Civic Engagement and Civic Spaces

14 10 2010

This article was originally posted on the Religious Studies News website, October 2010

 

Religion in the City

One of my aims of teaching religion is to make the familiar seem unfamiliar. It was with this in mind that I took my third-year undergraduate class, “Religion and the City,” to a Salvation Army shelter in downtown Toronto. For two hours, our guide and local expert, Anthony, a former crack-addict who had lived on the streets for eight years, gave my class a tour of the city, our city, from the perspective of a person experiencing homelessness.

“It was a lot quieter before the revitalization,” Anthony remarked as we walked through Toronto’s Yonge and Dundas Square (which some call the Times Square of Canada). We had just walked through the massive Eaton’s Centre when I turned to make sure that I had not lost any would-be shoppers to the call of the mall and observed several students reaching for their cameras to snap pictures of Canada’s busiest intersection. I was somewhat surprised by their desire to capture this moment — the students’ interaction with this space stood in sharp contrast to Anthony’s intimate knowledge of the site. This interlude raises important questions about the necessity of offering opportunities for civic engagement both inside and outside our classrooms.

This course offered students a chance to develop their own theory that could then be applied across historical and cultural realms. I specifically was interested in encouraging the students to look at the ways that religious and secular narratives described and constructed categories of the insider and outsider within civic spaces. I emphasized that we can understand meaning-making as deriving from both official and unofficial narratives. In doing so, I wanted them to understand that their lived experiences outside of the classroom could also serve as primary sources or “texts” available for scholarly examination (Morton, 2002: 41–42).

The course texts — biblical passages, novels, poetry, essays, documentary films, and a field trip — provided case studies with which we, as a class, could develop a theoretical approach to non-conventional sacred spaces in both ancient and contemporary worlds. In the first half of the course we read, among other texts, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which we used as the model for exploring specific questions related to ontological constructions of the self and community. In the second half of the course we read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion (Knopf Doubleday, 1997), which is a modern retelling of the Gilgamesh narrative set in early twentieth century Toronto. Ondaatje’s poetic novel combines fiction and reality to tell the unofficial history of the working-class immigrants responsible for the construction of Toronto. More than once we joked that we were starting our own religion, “Ondaatje-ism,” which would have certainly dismayed the well-known Canadian fiction icon.

Although we did not start our own religion, we did develop our own theory. With a healthy dose of Foucault and Jonathan Z. Smith, we constructed a theory that we were confident applying to several case studies. I suggested to the students that in respect to the title of our course, “Religion and the City,” perhaps there is a religion of the city that could be identified in Ondaatje’s novel. The characters in the novel are forced to express their identity by investing in nonconventional spaces while opposing established authority structures. Our task then was to ask the same questions about, and to apply the same theory to, contemporary Toronto. More specifically, who is included and excluded in the physical construction and cognitive imaginings of Toronto in 2010? What sites become nonconventional sacred sites to those who define themselves as citizens non grata in opposition to the establishment?

These questions were addressed in a major assignment for the course. I instructed students to select their own spaces within the city of Toronto that they felt resembled spaces described above and to apply our theory to those sites. In order to help them, I offered my own example, the Salvation Army’s Gateway Shelter and Drop-in Centre, for people experiencing homelessness in downtown Toronto.

 

Civic Engagement as Knowledge-Production

So it was on a chilly March morning I took my class to the shelter where they spoke first with Dion Oxford, the manager, who addressed the challenges of urban homelessness. He then turned the class over to the aforementioned Anthony, who runs walking tours of the city to provide community groups with insights into the ways in which individuals experiencing homelessness navigate Toronto’s downtown core.

The Religion in the Public Sphere (RPS) Initiative at the University of Toronto was established three years ago with the intent to provide a forum for interdisciplinary conversations among scholars, students, and community members concerning religion in public venues (politics, art, education, etc). Several RPS initiatives are directed primarily toward undergraduate students, including the student steering committee, an online blog forum, and the opportunity to take a service-learning course.

While not directly related to the RPS initiative, the goal of the “Religion and the City” course was to incorporate some of the core themes of research focusing on public manifestations of religion, and was made possible in conjunction with generous funding from the Jackman Humanities Foundation. The course was initially taught in 2008 by Pamela Klassen (director of the RPS Initiative) and graduate student Arlene MacDonald (who has since received her PhD from the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion). They passed on to me a format that emphasised ethnographic engagement within civic spaces.

Civic engagement as a pedagogical practice has been defined in numerous ways (Battistoni 2002; Boyer 1990; Ehrlich 1999; Tritelli 2003). At the most basic level it suggests a collaborative and reciprocal interaction between students and the community at large. Civic engagement promotes a framework of learning in which students are encouraged to understand themselves as agents or participants in their field of study and in relation to their object of study. Ideally it positions students to ask intelligent and meaningful questions about their own roles within their communities and social spheres of influence.

In employing this framework, I aspired to provide my students with nonconventional objects of study and to challenge them to include their own subjective experiences and epistemologies in their analyses of religion (Palmer 1998: 106). From the perspective of the “Religion and the City” course, a focus on civic engagement meant the production of knowledge in an environment that is not inaccessible but rather one in which the students could take personal ownership over both their topic and method of study.

In my view, the class trip to the Gateway provided students with an opportunity to learn within a framework of civic engagement. As we followed Anthony through the streets of Toronto, he paused frequently to shake hands in jovial camaraderie with men and women who are likewise a part of street culture. Anthony introduced the students to a space that many of them have occupied for years and offered a completely different perspective. At the city courthouse, where one of my students had served as an intern, Anthony told us about various fights in the basement holding cells. At Eaton’s Centre, where another student worked as a sales clerk, Anthony reported to us that he is often rudely asked to leave by mall security. Finally, in the park in front of the twenty-four-story apartment building in which I live, Anthony reminisced about the nights he had slept in the park as part of an all-night “sleep-out” designed to draw attention to affordable housing needs in Toronto. After Anthony left, I pointed to my building and admitted to my students that I do not know my neighbors’ names, and then asked my students the following: who is really at home in these spaces? (Bouma-Prediger and Walsh, 2008).

 

Expanding Boundaries in the City and in the Classroom

Teaching and studying at the University of Toronto provides a great venue for theorizing about and interacting with urban spaces. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I was surprised to witness my students stop to take pictures during the trip. Upon closer reflection, I realized that because the city of Toronto is a so-called megacity with an ever-expanding metropolitan conglomeration of sizable suburban municipalities, the majority of my students reside in the suburbs and in a very real way were tourists in their own town.

While the students understood themselves as Torontonians, many of them later reported to me that this identity was one that they tentatively held because they felt uncertain about what the major issues and concerns were for the city. With this in mind, one of my goals in teaching this course is to provide a space where students can draw connections between their learning inside the classroom and their lived experiences outside of the university. As Parker Palmer suggests, the teacher’s role is one that allows students “to be introduced to a world that expands their personal boundaries and enlarges their sense of community” (120).

In an attempt to have the students expand personal boundaries and better understand the city, I encouraged them to select and analyze sites that would challenge them to view the city from an unfamiliar perspective. Furthermore, I told them that they would be evaluated not only on their critique but also on their selection of data. Following my lead, many of the students selected sites that are central to specific subcultures within the city (the Gay Village, Jewish or Muslim community organizations, domestic abuse care centers, the University’s Centre for Women and Trans People), whereas others chose to focus on what have traditionally been viewed as ethnic neighborhoods within Toronto (Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Portugal) or neighborhoods that are notorious for violence and gang activity (Toronto’s Flemingdon Park and Regent Park).

In the end, I was surprised by the number of students who selected sites in which they were personally invested. In their papers, students reflected on and problematized their own interactions with their selected sites. Since the focus was on the way that spaces create narratives that include some while excluding others, the assignment provided an opportunity for students to challenge some of their own communities’ practices regarding the construction of boundaries and the implementation of authoritative systems.

I have left my definition of “civic engagement” intentionally broad. As a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for the Study of Religion, I am sensitive to the reluctance of many of my colleagues to employ pedagogical practices that might be deemed ideological or values-driven. For example, in providing Anthony such a generous allocation of class time, one might assume that I am emphasizing my own personal (albeit fairly normative) commitments to reducing homelessness in Toronto. I have yet to resolve this concern, but I found it helpful to address the issue with the students in class as part of our discussion and reflection about the field trip. In doing so, I hope that I am attending to Jonathan Z. Smith’s instance that we must reveal to students the hard work that goes into our pedagogical and intellectual endeavors.

A lot of the research focusing on civic engagement promotes a classroom experience that compels students to be involved in political activities and social justice initiatives. There is a concern that university-educated individuals are becoming less involved in civic responsibilities (Putnam, 2000). In fact, there have been calls from student groups, community organizations, and university educators to integrate intellectual and practical venues for civic engagement (Zlotkowski and Williams, 2003). To date, service-learning initiatives are one of the primary ways through which this integration has been successfully accomplished (Devine, Favazza, and McLain, 2002). This initiative is a popular option for independent students with the means and aptitude for experiential learning. In order to truly meet the demands for a cohesive integration of the concerns of civic engagement, universities must move beyond one-off courses and begin to integrate these themes into the curriculum and learning objectives of more established courses.

In my experience it was optimal to use the resources already available to students in the course. They served as resident experts of Toronto and were able to identify objects of study within their own neighborhoods and communities. Assured that they were indeed already experts, and armed with a new method of looking at civic spaces from a different perspective, my students uncovered a city that was simultaneously less and more familiar to us all.

Syllabus – Religion and the City – King





Take My Exam . . . Trust Me, It’s “Cool”

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, April 28, 2010

It’s the end of term and I’ve been overwhelmed with the hectic activities of marking and . . . well, marking. I’ve barely watched the news. There was a volcano or something that erupted, right? For the past few days my whole life has been consumed by marking final exams. With this in mind, I thought that instead of writing something new I would hit two birds with one stone and blog about my final exam.

My students think I’m cooler than I am. Or at least I like to think they do. This is because I try to bring the study of religion into conversation with phenomena that is socially relevant to what I imagine are the daily musings of an undergraduate student. Usually, I fail miserably: like the times I told them that Jonathan Z. Smith is the Tom Cruise of religious studies, referred to Gilgamesh and Enkidu as BFFs, and passed around Kool-Aid Jammers while screening a documentary on Jonestown.

But I think I got things right this time.

In my third year ‘Religion and the City’ course we looked at theories surrounding the ways that civic sites and identities become invested with ‘sacred’ meaning. Primarily we discussed the narratives that individuals and communities create in order to represent their relationships to, what one might term, non-conventional sacred spaces. All semester, we built theories involving North American religious identity; the ways, à la J. Z. Smith, that religions endorse locative or utopian worldviews; and the manner through which those on the margins subvert urban structures in order to articulate new or different ontologies.

I tried to draw connections between our material and the so-called “real world.” I showed them clips of Sarah Palin and Disney cartoons and attempted to argue that the hit movie Avatar is really a re-creation of Paul’s project in Rome.

Twenty-minutes into their three hour exam, I turned down the lights and announced that it was time for the audio-visual component of the exam. They smiled (or maybe smirked?) as the image of the Grammy-winning rapper Jay-Z (who I like to call “the other J-Z”) appeared in on the screen.


The exam question was as follows:

You have just been shown the music video for “Empire State of Mind” by hip hop artist Jay-Z, featuring guest contribution by R&B and soul singer-songwriter Alicia Keys. The lyrics have also been distributed to you. Making reference to both the lyrics and the images in the video, please answer the following questions.

  1. Identify the “speaker(s)” and the intended audience. Of what does the “speaker(s)” wish to persuade the audience?
  2. Is this a locative or utopian worldview? What leads you to your conclusion and why?
  3. What does the song suggest about human identity, civic/urban spaces and (potential) transcendence?
  4. How does the narrative of the song represent the city of New York? What does it suggest about American identity? Is it necessary that New York serve as the protagonist in this song (for example, could the same song feature Toronto or Istanbul or another major urban center?). Do you think that the lyrics would have been different if the song had been released prior to September 11th, 2001?
  5. Imagine that Jay-Z has asked you to adapt this song to Toronto. What themes and images would you include in your version of the song? Provide some sample lyrics of your song.

The students’ answers were brilliant! Absolutely brilliant!!!

They drew comparisons between Jay-Z’s text and the texts that we examined this term (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Augustine’s City of God, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion), our case studies (which examined the early Jesus Movement, Mormonism, Jonestown and the Salvation Army’s Gateway Shelter in Toronto’s downtown core) and our major theoretical interlocutors (Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm, Harold Bloom, Belden C. Lane, Michel Foucault, David Sibley and Mark Kingwell).

Their own attempts at rapping were innovative and definitely, in my opinion, give Jay-Z a run for his money (of which he has a lot). They mostly looked towards the identity of Toronto as a city of neighbourhoods, a multicultural haven for new immigrants to Canada and a place where diverse lifestyles are embraced. My students spoke to elements of Toronto that both evoke pride and inspire change—in some instances they even found time to suggest ways that they would like to change some of the negative aspects of our city.

I learned a lot from them, lessons which can only make me cooler for future pedagogical efforts.





Avatar, Ever-After

31 08 2010

Originally posted on The Religion Beat, January 13, 2010

I have given up trying to define religion. I agree with most scholars of religion that attempts at defining it lead to generalizations and undermine the importance of a subject matter in which both internal and external tensions exist. Instead, I challenge my students to look at the ways in which religions struggle for legitimacy and authority. My class focuses on the ways in which religious agents and communities produce narratives as a means of constructing and maintaining their worldviews and identities. This was the topic of my most recent lecture on religious representations of civic space and the Epic of Gilgamesh. I was surprised after my most recent lecture when one of my students declared that I absolutely had to see James Cameron’s futuristic, implicitly anti-war, post-colonial, eco-apocalypse, Avatar.

Originally, my inner Luddite had anticipated that the three-hour long movie’s 3-D, stereoscopic imaging technology would leave me dizzy and nauseous, but the student’s insistence and (perhaps) my general graduate student desire to procrastinate actual thesis writing in the name of “research” convinced me to give the new-fangled technology a try.
The film itself is ripe with obvious religious references. Jake Sully, the Christ-figure (see image) is identified as the “chosen one” for the Na’vi tribe (note the use of the ancient Hebrew word for prophet) who live in harmony with nature on the moon-planet, Pandora. Sully is sent by the Sky People (humans) to take the form of one of the Na’vi peoples in order to bring them a specific message. In doing so he learns the ways of the Na’vi people from Neytiri, the daughter of the tribe’s chief who is herself in training to take over from her mother as the spiritual leader of the Omaticaya Clan.
The Na’vi people claim a spiritual connection to all of nature as well as to their mother-goddess, Eywa. Their religious rituals are a complicated, communal affair and they are able to at times tap into the power of Eywa in a tangible way (so as to retrieve memories from their ancestors at the Tree of Souls, or, as at the end of the movie, to transfer Jake Sully’s mind from his human body to his avatar).
Many have already pointed to the religious representations in the film. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat attacks the films “gospel of pantheism” which he argues has been the “religion of choice” for a generation of Hollywood filmmakers: from the Jedi force in George Lucas’ Star Wars to the eco-worship advocated in Disney’s Lion King and Pocahontas. Douhat, apparently, feels that the pantheistic message of the film lacks the credibility of “traditional theism,” which he argues delves into questions of good and evil in a way that nature worship does not.
Some sites have pointed out the more nuanced Judeo-Christian imagery in the film, such as Kwok Pui-Lan, contributor to Religious Dispatches, who detects parallels between the Book of Joshua’s story about the prostitute Rahab. Pui-Lan also links Avatar to what she suggests is a subversive atonement theology influenced by liberation theology (the oppressed Na’vi “rise up in solidarity to fight against the colonizers”).
Responding to Douthat, John Podhoretz points out that the nature-worship and pagan rituals are not necessarily the promotion of a sustainability gospel. Alternatively, he suggests that the Na’vi pantheism is used to give the “special-effects some resonance”— not because it is controversial, but rather because it is “most pleasing to the greatest number of people.”
And certainly, the majority of the viewers in the audience will (and in my opinion, should) cheer for Eywa, the mother-goddess over the militaristic, shock-and-awe tactics of the human (read: American) Sky People. The Sky People are heartless opportunists whereas the Na’vi possess an authentic, unbiased spiritual concern for the well-being of all.
But the religious narrative of the film takes a crucial turn right before the final battle, when our hero, Jake Sully, goes to the Tree of Souls to pray to Eywa. “I’m probably just talking to a tree” he pronounces, but nevertheless he asks that she watch over them and guide them to victory. The heroine, Neytiri, explains that Jake’s request is theologically untenable, our Great Mother does not take sides, Jake. She protects only the balance of life.”
Sully appears to accept Neytiri’s statement and the two venture off to prepare for battle. The underdog Na’vi put up a valiant effort against the Sky People but are on the verge of losing the battle and all hope until the last moment when Eywa intervenes by summing the wildlife of Pandora to join the fight.
This deus ex machina, or perhaps more appropriately, deus ex natura moment suggests a radical departure from the theological/ontological structure of the Na’vi religious economy. Instantly, Eywa is transformed into a deity who is much more readily aligned with the familiar image and actions of the Judeo-Christian God – a deity who takes sides, judges between good and evil and punishes transgressors and rewards the faithful.
This transformation is most clearly symbolized by Sully’s “re-birth” as an Avatar in which he dies in one life (the human) to be reborn as a new self. It is hard to imagine a more Pauline-derived Evangelical metaphysics.
Thus, the battle is won and the Sky People are sent home to their dying planet, Earth. But as viewers, we are left wondering at what cost? Post-colonial theory tells us that once colonial contact has been made there is no returning to a pre-contact existence. Every aspect of a society and culture necessarily react to this exchange. In the case of the religious narratives of the Na’vi, they now must contend with a deity who turns out to be something different than what they originally thought. What is worse is the only one who truly understood their Na’vi deity and her will is an outsider from a different race and planet, not the Na’vi themselves.
Cameron has hinted that he would like to produce a sequel and possibly create a trilogy out of the film. In this case, one wonders how the religious structures and beliefs of the Na’vi have been altered by their interactions with the Sky People? As an anthropologist of religion, I cannot help but wonder whether the Sky People have left more than Jake Sully (and select others) behind? Did they also leave the relational, interventionist God of Christianity, and if so, what lasting effects will this distinctive representation of a deity have upon the cultural narratives of the Na’vi?







Savage Minds

Notes and Queries in Anthropology

Culture on the Edge

Studies in Identity Formation