Making Lecture Slides

I have never been tempted to use those PowerPoint templates or slide themes, they were always too tacky to me. I’ve developed my own lecture slide style over the years, and while it has matured over that time, there are still several principles I have come to consider non-negotiable.

Given the universal usage of presentation software (PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, etc.) in the classroom, it is quite shocking to me how few internet resources discuss the creation of effective lecture slides. The best I’ve found is Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching. Many online resources are directed towards perfecting business presentations, and while useful ideas can be gleaned from these I find the rhetorical situation (purpose, audience, topic, etc.) of the boardroom to be different from that of the classroom. It should follow that design conventions would be different as well.

Basic Slide Design

In my earliest days of lecturing (starting around 2005) I designed my slides with just images. I considered the slides (I used, and still regularly use, PowerPoint) to be the same as “old-fashioned” projection slides used in art history classes. I choose images that complemented what I was saying, either in depicting particular people, places, or events, or in providing a visual metaphor that helped give shape to an abstract idea. I wrote a lot on the white/black board back then. I thought that if the students had to write it, I should also take the time to write it.

My slides today have significantly more writing on them, but I still consider images to be the main focal point. Here is a breakdown of how I create lecture slides, focusing on basic design elements. In writing this post I realized that I’ve naturally developed three basic design templates: text-heavy slides, image-heavy slides, and image-text slides.

To start, I first choose one aesthetically pleasing, high-resolution image as the “cover image” for the first slide. I incorporate the lecture title and date. (Because of an old job as a book cover designer when I have the time I treat each cover image slide as a design problem, playing around with how I incorporate the title and other information, as if a book cover.)

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Example: Cover Slide

For example, this image depicts a figure (Bālakṛṣṇa) that is central to my topic (Hindu devotional literature). Sometimes it is difficult to locate imagery that matches closely with the topic or to find an image with the necessary resolution. In these cases I will select an image that is more loosely related to the theme (say, an image of the Ganges River). This cover image then serves as my background for my text-heavy slide template.

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Example: Text-heavy Slide

By using the same image I hope to create a subtle visual clue that unifies the day’s lecture material. Sometimes, if I switch to a significantly different topic during the lecture I will change the background image to also visually suggest the change in theme.

Let me break down the design of this text-heavy slide. I typically type text on top of a partially transparent white box, usually around 30 percent transparency (here, because the background image is so busy, the box is closer to opaque than normal). The title box identifies the theme (here: “Vishnu”) and subtopic (“Overview”). This theme/subtopic layout is the only element that is carried over to (almost) every slide of the lecture. It is important for students to easily identify these components, and thus the theme is the largest font (32 pt) on the slide, while the subtopic is smaller (20 pt).

I’ve become accustomed to including the pages of that day’s readings in this box as well (at 16 pt). I used to regularly add the page numbers to the notes sections on the PowerPoint slides for my personal reference, but I’ve recently began to share these with the students by placing them direclty on the slide itself. It allows direct reference to the readings if necessary and helps the students study.

The main content text is organized by bullet points. I typically use 24 pt. font here for this text. (And yes, I use different types of bullet points to create visual correspondences. For this class, I’m using Dharma Wheels for all the lectures on Buddhism, yinyangs for all the lectures on Daoism, etc.)

I’ve been slowly shifting to using more complete sentences, but I’m aware that this may be problematic – students spend a lot of time writing everything on a slide before they start listening to you speak. I should be clear here – I never advance a text-heavy slide with all of the content showing at the outset. Using the “Animation” function in PowerPoint I fade in each bullet point as I come to it. This eliminates the “text shock” that can come from seeing a slide filled with text and paces when the students write/type.

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Example: Text-heavy Slide (quotation)

I also use this slide format to cite longer quotations I want the class to read together. In this case I cite the primary (or secondary) source as the subtopic in the title box.

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Example: Image-heavy Slide

I take a different approach to designing image-heavy slides. In these cases I typically switch to a black background (to accentuate the image) and white text. I keep the same layout and font sizes for the title box (it is slightly higher on the slide in comparison to the text-heavy slide) and move all of the content text to the bottom of the slide in order to highlight the image. Again, as always, I only use high-resolution images.

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Example: Image-heavy Slide

The font size of the  text depends on how much information I want to include. In these examples the font is at 20 pt., but I try to keep it at 24 pt. I’ve also begun to incorporate labels or captions noting the origin, age, or current location of the image. I’ll put this in small 10 pt. font somewhere on the edge of the image where it is almost invisible. I’ll return to this at the end, but since I distribute my slides to my students this information is really only for those who are looking at these images on their computer after class. One reason I’ve started doing this is because I’m developing exercises where students are expected to find their own images depicting religious studies themes.

Design issues regularly arise, sometimes forcing me to tinker with the template slightly, but overall the image-heavy slide remains fairly versatile. For example, I may use the central space to zoom in on a certain part of a larger image and highlight particular elements. In the example below I use the “Animation” function to add in the word balloons as I tell a story.

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Example: Image-heavy Slide (variant)

I also often use the “Remove Background” function to highlight the most significant parts of the image. Here I’ve removed the background of the terracotta figurines, bringing them into greater focus and allowing me to place three different examples on a single slide. With fairly uniform design elements I hope to present a sense of coherency for the lecture.

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Example: Image-heavy Slide (removed background variant)

Image-text slides are roughly half image and half text. I use this layout when there is too much text for the image-heavy slide or especially if I want to use bullet points. In practice, I often use this layout when discussing the biography of an important figure, balancing the text with a illustration/photograph (or relevant image) of the person. I also use this template when citing a passage that I want to compliment with an image.

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Example: Image-text Slide

These three design templates, text-heavy, image heavy, and image-text, form a majority of my current lecture slide collection. Yet, there are always situations that arise which cause me to design new slides for a particular rhetorical context. Some of my favorite challenges are when I have to think of (and then locate!) visual complements or visual metaphors that help exemplify or elucidate the idea. (I am partly motivated in the endeavor by research done on “picture superiority effect.”) In general, these types of slide tend to be far more interactive, meaning that I use the “Animation” function frequently to reveal colors, text, or new images.

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Visual metaphor for karma theory

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Illustration for the Chinese Buddhist metaphor of water/waves


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Visual metaphor for Vedantic non-dualism

Transitions and Animations

In terms of Transitions between slides I almost always use “fade.” Every once and a while, if I think a transition visually reflects a narrative element in my lecture – a discovery (uncover transition), or a debunking (fall over transition) – I will consider incorporating it. Since I use a lot of maps in my lecture slides, I have become quite enamored with the “drape transition” recently which replicates a piece of fabric being unfurled from above, similar to pull-down maps one finds in classrooms.

As I noted above, I use Animations quite frequently in my slides. Every bullet point on my slides are set to fade in when I want to advance to that topic. This avoids text-shock and rapid typing by students. This creates a steady pace for my lecture and controls what I share and when.

There are some advanced Animation settings which I use frequently as well. It is possible to trigger a series of animations right after the transition with only one click of the advance button. This means I can transition to a new slide and then slowly populate it with images and text while I talk without needing to continuously hit the advance button. You can set the animations to start at different time intervals in 1/2 second increments. Much of the time I use these to add just a little flair to the slide, meaning that most of the animation is over within a second.

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When I advance to one of my Focus-Quote Slides (I did not cover these above, but they are pretty straightforward design wise), the transition is a simple fade, here revealing the blue background and white title banner. Immediately after the transition is complete the figure on the left (Zhuangzi) flies in (“fly in” animation) from the left side of the screen and the quote flies in from the right after a half second delay. Thus I treat this animation sequence as an extension of the transition which is complete in one second. For this particular slide I have the butterflies slowly float in after a five-second delay, adding a little dynamism to the slide.


I make my slides available to my students after lecture. Since I have many slides with long quotations (sometimes not found in the readings), I don’t want students wasting time copying them down. I will print the PowerPoint as a PDF and upload the slides to our class website. I usually add a small “watermark” on the bottom of each slide with my name, date, and email address.


In Defense of Lectures

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The passing of the Buddha, Dazu Rock Carvings 大足石刻, China, circa 2011. Photo Peter Romaskiewicz.

In the waves of interest over “flipped classrooms” I feel that lecturing gets unfairly vilified. I am not the only one to feel this way. Sure, dry presentations are not the best way to transfer information and there are plenty of more dynamic strategies to get students actively learning. But I still feel lecturing has some merits and I want to share some thoughts on how I plan lectures – yes, plain no-frills lectures – specifically where I am dominating speaking for over the magical fifteen to twenty-minute threshold.

Perhaps the most critical element to my “plain lectures” is the incorporation of narrative elements, especially conflict (and possibly, resolution). Not that long ago Pixar released a series of free lessons called The Art of Storytelling. The short video introducing the topic of story structure poses this very interesting question: “What do you want the audience to know and when?” This is something I keep in mind when developing lectures because I want to build suspense, or at the very least, slowly lead to a problem that requires a solution.

I’ve developed two types of lectures along these lines: One I’ll call the Basic Story Lecture and the other I’ll call Critical Modeling Lecture. These are really ideal types; more typically these form smaller components of more dynamic lesson plans that involve discussion, class exercises or group activities, etc. – the token activities of the flipped classroom.

The Basic Story Lecture is simply that, a good basic story. It has characters, a setting, a plot, a climax, and so forth. Religious studies is ripe with good stories and so is the history of religious studies scholarship (think about archaeological and textual discoveries that had revolutionized different sub-fields). For example, I’ve created a lecture to introduce Buddhism through the life story of the Buddha – a natural fit for the Basic Story class – and I will outline how I developed this class below. Shorter lectures I’ve developed that fit naturally into this mold are the life story of Mahāvīra (Jainism), Bodhidharma (Chan/Zen), and Huineng (Chan/Zen).

The Critical Modeling Lecture requires me to pit two or more scholars against one another. I introduce a topic, or more specifically, a scholarly question that begs for a solution, and lay out the process by which one scholar attempted to solve it. Often this will be the required reading for the class and invariably this stirs up some discussion or clarifying questions from the students. I introduce conflict by explaining a competing scholarly theory that the students were (likely) not aware of. Its nice when this theory is based on recent discoveries, like archaeological finds or newly discovered texts. I then lay out this new theory. Or, I may give my personal interpretation of the evidence, offering critiques of the conclusions, highlight assumptions, problematizing evidence, etc. In other words I model the critique process. This lecture will usually end with a discussion asking the students which theory they find more convincing.

(An aside: I have integrated the Basic Story Lecture with the Critical Modeling Lecture too. For my Zen class, I’ll tell the story of Huineng, the 6th Chan/Zen Patriarch, and then undercut the traditionally received version of his story by discussing the early 20th century scriptural finds at Dunhuang which dovetails into the new scholarly interpretations based on those finds. I get to tell a great story and then offer an even better – in my opinion – story that undercuts the tradition.)

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Slide for “Life of the Buddha” storytelling lecture

To return to the Basic Story model, last week I was able to give my lecture on the life of the Buddha. It’s probably the fifth or sixth time I’ve given the full lecture with this model in mind and I’ve come to really enjoy it.

Prep Work: Students are assigned reading homework that covers the life story of the Buddha and some basic Buddhist doctrine. I always use picture-heavy slides, but this class is exceptional in this regard. I use images depicting life events of the Buddha that are all from the first few centuries of the common era. Thus, all of the main images are rock carvings, almost entirely from northwest India. (The images come from various museums around the world, with many others coming from the Huntington Archive.)

Set-up: I begin the class with a provocative statement; I tell the students that the entire lecture is a fabrication. No scholar believes the existing life story of the Buddha to be historical fact; it was all cobbled together several centuries after the demise of the Buddha. I then ask, if this story is a complete myth, should any of it be important? Why should we care about it?

Ultimately I try to bring class discussion to this point (made nicely by John McRae): It’s not true, and therefore it’s more important. This typically ruffles some feather. Myths tell us about idealized visions of humanity; they reveal assumed cultural and religious values. Thus, the life story of the Buddha reveals important Buddhist values and hints at its central doctrines. I direct the students, as I tell the story, to try to tease out which values Buddhists find most significant and which episodes potentially reflect typical doctrinal viewpoints. 

Practice: I then detail the life story of the Buddha using slides to compliment my narrative. Each slide has minimal wording, with mostly names and locations in captions to the images. If I have not been able to find an image depicting an event in the story of the Buddha I do not describe that event. I make it clear that artisans helped to craft the story of the Buddha by depicting only certain life events. (In practice, much of what I’ve read has actually been depicted in art at some time but I will mention a few examples.) This also allow me to break down the images, talking about symbolism, visual narration (synchronic and diachronic modes), and artistic conventions. I try to build the climax around the Buddha’s early ascetic practices and also around his battle with Māra.

Overall the story of the Buddha (starting from an ascetic bowing before Dīpankara Buddha to relic worship at stūpas – taking John Strong’s approach that the biography of the Buddha continued after his death) takes me between 40 minutes to 1 hour, depending on speed and detail. I’ll take questions during the story, but rarely do I allow them to lead to extended discussion. If necessary, I’ll tell student to make notes for later.

I hold off discussion to the end of class when I ask which elements of the story stuck out the most; where were the students the most surprised, shocked, or curious. (I have a slide that shows an outline of 20 different story elements to jog their memory). The Buddha leaving his son and wife often gets mentioned, as does his severe ascetic practices (there are many beautiful, if not haunting, images of this episode), as well as his performance of numerous miracles (while textbooks often overlook these episodes, the art historical record is quite rich).

The final discussion transitions to which values are presented as most significant through this story. Renunciation and the overcoming of desire and the realities of the suffering of life are commonly highlighted themes. For those familiar with basic Buddhist doctrine (or who did the reading), they may point out the connections to the Four Noble Truths or the seal of impermanence.

Outcome: With about twenty minutes of discussion at the end, I can squeeze this class into an 80 minute session. And while bookended by class discussion, the “meat” of this class is straight lecture, or in this case, storytelling.

UPDATE: I stumbled across what I would consider a masterclass in straight lecturing. Michael Puett’s class on ancient Chinese philosophy at Harvard has received rave reviews, but I would say this has as much, or more, to do with his delivery than the actual content. His lecture on Zhuangzi was enthralling to me, and he doesn’t even use slides! I’d say his structuring is almost perfect, he builds and releases tension regularly, bringing the audience back into what he is saying consistently. His intonations complement the content well (note, for example, the contrast he intones between the “quiet” Dao of Laozi and the “ever transforming” Dao of Zhuangzi, starting at the 8 minute mark). He speaks for 40 minutes continuously, and I’d say holds that audiences attention well throughout. Again, he uses no slides, asks no questions, just talks. I’ll perhaps do a breakdown of this lecture for a later post. For me, he has mastered the question asked above: “What do you want the audience to know and when?”

UPDATE II: I ran across this article which specifically talks about lecturing in the humanities.

UPDATE III: More insight on this issue here.



Readings in Class

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Tibetan Buddhist masks for sale in Chengdu, China, circa 2011. Photo Peter Romaskiewicz.

When teaching introductory courses (like I am this summer) I tend to shy away from having students read texts/passages in class individually. I more typically type out passages on my slides and have students read collectively, or simply read the passage aloud and offer a question for discussion. Mostly this is due to time. I find reading in class often necessitates small group discussion, which then necessitates class discussion. Five minutes of reading (minimum), five minutes of group consultation (minimum), and ten minutes of class discussion can eat away precious class time. The topic needs to be worth the deep dive.

I have encountered more radical approaches to reading in class. During a teaching demonstration a few years back a grad student preparing for an upcoming interview did something quite…unique. The lecture was geared for an undergraduate class on the topic of the Portuguese Trans-Atlantic Empire. It was enthralling because the grad student giving the lecture was almost unhinged in his role playing, running back and forth and yelling as if he was really on a ship crossing the Atlantic during a storm. At some point he started throwing out balled up sheets paper and each person who caught one had to read it aloud to the class. (I really don’t remember the rationale, but I think it was something about sending out letters in bottles into the ocean.) Ultimately, this was not my style (and other than getting students involved and laughing, not too effective), but it was challenging to me to think about my pedagogy.

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Slide for Analects exercise

Nevertheless, I’ve been working on an in-class reading exercise to introduce the Confucian Analects. Its outlined here:

Prep Work: For homework, students should have read several passages from the Analects. Before class I printed out five sets of five double-sided pages of different passages from the Analects. (I break the class up into five groups of five students, each student receives one double sided page of passages from the Analects – thus every student in each group reads a different group of passages). At least one of the passages in each set is 15.23 (on reciprocity/shu 恕).

Set-up: After describing the political and social turmoil of the Warring States, I told the class that Confucius just wanted people to get along with one another. I asked them to find a passage in the Analects they would consider central to accomplishing this aim. After reading individually they consulted with their group and decided on the best answer along with one/two alternate(s).

Motivation: To add a sense of challenge, I told them there is a correct answer, or at least an answer I am looking for. This was not necessary, but I felt it fit the nature of my students/class. I also had a “scribe” write down the final responses for their group (they were not allowed to switch responses if they heard something better from another group) and post the responses to our course website for posterity.

Practice: I gave them 6 minutes to read, which meant they had to read with focus. They had 5 minutes to discuss and plead their cases to their group. Class discussion was between 15-20 minutes long. As each group offered their response I asked them why/how they made their choices and/or to explain what each passage meant in their own words and/or to give a concrete example from their everyday life.

Outcome: I thought this exercise went well. Each group, interestingly, chose different passages, there was no doubling of responses. This exercise allowed students to get a sense of the breadth of the Analects and to discuss the meaning of several passages with each other. I think having a clear focus or problem solving aspect added to the exercise. I have done a similar exercise in the past having students reading passages to find one they “liked” the best with mixed results. The class conversation ended up being more broad and ultimately covering terrain that was not central to my lecture (of course, this may be a desirable goal!). This new version of the exercise allowed me to move forward with my lecture and hit the themes I wanted to cover.

One group did select the “correct” answer (15.23), which allowed me to transition into my lecture on reciprocity and the “Golden Rule.” Other groups also talked about the gentlemen (junzi 君子), virtue (de 德), and humaneness (ren 仁) which allowed me to reference their insights later in the lecture.

Out of all the primary resources I have my students read, the Analects are probably the easiest to pick up and read passages at random and to stumble across something personally insightful. Thus even with minimal introduction to the material, an exercise like this is still fairly effective.






A Daily Review Exercise?

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Tibetan Buddhist monks practicing debate at Nanwu Temple 南無寺, Kangding, China, c. 2011. Photo Peter Romaskiewicz.

While taking a graduate seminar a few years ago with José Cabezón, he had the all students engage in a practice which he claimed was standard operating procedure for Tibetan Buddhist monks in training. At the start of each class one student was responsible for reciting in summary the important points of the previous class. [An outline of a similar process can be found here.] We were not allowed to look at our notes nor we we allowed to make crib sheets. Individually, it was an exercise of memorization, but it was also an exercise of analysis and application. Collectively, it allowed the class to all be on the same page, preparing us all for the materials to be covered that day. It also sometime elicited clarifying questions. From what I remember, these daily summaries would last 5-10 minutes, followed potentially by conversation.

Every once and I while I like to do something similar with my class, and after I fell behind in lecture last week, today was a great day to break this exercise out. I wanted to to do a group activity at the start of class (I find it harder to break the class into groups halfway into lecture) and this seemed promising. I often just ask one student to summarize from memory for the whole class, but here I wanted the class to socialize a bit more and converse with each other. I asked the groups to come up with three important points I touched on in lecture the previous class (here, on the Bhagavad Gītā). This primed the students to the topic that I revisited today and also allowed them to hash out any confusions among themselves.

Overall, I found this to be quite valuable. It allowed the students to socialize, interact with (and teach) one another, and test their memory – or at least to familiarize themselves with their notes. I suppose this could be done for each class (maybe even making it a regular assignment), but I would have to take the time into consideration. The group work only lasted 5 minutes, but the class discussion lasted another 15 (there were a handful of questions).


A Question of Quizzes

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Buddhist monks chanting at Tayuan Temple 塔院寺, Mt. Wutai, China, summer 2016. Photograph Peter Romaskiewicz.

Grading is one of the toughest parts of teaching. It also gives you immediate feedback on how well students are grasping the materials. Thus I’ve come to find that frequent, low stakes assessment is helpful in preparing students for larger and more complicated tasks.

In my summer course I’m having quizzes each week which review the material from the previous week. I’ve decided that quizzes will mostly be multiple-choice for a few reasons. First, these assessments are making sure students are familiar with basic terms and themes, mostly focused on recognition and recall. These ideas form the basis for more analytical and critical writing assignments in the coming weeks. Second, because of the pace of the course (we meet four time a week), I cannot spend too much time grading. Perfect for multiple choice.

The new angle I am trying this summer is online quizzes. Thus, I am also attempting to make this class hybrid, as I expect to teach a form of it fully online in the near future. The students have to take the quiz before they attend Monday’s class. I allow them a 36 hour window to take the test, opening it Sunday morning. To prepare them, and myself, for this new experience, I offered an online quiz (for minimal extra credit) on the syllabus after the first day of class.

I decided on the online quiz after much thought. The main concern I had was missing 10-15 minutes of class for these quizzes. I found them to be useful, even necessary, for low-level learning, but they also ate into lecture and discussion time. In addition, I was  hoping that automatic grading would save me time throughout the summer session.

I decided that I would make the quizzes open book and open note. Perhaps it is poor judgement on my part, but I just do not fully trust my students to not use notes for an assessment like this (!). This this is a concern I have for online quizzes, especially of the multiple choice variety. To counterbalance this leverage, I decided to make the quizzes timed, instructing my students that they would need to study beforehand in order to answer all of the questions. My hope with this set-up is that the students would get used to the type of questions I would ask and potentially become familiar with the adequacy of the notes they are taking. (The midterm and final are in-class.) The first quiz was 10 multiple choice questions with two short answer questions. The total time I allowed for the quiz was 15 minutes, just about the time I would allow in class.

I will review the use of online quizzes at the end of the course.


What is “religion”?

Why Are There No New Major Religions? - The Atlantic.jpgAn activity I’ve come to enjoy doing early on in my classes (first day if possible) is to have the students, in small groups, come up with their own succinct, one-sentence definition of religion. Today, when I did this with my Asian Religious Traditions class, I added the instruction that they also had to come up with an apt metaphor for “religion” as well, thus completing the sentence, “Religion is like _______ because it ________.”

This exercise allows the students to reflect upon their assumptions about what counts as religion and what does not. When the groups report back to the class, I’ll probe certain aspects of the definition. Today I asked various groups about their use of the term “spiritual” (How is a “spiritual” practice from an everyday practice?), or why a religion needs to be “organized” or “systematic” (Can a religion be un-organized, non-institutional?), or why religion make one feel “comforted” from the unknown (Can a religion be stressful or cause more questions?), or whether a religion can be “any” practice or belief that “guides one life” (Are sports and fandom religion then?), or why belief play such a central role in the definition (Does a religion only govern belief?).

Admittedly, I often put myself in the position to make these critiques, but this is mostly for purposes of time. I could expand this exercise to have groups critique other groups’ definitions, or look for overarching themes that are common to all or most. As it stands now, I have students consult for 6 minutes in groups, and then have a class discussion for another 20 minutes or so (5 minutes for each group to report and respond to questions). This is a large block of time, but I believe this is important critical work that sets a tone for the class.

I was unsure how well the metaphor component was going to work, but I thought this would also reveal assumptions about how people conceived of religion. The responses I received were interesting (I told them it was okay to be creative, as long as they could defend their choice). Here were the responses:

  1. Religion is like sports because it’s deeply ritualized, ingrained, part of culture, people get passionate about it, and it can be difficult to pinpoint why it is as important to someone as it is.
  2. Religion is like a fruit tree because there are different types of fruit trees with different yields you can get from them; they vary but also have similarities and people can take or leave what they want.
  3. Religion is like Xanax because it relieves anxiety.
  4. Religion is like a puzzle because smaller pieces come together to create a deeper understanding of the world.

I thought these were great. They sometimes revealed a different understanding of religion than the definition the same group offered. These formed good conversation points as well.

This activity concludes with me showing several “classical” definitions of religion by scholars, and I point out that there is no consensus scholarly definition of “religion,” that it is contentious. In the context of this course, I then shifted to say that if there is no consensus definition, then how can we be sure other cultures have “religion.” How can we be sure what we call religion is similar to the experience of people in other cultures? I raise this point because I want to construct a critical stance to these questions as we move forward through the course.

Overall I hope to continue to experiment with this activity, it has proven to be insightful each time I have done it, allowing students to talk with each other and to potentially reveal recurring assumptions about “religion.”

It is perhaps worth noting that I had student post these definitions and metaphors to a class website, and plan to have students grapple with these definitions throughout the course and make them chose one (or invent their own) to use in writing assignments.

* Image Paul Spella / The Atlantic