by Margarita Mooney on December 22, 2011

This post originally appeared on the Black, White, & Gray blog.

Today after my students in Sociology of Religion took their final exam, I headed to Starbucks to read their evaluations. Just in case I needed a stiff one to get me through their comments, I ordered a dark roast. And then the fun started.

Now in my 5th year teaching this class, many of the earlier critiques were gone and all that was left were compliments. I smiled and laughed a few times as I turned over page after page of 40 very nice evaluations–the adjectives used to describe me included “amazing”, “very energetic” and “knowledgeable.”

What was different this time around? I think I found the right balance of texts and assignments. Unlike other sociology classes I teach at UNC, students who come to this class are not (for the most part) sociology majors. Many are religious studies majors, some are in biology, and many in English. All come because they are curious about religion, but not necessarily sociology of religion.

So I start them off with difficult readings from Daniel Pals’ Eight Theories of Religion on Weber and Marx, along with Karen Fields’ introduction to Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life. I mix more contemporary readings for those weeks to show why those theories are still relevant. Then I have them go out and observe a religious service and apply one of those theories to what they observed.

Undergraduates are very skilled observers of the social world, and I always look forward to reading their observations about Mormon congregations, megachurches, Bob Jones University chapel, and a whole host of religious organizations I have never heard of but are right under my nose.

Born and raised Catholic, I find it hysterical how students come up with creative names for Catholic things like the “stages of the cross” (instead of stations of the cross). Catholics don’t talk to each other at Mass (why would they, I wondered?) but they do stand, sit and kneel a whole lot, all together. I never really thought about how many times Catholics make the sign of the cross on themselves during Mass–but one student was so amazed she counted and I was amazed–I do it so automatically I don’t know I’m doing it so many times. And when it’s time for the Eucharist, students note, the whole tone of the service changes–the priest’s voice takes a different intonation, and everyone is really silent and reverent until the final blessing.

This year, for the first time, I also assigned Mark Chaves’ new book American Religion: Contemporary Trends. In just over 100 pages, he succintly presents survey data on the size of American congregations (they are getting bigger), leadership (fewer people in college want to attend seminary), diversity (there are fewer all-white congregations) and a host of other popular topics.

Chaves is careful to point out that a lot of what we hear about American religion is not true–on most survey measures of religiosity, for example, Americans are not more religious than they were 20 years ago.  I repeatedly tell students that much of what we read about religion stands out because it is not representative of a larger trend. One student wrote on her evaluation: “This class allowed me to learn the truth about religion in America and exposed the facts behind the misconceptions I hear all the time.” Thanks–my job has been done!

Randall Balmer’s Video “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” has amazing scenes of African-American Pentecostals, White Suburban Evangelicals, Rural Revival Camps, and Fundamentalists. In his Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion a few years ago, Donald Miller called on sociologists to use more audiovisual material–if religion is profoundly something we do, why not show people what religion looks and sounds like? Balmer’s video may seem dated to my students–1989 for them might as well be 1929–but Balmer captures the beginning of the megachurch movement in his interviews with the founders of Willow Creek in Chicago, and his footage of African-American Pentecostals is just amazing. In this digital age where we refresh our browsers to see the latest information, good information is still just timeless and priceless.

Students’ research papers were also strong and creative. One student wrote to Mark Chaves and Scott Thuma (multiple times) to track down the latest information on multi-site megachurches, arguing that this trend shows megachurches are becoming like denominations. Others wrote excellent papers on religion and mental health, for example.

As they took their exam, I read the Wall Street Journal on my Ipad (a few students noted that I’m cool because I bring my Ipad to class and use it).  A long article in today’s WSJ examines how university administrators and professors are handling increasing mental illness among students.

Some students can succeed (with some accommodations) despite their mental illness. Others cannot. Assigning a lot of hard work early in the semester allows me to see quickly who can’t keep up, and then I try to find out why. When I find out there is a serious problem, I send the student to see a Dean. After that, the Dean gives me some feedback that helps me decide how to handle that particular case, but I don’t probe too much about the deeper issues–it’s better to have professionals helping students with their larger and psychological issues.

I spent much of today wondering about the fate of the numerous students this semester who told me they are dealing with mental illness and/or personal problems. Some of them made it through class, but others did not. Will those who made it continue successfully? Will those who had to drop come back? What will happen next to all of my students?

Why do I love teaching sociology of religion? For the content and for the people. After those comments and final conversations with students today, I felt that spiritual motherhood I wrote about earlier. It was only a semester, but I connected with my students, and that connection endures in spirit if no longer in person.