In Conversation with Dr. Carolyn J. Medine, Part II

Kate Daley-Bailey, Religion Nerd Contributor and visiting instructor at Georgia State University, recently spent an afternoon In Conversation With Dr. Carolyn J. Medine, associate professer at the University of Georgia.  Kate and Dr. Medine’s lively discussion spans many aspects of Religious Studies including the responsibilities of teaching, current projects, the importance of mentoring, and the significance of the discipline of Religious Studies.

Carolyn Medine is an associate professor of Religion and in the Institute of African American Studies; her research interests are in Arts, Literature, and particularly Literature concerning the Southern and African American women’s religious experience.   She has written extensively on the works of Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, and other notables.  Dr. Medine’s research interests also include religion and politics, theory from the classical to the postmodern, and the intersection of classical and modern literature.  She is a graduate of the University of Virginia and teaches courses on Religion and Literature, African American Religions and Literatures, Religious Theory and Thought, and Women’s Spirituality and Writings. (Source: UGA)

Welcome to In Conversation With Dr. Carolyn J. Medine, Part II.   

Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology 

KDB: There is one thing that has really stuck with me, and I often tell people about academia is what you wrote in an article in an article on the nature of academia…You said that in academia there seems to be a sense of the Highlander mentality… that there can be only one. And everything else must subsume under that. This was the article you wrote on Wabash. 

CJM: The Hospes piece.  (Article Hospes: the Wabash Center as a Site of Transformative Hospitality in the Journal, Teaching Theology and Religion year 2007. See Sources below.)  

KDB: Yeah and I really loved that piece because the realm of the scholar is often a solitary one, and there is a desperate need for community among scholars. You need someone just to go talk to… just to be able to walk into a peer’s office and say, “I just had the worst thing or the best thing happen in my class.”  It can be very intimidating to bear the weight of being the teacher… where students expect you to have all the answers. And you take people that are primarily perfectionists… 

CJM: Or at least competent. 

KDB: and they feel overwhelmed… 

CJM: …and they don’t feel competent.

KDB: There seems to be no amount of preparation for the actual act of teaching. This is why I think Wabash is a much needed institution for just this reason. And your paper on Wabash made me realize what type of community it provides to young scholars. 

CJM:  It is a unique thing.  It is really focused on theological education…producing good education to produce pastors.  So the focus is seminaries and divinity schools. When Lucinda Huffaker was the director, she began to work in colleges and universities. Wabash is just this odd liminal space where all these different kinds of people come together and focus on teaching.  And of course you end up focusing on a whole lot of other things… how to be a scholar… how to be a good human being… all that type of stuff.  It offers good accommodations—beautiful rooms, good food, you ask for something and if possible it is provided…and as teachers and scholars, we are just so used to being beaten up. To be in a place where there is abundance and good spiritedness and where you are the focus–or making you the best at what you do is the focus–it is just amazing. Two of my friends, Helen Rhee and Melanie Harris, and I did a grant on women of color in the classroom, and so we were putting together a mini-workshop, and we were overwhelmed by the amount of work. You just don’t realize all of the work that the people at Wabash do–and they make everything go so smoothly. They have to think about travel, make sure there is bottled water, that the vegetarians have vegetables, and the carnivores have meat and if you have someone with a disability that they are accommodated. We just sat there and thought, how do they do it? There are three of us, of course, and they have a staff but still.  When I go, they remember that I do not like salads with mayonnaise… so the chicken salad… they won’t mix it up with mayonnaise because they have it written down somewhere that I don’t like it. When I go, they always have caffeine free Diet Dr. Pepper for me. 

KDB: That is incredible… that attention to detail. They try to make you feel comfortable. 

CJM:  They try to make everybody feel comfortable. When young teachers get there, they have been beaten up, and they are saying that they can’t do it another year if they don’t get help. And most times, when they leave the workshops, they are truly rejuvenated. And what they have is that community. So that if something goes wrong in the classroom, they can send an e-mail, and then there is this rush of response from their fellow teachers, telling them ways in which to handle the problem–or just being supportive, which is sometimes all we need. And this response comes not just from the participants but from the staff too. Young scholars need that mentorship beyond their dissertation directors. They need support from other senior scholars. I always say that Wabash changes the academy 15 people at a time. And I really believe that. 

Teaching in the University System

KDB: What is your view on teaching in the university environment… I know you have done a lot of work on that. What is your stance on this? Where do you want it to go? Where do you think that it is? What do you think are the greatest challenges for teachers and students in the university system? 

CJM: Right now, the biggest challenges are financial. Most places are poor; they are not able to hire, classes are getting bigger.  Students cannot get the courses they need to graduate in four years—I think that is a crisis in and of itself. More people are doing online education. The University of Phoenix has three or four times the amount of students that the University of Georgia does.  And the problem with that is, I am learning from my friends who are administrators, that most students don’t make it through those online course programs. A lot of students sign up but they drop out at higher rates. And some of the online providers are starting to use pressure tactics. They will say that there are only two spots left in a course, and so people sign up and pay the money for these classes that they don’t get through… 

I can’t imagine an education without a classroom. I just don’t know how one can self-educate, without an initial baseline of skills.  I have friends who teach online who use discussion groups and other modes of interaction and they like it. They say that they feel that they can have a lot more honest discussion.  I trust them, because these courses have context—they are done through a university or college. 

But for me, there is something about that face-to-face time that I think is really important. I think teaching is becoming more important in the university, even at large universities like UGA. Being a good teacher counts, and I think the scholarship around teaching and learning is growing.  More people are thinking about teaching and writing about teaching in their disciplines. 

Most of the time, I love teaching. Getting into the classroom just reminds me how much I love talking about this stuff. I realized long ago that some of the assessment and tests that other teachers were using were punitive; they were meant to weed out students. That’s one model, but not for me. I’ve always figured that if everybody is failing in class, then that is my fault; that there must be something that I am doing wrong. So students make good grades in my classes, but I work them really hard for those good grades. I don’t really care about the grades. What I care about is the work. If they do the work, then they will get the grades. 

There is a teaching model that I really like. It is called the ICE method. It was actually put together by high school teachers. It stands for Ideas, Connections, and Extensions. You want your students to get a certain amount of information—that’s “I.” But the point is to go beyond that, to get students to connect information to other information and then hopefully they can apply those connections to other things. I like this method a lot, and I try to build my syllabi that way and construct my testing that way too. No student is going to remember all the information you have put on a test, but maybe if they learn some little theoretical piece–that is what they will remember and apply. People do come back years later… I’ll get an email out of the blue from a former student saying, “We did this in your class and I was just thinking about it the other day.” That is always rewarding for a teacher…or watching their students go on and become teachers themselves… like yourself… or just watching people fulfill the dreams that they have. I mean, I’ve never been an academic that thought everyone had to do a Ph.D. Some people are cut out for it and some others are not. Whatever that knowledge does to help you fulfill your dream–that is what matters. 

I am beginning to realize, this is my new realization as a teacher, and it may sound stupid, but I am beginning to realize in the independent study course papers that graduate students present at the end of each semester in the Religion Department—I am realizing how much people are internalizing stuff I say. And that really started to scare me a little bit. I feel happy with the undergraduate teaching, but I feel that I have to step it up in regards to my graduate level teaching. 

KDB: That is truly a challenge. I know from just teaching the undergraduate Theories and Methods of Religious Studies course, how even trying to prepare students for the next level of learning is a great challenge. I’ve spent many years introducing students to Religious Studies. Now I feel that the next step is preparing more veteran students for their next level of study. I’m thinking in terms of how do I get students to not just memorize information but also to make connections but hopefully, in the long run… help them to learn how to apply these methods to new material in new and inventive ways.  

CJM:  I am realizing that I have to de-camouflage. There is so much in my methodological tool box that I just teach out of my own methodological structure. I need to think about how to unmask my structure, how to show people where its pieces come from and have them intimate with those sources.  I’ve been putting together a Religion and Culture syllabus… I want every graduate student that is working with me to take the graduate Theory and Methods course, and then I want him or her to have a course that is basically an unpacking of Religion and Culture as a discipline. To have them read something on aesthetics, to read some Foucault, Derrida, and Said beyond the readings in the Theory and Methods course. I want them to read The Postmodern Condition and then to have them read some of those foundational writers in Arts, Literature and Religion, like Scott, Detweiler, David Jasper, Frank Burch Brown, Daniel Noel, Margaret Miles, and others who really created the discipline. I mean, Religion and Literature is really a young discipline. It started in the 1950s, so many of the scholars in it are just now starting to pass away. And it is a fragmented part of the discipline, and in some ways, to be honest, I see it, as Arts, Literature and Religion, dying. But the Religion and Culture element is becoming important to the rest of the study of Religion. So I think that is the area that I have to step it up a little bit. To just kind of peel the carpet off the floor and to show students the foundation and let them know what it is. Letting students know this is how we got to where we are now. 

Anyway to return to the point, I could just hear how much my students were internalizing me. I heard it in you years ago, but, now, you have developed your own voice. I just thought, after hearing those papers that I am not serving these students the way that I should. I think that being graduate coordinator, trying to build the program, teaching a lot of undergraduate students…I feel that I was helping many students…Now I feel like what I want to do is help mine more intensely, to dig back into my own discipline. And have my students read some key pieces. So I’ve been thinking about not just some of those key books but also the key articles… 

KDB: I would love to see the list… 

CJM: Well, maybe we could co-edit a volume… 

KDB: I would love that because I have had a lot of students ask me questions about Religion and Culture… sort of asking what are the so-called “canonical texts” … what do you have to read… or what should I read to understand this aspect of the discipline. There is just so much out there on Religion and Culture but it takes such a long time to figure out the texts you are really looking for… it is like using a search engine and just hoping that the right information comes out. There are so many different schools of thought and it is nice to have sort of a guided study through that. And I think that I got that but I think I could have used years and years of it. The goal being… finding out who are some of the key players in the conversation…  

CJM: What would the reader be?… that is the big question for me. What would the reader look like? And I don’t know how much this is possible… I can think of certain pieces. There would be something from Paul Tillich, Amos Wilder; there would be something from Nathan Scott…David Jasper…but what the “something” would be… that would be the hard part. I’ve thought about emailing my friend, Mark Ledbetter, and saying that we really need to do this. It is obvious when real giants in the field pass… like Robert Detwieler… Nathan Scott passed away at Christmas time… and the rest of us are in our 50s. We aren’t spring chickens anymore. Somebody has to document this thing… and make sure that it goes forward. The Womanists are so good at that. There are the foundational womanists and then there is the 2nd wave of womanists… and now there is the “new wave” of womanists: they are really clear about where they come from. I think Religion and Culture’s connections have been sort of lost along the way. This is especially true for Arts, Literature, and Religion because the arts can encompass so much.

KDB: I think the enormity of it makes people not know exactly what to do with it. It is not something easily definable. When people ask me what do, when they ask what my emphasis is, and I say Religion and the Arts. Their next question is usually, “Well what is that?” And then the question becomes how do you explain this to people who have never heard of it before? Whereas if you say I study Hinduism, or Buddhism… even if they don’t know much about these traditions they can get a quick mental image of what exactly you do. 

CJM: It is a tradition. 

KDB: But when you do Religion AND… something else… if it is not really specific… then people have a hard time understanding your work. 

CJM: And we haven’t negotiated the Religion and Theology or rather Literature and Theology versus the Literature and Religion distinction. And I think that has caused some tensions within the sub-discipline. The only person who has really thought about this systematically is Conrad Ostwalt at Appalachian State, and his book just didn’t get the reading that it deserved. 

KDB: I think now you could make a good argument for this sub-discipine’s development because the general public is so interested in the intersection of Religion and the Arts.  

CJM: The question then becomes a question about belief. It is like Jonathan Z. Smith says you are never going to see the autograph… you are never going to see the original text… and that is part of the problem. If you are doing Theology and Literature then you are trying to get closer to the autograph, God, and if you are doing Religion and Literature you are more interested in what people say they believe and how they act that out. I’m very interested in how people hybridize religion, how people make art and religion itself. 

KDB: That reminds me of when I am teaching a specific tradition and I say for example this is the history of Christianity, these are the main tenants of Christianity, but you will always get Christians who say that is not what I do… that is not what I believe…  

CJM:  Exactly, and then do you tell those people that they are not Christians? I am more interested in what people do… and how they got there… not necessarily in orthodoxy. Americans are such hybrid-izers. 

KDB: I think also in American religion there is more pragmatism… more of a concern for what works… and I think that is what may have made America so innovative. But even in America many people think of religion as static–as confined to orthodoxy, but that is not how religions function. That is not how they live… but that is a much easier thing to record… because it is historical.

 CJM:  Most every Christian is going to say they believe in Jesus … they may not believe in God and the Holy Spirit. But I think that, in America, people are always riding boundaries. I think that is partly due to an increase in diversity and it is partly the speed of culture and how much you can know, and it is partly what people do for leisure. I mean, if you do yoga for leisure you may or may not realize that it can be part of your spiritual practice—or that it is part of someone else’s thing.  I think Americans are very interesting that way. We really are a frontier people, as Albert Murray says—the jazz man, the pioneer, and so on. Makes me think my scholarship ought to have that energy too, but with the added element of looking back.

KDB: I just wanted to thank you so much for granting me this interview. It was both informative and entertaining. Thank you such for giving us a glimpse of what you are working on and thinking about.  


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