January 23 2018

Using Memoirs to Learn about NRMs in the “Mini Review Essay”

by Marie W. Dallam, University of Oklahoma

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

Genesis of the Idea

From my earliest days of teaching, I have been a proponent of students thinking “outside of the box” about the types of sources they use for learning. While I am not typically a fan of popular online forums to which many students gravitate, I do think there can be real value in sources that are not of the strict academic-words-on-paper type. I often create assignments that require the use of both academic and nontraditional sources, such as events and site visits, and I include a component in which students reflect critically on the nature and value of all of their sources of information. This became more challenging for me when I left a major metropolitan area and began teaching in the small college town of Norman, Oklahoma, where the range of such sites is limited, as is student mobility. I had to find new ways to have students embrace unusual combinations of sources. The “mini review essay” discussed herein is one possibility for such an assignment. I designed it for an upper-level honors seminar on new religious movements (NRMs), a class of approximately twenty students, and I have been using it since 2010.

The idea first emerged when I was writing a review essay of four apostate memoirs by female authors for the journal Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. As I read and wrote, one of the questions that I kept returning to was whether any of the books could be valuable in the classroom. The books were popular sources, and as academics we tend to quickly dismiss anything that has not been vetted and rewritten ten times over. I realized, though, that these popular titles could function similarly to other unconventional sources that I encourage students to pursue. Aesthetically, I did not like the books uniformly, but there was nonetheless something deep in each one about religious or spiritual struggle. I felt strongly that any of them could be used to educate students about NRMs, provided it was appropriately contextualized and interrogated. Perhaps, I thought, I could even have students themselves interrogate memoirs.

The biography genre seems to be found with increasing frequency in religious studies classrooms. In fact, a recent issue of the journal Religion and American Culture (Winter 2014) invited five scholars to discuss biography’s impact on scholarship and teaching in a special “forum” segment. The authors explored what can be gained about broader religious understanding via the individual story, and they also revealed their own experiences—often fraught—of writing biographies. Matthew Avery Sutton, for one, pointed out that biography can function as microhistory, providing readers a way to learn about a culture through the experiences of one person. Memoir’s loose boundaries make it a somewhat more troublesome genre than biography (and it was not the focus of the forum segment) yet it can function the same way. Because memoir is so personal, it is even more likely than biography to lay bare the highs and lows of a given religious framework, allowing students to feel, for a few fleeting moments, that they understand what it is like to hold a specific religious perspective or live a particular kind of religious life. Perhaps for that reason alone I find memoir, as well as biography, worth using in the religious studies classroom—and most especially in any course on NRMs, where the religious viewpoint of the Other may be even more unrecognizable to the average twenty-year-old.

The Assignment

The mini review essay—a midterm paper—combines my predilection for mixing unusual sources with my interest in memoir. Though I specifically use it for teaching about NRMs, it is readily adaptable to many other religious studies courses. The students’ multistep assignment first requires each person to select a particular NRM that they would like to read about. In order to prevent the situation in which every single student chooses either Scientology or Peoples Temple, I familiarize them with a broad range of groups from the present, the near past, and the distant past. I also invite them to think more broadly about not only chronologically new religions, but also alternative religions that occupy a somewhat marginal social status, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Hasidic Jews. Each student then finds two monographs to read about the group: one popular, the other academic, and submits the titles to me for approval. For the popular source, I encourage them to use memoirs, even of the “tell-all” apostate type, and most do so; however, I will also approve books that are more strictly confessional in nature, such as one by a member whose intent is proselytism.

This professor-approval step is where a big piece of the education occurs, because, as it turns out, most students do not fully understand the nature of sources (this is unfortunately true even when they are upperclassmen and honors students). Despite my lengthy in-class explanations about academic presses and peer evaluation, they will still submit memoir titles to me for the academic book. But I don’t merely tell them “no”: I explain why the book in question is not academic, hoping to reinforce what I have already communicated in class. At other times, they will submit the title of an academic anthology, which they are bafflingly unable to recognize as a multiauthor work. Even more confounding, they sometimes submit academic titles for their popular book, at which point I slap my head, weep a little, and provide a diplomatic explanation.

Ultimately I have to work with most students individually to discuss what books will be okay for the assignment. It is extremely time-consuming work for me. Could I simply hand them a list of book pairs, and eliminate all the hassle? Absolutely. However, I consider understanding the nature of a source to be a necessary and valuable skill, and if I just hand them a list they will miss a big chunk of learning. Hence, I spend as much time as needed helping each student through the selection process in hopes that I am teaching them something that will have transferrable value.

A second level of the book selection process is finding two books that actually work well together. For instance, a book about the Illuminati from the 1800s will not easily fit with one written last year, and a book about the Nation of Islam focusing on the 1950s and 60s will be an awkward fit with one that focuses on the more recent Farrakhan years. Thus, the temporal and geographic settings of each book need to be a consideration too so that the two texts will actually speak to some of the same issues or situations. I give the students the responsibility of thinking about this element, but it is not uncommon that I need to remind them about it again—and again after that.

Once students have read their books, they are asked to write ten pages in which they evaluate how the two books function as sources for learning about the NRM they have chosen. Although I do want them to provide a brief overview of each text, the paper is not meant to be a book report, nor should it tell me the story of the NRM itself. Rather, it should be a critical analysis of the two texts, especially how they relate to each other. As much as possible, I urge students to put the two books in conversation and explain what a person will learn about the NRM when reading this particular combination of texts. How useful are these sources, both individually and combined? Answers to these questions are the heart of the paper.

Goals and Outcomes

Students usually like this assignment because it gives them freedom to read about whatever NRM they are most interested in, and, furthermore, they consider memoirs “easy reading.” They also like it because from that point on they become our classroom “expert” about their chosen group; throughout the rest of the semester I call upon them to tell us how their group relates (or does not relate) to the topic of the day, such as “prophecy,” “charismatic leadership,” “transfer of power,” et cetera.

From my perspective, the most important learning outcomes have to do with sources. Those outcomes are met both in the book-selection stage and in the paper-writing stage. Learning about types of sources is important for those who want to do serious research in the humanities, but it is also important for anyone who is trying to intelligently evaluate information presented to them. College sometimes teaches students that popular sources are uniformly bad and academic sources are always good. I disagree with that; I think there are valuable forms of education beyond just the peer-reviewed text, be they in the form of an interview or conversation, a museum visit, a form of artistic expression, or a memoir about one person’s religious experiences. If students read with a critical eye and incorporate additional information for comparison, a popular source can be perfectly useful. The value of a text is not just about what the writer has put into it, but about the reader’s skills of interpretation.

The way I ease students toward these learning goals is through the writing of the paper. I give them a set of guiding questions to answer as they write, all of which push them to consider things such as structure, tone, intended audience, source material, omissions, and the author’s place in the work. They have to answer these questions for both the academic text and the memoir. In terms of content, students may find that the two books address some of the same issues or incidents, yet approach them very differently, and this is often enlightening for them. Some of my brightest students relish in these fine distinctions and analyze them at length: not just how the content differs, but what it means that they differ. In other cases, the two books take such divergent perspectives of the NRM that students begin to question what can reasonably be known about a marginalized group and how that knowledge can be unearthed. All of these are critical thinking skills applicable not only to learning about unfamiliar religions but also about unfamiliar subjects of many types. As one student wrote at the end of the semester, this assignment “made me feel more comfortable being critical about sources we read in class, which I think is immensely valuable.” Yes, me too.

In spring 2014 I asked each student in my NRMs course to complete an anonymous evaluation of the assignment. I inquired about what they liked best and least about it as well as whether it helped them think about the nature and potential value of different sources. I was pleased that most seemed to have found it useful in the ways I had intended. Many students specifically wrote about how it made them consider more carefully an author’s role in any book he or she writes, no matter how objective that author appears to be. As I leafed through the evaluations at the semester’s end, page after page mentioned a heightened consciousness about the “author’s purpose,” “author’s background,” “author tailoring for the audience,” and “author’s interpretation.” Several others pointed to a new awareness about how a given source is put together. As one student wrote, “It was enlightening to be forced to think critically about how the formal and structural aspects of a book affect the way it shapes the reader’s interpretation of its contents.” Another agreed, commenting that: “It helped me understand nuances better and to look for missing information.” Many also found a way to incorporate the memoir they had read into their second assignment, a longer research paper.

Questioning our sources—their nature, their origin, their biases—is something I learned to do in college, and I am grateful for it. We professor-types can easily forget that this skill set does not necessarily come naturally to most college-age people. If we want them to become wise readers of both popular and scholarly information, we have to teach them how to do it. The mini review essay that incorporates a memoir is just one possibility. In courses on NRMs, the use of memoirs can also communicate what it feels like to be on a less-traveled religious path, balancing the academic thrust of the course content by offering mood, emotion, and personal stories of religious experience.

Marie DallamMarie W. Dallam is an assistant professor of American religion and culture at the Honors College of the University of Oklahoma. Her publications include Daddy Grace: A Celebrity Preacher and His House of Prayer (New York University Press, 2007) and the coedited volume Religion, Food and Eating in North America (Columbia University Press, 2014). Her next project is an interdisciplinary study of the Cowboy Church Movement in Oklahoma and Texas. She presently serves as the chairperson for AAR’s New Religious Movements Group. 

Header Image: Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration ARC Identifier 541335). Photo by Russell Lee. In the Public Domain.