What to do with “God in America”

22 Oct
Public Broadcasting Service

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In a previous post I wondered about the possibilities of remixing America’s religious history. Giving the difficulties of managing the technical aspects of creating remixes, I wondered, how could I juggle content mastery with teaching students to present their ideas in a new media. This dilemma was raised again for me in a breakout session on teaching in the Digital History workshop at the WHA in Tahoe earlier this month (see live tweets #dfwha2010). With all the discussion about PBS’ God in America series, it occurred to me that it might be possible to use the series as the basis for a course that privileges deconstruction of the (maligned) narrative that PBS built and therefore employ remixes as a way for students to create counter-narratives that explicitly engage the primary source. Perhaps the documentary would provide a shortcut allowing us to manage both content and technical mastery.

I’m going to outline such a plan in a second, but first you should take a look at some of the major responses to God in America. Here’s a short annotated list:

“Whose God in America” by Marian Ronan (Religion Dispatches): Ronan argues that we see here how “American Protestants—mostly white ones—have struggled heroically throughout history to achieve religious freedom in the United States.” The series ignores issues of race and gender, making America’s God explicitly male and white.

“God in America, Part One: An Exercise in the Evangelical Whig View of Early American Religious History” by John Fea (The Way of Improvement Leads Home / Religion in American History): “The story of ‘God in America,'” Fea writes, “… is best told by following a direct line between Hutchinson and Whitefield, culminating in the American Revolution.” The stress is on evangelicals and the political gains brought by religious folks, which leads Fea to quip, “At times I thought I was sitting in a lecture at Glenn Beck University.”

“The Brutality of the American Eden” by Paul Harvey (Religion Dispatches): Harvey sees the series as focusing primarily on religion in the public sphere and argued that “The theme of the series is Exodus, liberty, and religious freedom; how, it asks, did we become a beacon of religious liberty and expression?” The problem with this perspective, he continues, is that more often we might find the themes of “coercion and authority” to be explanatory about our nation’s religious history. Where are these in this story?

“Religion Profs Critique PBS’ God Documentary, Call it Simplistic” by Matthew Avery Sutton (Religion Dispatches): Sutton feels academic voices have unfairly raised issues of simplicity and that the series managed to cover several centuries of history in 6 hours with as much “nuance, complexity, and context” as we might all hope to inject into our own longer, more academically oriented works. For its audience, the series hit the mark and scholars should be thankful that PBS was willing to stand in the gap between the public and the ivory towers.

“How Faith Transformed America: A Review of God in America” by Edward J. Blum (Patheos): Blum sees a shift in the role of religion in this narrative because it is presented as formative in the building of the American nation. This places religion not as the object of other forces such as “economics, politics, and social change” but alongside them as another competing force in our history. He goes on to argue that in the future these kinds of documentaries will turn more westward, increasingly focus on race’s importance throughout our history, and place the body at the center of the story. These will counteract the series’ emphasis on New England and the East coast, slavery and the Civil War as the only racial chapter in our narrative, and a preoccupation with religion as mind or belief.

Let’s say that these authors are all essentially correct in their arguments. We can agree with Ronan that gender and race have been subverted, pursue Fea’s contention that the religious perspective is largely evangelical and Whiggish, look to the effects of coercion and authority to follow Harvey’s advice, acknowledge the issue of audience and complexity in storytelling thanks to Sutton, and place a greater emphasis on the West and religious bodies à la Blum.

This is a great set of critiques and suggestions, and what it spells out to me is the possibility for using God in America as a stepping stone to explore why America’s religious history is not at all what PBS has encouraged American audiences to think it is. It may be the case that PBS is not the forum to make America’s religious history more complex, but my classroom certainly is.

I’m going to pretend I have 30 days (10 weeks) for this course–that’s about standard for a quarter or trimester schedule and is what my university offers–and I’ll assume that it is a middle to upper division course that meets 3x a week for 50 minutes. [I also presume that you’ve got access to a computer lab and/or video editing lab. Any university with a film studies program should have at least one of these.] I’ve split the course into two parts below to discuss their different goals and organization.

Part One: On alternating days we’d focus on reviewing God in America and relevant critical material that would challenge the PBS narrative.

Leaving Day 1 aside for business and course introductions, I’d reserve pairs of days 2-13 for each of the six episodes. I’d assign each of the episodes as homework for the first day and follow them on the second day with secondary critical reading materials covering the same periods/events/persons. Every day when the homework was watching an episode I’d start with a quiz that would be a significant enough % of the final grade to ensure that the appropriate incentive to watch the episodes was in place. Every day when the homework was reading secondary materials they would need to turn in a 1-2 page response connecting the reading with the episodes (with a specific prompt or two to choose from).

The goal would be to get the students to focus first on what is said and then on what isn’t said. The challenge here will be on recognizing editorial bias and providing students with enough factual background to make counter-assertions. The quizzes will help track how well the class understands and recognizes the documentary’s narrative and its composition, while the written responses will encourage them to deal directly with competing versions of events. We’re all going to enter the murky waters of history together to figure out the consequences of silence, omission, narrative bias, and consensus history.

Part Two: On days 14-30 we’d begin to collapse the boundaries established between God in America and the critical issues raised in discussion and by the secondary literature. To emerge with something that weaves together the original narrative and criticisms of that narrative, students would form small groups to produce short 10 minute video segments that re-tell portions of PBS’ series.

In the first two weeks of this section of the class (days 14-19) students would get a crash course on the various elements of video production. We’d need to spend time using a computer lab looking at a video editor, analyzing clips from the God in America series to show how they were constructed, and talking about different roles that students will have to play in order to successfully produce a video clip such as writers, videographers, producers, directors, and editors.

Students would be required to participate in each stage of production, starting with a proposal, storyboard and script, rough cut, and final cut. As they began to learn about how to make the video in the first two weeks (days 14-19), students would also begin work on their video final projects. At the end of the first week I would expect groups to submit a proposal identifying what section of the documentary they’ve selected and what they intend to add or change or modify. I’d preselect an appropriate number of clips to choose from and let groups choose them from the master list so that a) there are no duplicates and b) that I can assign further readings to contribute to the video production and class discussions.

While they continued to learn about making their videos in the second week (days 17-19), I’d hold conferences with the groups to discuss their choices. This will allow me to guide their development and provide suggestions for content that can be changed or adapted in the original broadcast. By the third week (days 20-22) students would present their storyboards and early drafts of their scripts to the class for critique. Spending a week on these will give students an opportunity to get ideas from each other as well as prevent any group from slacking off and saving the creation of their video for the last minute. Since there will be additional readings for these clips there will be plenty of voices and information that will add to the discussion of each group’s remix.

The next week (23-25) would similarly be devoted to showing rough cuts of videos and receiving peer feedback. Whereas the emphasis in the previous week will have been on narrative (storyboard/script), this week will look to advise groups about the way they have made their vision come alive. On the one had there will be technical issues. Is the volume level? Do the transitions go smoothly? Is it long enough or too long? And then there will be impact questions. What statement is the remix making? Does it do a good job making its point? How does the piece hold together as a single unit? Are there any glaring omissions, errors of fact, or other content mistakes?

Final cuts would be due the next week, with twice as much time allotted so that we can view the original clips from God in America alongside the remixes and still have time for discussion.

Grading of this section of the course will be multi-layered. First, they’ll be evaluated internally and externally at each stage of the production. I’ll complete a rubric grading their offering at the storyboard, rough, and final cut stages, but they will also need to submit a group evaluation to ensure that students are sharing the workload. The final product will also be evaluated by the entire class (to make sure everyone pays attention to something they’ve seen at least once before). These different grading elements of the project will all contribute to their final grade in the course (weighted approximately 60%.) This will ensure that groups don’t “flop” and fail spectacularly because their group didn’t work out so well, but also make it clear that the product itself is a significant intellectual outcome of the course.

The continual challenge of the second half of this proposed course will be getting students to reverse the logic of the first half of the course. When we paired an episode with secondary literature we should have easily slipped into critiques and analyses based on the documentary as a primary source. When we’re making videos we need to take what was said by scholars and turn it into a visual argument. This may require students to paraphrase secondary authors into voice overs or write a play-acting scene to rebut PBS’ docu-drama or even recruit faculty, graduate or undergraduates to do a line or two on camera. We will now be the ones creating what is said–that carries with it the kind of bareness that we subjected God in America to at the beginning of the course.

As Sutton suggests, I think we’ll all find out that it is much easier to criticize given the wealth of complexity that can be brought to the table on any given issue, and we’ll have to learn how to defend our editorial decisions. If the first section of the course made the historical waters murky, I’ll expect students to present a story that calms those waters with its own clear perspective.

Objections? Suggestions? Comment away below.

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One Response to “What to do with “God in America””

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. I Know What I Won’t Be Doing Today: Phineas & Ferb & Nonreligion « A Lively Experiment - December 3, 2012

    […] Unlike some other items I’ve written about previously–Hereafter (2010) or Sherlock Holmes–supernaturalism and even the unexplained are undesireable. The exceptions, as in season 3′s “Phineas and Ferb and the Temple of Jutchadoon,” are often dreams  or obvious movie satires. They are part of why I continue to enjoy the show, even though it earns me no little ribbing from my wife. The writers are keen cultural consumers, linking every episode in thousands of ways to popular film, fiction, and music. Reference hunting makes the show endlessly fascinating to me. I have become a serious proponent of Kirby Ferguson’s work, Everything is a Remix. While I’ll probably continue to wonder how Phineas and Ferb will deal with the bugaboo of religion, I’m sure not going to stop watching. In the meanwhile, perhaps you should get on board with our remix culture (as I’ve also argued before once or twice). […]

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