Channelled Texts in the Classroom?

During my co-teaching assignment in 2014-15, New Age Beliefs and Practises, when stuck for a seminar topic for the first week’s class, given the lack of a set reading, my senior colleague simply went to his office and produced a stack of primary texts on the New Age from the 1940s to 1990s. These he distributed among the students, asking them to try and find examples of the typical New Age elements as presented during the lecture – millennialism, Eastern religions, UFOs, “energy” and so on.

With a bit of coaxing, this worked surprisingly well. What interested me about this activity was that the students were given the data cold, and asked to interpret using what we had learned in the class. Also, it gave them the original material in their hands – unlike most classes on religion, I could actually give them a copy of the original document and ask them to leaf through it. This neatly makes the point that religion – whatever it might be – is both something mundane, and something which is continuing to happen in the modern world.

Inspired by this, I tried a different version of the same technique in my adult education course, Alternative Religions, in 2015. Rather than a book, in the session where we focussed on prophecy, I gave each student an anonymised channelled text and asked them to speculate on where and when it came from. Roughly half of the texts were “UFO” texts from the post-War period, ranging from George Adamski’s messages in the 1950s to Bashar’s in the 2000s, and the remainder were made up of more conventionally religious channelled texts ranging from the Old Testament prophets, to Aleister Crowley’s 1904 Book of the Law, to modern revivalist Christian preachers.

This exercise had two benefits. Firstly, it was quite simply fun. I deliberately “gamified” it: they were a small group, but chatty and enthusiastic, so when some – pleasingly – got it right, there was as much fun as when someone did not. In essence, they forgot they were learning. Moreover, tests have demonstrated that competition improves student’s retention of information (Worm & Buch 2014).

Secondly, without foreknowledge of which was modern and which was not, which was Christian and which was not, the students found it hard to tell the difference. Therefore they realised that the assumed self-evident difference between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” religious formations was proven to be fallacious – at least in terms of their texts and the teachings they contain. UFO Contactees in the 1980s, ceremonial magicians in the 1900s and revivalist preachers all used a common language drawn from the Bible, even though they are typically considered to antithetical to Christianity. In other words, when preconceptions were removed, the data proved to have a lot more similarity than difference, and again the point is made that without preconceptions, the difference between mainstream and alternative religions mostly comes down to expectation. And crucially, the group – apparently – discovered these facts for themselves.

From a disciplinary perspective, this is of crucial importance to me. For Religious Studies as a discipline to earn its place at the academic table, it has to do more than legitimising certain discourses at the expense of others (McCutcheon 1997). A fine ideal, but one which is often made more complicated by the concerns which drive people into the field in the first place. You cannot make a student – almost certainly raised in an implicitly or explicitly religiously normative culture – comprehend these issues simply by telling them, but you can lead them to realise it for themselves.

This exercise makes that point succinctly, and in a non-confrontational way. I can give a student a piece of religion happening right now (or at least, within memory), where they have as much context as I do. At the same time, I can challenge the perceived need to separate real religion from popular narratives, and at the same time expose the power plays of those who deem it necessary. It is a simple and enjoyable exercise, but when successful it leads students to see profound issues at the heart of the discipline. This makes it a very powerful strategy for the classroom.


McCutcheon, Russell T. 1997. Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. Oxford University Press

Worm, Bjarne S. and Buch, Steen V. 2014. “Does competition work as a motivating factor in e-learning? A randomized controlled trial”. PLoS One, 9(1).

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.


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

Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy

This is something I’m quite excited to be involved with: an experimental online seminar introducing undergraduates to critical theory in the study of religion. It is being organised by the Practicum blog and will take place on February 6th and 13th.

The Practicum Blog invites advanced undergraduates in the academic study of religion to participate in an experimental online seminar. The central aim of this seminar is to expose students to critical theory and to help them integrate critical perspectives into their senior/honors theses (and beyond). As such, all applicants should have a specific research project they hope to develop.

This is an online seminar and will consist of two meetings (roughly two hours each). During these meetings, students are able to interact directly with scholars in various stages of their careers who will provide feedback and suggestions that should help the students create more rigorous and insightful scholarship.

Each student will read the assigned material before the meeting and then listen to a brief lecture (no more than thirty minutes), followed by a roundtable discussion where the scholar helps students integrate critical theory into their research. Students will not only get direct input from scholars versed in critical theory, but student participants are invited to publish what will probably be their first publication, as all undergraduate participants will have the opportunity to write a blog for Practicum where they reflect on the material and its relevance for their current projects.

The schedule consists of:

First meeting: February 6, 2015, from 1:00-3:00 PM (EST)

·         Craig Martin on “Critical Theory and the Academic Study of Religion”

·         Russell McCutcheon on “Classification Matters”

Second meeting: February 13, 2015, from 1:00-3:30 PM (EST)

·         Christopher Cotter and David Robertson on “Classify and Conquer: Rethinking the World Religions Paradigm”

·         John Lardas Modern on “‘Secularity’”

·         Concluding thoughts moderated by the Practicum editors

To apply, please submit the following materials in electronic form to by January 24, 2015.

·         One-page cover letter explaining your interest in the weminar. Include a summary of your interests and describe your senior/honors project. Also, identify your goals for participating in the conference.

·         C.V.

·         Names and contact information for two references.

We will notify applicants of their status by January 29, 2015.

Please direct all questions to

via Practicum: Critical Theory, Religion, and Pedagogy.

Comparing Like with Like: Practicum Blog

From my new post on the Practicum blog, on the importance of consistency in teaching Religious Studies:

Yogi Berra is reputed to have said, “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.” In theory, I prefer some theories of religion to others. In practice, any theory is better than no theory—as long as you apply it.

Thanks to Craig Martin for the opportunity. Read the rest here.