Conversion Narratives :: A Very Belated Update

Now that I’ve finished grading the final exams from my first course as a “real” professor (not the “actually paid” kind, but the “actually standing at the front of the classroom” kind), I’ve got a bit of time to talk about the conversion narratives assignment for which I requested help about six months ago (see the previous post).

First things first. The books that I settled on, after so much assistance from friends were:

o      Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine Books, 2007).

o      Augustine of Hippo, Confessions [Read books 1-10, skip 11-13] translated by Maria Boulding (New York: New City Press, 2001).

o      Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1997).

o      Shusako Endo, Silence, translated by William Johnston (New York: Taplinger, 1967).

o      Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, translated by Susan Bernovsky (New York: Random House, 2008).

o      Simone Weil, Waiting for God, translated by Emma Crawford (New York: Harper Collins, 2001).

o      William L. Andrews, ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986).

I was really pleased with the way that the whole project turned out. While some of the students had a hard time with their texts (predictably, those who were coming to Augustine for the first time), the vast majority of them brought some insightful analysis to the stories that they encountered. It was a lot of work to write prompts for each of the books that would lead the students into the sort of critical thinking I was hoping for, but that work seemed to have paid off in some really great papers.

The best part of the project, however, was the class discussion day. Regardless, it would have been hopeless to expect the students to have read anything else the day that their papers were due, but I wanted to give the students an opportunity to share the results of their hard work anyway. So I had the students sit down in groups with the others who had read the same text and share their own unique arguments; Is Simone Weil “religious” or “spiritual” in her intense devotion to Catholicism and simultaneous refusal of baptism? Does narrating your conversion through the metaphor of hunger and filling rather than pollution and cleansing  (as does Sara Miles), and participating in Communion prior to being baptized change the actual experience of being converted? The students had some productive disagreements here.

They then split up into groups with students who had read different texts, in order to summarize the plot of their story and reprise their own argument once again. At the end of this group work, having encountered a wildly diverse range of “conversions”, we were able to have a great conversation as a class about what takes place in a conversion, and more fundamentally, about the boundaries of what counts as  “religion” and “religious” and what it takes to cross those boundaries.

There are a number of things that I’ll change as I teach the course again this Spring, but this assignment will remain as a central element.