deeply immersed in a kind of totalizing theology that they can imagine no other way through which to view experience?

I have yet to experience this perk of teaching in math class.

Surely, there must be a way to work Jesus into the interior angles of a hexagon…


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Jen

    I love your blog and yet I am a Christian. Go figure. When I was in “Youth Group” we were told to always find a way to witness it was almost a one upmanship if we could get cudo’s from our professors. I don’t believe in doing this as to me I find it utterly repulsing. If it is not there then it shouldn’t be there. Christians are really good at trying to find stuff about people that never existed. For example that the US was founded on the Bible and every single founding father was a God fearing, bible toting Christian. Not true, but tell me one Christian circle that doesn’t try to proclaim this. Oh and if you offered essay questions on math I am sure your students could find God too. Sorry for your professor friend. There are some of us out there who believe, but think that lit should stand on its own. Sorry for the long post.

  • http://wintershaven.net Jacob Wintersmith

    Hmm… I think I’ve heard of this “math” before. It’s a method of using numbers to prove that other people are incarnations of Satan, right?

  • http://del.icio.us/jcchurch James

    Math involves numbers. 666 is a number. I’m going to have to draw the only conclusion possible….

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    I have yet to experience this perk of teaching in math class.

    Surely, there must be a way to work Jesus into the interior angles of a hexagon…

    Actually, back when I was at BYU, this was one of the reasons I was glad to be majoring in Math. It seemed like they could work religion into practically any subject, but not this one — it’s just not relevant.

    On the other hand, science and engineering come up all the time in the word problems at the High School level. Just wait until you start teaching exponential decay and get to apply it to radiometric dating problems.

  • Eliza

    I’m reminded of my (public) high school English class lo these many decades ago, during a unit on existentialism. We read Camus, Sartre, some other existentialist literature…and at the end, I wrote an essay claiming Jesus was an existentialist, & apparently backed up the claim with something, likely Bible quotes, seems likely in light of what I know now that they were out of context. I can’t for the life of me remember what led me to conclude this about Jesus, but it wasn’t an attempt to “witness” to the teacher…maybe more an attempt to see what outrageous claim I could get away with? Can’t recall…

  • http://blog.lib.umn.edu/fole0091/epistaxis/ Epistaxis

    If all you have is a hammer, everything reminds you of nails, so to speak.

  • Doug Indeap

    Epistaxis,

    I think you nailed it, so to speak. Really.

  • valhar2000

    This sounds quite horrifying, particularly since it is not at all clear that he can fail them without being accused of religious discrimnation and thus fired.

  • cipher

    Are they so deeply immersed in a kind of totalizing theology that they can imagine no other way through which to view experience?

    I think that’s pretty much it. (Although I wouldn’t rule out witnessing, either.)

  • http://www.internationalhouseofbacon.com Jeff

    I went to a Catholic school growing up, and when I took geometry, my math teacher taught us the basic triangle stuff: “Triangle G-O-D is congruent with Triangle L-U-V.”

    It was absolutely bizarre.

  • trancer

    Mustn’t forget the trinity.
    I learned that one way to understand the concept is to think:
    1 = 1 * 1 * 1
    Be afraid, Hemant, be very afraid ;)

  • cipher

    That’s okay – Hemant can just tell them it’s an imaginary number!

  • Susan

    As an English grad student, my gut reaction is that the students are simply bullshitting the professor because either they haven’t read the material or they just don’t understand it. Wordsworth (or possibly his sister) wrote about nature, pure and simple. Anyone who compares Shelley to Joel Osteen deserves an F.

  • I like tea

    Well, many of my English professors, especially at the 1000 and 2000 levels, would specifically tell us at the beginning of the semester that they don’t want to hear about our relationships with our boyfriends/girlfriends or any such aspect of our life story in our essays. This is apparently a big problem with some young college students.

    Given the rather creepy view many teens have of their relationship with Jesus, this may be a related issue.

    I’m reminded of my (public) high school English class lo these many decades ago, during a unit on existentialism.

    Haha, this reminds me of when my high school lit teacher taught existentialism. I went to high school in the Bible Belt, so naturally pretty much everyone was Christian. When my lit teacher described the fundamentals of existentialism, it blew their minds. It was like they had never even conceived of the possibility of there being no external moral force and source of meaning.

    Maybe Horace’s college lit students are so used to reading Joel Osteen books that they’re unfamiliar with the concept that some writers don’t write about God. :P

  • Renacier

    This sounds quite horrifying, particularly since it is not at all clear that he can fail them without being accused of religious discrimination and thus fired.

    He doesn’t say how they were graded. Which is fair; these kid’s grades are none of my business. But, boy, am I curious.

    Will he give the the grades they deserve?
    Will they cry persecution?
    Will our hero be dashed on the jagged rocks below?

  • Siamang

    Maybe Horace’s college lit students are so used to reading Joel Osteen books that they’re unfamiliar with the concept that some writers don’t write about God.

    Wait, isn’t that what Osteen is criticized for?

  • http://limadean.wordpress.com Nadine

    I definitely had this experience in my college classes. As an English major, it’s pretty easy to get away with deciding anything is about…anything (especially in class discussion and if you haven’t read any biographical information. We were usually told to read up on bios, but most people didn’t.).
    I can’t even count the number of poems that my classmates revealed to be about God. Actually, in one class, a girl snapped and said “I’m pretty sure not everything is about God!”
    She was a little too intense, though, so I’m not sure I count it as a victory.

  • Mriana

    GEEZE! I would have ran with Shelley, Kant, and the Enlightenment. :? Religion doesn’t fit with those two. Now Wordsworth did have a lot of religious connotations in his works, but nothing that would contribute to such papers. VERY BIZARRE.

    I wonder if there is going to be a follow-up to this? I would like to find out how he handles this, esp concerning grade, because that was not the assignment. He can’t exactly give them Fs, but I don’t think he can give them a grade for not doing the assignment either. Maybe have them redo their papers? Even that could run into headaches. I don’t know.

  • Adrian

    Numbers have long held powerful religious associations. It used to be thought that the purity and simplicity of numbers and geometry was the language of the gods and there are (possibly apocryphal) stories of people being killed because they openly discussed irrational numbers.

    For centuries, the church directly opposed the introduction of Indian/Arabic numerals because they contained zero, which had profound theological implications.

    If you’re interested in the stories of numbers, which is really a story of the development of philosophical thought, I’d strongly recommend ” Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea” by Charles Seife. It’s a great book without too much math.

  • ss

    Blake talks of almost nothing except god and religion. True it’s not conventional Christian theology, more of a deism, but he was certainly a very deep believer. It would be hard to avoid finding god in Blake’s works.

  • http://www.ineedtothink.com Seavee

    I would be interested to know what grades the students made.

    I don’t think I could get away with teaching existentialism to my high school seniors.

  • J Sveda

    Adrian said,

    For centuries, the church directly opposed the introduction of Indian/Arabic numerals because they contained zero …

    This maybe dates back even to Zeno of Elea – he was afraid of implications of nothing (zero) being considered being something.

  • Milena

    I can’t even count the number of poems that my classmates revealed to be about God.

    This reminds me of this one French class I had. We were analysing Jules Supervielle’s Prophetie as practice for our final exam. The poem contained references to God, burning skies and oceans, flying fish, and the end of the world. Strangely enough, my atheist friends and I were the only ones who brought up the judeo-christian apocalypse as a possible interpretation.

  • Allison

    I teach math and only very rarely get students working religion in. I had one who got cocky and said that he was going to mathematically prove God’s existence. I wished him good luck on that but made sure to tell him that it wasn’t darn likely he would succeed.

    More often I get students asking me to pray for them when a test starts…..

  • Julie

    I’m with Susan. The students don’t understand what they read, so they’re just writing b.s. Maybe they think they can curry favor with teachers by writing about Jesus, which means they might assume this professor is religious. Or maybe the students are just used to getting positive responses for even mentioning Jesus.

    Anyway, I doubt they’re immersed in their theology. They probably were just surfing Youtube instead of reading those assignments. But really, I hope they were at least smoking pot and having sex with each other instead of reading those assignments.

  • MAC

    I linked her from The Uncredible Hallq’s post about fundamentalism on campus. While this isn’t really on-topic, I thought people might be interested in a video an acquaintence of mine took on our university campus recently:

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=SVIr2DHe8x0

  • Pingback: Friendly Atheist » In Oklahoma, Religion Trumps a Real Education

  • http://dcberner.blogspot.com Derek

    I have yet to experience this perk of teaching in math class.

    Surely, there must be a way to work Jesus into the interior angles of a hexagon…

    In high school trig, our teacher asked us to write “devotional essays” every Monday in lieu of actual learning. One of the assignments was “Is your personal walk with Christ more like the sine function or a cosine function”?

    I said it was more like a hyperbolic arccotangent followed by some feel-good Christiany stuff that I probably earnestly meant at the time. I got an A.

    I also once aced a geology assignment I had failed to study for by adding in copious references to God and Christ. My teacher couldn’t in good conscience give me a bad grade. I actually got the paper back with “WOW!” and “AWESOME!” written all over it.

  • Adrian

    I also once aced a geology assignment I had failed to study for by adding in copious references to God and Christ. My teacher couldn’t in good conscience give me a bad grade. I actually got the paper back with “WOW!” and “AWESOME!” written all over it.

    Disturbing. Really makes you think about just what these teachers are really teaching, though it is inspiring to know that kids are smart enough to pick up on cues and to exploit them. Maybe not learning about geology, but you’ll take these life-lessons with you forever!


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