Gwendolyn Gillson

Ph.D. Candidate in Religious Studies, University of Iowa

Teaching Philosophy: Recognizing Mutual Humanity

My teaching centers on recognizing the humanity in all people, especially those considered “other.” Grounded in the feminist concept of intersectionality, my teaching is driven by the idea that much of global, local, and interpersonal strife comes from an inability to imagine others, whoever those others may be, as complex humans with feelings and lives as demanding and important to them as ours are to us. This focus on mutual humanity extends to a recognition that students learn in a variety of ways and a dedication to giving students the tools to recognize their own effective learning strategies to enable them to become co-learners. In addition, I strive to develop students’ Information Literacy to enable them to independently discover and critically analyze numerous types of information.

As an extension of my ethnographic methodology and based in the concept of “lived religion,” I often utilize ethnographic or biographical articles, books, and videos to give students exposure to the ways that “other” people actually live. Even when teaching abstract concepts, I use real-world examples to ground theoretical ideas in something relatable for students. For example, in “Women in Islam in the Middle East,” we were discussing the legal definitions of modesty in Muslim countries. I used discussion section to first differentiate the different kinds of Muslim women’s clothing and then showed a video of Muslim women of all ages talking about why they wear modest clothing, including a number of women who talked about why they specifically chose to embrace modest clothing. As part of their brief written reflections required at the end of every class, quite a few students expressed surprise that some Muslim women chose their clothing and took pride in it and stated that they had started to re-think what Muslim women’s clothing means to the women themselves.

A large part of my teaching strategy involves recognizing that students often have relevant background knowledge or a good understanding of materials but lack the confidence to talk about them in an academic setting. For example, in the New Religious Movements course I created and taught, all the major assignments were designed and scheduled to increasingly empower students to independently learn about and analyze an NRM of their choice. The In-Class Presentation encouraged them to be co-instructors through an analytical presentation on the reading for the day, alongside writing questions for and leading small and large group discussion. It was extremely rewarding to watch their presentations and observe their increasing confidence in themselves through their lively presentation of the material and engaging the class in extended discussions derived from the students’ own intellectual interests.

My teaching in influenced not only by Religious Studies but also by my training in Library and Information Science through a dedication to developing information literacy. As a stated learning objective in my NRM course, I had an information literacy session at the library and provided additional instruction on finding and assessing information sources. In addition to building confidence, the assignments were designed to develop information literacy, particularly the annotated bibliography and the final research paper. The Research paper required students to take at least three academic and three popular electronic sources and create Word Clouds for each. Then, students compared the Word Clouds to understand how the two types of sources utilized the frequency of words to describe the students’ selected NRM. Discovering and selecting sources, combined with analyzing and writing about the sources’ presentation of their NRM of choice enabled students to develop information literacy skills by encouraging them to pursue research on a topic of personal interest.

In recognition of my teaching success, I was happy to receive the Alice Lampe Heidel and John B. Heidel Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching in 2016 and the Rev. Louis P. Penningroth Award for excellence in teaching and mentoring in 2015. My effectiveness in the classroom is attested to by my evaluations. I received an average of 4.6 out of 5 for helping my students understand course content, and a 5.77 out of 6 for “The instructor challenges me to think” in my NRM course. One student from that class commented, “This class was incredibly effective. It was an amazing way to learn about something new in a way that really promoted learning. This was the first class that it was more about learning and comprehending the material than it was about getting a good grade on the test.” Many students have expressed similar sentiments.

Students in my classes leave with a firmer understanding of themselves and others. I give students the opportunity to hear other voices and to cultivate their own, providing a framework for friendly interactions with “others.” As part of my commitment to feminism, I expect my students to actively negotiate readings, ideas, and sometimes their own identities. With a firmer grasp on the complexities of the human experience, students leave my classes with the confidence and the tools to discover, analyze, and critically engage with issues of personal, local, and global significance.

Want to know more about my background?

Check out my Curriculum Vitae!