African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
Teaching Resources

Research and Teaching in American Religious History
at a Liberal Arts College: Some Personal Reflections

David W. Wills
Amherst College

A slightly revised version of remarks given at the Northeast Regional Faculty Conference on Religion and American History, sponsored by the Pew Program in Religion and American History, Yale University, December 6, 1996.

     When Skip Stout invited me to undertake this assignment, he asked me to focus on the “unique problems and opportunities of teaching in a small liberal arts college” and perhaps to draw a contrast to the perspective on teaching that is more characteristic of the large research university.

     I have taught a little at research universities. A half-dozen years ago, I taught a course at Harvard. Before I went to Amherst—nearly twenty-five years ago—I taught for two years at the University of Southern California. That was my first job coming out of graduate school. And in a sense, I actually got my start in teaching right here at Yale.

     I graduated from Yale College in 1962 and in those days Yale each year awarded to graduating seniors about a dozen Carnegie Teaching Fellowships. These were intended to give graduates interested in—but unsure about—college teaching a one-year taste of academic life. A Carnegie Fellow took one, year-long graduate seminar—I took Sydney Ahlstrom’s seminar in American intellectual history—and taught a section or two of the introductory course in his field. Having been a history major, I was assigned two sections of the introductory American history survey, known in those days as History 20. We met twice a week to discuss the documents contained in the course “problem books,” and twice more a week all the sections assembled en bloc to hear the professor who chaired the course lecture. I approached my pedagogical responsibilities, as I recall, with an anxiety that was more social than intellectual. How could I avoid being mistaken for a student? I was only twenty—and not an especially old twenty at that. In those days, Yale men—and that’s all there were among the undergraduates—all went around much of the time in coats and ties, so wearing that uniform would not serve to mark off my elevated status from that of a mere undergraduate. What to do? When I arrived in New Haven that fall, I went straight to the Co-Op, where I bought an attache case. This I carried with me more or less everywhere I went all that year. It announced to all the world that I was a teacher. The students called me “Mr. Wills,” or “Sir.” That was a very long time ago.

     In truth, it was a very formative year for me. Sydney Ahlstrom put me on to Perry Miller and the Puritans. For his course, I wrote a term paper on Solomon Stoddard and Cotton Mather, embracing Stoddard in a way that perhaps foreshadowed my Connecticut River Valley destiny. It was also the year in which the civil rights movement was building toward the crescendo of the Birmingham demonstrations in the spring and the subsequent introduction of the Civil Rights Bill that June. It was in that year that I came to see race as one of the central motifs in all of American history—a preoccupation that has stayed with me throughout my professional career, long after that attache case, in considerable disrepair, had been discarded. When I had taken History 20 as a freshman, in the fall of 1958, the discussion sections used David M. Potter and Thomas G. Manning’s Nationalism and Sectionalism in America 1775–1877. This was a vintage, mid-1950s, judiciously even-handed reader, especially in the sections concerning slavery. Students were supposed to read carefully balanced selections from both primary and secondary, northern and southern sources, to eschew extremism, and come to appropriately moderate conclusions. If the Civil War centered on a non-negotiable moral conflict, a great clash of right and wrong which could be resolved only by force, my section leader darkly warned us, then the Cold War too must eventually turn hot. Our very lives, it seemed, hinged on the truth of the “blundering generation” hypothesis. By 1963, this just wouldn’t do. Jesse Lemisch was not one of the instructors in the course, but I remember him coming to History 20 staff meetings and insisting that we supplement the slavery sections of the Potter and Manning reader with handouts—in those days they were mimeographed handouts—from the work of Kenneth Stampp and other “neo-abolitionist” historians. Norman Pollack, the course chair, was entirely sympathetic and so this is what we did. We completely subverted Potter and Manning’s studied blue-gray balance. Our students were not warned to stifle moralism lest they feed the flames of conflict, but to forsake complacency and help America confront its long history of racial injustice. I can remember an uneasy student in one of my sections exclaiming with real confusion: “But you’re asking us to make a value-judgment!” That, too, was a very long time ago.1

     Now these experiences of mine from over thirty years ago certainly do not constitute what Skip Stout had in mind when he mentioned to me “the perspective on teaching that is characteristic of a research university.” My perspective on teaching at Yale as a Carnegie Fellow was no doubt a narrow and eccentric one. Yet it may be worth a reminder that while teaching is indeed profoundly constrained by the institutional setting in which it takes place, there are also many “perspectives on teaching” within all institutions, both large and small. (Please remember later on that I said this.) It is also worth remembering that as teachers we are shaped by the cultural and political moment as well as by our institutions. This cultural and political influence has at least two sides to it. We are shaped both by the present moment in which our teaching takes place, but also by the moment in which we first took shape as teachers. I really do still carry the 1962–63 academic year into the classroom with me, just as I do the political and cultural baggage of 1996–97.

     A final personal comment. As has been mentioned, I have taught at Amherst College for close to twenty-five years and the ways of the small liberal arts college have been bred into my very bones. I discovered this when I taught a course at Harvard a half-dozen years ago. I often felt that the institutional reality of the university got in the way of my teaching, that I could have gotten farther with the Harvard undergraduates if I could have taken them home to Amherst with me. But in the last few years at Amherst, I have also been teaching only half-time, and spending the other half of my time directing (in collaboration with Albert Raboteau) a long-term research project that will produce a multi-volume documentary history of African-American Religion. (Incidentally, for those of you who know about this project and have been wondering what we have been doing all these years, I brought along the working drafts of the first six volumes and you’re welcome to look at them at the break if you’d like to. They are, I would emphasize, working drafts—there are things in them that will come out and things not there that will go in—but at least they will give you some picture of what we’re up to. These first six volumes cover what we have come to think of as the “Atlantic World” phase of African American religious history, covering the period from around 1450 to 1808. I also brought along our ever-changing workbooks for the first four volumes, which include lists of the larger pool of documents from which our final selections are drawn. And our rosters of the documents in our files for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which we hope to get back to eventually.) In any case, teaching half-time and spending the other half-time on such a project is a very unusual way to live in a small, liberal arts college, and has some real stresses to it. It is a much more common arrangement, I would imagine, and perhaps a more comfortable one in a large, research university. In any case, my immediate experience of teaching at Amherst is probably as aberrant and atypical as was my experience as an “assistant in instruction” at Yale thirty-some years ago.

     Certainly it’s very different from what it used to be. One day last spring, I was working in the building in which our Project is housed and I realized that five students had been there that afternoon. Two were paid research assistants, one doing some copying and the other logging in some Spanish-language materials into our roster of documents. The third student was writing a term paper on the work of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries in Asia as compared to the work of Jesuit missionaries in Africa, and using our files for part of her research. Two others were making similar use of our files for honors theses—one comparing the sixteenth-century Portuguese-Kongo religious encounter with that of the Spanish and the Indians in sixteenth-century Mexico. Another was working on late nineteenth-century black holiness movements. It occurred to me that our facility, which had been created entirely for research purposes, had turned into a pedagogical apparatus—and that what I was doing was not so different from what scientists do with their labs. Certainly at small colleges, the research and teaching that scientists do has a kind of collective, organizational structure, an institutional reality, that the more typically solo research and teaching of social scientists and humanists does not. This contrast is one I have been thinking about a lot lately, and I will return to it again in a moment.

     Having made these comments about where I am and have been in my own teaching, I want now to offer a few more general propositions about teaching, beginning with the relation of teaching to research. I intend to be a little polemical—and maybe even a little glib. You will have time to protest when I have finished.

     Discussions of the relation of teaching to research often start with what seems to me the curious premise that each is a “something”—that there is a something called “teaching” and a something called “research” (or “scholarship”) and the question is how these two somethings relate to one another. I would myself say that each term of this relationship is in fact not a something, but a set of somethings, and that how teaching and research (or scholarship) are related to one another depends on what subset of teaching or what subset of scholarship you have in mind. Certainly they do not stand in the inevitable relationship of production and distribution—as if in research and scholarship we produce knowledge and in teaching we distribute it. In fact, knowledge is produced and distributed in both sets of activities. The deepest difference may lie, not as we routinely suppose, on the production side but rather in the mode of distribution—and above all in the audience to which the knowledge is distributed. The distribution of knowledge to other scholars is scholarship. The distribution of knowledge to students—especially undergraduate students—is teaching. It is only a partial overstatement to say that the higher professional status of the former activity is largely derived not from its inherent intellectual refinement but from the higher status of its audience—from the people with the attache cases, as it were.

     I will amplify this just a little bit.

     We use the terms “research” or “scholarship” to refer to a highly disparate set of activities. Going to an archive to examine manuscripts. Reading microfilm. Tracking down references on the internet. Reading books and articles. Skimming books and articles. Reading the newspaper. Attending some kind of religiously signficant event—unusual or routine. Interviewing people. Watching videotape. Making videotape. Writing books and articles. We tend—in the social sciences and especially in the humanities—to think of this work as solo activity, though in fact most of it has a strongly social dimension. Librarians help us. Research assistants help us. We learn things by talking with one another (though less than we probably could if we took it more seriously). But never mind that. The picture of research we typically have, I think, is that of the lonely scholar working on his or her own—making discoveries and producing knowledge.

     By the way, the idea that we as historians “discover” things in our “research” seems to me more than a little exaggerated. We’re rather like Columbus. We find things that some people didn’t know had been lost. Most of what we write in fact recycles things other historians have known, even if not so recently or widely as they once did. Who has not had the experience of chancing on some old and forgotten book that casually announces in its dusty pages some fact or insight one imagined one had recently “discovered.” Mostly what we do in our writing is advance our particular “take” on something, a “take” that usually has something intimately to do with the “take” or “a take” that is fashionable with our generation. But never mind that for the moment.

     The term “research” university presumably is meant to reflect the idea that the activities by which we (allegedly) discover things are especially promoted or cherished there. But arguably the emphasis of the “research university” is in fact not on the “production” of knowledge, but on its “distribution.” The high status form of distribution is distribution in print to other scholars. The low status form is distribution verbally via lectures to students. Lecturing is of course only one of a set of activities that we lump together under the heading of teaching. Discussion sections or seminars are another. Research seminars something else. And one-on-one work with individual students yet another. These are a highly disparate set of activities, which require a range of skills and have a highly varied set of goals. And often quite distinctive relationships to the range of activities we term research. But I think in a large university it is the lecture setting that leaps to mind when people talk about teaching—and I think this is not unrelated to the large university’s focus on impersonal methods of distribution. Conversations about what and how to teach can sometimes sound a lot like other forms of marketing—what will I put on the shelves and how will I get the customers to buy?

     We have lecture courses at Amherst. I used to do a “Religion and American Politics ” course that was sometimes a “big” course by Amherst standards—that is one that had as many as sixty students. I lectured. Doing a good lecture course is a very demanding enterprise. I said just now that we sometimes talk of such courses in a marketing mode, but of course they also involve a lot of theatre. I admire people who can do this well—especially people who lecture to the great multitudes in large public universities. But it’s not what I think of when I think of teaching. The average Amherst class runs about twelve to twenty-five students and typically in teaching such a class one moves in and out of lecturing and discussion in a very fluid way. We had a visiting professor from Stanford in our department a number of years ago and he and I co-taught a couple of courses of this nature. He kept commenting uncomfortably all year on this neither-fish-nor-fowl, Amherst “mixed genre” course. To me, it’s the most normal thing in the world.

     I suppose from the standpoint of a small, liberal arts college, one is more attuned to the fact that knowledge is both produced and distributed not only in impersonal modes of communication, but in conversation, in people talking to one another in face to face situations. A classroom is not only a place where previously accumulated knowledge is distributed. It is also a place where knowledge is sometimes produced, in the conversation between faculty and students—and among the students themselves. (Sometimes it is also produced in a meeting of scholars such as this one, though we tend routinely to minimize this interactive form of creating and distributing knowledge.)

     Now let me say right away that what I intend here is not some romanticization of “sharing” or “cooperation.” Sometimes we produce insight most effectively when we quarrel. Or ideally where there are serious elements of conflict mixed in with a strong will to cooperate. I think this is true in the classroom. I think it is also true professionally. As a rule, I think we are not terribly good at constructively arguing with one another. We do prefer the monologic to the dialogic. (I have, for a variety of reasons, done a good deal of collaborative work with other academics during my career, and I have to say that most of us are in my view not very good at it. If I may use an athletic analogy, I’d say we tend on the whole to approach “team work” like baseball players rather than basketball players. I’ll bat third and take everything hit to right field. You bat fourth and play shortstop. Not the fluid interaction of basketball, where you’re always moving the ball around, trying to get it to the person with the best shot. We often mistake for collaboration something that is suspiciously like what the child psychologists, I am told, call “parallel play.”) What I’m trying to get at, of course, is that even when we think of our scholarship and teaching as very different activities, we may in fact bring similar attitudes to both and in fact go at them in somewhat the same way.

     Of course, praising the dialogical—in both teaching and scholarship—has about it, I know, all the earmarks of small college ideological self-justification. One of Harvard’s recent presidents, I believe, is reputed to have told a group of undergraduates who had complained about the lack of much opportunity to speak with the faculty that “the faculty that would be willing to sit around talking to you is not a faculty that you would want to talk to.” In a quarter-century at Amherst, I have spent a great deal of time talking with students, and I would therefore like to believe it has not all been wasted. Of course, a lot of it has been. Students are not inevitably, some days one is inclined to say not even routinely, deeply interesting to talk to. Mostly you don’t learn much from them. As one ages, they also become distressingly young and lacking much experience in life. But they have their moments. I’ll bet most of us—at the very least—have had the experience of getting a question from a student, sometimes a very unlikely student, that literally made one think about something one had never thought about before. And with certain students, of course, what one learns from them can go well beyond that. Sometimes, students profoundly change one’s scholarship. Paul Gilroy, for example, notes in the preface to his densely thoughtful and important The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness that the book’s origins were pedagogical—that it arose out of a particular classroom situation.

     One of the perhaps surprising differences that the institutional setting can make to teaching is that undergraduate research is, I think, actually more valued in the small liberal arts college than it typically is in a large “research” university. As a rule, undergraduate researchers tend to suffer neglect when they have to compete with graduate researchers. Less attention is usually given to them and less expected from them than in an institutional setting where graduate students are absent. Part of the reason that a disproportionate share of the professoriate comes from liberal arts colleges may be found in this fact. They are more likely to share in their professors’ research and their professors are more likely to share in theirs.

     Sometimes this can take a collective form. I mentioned earlier the day last spring when I began to think of my Project office as akin to a science lab. I also regularly teach a course on the encounter of African and European religion in the Atlantic world—1450 to 1808—and I pass out these draft volumes and have the students read them.2 My guess is that in a research university you save this kind of thing for the graduate students. The five students that were in our building that day I mentioned earlier had all taken that course. Two of them expect to go on to graduate school and pursue work in broadly related areas.

     It is also my impression that in a large research university, one-on-one contact with individual undergraduate students is at the margins of one’s teaching. For me it is central. I think the most important teaching I do is working with individual students. I think that’s where we can make the biggest difference. Sometimes the difference you make is opening the door to the areas you are yourself the most interested in. But often that’s not the case at all. Sometimes the key to teaching is being very ascetic about one’s own intellectual agenda. What is required is discernment of the individual bent or habit of mind of the individual student one is working with. It really is, as the cliche has it, education in the sense of educing, drawing out what is there. I wish people who taught graduate students uniformly worked as hard at this as I think some of us in small colleges do. In research universities, I believe, most one-on-one work is done with graduate students, and it is very much shaped by the requirements of professional preparation as seen in that particular graduate department. I think a lot of students lose a clear sense of their own intellectual identity in graduate study. I was once talking to a Princeton graduate student about this, as it pertained to his choosing a dissertation topic, and he wryly said: “Oh, so you’re advising me to take the follow-your-bliss approach.” Well, I used to wonder whether I was an Emersonian masquerading as a neo-Calvinist or a neo-Calvinist masquerading as an Emersonian, and now I know I am an Emersonian masquerading as a neo-Calvinist masquerading as an Emersonian.

     Finally, I want to return to the point I suggested at the outset but have left undeveloped: the nature of the times and, I would add, the profitable points of resistance in the classroom. I mentioned a moment ago my class on religion in the Atlantic world. I think, as a class, it changes the students who take it more than anything else I do. In a sense, this is because it is about something none of them is initially interested in. That is, the idea of an Atlantic world is for most students an acquired taste. It’s a small class, usually about a dozen, sometimes smaller, sometimes larger, populated mostly by Black Studies majors filling their “diaspora” requirement and Religion majors filling their “comparative” requirement. The course is really cross-grained to their expectations, which is why I think some of them learn so much. There is a kind of paradox here. The more students come eager for what you have to offer, the less you can teach them. There needs to be a certain friction.

     A consistent feature of my Atlantic world course is what happens when we arrive, just before Thanksgiving, at Richard Price’s book Alabi’s World, which treats the eighteenth-century encounter of the Saramaka, a Suriname maroon community, and a number of Moravian missionaries. There is a sudden suspension of the anthropological good manners much in evidence in previous weeks, and the language of revulsion and disgust comes surging out in their discussion of the Moravians. And I who started out thirty-some years ago trying to get white students to take racial injustice in America seriously now find I have to coax my usually very multi-cultural classroom into a sympathetic understanding of these, to them, extraordinarily peculiar and very unappealing eighteenth-century German missionaries. Sometimes I think that what my students need is something like the old Potter and Manning problems book—something that would rein in their propensity for totalizing, globalizing, relentlessly evaluative “discourse” and sharpen their skills as close readers and persons able to bring evidence and conclusions into some more balanced relationship.

     The way one’s teaching alters over one’s life cycle as a teacher is a theme suggested by this last comment. It is both a matter of one’s relation to one’s changing times and the simple fact of one’s growing older. But I will not go into that. I have tried to speak concretely out of my own experience as a teacher. I invite you to do the same—whether to amplify, revise, or rebut these observations. Or, if it seems the issues I have raised won’t get us anywhere, to change the subject.


   1. After this talk was made available at this website, it came to the attention of Jesse Lemisch, who kindly shared with me his own recollections of the same episode. These both overlap and diverge from my own. Here are some excerpts from our correspondence:

JL to DWW 9/12/00: Your description of the Potter and Manning as “judiciously evenhanded” is full of unintended irony. There were, if I recall correctly, four slave reminiscences (from the WPA Slave Narratives), two of which were relatively happy memories of slavery and two of which were unhappy. The lesson, in the language of the reader, was clear as day: slavery was 50% OK. So I dug around in the B.A. Botkin, Lay My Burden Down collection of excerpts, extracted and mimeographed (or purple dittoed?) grimmer reminiscences, and distributed them . . . (It’s entirely possible that I also presented excerpts from Stampp, though these may in fact have been in the reader itself.) In retrospect, it does seem like a mini-rebellion out of the early sixties.

DWW to JL, 9/12 and 9/13/00: Actually, the irony with regard to Potter and Manning was altogether intended . . . I looked in [my copy of] Potter and Manning. You are exactly right that it includes four narratives from Botkin with a good master/bad master “balance.” So you are probably also right about your distributing additional narratives in “dittoed” form. But I may also be right in thinking some Stampp got passed out. P & M was done in 1948. . . . Each unit [of the book] culminates, you will recall, with a section on “Appraisals by Modern Historians.” For the Slavery Unit, the “modern historians” are Dumond, Craven, and George Fort Milton. For the following section on Abolitionism, they are Dumond, Randall, and the Beards. It seems plausible to me that you might have suggested that we add something from Stampp (and maybe others) here—which is the way I remember it, albeit hazily. [return to text]

   2. The Black Studies 28/Religion 32 syllabus available on this website reflects a course that has changed significantly since this talk was given in 1996. It has chronologically narrowed, now focusing primarily on the period 1441–1600. It also includes a large section on Mexico. Extensive use is still made of the Project’s working drafts, though currently I am drawing on volumes one and two. [return to text]

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African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project
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