The LC Testament: Religion in the classroom

Sometimes, making a critical comment in class can entail thinking twice.

Last week, IvyGate revealed that a teaching fellow in Professor Alexander Nemerov’s popular art history course was fired after sending a series of increasingly aggressive emails to fellow TFs and, eventually, Edward Barnaby, the Assistant Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. She argued that her colleagues were treating Catholic-inspired art in irreverent ways, behaving unprofessionally and, at the height of her anger, colluding in a Yale-Freemason conspiracy.

Yup, that happened.

Margherita Viggiano GRD ’13 may now go down in Yale history as the grad student who objected to discussion about the Virgin Mary’s “boobs” and told a dean that he should “see how [God] reacts” to him, curtly wishing him good luck directly afterwards. But what her case shows is that the best way to maneuver the intersection of religion and academia has yet to be clearly defined at Yale.

In the face of uncertainty and the overarching goal of boosting insightful learning while keeping personal offense to a minimum, professors in three undergraduate programs spoke with WEEKEND about the tactics they use to discuss subject matter that has both religious significance and academic importance.

“I always make the point that the selections we read from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are different to other books we’re teaching,” said Jane Levin, who chairs, and teaches literature in, the Directed Studies program for freshmen. “These books are part of a living religion for some students.”

SETTING MATERIAL APART — THEN APPLYING A UNIVERSAL OBJECTIVITY

Professors said they recognize the capacity of some material to raise the hackles of certain demographics, and attempt to pre-empt any kind of controversy through an emphasis on mutual respect and critical distance.

Professor John Rogers, the director of undergraduate studies in English, teaches classes on John Milton, the iconic seventeenth-century poet who penned “Paradise Lost” and was known for his staunch Protestantism. Being a working academic in the field, he said, he is no stranger to the way Milton’s religious undertones can lead to his being a polarizing figure.

“The study of Milton is very different from the study of Shakespeare,” Rogers said. He added that it is not uncommon in the Miltonist field for critics who share Milton’s belief system to “take umbrage” if non-religious scholars make claims about the poet’s religious views.

This exclusionary stance also pertains to undergraduate course selection. Rogers said that he’s heard of some “very smart students” avoiding Milton classes, assuming that they will only be interesting or relevant to those sharing Milton’s Protestant beliefs.

Such a sense of ownership and the feeling that a certain belief system is a prerequisite to understanding works was one of the issues that arose in Viggiano’s situation, in which she argued that her fellow TFs lacked an understanding of Catholicism, “the inner frame of reference” she and classical European artists shared.

But being territorial about art could defeat what Jane Levin believes is the whole purpose of the humanities: to broaden one’s perspective and look at the world from a viewpoint beyond our own personal experiences.

“We’re never going to be archaic Greeks, but Homer gives us the opportunity to enter their world,” she added.

In Rogers’ experience, students approaching Milton from religious backgrounds often do so because they feel an intimacy with the Christian poet. Dealing with his work in a context where not everyone shares such a foundation can be a challenge for them.

“They don’t always feel comfortable with the move into critical language instead of immediately affective religious language,” he said. Rogers added, however, that he does not believe a religious perspective on the work is necessarily detrimental, speaking of an instance in which he guided a deeply religious student writing his senior essay on Milton’s “Paradise Regained.”

“He knew the dilemmas that Milton’s character, the Son of God, was facing, very intimately, because he was convinced up to the age of 15 that he was chosen to be a prophet — he too felt chosen,” Rogers said.

Still, Jane Levin said that she asks students to put religious interpretations aside in her classes so that they may focus on religious texts as literary pieces in the Western canon.

“We’re just trying to look at how these figures are described, how the story is constructed, what this work says,” she explained.

Indeed, Levin added, one student who came from a Christian background once indicated to her that she felt trepidation about looking at religious texts in a non-religious way, due to her prior familiarity with the books as sacred examples of God’s word. Levin stressed that the diversity of Yale’s undergraduate body means that a variety of different perspectives come into play in seminar settings.

“My sense has been that students are very sensitive to the fact that other students may look at these works in different ways,” Levin said.

Kathryn Lofton, a professor in the Religious Studies department, said the classroom must be established as a common space where different individual points of view can interact.

“I try to design a classroom that is a careful public [space] where we study together,” wrote Lofton in an email. “These are classrooms and not confessionals; these are seminar rooms and not diaries. If you’re in the room, you should be ready to participate in a discussion that is not just a monologue.”

According to Rogers, a key element in classroom discussion is underscoring the fact that idiosyncratic religious and life experiences abound, and that not all students are going to “buy into” each other’s viewpoints.

Still, he argued, “believers need to accept that there’s a generally critical, mostly secular language that’s used in class discussions, and nonbelievers have to accept the fact that people have different belief systems.”

THE PRICE OF TOO MUCH POLITICAL CORECTNESS

But more is at stake in the faculty’s treatment of religion than incorporating students from both religious and secular backgrounds. The ultimate outcome of this pseudo-battle is a decision about the kind of academic vision Yale, and other educational institutions around the country, want to promote.

Lofton said that she uses her first class session to announce her intent, giving students a taste of her approach to her subject matter, which includes topics as diverse as Oprah and early Protestant fundamentalism.

“I talk about how I think that education should confront everything that you are,” she added. “I would be wary of the person that is so afraid to confront something outside of themselves that they cannot participate in discussions that might include tough thinking about important issues.”

Such stubbornness is common in certain academic fields that inspire strong devotion among scholars of a certain faith, as Rogers’ tales about the Miltonists evince.

“I’m not alone in avoiding confrontations with certain people [in the field], just because the confrontations themselves are so predictable,” Rogers said, adding that institutionalized perspectives on the poet can clash with new ideas.

Here again one can draw a parallel to the Viggiano incident. In her email to Dean Barnaby, Viggiano said that “people can be dismissed for saying [things] against other people’s faiths.” She took issue with the idea of referring to Mary as a symbol in a work of art. To her, as she said in the email correspondence IvyGate published, “The Mother of God ‘is’ the Mother of God, as YHWH ‘is’ YHWH, and Allah ‘is’ Allah.”

How to expand beyond similar beliefs in an academic conversation is a question professors must grapple with as they try to make students think on their own and develop insightful ways to look at products of religious traditions.

“People have read these works in religious contexts with interpretations guided by religion,” said Levin. “We can’t ever fully escape who we are, our historical moment and individual perspectives […] but we can entertain the possibility, and it is my sense that people are willing to do that.”

Accomplishing such distance is a goal that Rogers said he wants to achieve in order to build on his students’ literary and analytical skills. “It’s not our business when we’re reading a 17th century poem to have a meaningful conversation about the role of God.”

The direction subsequent conversations do take among a range of people, some of whom have strong beliefs, is not necessarily kosher. But professors seem willing to venture into new terrain if they think their students will gain from it — Lofton said, “I think education will always be somewhat upsetting if it’s doing any kind of meaningful work.”

Here’s hoping it isn’t upsetting enough to cause another scholar to leave the classroom.

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