Workshop report, Andy Boakye

8 07 2012

Theology and Religious Studies Looking Outwards: Knowledge Transfer as a Strategy for Learning and Assessment in the T&RS Curriculum.

Theology and Religious Studies Discipline Workshop 22nd May 2012.

By Andy Boakye (University of Manchester)

Introduction.

“From where and at what”? These were the questions most uppermost in my mind when I read the title for this workshop. If we are agreed that the answer to the first half of my enquiry is ‘the academy’ (that’s the easy part) there are actually a number of ways the ‘at what’ element might be meaningfully addressed. Even within our colloquial vernacular, ‘non-academic’ space is (rather cheekily) referred to as the ‘real world’. Perennial students are asked ‘when are you going to stop studying and enter the real world’? Our quandary is one of disconnected communities – across disciplines, as academicians we are responsible for becoming more committed conversation partners and more confident communicators of our respective crafts. This was the objective of the workshop and perhaps a summary of the questions behind the question. How do we dispel ivory tower isolation, demonstrate the efficacy of Theology and Religious Studies degrees, instil confidence in graduates to maturely convey information about religions and theology to others and translate the social and political role that study of religion and theology has in society? Celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins was quoted asking: ‘What has ‘theology’ ever said that is of the smallest use to anybody? When has ‘theology’ ever said anything that is demonstrably true and is not obvious? What makes you think that ‘theology’ is a subject at all?’ (Source: Poole, M. ‘A Critique of Aspects of the Philosophy and Theology of Richard Dawkins’ in Science & Christian Belief Vol. 6, No 1 (1994) 41 – he had no documented comment on religious studies). The sound of grinding axes aside, Dawkins’ enquiry is not totally devoid of merit, asked in the right tone. We might say that our workshop was set up to answer such questions to those convinced that an honest and meaningful answer exists.

With trajectory suitably mapped out we moved to the main event; delegates had prepared brief reports of exercises their students had or potentially could engage in (distributed prior to the day of the workshop) for a ‘roundtable’ discussion. Delegates offered some brief commentary on their experiences and on the strengths, weaknesses, hazards and heartaches of the assignments from the vantage point of educators, students and wider community alike. And so were sown the seeds of our discussion, which very aptly uncovered a number of the most salient concerns regarding practical student engagement with the wider world. Some details of the discussions will hopefully illustrate just how fruitful they were (and why going forward such forums should become increasingly features of the landscape of academy-community relations).

Roundtable Presentation and Discussion of Looking Outwards Case Studies.

Mel Prideaux and Emma Tomalin of Leeds University relayed that the outward looking element of theology and religious studies there took two main forms – research and work with community partners, and the creation of materials for potential use by community and other partners. At level two, students have the opportunity to go into schools and support learning in the classroom (particularly with A level students) acting as advocates for their discipline in higher education. As part of the assessed work, students produce teaching resources which the school uses. At third level, students apply for placements in a number of sectors including libraries, the local authority, local charities and religious organisations. One ongoing module is the ‘religious mapping’ project undertaken by level-one undergraduates in which participants report on sacred spaces within the local community, in order to present to the community.

 

Discussion Points Raised:

  • The combination of time constraints and assessment expectations is problematic; typically fieldwork is time consuming, but at level one where assessment is formative, concern for fieldwork is less.
  • Conversely, at level three, there is heightened anxiety about degree outcomes and as such a fear that work placement modules are taking time away from other work.
  • With respect to producing student output that serves the community, how best is this achieved? One very interesting suggestion was advertising religion/theology skills which social or civic institutions might access (police, local government, etc. who may need religious expertise in community problem solving or engendering community cohesion).
  • Concerns were raised over the production of material accessible for non-academic consumption; students are trained to be critical within the confines of the academy – but such an approach may be viewed as problematic in some contexts of community engagement.
  • A co-related issue was the extent to which students might be reasonably called experts at all – the presenter in this instance insisted that level three students should certainly be.
  • Some ‘outward looking’ projects may not provide resources that community groups use for very specific practical purposes – for example students doing the Theology and Practice of Interfaith Dialogue course do not provide output for dissemination, (though students regularly share their 1500 word ‘Fieldwork Report’ with the organization or individuals with which they undertake fieldwork). From the vantage point of the community this may only serve for their general information or enjoyment.

 

Katja Stuerzenhofecker of Manchester University described a potential task aiming to produce a 3000 word ‘Briefing Guide’ providing a balanced discussion of theories that allow the critical and systematic analysis of evidence related to a topic of students’ choice around Religion, Culture and Gender in Britain. An example of such an enterprise was to interview members of various Jewish groups about attitudes towards the ordination of women in Judaism.

Discussion Points Raised:

  • Students would do an essay and a visual presentation, but there was not currently a vehicle for assessing the visual element.
  • The guide would be for communities to use, but they are not doing the assessment – perhaps some vehicle for evaluating the efficacy of the guide to community groups could prove beneficial.
  • Practical issues naturally arise (with the production of guides, potential concerns include obtaining copyright disclaimers). Should these be part of the assessment? (There was some feeling that this might be students might get overwhelmed having to do these extra bits of work – procuring copyright disclaimers, other types of permission slips, liabilities, etc. but conversely, others felt that such extra work, far from being a distraction would be useful arrows for students to add to their quivers making them more rounded researchers – of course, this introduces complications into any attempts to standardize the assessment criteria for student output).
  • This raised the wider question of the overall ‘skill set’ (beyond theological/religious research techniques) students need to be equipped with to be more proficient when ‘looking outwards’ to communities.

Stefan Skrimshire, also from Leeds, reflected upon two developments; (a) transforming research output into learning resources; this was investigated in a Lincoln Theological Institute led (Manchester R&T based) project examining the relationship between religious and political beliefs about the future, climate change and political action; (b) integrating knowledge transfer projects and Higher Education teaching; this was investigated in an applied ethics course in Leeds. The former aimed to produce a series of public workshops, an edited collection of essays and production and distribution of a documentary film.

With an emphasis in his presentation on ‘partnerships’, the concept of inter-disciplinary discourse came to the fore.

 

Discussion Points Raised:

  • The presenter commented on the usefulness of the film making process as an academic more accustomed to working with texts and its potential for students to gain experience using film making software.
  • This opened further discussion on the extent of inter-disciplinarity – could it be more deliberate as say with a (suggested) combined course on theology and visual production? (Presenter suggested that religion and theology academics should strive for inter-practice with community).

Lynne Scholefield of St. Mary’s Twickenham outlined the findings of tutor led day visits and extended study tours to key sites in the UK and overseas. Interviews were carried out with tutors and student feedback was collected to develop theories about distinctions between ‘reported’, ‘represented’ religious diversity (in media) on the one hand and religion as a  ‘lived’ phenomenon on the other.

Discussion Points Raised:

  • One key factor to emerge was the importance of making fieldwork a part of the curriculum. The presenter perceived a need to ‘skill up’ students for fieldwork and for such skills to be embedded into the learning experience.
  • The perennial difficulty of how such projects could be funded came up – if there was any burden on students themselves to assist in paying, needless to say it would be a limiting factor.
  • This discussion in particular (with its emphasis on fieldwork training) brought up the potential perils of unleashing student populations on the wider community. Naturally, students to some degree become ‘ambassadors’ for their institutions.

Manchester University’s Roberta Mazza kindly spoke on behalf of herself and Professor Kate Cooper (who could not be with us) about collaboration between her ‘Faces and Voices’ project (http://facesandvoices.wordpress.com/) and Professor Cooper’s Constantine’s Dream Project funded by Research Councils UK (http://www.arts.manchester.ac.uk/cla/projects/constantinesdream). The Faces and Voices project began as an exhibition of Graeco-Roman papyri and mummy portraits from Egypt. The Faces and Voices exhibition has become related to a level 3 unit on Egypt in the Graeco-Roman world. Students are given the option to create something imaginative for the exhibition (for assessment) or default to writing an essay. Student involvement could potentially enhance employability by using our skills in different fields, such as communication and the media, museology and related activities and socio-educative projects.

Discussion Points Raised

  • It was interesting with the option of producing a more non-conventional assessment piece that the majority of Dr. Mazza’s students resorted to default and wrote an essay. The presenter raised questions as to where this might have stemmed from – perhaps student concerns about marks in their third year making them unwilling to risk an unconventional path to assessment.
  • That said the quality and range of work produced by those who opted for the non-conventional route was generally high. One student produced a Facebook page, another, a fictional autobiography and another, a radio project. This instigated discussion regarding how best to assess such output (indeed even the Facebook page required a full bibliography, similar number of cited sources as the essay, etc.)

David Voas (a quantitative social scientist) of Essex University spoke about a project funded under the Religion and Society programme, which has documented statistics on religion in Britain. The project entitled BRIN (British Religion in Numbers – http://www.brin.ac.uk) aims to make a store of statistical records and up-to-date commentaries available to historians and sociologists, policy-makers, religious leaders, journalists and the public.

 

Discussion Points Raised:

  • There was a resonance with the concerns raised during the Prideaux/Tomalin discussion of the degree to which students may be considered specialists – the issue of whether students could reasonably produce useable output for BRIN was highlighted.
  • With respect to research, one comment suggested that students needed to know that there was more than just ‘Google’ search engines – that is, resources like BRIN need a keener profile in the academic sphere.

Julia Ipgrave, from the University of Warwick spoke about an ongoing project led by the Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit, and again funded by the Religions and Society programme. The project aims to investigate young people’s attitudes to religious diversity, by engaging 13-16 year olds from diverse socio-economic, cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds in discussion (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/wie/research/wreru/research/current/ahrc/).

 

Discussion Points Raised:

  • The project has thrown up significant issues about the localization of religious education.
  • Another talking point was the social ramifications of the outcome of this sort of research.
  • As the research is school-based and most of the students at the unit are practicing teachers themselves there was potential for further ‘outward looking’ teaching-research developments, teaching both postgraduate students and school age children.
  • The presenter mentioned a paper she wrote for a practitioner journal for Religious Education teachers that could have impact in classrooms.

 

The Parking Bay

It was clear that the discussions elucidated a number of the potential difficulties and even frustrations associated with combining positive student experience, favourable assessment marks, social impact and future (post-degree) prospects. Delegates had the opportunity to give further voice to those aspects of the educational experience they felt deserved closer attention on a ‘(post-it) note board’ – affectionately titled the ‘Car Park’ for the day. Each of these could easily have been the subject of another conference – it made for interesting reading (in no particular order):

1. “How do we stop students doing too much work? How do we teach them to work smart?”

2. “What possibilities exist for collaboration with other teaching modules?”

3. “Social innovation hubs for third sector commissions”

4. “What are the financial implications for projects like visits – who should fund them? Do departments foot the bill and if so how do we convince them of the cost-effectiveness? Do students pay, risking the possibility that only certain students can access such learning material? Should other sponsors be sought out?

5. “Issues surround assessment of group projects beyond the first year”

6. “Are there examples of Higher Education Institutions cooperating on external projects?”

7. “Social responsibility is a nebulous term – [needs unpacking]; question surrounds the idea of students as ambassadors of universities. To what extent do students on visits need close supervision? Are there ethical and even legal implications?”

8. “Co-teaching is the future!” [This was explained in conversation as staff from other disciplines teaching specialist skills to students as part of their standard teaching remit].

9. “How do we develop (a) students’ technical skills for using technology (b) Capacity for/ openness to creativity?”

10. “Project based learning (individual and collaborative) as a way of getting students to do ‘looking outwards’ impact work for research projects. For example, making promotional materials, writing reports and assessing/evaluating the impact of projects.”

10. “How much can public stakeholders be involved in assessment?”

The common threads seem to be Financial Implications; Student Development; Teaching Philosophy; Social Ramifications/Impact.

Electronic Learning Exposition: New technologies in teaching and learning and their applicability in Theology and Religious Studies.

Sandwiched between the two case study sessions was a chance for delegates to be addressed by the e-learning specialists from the Humanities department. The team discussed a number of software packages that students have at their disposal to produce sophisticated and accessible presentations and other products of research relevant to the looking outwards theme.

The session was introduced by themes drawn out from the student feedback about e-learning resources from the Humanities Department’s ‘Best on Blackboard’ competition.

The most prominent issues were:

–          The access and management of resources

–          Who checks and monitors the resources

–          Copyright – if s student team develops a resource, who actually owns it?

The team devoted some time to showcasing four presentation packages that students might use to design more professional and sophisticated products relevant to the looking outwards theme (all of which made the proverbial Power Point presentation feel a little Jurassic).

Prezi: A cloud-based presentation software package employing a ‘zoom-able’ virtual canvas that allows practitioners to zoom in and out of their presentations.

WordPress: An open source blogging tool and a dynamic content management system.

Exe: An open source application that allows users to publish on the internet without sophisticated mastery of HTML.

GLOmaker: An authoring tool that allows users to create adaptable reusable learning objects. GLO stands for ‘Generative Learning Objects’, which are learning objects designed to be pedagogically correct and reusable interactive multimedia. It allows one to firstly create a storyboard then, secondly, to design a learning tool using either flexible templates or a custom design which can be run in a website. (GLO maker encourages users to share their reusable learning objects so that others can use their design and customize to their own needs).

A plethora of issues were highlighted. Certain modules are taught solely online, often for professionals, and demand for such courses is on the rise – but this is undoubtedly offset by possible technophobia experienced by some students who do not appreciate the idea of ‘online learning’; often web based resources are not easily accessed and surely students should not be penalized simply because their IT skills are below par. And what might we say about the notion of university as a ‘learning community’? Is this jeopardized if our intellectual exchange exists primarily in the cybersphere? None would doubt the value of an accomplished final product accessible via technology, but this raised the question of whether the impact of an end product would be compromised if it did not comprise of what one delegate called a ‘whizz-bang internet program’? Therein surely lies the equilibrium – enough IT training to ensure that the output of religions and theology projects is every bit as sophisticated and accessible as it might be in other disciplines, but not so much that we sell our respective souls to the microchip!

Closing Group Exercise

The day ended with a creative exercise; following this most energetic exchange of ideas, delegates broke up into groups of 3-5 to devise a potential course unit based project that could disseminate theological ideas into the community and inspire spirited student engagement. The fruit of this final session was, in brief:

A 2nd level course – Story Telling in Indian Traditions. A project resulting in the creative presentation of Indian stories to community groups for assessment. Such an endeavour would throw up valuable questions about how narrative is told differently in different situations, and has multiple meanings for different groups. The creative presentation (possibly even drawing expertise from dance/drama students) could be assessed by audience evaluation sheets that students reflect upon.

A Biblical Mapping project in Sheffield (I’m sure it would work in any big city)! Students would conduct surveys of Bible reading both inside and outside of church contexts, perhaps with a view to disseminating the results by publishing them in a local paper (though this is something students can decide). Students could set the rationale for their choice of output and be assessed on whether they met their own criteria.

Curation of an Exhibition of Continental Philosophies on ‘Perception’ which could draw vested interests from students and staff from art history, museology, art and indeed philosophy. The scope of such an undertaking could reach school-children and specialist groups of varied persuasions. Assessment criteria would need to be ratified. Part of the value of this project would be the opportunity for genuine interdisciplinary collaboration in the formation of the product.

A course on the History of Christianity in the 20th Century. Within this context, a project to research the lives and careers of clergy from archive sources, which built on the religious mapping approach that BRIN demonstrates. A breadth of output is foreseeable – biographies, career mapping to investigate statistical trends (do students of particular seminaries take up posts in certain parts of the country or even under certain bishops?) blogs, timelines, etc. This could be assessed in traditional fashion.

Duncan Forrester and Alistair Key sum up: ‘…religion has become a renewed force, recognized as an important factor in the modern world in all aspects of life, cultural, economic and political’ (Source: Davis, C. Religion and the Making of Society: Essays in Social Theology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, xi). In the education of students of Religion and Theology we are unleashing creative potential on ‘the real world’ (did you know actress Maggie Gyllenhaal has a degree in Eastern Religions and supermodel Christy Turlington a degree in comparative religion)?! Our workshop may only have skimmed the surface of a conversation about how we best equip students to contribute to the edification of society, but it was a most welcome initial step. The conversation begs to continue – onwards and upwards – or should I say, onwards and outwards…..

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