Written by Matthew Dougherty, GRC and graduate student in the Department of Religious Studies
This semester, I had the pleasure of serving as a Graduate Research Consultant again, this time for a First Year Seminar RELI 077: “Martyrs and Warriors: Religion and the Problem of Violence” with Professor Bayne. A class on violence and religion is difficult at the best of times, but this semester was particularly so given the events both in our own community and abroad this year. I was happy to see that most of the students in RELI 077 approached the topic of religion and violence with a sense of immediacy and moral purpose.
My main role in the course was to help the students develop their final projects, which could take the form of papers, multimedia productions, or websites. The purpose of the final project was to help students think through the implications of the topics covered in the course for contemporary events, so many students chose to create websites to reflect their sense that a digital final product would better reflect the fluid state of affairs around many of their chosen topics.
Professor Bayne and I encouraged the students to base their websites around one incident or figure. About half of the students doing websites chose to look at issues in other countries, such as the religious motivation for Russia’s laws against “gay propaganda,” the role of Buddhist monks in encouraging violence against Myanmar’s Muslim minority, and the events surrounding the death of an American missionary in Ecuador. The other half chose to turn the analytic lenses they had learned to use on events in the United States, such as violence against abortion providers by extremist members of the Pro-Life movement, the August 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and vandalism at a Muslim school in Rhode Island in response to the shootings in Chapel Hill that wounded our community so deeply.
In working with the students on their projects, a few themes emerged. First, most of them wanted to consider the role that the traditional news media and social media played in the presentation of violence. The vandalism in Rhode Island, for example, was explicitly meant to respond to national debates over whether and how the shootings in Chapel Hill constituted a hate crime. Web sites, because they allow for the integration of videos, sounds, and social media like Twitter feeds, were ideal for tackling that topic. Second, although many of the students wanted to begin their analysis of violent events from the scriptures central to the religions involved, as they thought more deeply about their projects they found that familial, local, economic and political causes were often as influential as religious beliefs on the way that events played out.
My main challenge was to get the students to narrow and deepen their analysis of their chosen topics. From the perspective of a first-year student, it can be difficult to see how one might deal with a given incident without discussing all the possible texts and histories that might have led up to it. Showing them how to pick and choose in order to craft a story that they could reasonably complete—and which would be more comprehensible to their audiences—became a major part of almost all the meetings I had with students. It was a pleasure to watch as students began to understand why I was asking them to cut down what they expected to discuss, and began to make their own editorial decisions.
To see Professor Bayne’s reflection on this class, click here.