“Religion-related News from Around the Web”: Giving a Critical Eye to Your Sources

Lately my mind has been on curriculum development and learning goals as I re-vamp my fall syllabi. I think I discovered a new assignment for my Introduction to Religion class. This morning, as I scrolled through the tweets on my feed, The Pew Forum (@pewforum) asked: “#Religion news junkie? Our “Religion News on the Web” feature allows you to filter articles by topic and region: pewrsr.ch/ZNBEKX.” Perfect.

In the past I had assigned students to read current events, news stories, blogs, etc. and “find” religion. Often students found the “Religion” section or blog of a popular outlet like the New York Times, or CNN”s Belief Blog, or “Religion” at the Huffington Post, all of which gave plenty of material, but, I thought, was too “obviously” religion for what I had intended and, therefore, didn’t present much of a challenge to write about. Essays would be broad summaries instead of critical reflections. Rather than fight their urge to discover “religion” [the category] by searching for the word “religion,” the Pew Forum’s “Religion News on the Web” inspired me to embrace their impulse. Here’s today’s run-down as of 10:00 AM.

http://www.pewforum.org/Religion-News/Religion-News-on-the-Web.aspx accessed 7/10/2013 at 10AM
http://www.pewforum.org/Religion-News/Religion-News-on-the-Web.aspx accessed 7/10/2013 at 10AM

“Religion-related” means clergy (nothing is more religious than the Pope, right?), a “religious” group (duh, it’s Islam, right?), and abortion. Wait. Is abortion an inherently “religious” topic? Why? (issues of life and/or death are always religious…?)

The intent of the original assignment was to get students to notice the way in which the category of religion is socially constructed and employed in various ways (by writing sympathetically of certain religious groups, but not others, for instance). The assignment worked for some, but mostly didn’t. I still think the assignment can be effective, so now I’m thinking I’ll tweak it to ask students to think of outlets, like the Pew Forum, as curators of information, defining “religion-related” topics in their own way and presenting them to the public. Their task would be to figure out what “religion” means to the source and the consequences of that presentation. Hopefully, it can be a tool for critical thinking, reflection, and deepen their understanding of the social construction of “religion.”

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The Cheating Kind

Last week, the New York Times reported on the culture of cheating at Stuyvesant High School. 71 students were caught sharing answers on an exam and, in what many readers found surprising, revealed to Vivian Lee why it was acceptable. Lee explained:

“By the time they graduate, many have internalized a moral and academic math: Copying homework is fine, but cheating on a test is less so; cheating to get by in a required class is more acceptable than cheating on an Advanced Placement exam; anything less than a grade of 85 is “failing”

The expectations for achievement, especially getting accepted into a top-notch university, have led students, their parents, and the teachers to accept cheating as a logical–and even acceptable–means to an end. Stuyvesant is certainly not alone. Widespread cheating–excused by the pressures of achievement and  rationalized as necessary to reaching goals–occurs in colleges as much as high school. This utilitarian approach to cheating has caused Claire Potter, at Tenured Radical, to call out not only teachers but also “privileged students who blame everyone but themselves.” While this phenomenon causes many instructors to critique the barrage of standardized testing, Potter asks:

“How did we reach a consensus that cheating is an appropriate way to deal with academic stress?  If so, why is it appropriate? And what are the consequences of making cheating integral to the culture of excellence? Imagine if Nixon had explained the Watergate break-in by telling us he was really stressed out about the election.”

Like Tenured Radical, I have little empathy for students who blame their cheating on stress. At the same time, I think the prevalence of cheating places a responsibility on the instructor to explain to students the fallacies in their cheating moral calculus. As Stanley Fish asserted a couple years ago: Plagiarism is a learned sin. While students may see immediate results in cheating (despite our best efforts to catch them, some students will cheat their way to an A), we need to help them see the consequences beyond our courses. If we are not talking about how our classes matter after the final exam (or challenging them to recognize it themselves), why should they think beyond getting above that “failing” 85 on the next assignment? In spite of what students have been trained to think, the grade is not the most important part of the course. After all, the more you know, the more you know.