In this interview, Nicholaus Pumphrey tells us the lessons he and his students learn in approaching different religious spaces through traveling and offers tips on how to do so successfully.
- Tell us about #BakerTravels. Describe the project.
Every year, Baker University has a January term that we call Interterm. The purpose is that students take experiential learning courses to get a hands-on learning. It is also supposed to be a new experience and usually fun. Currently there is a history course taught through table top board games and a chemistry course taught through cooking. Often, professors do an abroad class in order for students to get out of their comfort zone and have a global cultural experience. Currently we have students on trips to Uganda, Mexico, Hawaii, the UK, Thailand, and Honduras. To share what students are doing abroad and domestically we use #BakerTravels to connect everyone together.
My course (An Examination of Sacred Space) was designed to give that same travel experience to students without leaving the Kansas/Missouri area. Every day, we travel to different religious spaces and examine how they are constructed. We ask the questions what makes each space sacred. This year we went to Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Methodist, AME, Community of Christ, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh spaces. This of course included cemeteries. The students literally had to use all their senses to observe the space and understand how it is constructed.
- Who or What sources informed the project?
There is so much interdisciplinary thought that went into this course but some of the major figures that I tell the students to read are Emile Durkheim, Victor Turner, Bjørn Thomassen, and Arnold van Gennep. I also use Michel Foucault, Yi-Fu Tuan, Henri Lefebvre, and Edward Soja. The majority of these are from anthropology and sociology. Two sources that I also recommend are Marie Cartier’s Baby, You are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall and Bret E. Carroll’s chapter “Worlds in Space: American Religious Pluraism in Geographic Perspective,” in Gods in America: Religious Pluralism in the United States (Oxford: 2013).
- What did you intend for your students to learn?
The main thing that I want students to learn is that space and humans mutually inform each other. We give space identity and it shapes how we interact within it. Space is a tangible thing that can be read and interpreted like any text, and students should consider the construction of space every day. I also want them to learn about the religions that exist in the Midwest and for them to experience religious spaces in which they are not familiar, as well as learning about their own spaces. I wanted to take an anthropological point of view to also show them that religious spaces can often be cross cultural and that many spaces are built in similarly regardless of the religion. I also wanted them to see within similar religious traditions that the congregation historically changes and alters space, based on an intersectional view.
- What did you observe them learning?
They eventually get the spatial similarities between the religions, but usually they are so overwhelmed with learning about other religions that it dominates their learning. Also a student or two will also focus on one image or aspect of a space, say the depiction of Mary or the ark that houses the Torah, and examines why they are different from place to place. Someone usually becomes hyper aware of spatial construction by the end of the course.
- What did you learn about your own pedagogy in carrying out the project?
The first year I taught it, I gave them no instruction about the religious spaces that we entered. Most students knew nothing about Islam outside of the media portrayal, and they had to observe for themselves what a Masjid actually looks like. I think this was a little bit of a mistake and this year I gave them a quick lecture about each religion we would see. So I learned it has to be a happy balance between no information and too much. I also pedagogically don’t want my students to see me as the all-knowing, master of knowledge that stands in front of them. This course really breaks that down, especially when we are sitting in the floor without shoes eating in a Gurdwara. I like that they can observe anything and everything and I have no control over their interpretation or what they see, smell, or touch. I want to somehow replicate that in the classroom like this course does. Maybe I need to go to class barefoot.
- What advice would you offer to anyone wanting to do this project in their own class?
Do not be afraid to go to spaces that you do not know or understand. Be willing to learn just like the students. You cannot do this course if you like everything to go according to a set schedule. Many of the spaces cancel at the last minute or the weather hits so you always need a back-up plan. We went to one space where the doors were locked. We went to another where our guide told us to make time to go to a church that was not on our list. One place never answered my calls. Also, make sure that the students check e-mails for all the previously stated reasons. In traveling with students, you need clear rules about the space in which you travel. The first year I heard things in the van that I did not want to hear, and so far the second time around, everything has been fine. Last but not least: allergy warnings and loud noises! We go places that feed us and burn incense. Students have to be prepared for allergies. I also had a case this year of a student not being able to be around loud noises, which was difficult in the Hindu temple.
This really is a great experience for students. Next year, I might invite faculty and staff to participate as well.
Nicholaus Pumphrey is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and curator of the Quayle Bible Collection at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas. He has presented and published works on religion, comics, and film.