Hello. I’m a writer and teacher from Edinburgh, interested in the history of religions, critical theory and conspiracy theories. I hold a PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh, and I’m particularly interested in using critical theory in teaching. I’m Co-founding Editor of the Religious Studies Project and a committee member of the British Association for the Study of Religion.

Sometimes I write fiction too, when my children let me. And I was a musician, in another life. This site is where I promote my books, talk about my research and trying to live as a writer, and collect all the little bits of writing I do in other places. On the right you’ll find my most popular posts, and at the top my major publications. If you like my work, you can get regular updates and special offers if you sign up for my mailing list.

You can email me at d.g.robertson [at] ed.ac.uk.

What makes an engaging teacher?

What makes an engaging teacher? By thinking about some of the teachers and lecturers I have had, and what I consider to be their strengths and weaknesses, I might be able to clarify for myself what I could do from a practical point of view to improve my own teaching.

One thing that my favourite teachers have done is to create a sense of community – that the class and teacher were discovering together. Carole Cusack used to add details from her life in the lectures – I remember her telling a story about her best friend’s husband having an affair and thinking that she was exactly the same lecturing as she was in person in the pub. But of course, that makes her more relatable and dissolves some of the distance between student and teacher. I have used this technique myself, I think to good results. For example, I will often make self-deprecating jokes and refer to myself as “David”, rather than “Dr Robertson”. Something else I’ll do is to make occasional slightly sarcastic side-comments about the scholars we are looking at. These probably go over most students’ heads, but add another layer of commentary and critique for the more advanced students.

A different example of a teacher creating a sense of purposeful community was in the course From Primitive to Indigenous which James Cox ran in 2007. The course was based around his then-unpublished book of the same title, and we were encouraged to be as critical in our tutorial work as we could be. I took him at his word, and he responded with genuine enthusiasm to the challenges, and I believe some of the criticisms were addressed in the eventual book. So the tutorial work, in this case, actually meant something beyond my own marks, and our involvement in the class and the discussion actually involved us in the larger scholarly community.

Another variation of this is the seminar-style classes that some Biblical Studies classes use, where there is no formal lecture material at all, but rather the group work through a text together, with the discussion taking shape as it will. In Helen Bond’s classes at New College, University of Edinburgh, one or more students would have prepared some type of presentation on a significant section of the text, chosen by the lecturer, which provides the seminar assessment. For the rest of the session, however, the group is free to move at whatever pace it wants, going into more depth on whatever piques interest, or even to go off into interesting tangents. This obviously requires the lecturer to have a great deal of knowledge at their fingertips, so might not be realistic for a junior lecturer. Less obviously, however, it requires a firm but subtle hand on the tiller to make sure that the session gets to where it needs to to work through the course. On a more mundane level, such an arrangement only works for a small group of perhaps fourteen at most.

These latter two models of teaching are examples of what Dominic Corrywright refers to as “complex learning”: rather than a model in which “the tutor informs the class of certain facts”, the teachers become “co-users of open access information” (2013, 4). Indeed, Cusack’s style of lecturing brings some of this complexity to the traditional lecture format, by levelling the presumed differences of status and authority between student and teacher. As Corrywright acknowledges, although complex learning emphasises the use of multiple platforms of learning (including group discussion and tasks, audio and video, apps, etc.), the traditional lecture can still be an important component of pedagogy.

An important way of “complexifying” our lectures, then – and something which all of these teachers have in common – is that they give you a lot of interesting data first, rather than top-loading with theory. That model is still followed by more traditional lecturers: my supervisor once told me “If I don’t give them the theory before the data, how will they know how to interpret it?” The issue of authority is clear here – in a complex model, the teacher would be “discovering” the data with the students, rather than presenting their interpretation fait accompli.

Moreover, this approach can alienate a lot of students: essentially, by the time you get to the data, you’ve already lost them. This is a particular problem, perhaps, as an increasing proportion of students are at university as a necessity, rather than on a quest for personal intellectual development. For example, around 40% of Edinburgh Religious Studies students in 1st and 2nd years are student primary school teachers, why typically have no interest in theoretical issues. Similarly, there are always a number of “seekers”, who see studying religion as a way to enhance their “spiritual lives”. If we lead with data, however, the student is led into discovering the theoretical material for themselves – although naturally the course was structured in that way all along. The different groups of students are therefore interested from the start, and are almost tricked into theorising.

REFS:

Corrywright, Dominic (2013) “Landscape of Learning and Teaching in Religion and Theology: Perspectives and Mechanisms for Complex Learning, Programme Health and Pedagogical Well-being”, in DISKUS 14 (2013), pp 1-20. At http://www.basr.ac.uk/diskus/diskus14/corrywright.pdf

The Week in Conspiracy, 19-8-2016

Via xkcd.com

Hey there! The kids are back at school, so I have time again to curate your weekly dose of conspiracism from around the web.

(Via Daniel Jolley:) The International Journal of Communication reports that people convinced by a conspiracy theory may not immediately change their mind again. Well, duh.

Recent research published in the International Journal of Communication … found that after exposure to a video promoting government conspiracy theories about the moon landing (segment taken from Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon), belief in conspiracy theories increased immediately after the exposure and two weeks later (when compared to people who had not watched the video). This provides, to my knowledge, the first empirical evidence that being exposed to conspiracy theories can change your attitudes for a prolonged (two-week) period of time.  If you are interested in reading the paper, you can access a PDF copy here.

There’s a movie about holocaust denial starring Rachel Weisz coming. I’m in.

The case of alleged abductee Stan Romanek is such a hot tangled mess I can’t even begin to describe it. As he appears in court on child pornography charges this week, go grab a beer, head over to Jack Brewer’s UFO Trail and enjoy.

 

Boleskine House, July 2016

Presumably, many of my readers will be aware that Boleskine House on the Northern shore of Loch Ness caught fire just before Christmas last year. Boleskine House was formerly owned by Aleister Crowley, and was later owned by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin who has had a long involvement with Crowley. In fact, I have been told that Page is (or was) the owner of one of the two biggest collections of Crowley material in the UK. (The other is, I think, Alan Moore). Page has since been given an OBE by the Queen for his charity work.

As an aside, I once worked with an older gentleman who had worked for Page when he owned the building in the 1970s, who told me Page was looking for a secret room under the main house which Crowley had installed for a temple. They never found it.

Having heard differing reports about the state of the place, when I found myself camping by Loch Ness around a mile along the shore, I had to go and take a look. The takeaway: it’s bad, but not as bad as it could be. The roof is gone on the shore end of the building, but the walls are intact. At the west end, the top of the arches on the windows are gone. I didn’t hang around because, frankly, it wasn’t really safe and while there’s no trespassing law in Scotland, people can sure act like there is.

The Week in Conspiracism, 30/05/2016

Bit of a backlog this week… And, yes I know that David Icke appeared on the Today Show with Andrew Neil – I’ll do a separate post about that soon…

For those interested in the American Right – http://www.vice.com/en_ca/video/inside-the-michigan-militia

So Conspiracist Dating is now a thing. I wish I’d known about this when I wrote my paper on conspiracist economics – http://www.avclub.com/article/hot-paranoid-singles-your-area-are-looking-you-awa-236587

There’s a positive review of Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds over at the Magonia blog. It examines the psychology of conspiracy theories, and looks like being both evenhanded and readable:

He argue that what separates them from real, established conspiracies is the lack of resolution; they are ongoing mysteries. More to the point perhaps is that what they have in common is the perception that the apparent world is an illusion, a false face. Behind the quotidian events of the world there is a “hidden hand”, a secret meaning and purpose. This is clearly a secularisation of the religious beliefs that either God or the Devil is behind the randomness of the world.

And finally, Alternet catches up with classic sociology from the early 1960s – http://www.alternet.org/belief/awkward-read-christian-doomsday-cults-excuse-why-world-didnt-end-they-predicted

Two Books About Memory

I finished a couple of books this week that while very different on the surface, ultimately both concern memory.

The first was The Sussex Devils by Mark Heal, former musician and frontman of Cubanate. Although it reads like a novel, it is half a historic investigation into a manifestation of the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare in the 1990s. Mark discovers a newspaper clipping while digging through some old tapes about a man called Derry Mainwaring Knight who managed to convince a group of well-to-do evangelicals (led by the Reverend John Baker) that he was a high-ranking “Satanist” in the Ordo Templi Orientis. The Reverend not only tries to save Derry’s soul through exorcism and prayer, but raises staggering amounts of money for Derry to buy OTO paraphernalia to be destroyed, thus defeating the Satanists. Derry was eventually jailed for fraud. But around this narrative is Heath’s own story, memories shaken loose by Derry’s story –  starting with his parents’ involvement with evangelicism, his severe panic attacks and eventually alcoholism. Heath’s descent into panicked neurosis and eventual recovery mirrors the descent of the UK (and US, South Africa, Australia…) into conspiratorial and supernatural witch hunts – not only Satanism but Ritual Abuse and Alien Abduction. Although the conclusion was rather platitudinous, with its “we all need something to believe in” message, I enjoyed the book overall a good deal. Heal’s writing is evocative, heartfelt and readable.

Moreover, the book was published by Unbound, who use a form of crowd funding to produce their books – a model that might suggest a way forward for small press publishers.

The Aztec UFO Incident by Scott Ramsey, Suzanne Ramsey and Frank Thayer was far less engaging. Subtitled “The Case, Evidence, and Elaborate Cover-Up of One of the Most Perplexing Crashes in History”, it is an investigation into the second-best-known crashed saucer story, in Aztec, New Mexico, in 1948. Alarm bells started ringing quickly – the back cover declares that “Roswell is no longer the only proven flying saucer recovery we know about”. Proven? Really? Even allowing this to pass, that’s terrible writing – how can a crash be proven if you don’t know about?

If you’ve read my book, you’ll recognise several familiar tropes: husband-and-wife team; a story re-discovered decades later; government cover-ups obscuring the evidence; and importantly, a heavy reliance upon eyewitness testimony. There is almost no physical evidence presented – rather, the authors build their case from eyewitness testimony, usually after decades, or worse, recounted by children of the witnesses after decades. There is no acknowledgment of the problems with such testimony, quite the opposite. Testimony is described as reliable as it “draw[s] from 50 years of memories” (22). The initial story is exciting, but it’s clear we are dealing with a sort of fairy-story. The book soon descends into an impenetrable series of critiques of minor characters in the story, like early promoters and challengers of the tale. Ironically, but not surprisingly, they often dismiss these accounts for the same reasons I dismiss theirs – but only when the sources disagree with their central thesis, of course.

The Week in Conspiracies, 18-4-2016

Selfish! If you believe conspiracy theories (of any kind, apparently) you are a narcissist. According to a conservative paper: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3482408/Believe-conspiracy-theories-probably-narcissist-People-doubt-moon-landings-likely-selfish-attention-seeking.html

Shocking! Mark Millar interviews David Icke for The Big Issue: http://www.bigissue.com/features/interviews/6473/mark-millar-interviews-david-icke-the-public-are-waking-up-and-fighting

As he drops me off at the boat and gives me a copy of his new book, I’m left with the impression of a nice guy with an adoring family who left a BBC he despised in the hope of giving people a different information flow. As I open the book on my way to the mainland, I wonder what else in here is going to be mainstream headlines 20 years down the line.

Interesting! Interview with Whitley re: Super Natural https://youtu.be/qAdlV8icOGc

Serious! If academics can’t criticise the state, what use are they? More on the restrictions to the freedom of expression of public scientists: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/17/britains-scientists-must-not-be-gagged