Reflections on an Honors Seminar in Media & Religion

By: Andrew D. Pritchard, Ph.D., Esq.
Assistant Professor of Media Law and Ethics
Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication
Iowa State University of Science and Technology

I enjoy few things more than bragging about rock-star students, so I am especially happy to pass along some lessons learned this past semester as I facilitated an honors seminar titled “Media and Religion in American History. After the first week, I did little more than nudge and suggest as Maddy, Baylie, Garret, Jeff, and Chrissy taught each other through their perceptive observations and lively discussions.

The class met weekly for two hours. The only assignment was that students take turns being the discussion leader for the week, responsible for coming to class with a brief written summary of the week’s readings and a list of questions and discussion topics.

In designing the courses, I held to two main goals. First, I wanted to exploit the universality of historical writing to make the topic accessible to students from a variety of majors. I tried to avoid chapters or articles that depended heavily on specialist vocabulary or specific technical or theoretical knowledge. (When these were unavoidable, I paused discussion to explain them.) Second, I wanted to course to proceed beyond chronology and explore patterns, questions, and debates that transcend time periods or media formats. Thus, I alternated weeks between historical periods and more wide-ranging conceptual readings. Historically, the class began with the first North American printing press in the early 1600s. Thematically, students encountered such persistent controversies as who should control religious media, how religious and secular content creators depict one another, the commercialization of religious symbols, and depictions of non-Western religions and “fringe” spiritualities in popular entertainment.

At our last class meeting, I asked the students to assess the course, since honors seminars do not participate in the usual course evaluations. They had many heartening things to say about the course, echoing observations they had made throughout the semester:

Students enjoyed stepping outside their majors. The students majoring in technology or physical sciences, in particular, noted that they deliberately sought honors seminars on more humanistic topics than the rest of their coursework.

At the same time, they connected the seminar to their other coursework. The semester was replete with stories about topics or historical events from our readings that had come up in other classes. Students shared excitement and humor at recognizing the name of an important philosopher in readings for a different class, or encounter other aspects of a historical period we had studied.

Students liked the discussion format. Without question, the students’ most common and most forcefully expressed opinion about the class was how much they enjoyed following the discussion of difficult and complex subjects wherever it led, rather than the lecture-driven memorization they encountered in many other classes.

They appreciated not having the pressure of exams. It’s tempting to write off this point with a bit of snark, but these students were as diligent and organized as I could ask for. They noted throughout the semester that they read differently and got more value from their out-of-class time knowing that they were reading for ideas rather than for likely exam questions.

It’s difficult to imagine teaching a course in this structure, so dependent on student preparation and interaction, in a large lecture setting or with less-dedicated students. In the honors setting, however, the students came away from the course with not only an arsenal of insights about media and religion in society but also with an appreciation for this style of intrinsically motivated education in a community of learners.

I’ll happily share my syllabus, including full citations for the readings, with anyone interested in this kind of course. You can email me at apritch[at]iastate[dot]edu.

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