2006 Winner: Michele Strano

Sacred Ritual in Secular Society — Course Aims and Structure

My approach to teaching academic writing emphasizes the role that scholarly work plays in the production of knowledge. In all of my courses, a main focus is to provide students opportunities to make connections between their modern lives and academic theory. Hence, students may read a complicated classic text such as Victor Turner’s The Ritual Process, but instead of confining our discussion to the Ndembu culture that Turner investigates, we focus on questioning how Turner’s ideas might help us understand high school graduation or the Burning Man Festival. Whenever possible, I have students collect primary data that they must interpret in terms of existing scholarship. My goal is to teach them how to clearly communicate the ways in which their ideas both reflect and alter previously articulated theories.

The course “Sacred Ritual in Secular Society” asks students to conduct a semester-long field research project in which they explore a ritual practice of their choosing. The first paper assignment is a literature review, the second a defense of the methodology they will employ, and the third a rewrite of the first two papers with the addition of data analysis. Thus, students produce a complete pilot study report that reflects the norms of social science research. Students participate in panel discussions about their projects at the end of the semester. Final projects are also published in a coursebook that each student receives.

One of the most successful aspects of this course is the level of student commitment to their projects, as evidenced by many of their comments on the end of course survey:

  • I was very interested in the topic that I chose for my final essay, and thus writing and researching was intriguing and fun!
  • I enjoyed writing about the field data very much because I was interested in my topic.  My interest drove me to want to find out more about my question, so writing about field data was really great.
  • At first I thought that it was going to be fairly difficult to reach conclusions about the data I gathered, but once I started listening to my interviews, it became much more apparent what the trends were going to be. It was interesting to really add something new to the field and not just summarize or analyze the works of others.

Inspiring student interest in their writing has obvious effects on the level of investment and thus effort the students put into the course. However, the structure of this course seems to also emphasize writing approaches that would be useful in any context. For example, this student learned the value of outlining:

  • Writing about my own field research was a first for me. I really liked writing about what I had found doing my own research because I was really interested in it, but I did find it hard to tie all the interviews together (I learned I had to outline).

This one learned how to manage a long writing project and the value of feedback:

  • I thought this was great. I didn't realize what this class was all about when I signed up, but it ended up being my favorite class this semester. I felt so good about myself after producing conclusions from data that I collected on my own. Also, I really like that we basically spend the entire semester working on one essay. This was the longest paper I had ever written and I really felt like all the editing processes let me (almost) perfect it.

And these students learned to think about the relationship between primary data and other types of sources:

  • It gave me a different perspective on the entire writing process. Having to consider the validity of the data set and the methods used put me in a unique position in terms of my approach to the data. I was extremely aware of the strengths and limitations of my data and the applicability of my conclusions. This analytical approach to data and findings can, in the future, be transferred to other pieces of information not necessarily collected by me.
  • This was the best part of the course. I highly enjoyed collecting data, especially since it consisted mostly of interviews rather than searching the stacks for a non-existing book. Interviewing people about a ritualistic practice was extremely interesting because in most cases it is not a frequent topic of conversation. Through these interviews which composed my pilot study, I was able to add to my primary sources and even counter some of their conclusions.

Finally, I find that one of the most difficult hurdles to overcome in a writing course is students’ perceptions that their writing will only be read by the instructor and the other students in the course. This restriction has an adverse effect on their writing because they assume the audience has knowledge that even a slightly expanded readership would not necessarily have. While in some courses I try to overcome this hurdle by specifying an audience to whom the students should imagine themselves writing, this course emphasizes from the beginning that student projects will be shared with a larger audience through the panel discussions and course book. In reality, these forums expand the audience for student work only slightly, but simply the knowledge that “outsiders” will see their work seems to motivate to students to think about audience issues as they are writing. In addition, having visitors attend their final presentations allows them to see the value of their work and gain confidence in their writing, while once again emphasizing the way academic writing builds on previous work and influences future work. Throughout this course, students are challenged to see themselves as part of the ongoing production of knowledge.