Approaching Integrative Learning: ‘Narratives of Travel’ in Film and Religion Studies

Ismael Ferroukhi, Le Grand Voyage - The Culturium

At Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA, the faculty has been working on various curriculum components to foster “integrative learning” – opportunities for students to make connections that combine disparate perspectives, while empowering them to recognize and solve problems, address existing questions, and ask new ones in more comprehensive ways.1See Muhlenberg’s definition of integrative learning and its learning goals, as approved by Faculty in January 2017. One form this has taken is a pair of linked courses (“a cluster”) that the same group of students enroll in.

We – Sharon Albert (Religion Studies Department) and Amy Corbin (Film Studies and Media & Communication) designed a cluster entitled “Narratives of Travel: Migrants, Colonists, and Tourists in Religion and Film.” Sharon’s course is REL 185: “Religious Migrations” and Amy’s course is FLM 230 “Travel and Cultural Encounters in Film.” This cluster joins two courses with shared themes of travelling, seen not just as individual journeys but as journeys that are shaped by cultural, racial, and religious identities, and by the power dynamics of politics and nationhood. Our courses study texts that document these journeys, including personal narratives and films, and draw examples from a variety of geographic regions and historical periods. We focus on migration, colonization and tourism as three forms of travel that are particularly impacted by cultural identities and political forces. Key questions in both courses include: who travels voluntarily and who is forced to travel? Who is able to return home and who is permanently displaced? How is a location changed by the arrival of travelers? Both courses also have an interest in the way that storytelling shapes travel experiences, so we also explore the ways written and visual narratives represent travel experiences, and how these narratives shape people’s perceptions of their own journeys and of other groups who travel.

We had each taught versions of these courses before, but when we decided to link them, we each revisited the syllabi and made some substantial changes so that the courses would have more points of connection. For instance, Amy’s course previously had a unit on American road trip films, but she dropped that to make room for more films about international migrations, as those had a closer link to Sharon’s topics. We looked at both our syllabi together week by week to try to line up topics as much as possible, even while there were some weeks in which the material had to be pretty different in order for each course to follow its own trajectory. Early in the semester, the courses are more divergent because Amy wanted to retain her course’s first unit on colonial travels through the Americas, a topic not covered in Sharon’s course, and Sharon spends the first weeks of her course introducing some key concepts and setting up a theoretical foundation for what it means to study religion academically.

However, as the semester goes on, we found it pretty easy to pick films and topics that could be common to both courses. Starting with Atom Egoyan’s Calendar (a film about a Canadian photographer of Armenian descent who travels to Armenia to photograph its churches for a calendar), the initial films focus on “heritage tourism” and voluntary travels to places of cultural and religious significance (Everything is Illuminated, Le Grand Voyage). We then move to films focusing on migrations for economic, political, or social reasons, and the experience of being displaced or marginalized in one’s new country of residence (Sin Nombre, Brick Lane, Dheepan, Amreeka, and Persepolis). Sharon’s teaching specialization in Religion Studies is Islam, and so we were not surprised to find that many of the films we chose featured the experience of Muslims. For instance, Le Grand Voyage follows a father and son making a pilgrimage to Mecca from France, enhancing a traditional road movie narrative, in which characters with conflicting personalities come to understand each other better, with a nuanced depiction of the different ways Islam is experienced by a devout immigrant father and his more secular French-born son. Amreeka shares the lesser-known story of Palestinian Christians from the point of view of a mother and daughter who emigrate to the United States and settle in a Midwestern suburb, experiencing harassment and discrimination in the wake of 9/11. At the same time, we want to present students with connections from a variety of angles, and so the connections are sometimes more subtle. We expect that a lot of connections won’t emerge until we are actually teaching, and that the students will find connections we hadn’t thought of.

Film had not been a central element of Sharon’s course in previous iterations, and she expects that the inclusions of these films, with their rich visual evocations of place, will help bring the course materials to life. Many of the locations in the films are places which will be considered in the Religion Studies course – but in a way it is all the more exciting for us to discover how the films have direct relevance to ideas and issues even when the geographical locations are not exactly the same.

One of the main motivations behind our cluster was the opportunity to work together. We knew that we had many common interests – we were frequently mentioning films to each other and sharing ideas about teaching courses that tackled cultural diversity and marginalized groups. We also admired each other’s creative pedagogies. So our early conversations about syllabus planning were full of “what if we did this?” and “wouldn’t it be great to…?” moments. It became clear that our course topic was very timely in light of current events, including the Syrian refugee crisis and US debates over immigration and the DACA program. The challenge was to keep our courses focused and the assignments feasible, especially for the first incarnation, which is currently running in the spring semester of 2018. While scheduling two linked courses has created major logistical issues at Muhlenberg, and it is unquestionably more work than simply teaching a course on one’s own, faculty have loved the opportunity to “visit” each other’s disciplines and learn from each other. After all, what are professors except lifetime students?

In our next post, we’ll share details about the two “integrative assignments” we designed: one in which groups of students track a current migration issue and the other a series of jointly-taught class sessions that put a film in dialogue with scholarly readings that represent our two disciplines.

Notes   [ + ]

1. See Muhlenberg’s definition of integrative learning and its learning goals, as approved by Faculty in January 2017.

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