By Gary Laderman
I love giving A’s to students, maybe even more than they love receiving them. In my religion courses over the years, I’ve acquired a reputation as an "easy" teacher, and I love that, too.
In this age of grade inflation, student entitlements, skyrocketing tuitions, and rampant anti-intellectualism, my wallowing in the pleasures of giving out A’s as if they were $100 bills might seem like ammunition for the enemies of higher education and the professorial life. In the face of that charge, I have only one response: I’m tenured.
But seriously, I do have a master plan, and there is a method to my mad generosity. Most of the students in my courses are in the wonderful age group of older children becoming young adults, 18 to 22 or so. They are mostly privileged and well off, though increasingly diverse on all fronts: class, race, ethnicity, gender, international, and so on.
Something else most all share: They are on drugs, either prescribed or not — and I’m including the legal drugs (alcohol, cigarettes, vapes, and so on). They are also in the midst of serious existential struggles — around identity, family, self-worth, purpose, direction, and so on. You remember that age, don’t you? I certainly remember my own troubled path at their stage. Some say it’s much worse these days, as rising suicide rates would suggest.
So part of my plan is to try to show love and empathy rather than contempt and derision, as some of my colleagues do. Hell, students already have enough stress and uncertainty in their lives as they adjust to living on their own, making new friends, feeding themselves, and taking crazy-making courses on "orgo" (that’s organic chemistry, I think), microeconomics, American politics, brain and behavior, marketing, and other preprofessional touchstones in the intellectual and practical training of young people who really have no idea what they are getting themselves into when they choose their majors.
Ironically, as important and central as their majors may be in the students’ future trajectory, what they encounter in religion courses may prove to be even more valuable to them as adults.
I want my courses on religion to go down easily and smoothly, to be both entertaining and effortless — a nice break from their other courses, which are sober, regimented, and demanding. Yet what can be more difficult to teach than religion and spirituality, two of the more subjective notions that feed off of absolutism and unassailable Truths? True, it is not as complicated as learning brain surgery, but it’s not as simple as Bible study, either.
What is it I expect students to learn from my courses? Is there any substance in the material? And how are students assessed in a meaningful way?
Those are questions that get to the heart of why I’m easy, and that challenge the monumental shifts that have taken place over the past few decades, transforming higher education into a corporate enterprise, and college teaching into quantifiable tidbits that miss the point of learning completely. A, A-, B+, B, B-, C+. I have reached a point where those designations are irrelevant to what I try to do in class and what kind of "learning" I seek to achieve. And let’s face it, students understand a B as some kind of total failure and humiliation — especially when, if I may say, it comes in one of their humanities courses.
In some of the courses I teach — "Death and Dying," "Religion and Sexuality," "Sacred Drugs" — the point is not simply the acquisition of knowledge to regurgitate back to me about Jewish mourning rituals, or sacred sexual practices from ancient Greece, or peyote healing ceremonies, but the application of this newfound knowledge to how they see themselves and the world around them.
One goal I do not strive for is "religious literacy," a silly notion that reduces knowledge about religion to being able to answer trivia questions like, "Who wrote the Gospel of Mark?" No, the whole point of my master plan is to go hard and go deep, and get students to consider questions they never thought to ask, don’t know how to answer, and soon realize do not have any right or wrong answers.
I assure them that our class engagements with religion and religious topics are purely intellectual but not personal, analytical but not existential — a baldfaced lie, because the ultimate goal of my pedagogic stylings is to penetrate to the core of their own individual searching and struggles. Why and how should I assign a grade to an effort at human growth?
Unfortunately, my course enrollments have risen to 200 or so, a nearly unwieldy number especially when going through the motions of testing and grading. Don’t get me wrong: I know grades are important and can determine the life course of young, eager students, yada, yada, yada.
The truth is, you really have to be an idiot to get a B in my courses, since a top priority for grading is that students show up. That might seem easy, but I assure you, even that is difficult to ensure in these big classes. In addition to participation — which truly does have real-world application, since we all know that 80 percent of life is showing up — and keeping up with the reading and the class assignments, the other major factor in final grade calculation are the multiple-choice tests.
I keep those easy, too, by providing students with a list of review terms before each one, though I give my own spin about the test, which makes it seem that I’m doing something other professors do not do: I tell them I’m giving away the test before they take it, as if they are getting the answers ahead of time, when in fact I’m simply providing them with the key concepts to review, just as most of my colleagues do before a test.
It is not easy for me to deny the charge that I am easy, though I’m not sure I’m as easy as a Sunday morning. The goal here is not memorization, not surface practical utility for career building, not prioritizing corporate mentalities and stupid benchmarks.
The goal, in fact, is much harder. It is to get these young individuals to think for themselves about the very things that their parents, previous schools, religious leaders, politicians, and others involved in their upbringing and shaping moral codes don’t want them to think about for themselves: religion, sexuality, death, health, drugs, what they can and can’t do to their bodies.
The hard work of education, and opening up the intellectual life at this level about the things that most matter in their lives, means getting beyond the distractions. It means trying to get them to enjoy — and, yes, be entertained by — critical thinking and exposure to new cultures and ways of thinking about corpse disposal, psychedelic tripping, goddess sexuality, or psychic healing.
My goals as an easy professor aren’t really politically subversive, and I don’t see myself as some kind of lefty prof trying to brainwash conservative religious kids to rebel against their parents, their church, and their God. In fact, most students today tell me they do not affiliate with a particular religion. They tend to be quite tolerant but generally ignorant of religious differences or religious studies as an intellectual enterprise. They are, much like me, trying to learn about life and the meaning of it all. And that requires, I think, a different sort of teaching strategy — one aimed at getting students to value the deeper purposes of education.
In the past few years, more and more students have met with me and expressed gratitude simply because my courses have been so refreshingly different from their other classes. The students are pre-business, pre-med, pre-law, and so on, with tight schedules and little room to take a course for — dare I say it? — pleasure. But the word is out about my attempts to rock their boats and provide an intellectual free space for learning about and teaching me about what matters most in life.
The best compliment I have ever received was from a pre-business Korean student who somehow managed to take three of my courses. I asked for an honest take on my reputation, and he told me: "Your classes are the easiest, but I also learn the most."
Gary Laderman is chair of the department of religion and a professor of American religious history and cultures at Emory University.