|Integrating Field Research in the Introductory Religion Course|
Sheila E. McGinn, John Carroll University
Sheila E. McGinn is Professor of Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at John Carroll University. Her publications include The Montanist Oracles, The Acts of Thecla, studies of Paul’s letter to the Romans, a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, and a bibliography of twentieth century research into the Book of Revelation.
I have used field research as an integral part of my “Introduction to Religious Studies” course for over a decade. Three students are in each research group, and the project includes several components, with at least one site visit. The description of the assignment is as follows:
Field Research Project
Student groups engage in a three-part Field Research Project on one of the five major world religions, focusing either on an unfamiliar religious tradition or an unfamiliar ethnic community within their own religious tradition. The three parts include:
As an optional extra credit activity, the group may participate in four hours of community service (not proselytizing nor “outreach”) with this religious community.
The group writes a three-part Field Research Report. As co-authors of the report, each group member is expected to have input on each section of the report and to make corrections to each other’s work where necessary. The three parts of the report include:
If the group chooses to include the community service component, the write-up must include both journal entries contemporaneous with the activity and a reflective essay analyzing how this particular community service activity illustrates (or goes counter to) the beliefs and ethics of the religious community.
At the conclusion of the project, the research group gives a 20–25 minute class presentation that includes: (1) a basic survey of the tradition’s central beliefs, ethics, and ritual practices; and (2) an interactive demonstration of one key ritual and exposition of what key beliefs and ethical values it conveys. Both components must actively involve the class in the presentation, and the ritual demonstration in particular should appeal to as many of the senses as possible; use of authentic dress, music, and foods is encouraged.
Class presentations are graded both by the instructor and by the students. The group is assigned an overall project grade for the written work, itemized according to each component of the field research report; group members then decide together how to allocate the points awarded for the project.
Students visit the site at least once to gather the data to write a “verbatim” (i.e., descriptive) analysis of the ritual space and of a particular religious ceremony. The directions for the verbatim analysis are as follows:
Constructing a Verbatim Report
Part I: Observation
Include descriptions of:
a. The architectural features of the site or building;
Part II: Analysis, Reflection, and Evaluation
Analysis: As soon as possible after the event, even while you or your group are/is still on the way home, begin your analysis of the event.
As a group, evaluate your observation according to the following four criteria:
Each group analyzes not only the site, but also their own group dynamics. I do early, midway, and summative assessments of the group work, based on assessment forms from CECAT (Collective Effort Classroom Assessment Technique), by Charles Walker and Thomas Angelo. Members of the group assess themselves and one another. In a concluding evaluation session, they discuss how to allocate the group grade among the various members of the group (based on value of contribution, amount of effort, etc.). Barring any unusual and extenuating circumstances, I use their figures for allocating the project points among the various group members.
The final course evaluation asks specific questions about the value of the field research project. One initially surprising result of site visits was that students overwhelmingly responded that the field research reduced their prejudice toward “other” people, particularly people of other religious traditions and ethnic backgrounds. I have not yet tested for a prejudice-reduction effect in a systematic way, to check the validity of these self-report data, but it seems safe to say that site visits at least have the potential to break down religious and ethnic prejudice in a way that the typical in-class readings and assignments do not.