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Home Videos on Teaching DePaul Faculty Oral HistoriesChernoh Sesay, Jr.
DePaul Faculty Oral Histories: Chernoh Sesay

Browse the videos below to hear Chernoh Sesay, Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, reflect on his teaching style, influences, and challenges.


My Biggest Teaching Influence: Science in the Humanities

Featured Faculty Member: Chernoh Sesay of the Department of Religious Studies.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

So I began as an engineer because of parental support and enthusiasm for having a pragmatic degree that would very I think easily put me into a clear employment path.

And I remember as a sophomore having a conversation with my father wanting to switch to the humanities, and he suggested that I stick with engineering, and so I did. And in hindsight one of the things that a science background has left me with is—and this is kind of a joke—but it's an interest in always, an interest in what I call the “gods of partial credit.” So in the sciences, in physics for example, if you don't, if it's clear that you're not going to be able to answer the question correctly you want to put as much information into your answer as possible to make it clear that you at least know what's being asked. And the other thing about an engineering background that I think has found its way into my scholarship but also then my teaching is an emphasis on trying to create systematic ways of understanding a particular argument. And so when I teach I really am interested, and it's one of the reasons too why I like this reading review form that I talked about earlier. I'm really interested in getting my students to . . . even if they don't understand the argument of a reading, I'm interested in getting them to think about how they might approach a reading, reading the first paragraph and then the last paragraph, trying to get a sense of what questions are underlying the author's interest in a particular topic even. Why is this author writing about African-American religion during slavery? What issues are animating that author's interest? So even if the student will have difficulty with the article, we can begin a conversation that starts with in some ways real-life questions: What does it mean—and this is a question that I get a lot from my students—for an oppressed person to adopt the religion of their oppressor? Well, let's try to unfold that question. What are the assumptions that the student is holding that go into asking even that very question? And so I think my science background has benefited me in that way, pushing me to always look for the partial unspoken assumptions that go into various and sundry intellectual problems that I am interested in and that I want my students to be interested in.




My Biggest Teaching Influence: Utilizing Student Feedback

Featured Faculty Member: Chernoh Sesay of the Department of Religious Studies.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

In terms of the feedback that I've received from my teaching, yes, I've certainly gotten great feedback, and constructive feedback from colleagues and from students.

The feedback that I've gotten from colleagues, a lot of that has to do with structural issues: how one should write a syllabus, what issues one should anticipate in terms of ways in which students learn, or just anticipating problems that might come up in terms of how a class is organized and making sure that a syllabus is clear, making sure that I'm not lecturing for 90 minutes and boring the students. And obviously the issue of lecturing just straight to the students was never really a problem for me. One of the issues in terms of students that I have encountered is the issue of content matter and of making sure that all students are engaged in content matter. So I'll start with a comment that I receive from a student and then kind of open that up. On one of my teaching evaluations, I received a comment from a student saying—now I know nothing about the student, the evaluations are anonymous and this was before we moved to the system whereby it's all computerized—but a student said to me that they had doubts about initially taking my class because they felt as though they wouldn't have anything to give. And the class was “The African American Religious Experience,” so the student could have had doubts about their ability to contribute for a variety of reasons. I suspect one of those reasons might have been that the student was white and felt as though that to participate in a class on the African American religious experience meant that the student could only really participate substantively if they could speak from personal experience that in some way related to this thing that we think of as the African American religious experience. And so one of the things that I do in my class is to use a big, thick, edited volume of primary documents written by African Americans, people of African descent. However, because my approach in the class is historical, what it allowed students to do whether or not they had experience in this variety of traditions or not is to speak critically about these traditions given a set of questions that I would continually ask them about these primary documents. So I think in the case of this one student she felt as though she could contribute in the class to the subject matter in very important ways because the class was forcing her to think critically about issues that were important not just for African Americans or African American religion but issues that are important for any people, any group of people in an American context and even in a global context.




My Teaching Style: Engaging Students in Primary Sources

Featured Faculty Member: Chernoh Sesay of the Department of Religious Studies.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

I remember arriving at DePaul thinking that I could give students scholarly articles and that they would just very easily and readily absorb them, and I think a lot of that was coming out of graduate school with not a lot of specific teaching experience or teaching training.

And so I haven't stopped giving students scholarly articles. I very much like to do that, even some that one would consider difficult or dry, but I think the thing that I have improved upon in terms of a teaching style is getting students to engage in the readings even if they're lost, right, getting them to just read the stuff, to read through it once or twice so that they come to class prepared to have a conversation. And hopefully a conversation that can lead to clarity, a conversation where given my skills at essentially having a conversation I can get the students to move from overly simplistic understandings of fairly complex ideas to having discussions where the complexity of certain events or processes becomes revealed to the students through their own activity in the class and not just me talking at them. And in fact I'm all- I'm most comfortable engaging the students rather than coming up with a lecture whereby I just leave very small moments in time for them to react. I very much like students to react to what I'm saying, and so I think over time my teaching style has been consistent in the sense that I've always wanted to have classes where I felt as though I was having a conversation with the students, but it has changed over time in the sense that it—in various ways it's become more structured, and structured in ways that allow students to come to class more prepared.




My Teaching Style: Leading a Discussion

Featured Faculty Member: Chernoh Sesay of the Department of Religious Studies.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

In terms of leading a discussion and in terms of leading a discussion in ways that allow for that discussion to be structured and begin at a clear starting point and then end also at a clear point but also allow for kind of tangents and circles as it were, to allow for those instances where students as they're thinking out loud want to bring something up that might not have been something that I have thought about in terms of my own teaching plan, I have students fill out a reading review form, which is a form actually that I got from Rob Rotenberg in Anthropology (I think he got it from Jane Baxter).

And he actually had in my first one or two years here at DePaul a seminar on teaching, and this reading review form (and I thank him very much) is an open-ended reading review form that asks students various questions about the reading: Come up with a motto for the reading. What in the reading caught your attention and why? What in the reading was completely new for you? What in the reading ties back to some of the larger questions that we've been talking about in the course? I don't think this intimidates students because it's not something that I grade. It's just something that they have to fill out comprehensively. I use it as part of their participation grade and so in any classroom, particularly in one where I'm trying to emphasize a conversation, I recognize that some students are going to be shy and not want to talk, and that's part of the challenge. And so having a sheet like this I think allows students, even those who are shy, to come in with comments. They might not be so willing or enthusiastic to state what they're thinking, but over the course of the quarter one of my goals is to get those shy students to be able to talk given this pre-class preparation that they have to do.




My Teaching Style: Performance in the Classroom

Featured Faculty Member: Chernoh Sesay of the Department of Religious Studies.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

I certainly think that when I'm in front of the class I am performing.

And so I don't think performance in the classroom is something that's bad. In fact, I think that every professor has to figure out a teaching style that they are comfortable with, and so it's very interesting in class. I think the ways in which various professors, in which I try to maintain some sort of professional and pedagogical distance between me and my students . . . and then there are other ways in which I try to close that distance so that my students feel comfortable with me and trust where I'm taking them intellectually. And so I certainly think that I'm performing. When I first started teaching at DePaul, and again I started teaching here without a lot of experience, I was scared to death teaching. I'd break out into these cold sweats in front of the classroom and then proceed to sweat more because I had started sweating at all. And I found it just very embarrassing. But over time I found that I actually liked teaching in front of the class, and so over time I haven't tried to dampen that kind of enthusiasm. While I do things like wear a tie and a decent shirt, I also will crack dry jokes. And if a joke is cracked that did not go over well, I'll actually point that out and make fun of myself, things like that. Really being comfortable in front of the class and being cognizant of the ways in which you're comfortable in front of the class I think is critical to creating an environment where the students trust you. And within an environment where students trust you, you can get them I think to do some pretty amazing things, things that they didn't necessarily think that they could do.




My Biggest Teaching Challenge: Creating a Rapport with Students

Featured Faculty Member: Chernoh Sesay of the Department of Religious Studies.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

Certainly teaching Religious Studies classes, the two things that you're never supposed to talk about in polite conversation anyway are politics and religion, and so certainly in most humanities classes at DePaul professors have to deal with controversial or provocative topics and they have to find ways of engaging all of the students without alienating any particular student.

And so one of the things that I do is begin every single class having students introduce themselves and telling me where they're from and giving a one-word description of themselves, their personality on that day. And I write each of those one-word descriptions down and when everybody is done I read them back to the class, and so you get this whole list of very interesting—some cliche, but some interesting—descriptors: tired, anxious, excited, enthusiastic, responsible. Two students in the history of doing this did say that they were lazy. That was interesting, but what that does is it . . . I think it helps create an atmosphere from the very beginning where the students are forced to get to know each other. I've used small groups a lot and sometimes I will count off. Other times I will put students in small groups. I will change the dynamics of those small groups around and sometimes you see small groups in class that work quite well. Sometimes you see others that are struggling, but I'm always there and I think over the course of the quarter, especially given my emphasis on . . . even when I have to give kind of structured content always having, trying to have some sort of a conversation that generally speaking my students and I tend to create a rapport with one another, which I think is really, really important in any particular class but particularly when you're dealing with controversial issues. The teaching environment . . . I should say teaching is an art in the sense that I think any teacher really has to take the time to get to know the audience that they're trying to engage, and I think once that is done successfully that it can make the teaching of the content that much easier and I think that much more interesting both for the professor and for the students. And again, having students introduce themselves has nothing to do with the content of any particular class but it's all about creating an environment where students feel comfortable with each other and with myself, which is key if I want them to actually reveal a little bit about themselves, be willing to think out loud, be willing to hear me correct them a bit or even be willing to hear their colleagues, their peers respond to them in ways that are constructive but critical.




My Biggest Teaching Challenge: Discussing my Own Religious Beliefs

Featured Faculty Member: Chernoh Sesay of the Department of Religious Studies.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

The issue of me telling students about my religious background is interesting for me, because I frame that question in part by thinking about why I'm teaching about religion.

So I might be teaching about religion, on the one hand, because I'm interested in teaching students how to be religious. On the other hand, I might be teaching about religion because I'm interested in giving students perspective about a very wide array of religious experiences and even problematizing that category of religion. I tend not to do a lot of teaching that's concerned with or invested with teaching students how to be religious. I'm much more interested in teaching students how to, on the one hand, problematize a category of religion and to problematize that category so that they will be amenable to thinking about religion in a wide array of historical contexts and situations and times. And so when I've been asked what my religious background is or has been, my answer to that question really depends upon what we're doing in class and the degree to which I think a student is fishing for some sort of background on my behalf. And there have been cases where I've told students where it wasn't really important to what I was telling them. And there've been other cases when I felt very comfortable in telling students the various kinds of religious experiences that I've had. And it's an interesting question also because, if students want to engage whatever material I'm giving them from their own personal religious experiences, I think that is very useful for me. And so to be fair to them, one might argue, well, if I want them to speak from their own religious experiences, I should be willing to do the same thing. And I think that there's a lot that can be made for that argument. But in a class like “ The African American Religious Experience,” for example, one of the things that I would not want to happen is for students to think that, because I'm an African American, that I am speaking for all African Americans or that my authoritative voice in the class is derived from my personal experience rather than the breadth and depth of scholarly work that I've done and that I'm currently engaged in. Because I think, for a student who might not be of whatever . . . had my religious perspective, if they know that, they might automatically assume that, if they have not had my set of experiences, that means that, in some way, I'm going to be biased towards whatever they have to contribute. And so most of the time I tend to avoid that one, again because I'm interested in giving students perspective about a variety of historical perspectives even within an African American religious experience. And I would never want students to feel as though I have a particular agenda that they need to fall in line with.




Technology in the Classroom: A Different Kind of Learning Environment

Featured Faculty Member: Chernoh Sesay of the Department of Religious Studies.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

The question of technology is an excellent question, especially given all of the advances that are occurring in technology as regards to teaching pedagogy. I mean, one, most every DePaul classroom is a smart classroom. So you have a projector. You have your white screen. You can play CDs, DVDs, VHS players. You have access to the internet. And so I use technology in my classes.

I don't think, though, that I would consider myself an expert in the use of technology. And by an expert I mean that I don't—I think it's possible to go overboard with PowerPoint, for example. I think PowerPoint can be very useful, but obviously one of the problems is creating PowerPoints where everything that you're going to say is already on the PowerPoint. And so you create a situation where the students aren't paying attention to you. They're only paying attention to the PowerPoint. And so I think one has to use technology in today's classroom. Because in so many different ways, it can help you, as a teacher, appeal to a broader array of learners. Some people are aural learners. They can pick up everything by listening. But some students are visual learners. And so I think you really have to try to reach, do a little bit to try to reach to everybody. And so technology is quite wonderful and useful; again, though, it can overtake a classroom. Within this question of technology is also the question of online learning. I have not as yet taught an online class. I have talked to various faculty within Religious Studies who have taught online. And the benefit of online learning, I think there are many. But one of them is that you can give access to education to people for whom access might be a problem. One of the knee-jerk reactions to online learning is that, well, you're losing this component of having the professor in the classroom. And I think that's a valid criticism. And certainly it's one that is dear to me, given the degree to which I think it's important to have a learning environment that allows for these spontaneous moments. And so, yeah, online learning is important. However, I think one of the lessons that one can take from online learning that I've gleaned from some of the conversations I had with my faculty is there are certain ways in which online learning creates a different kind of learning environment that forces students to have to stay on task, because they are having constant assignments that are due in that kind of environment. And so, in terms of how I use technology, I use discussion boards. I have assignments that students have to submit to the Desire2Learn tool. And so I think technology is important. Again, going back to my emphasis on what one is most comfortable with, I very much like the classroom environment for the way in which I can use it to construct conversations between students. And so, for me, I try to use technology to highlight my strengths. I don't try to use technology to replace the things that I think that I do naturally well.




Technology in the Classroom: The Power of YouTube

Featured Faculty Member: Chernoh Sesay of the Department of Religious Studies.
Music: “July” by Marcel Pequel, courtesy of Free Music Archive. Creative Commons Licensed.
Videographer/Editor: Jordan Ziolkowski
Interviewer: Zac Brenner

From the Transcript

I also think that tools like YouTube, in a smart room, allow you to bring up segments from popular culture that might illuminate certain kinds of concepts.

So, for example, when I'm talking about Protestant Evangelicalism and I'm trying to emphasize the way in which that kind of religious tradition constructs the relationship between the individual and God, I show the students a clip from a classic Chicago movie, The Blues Brothers. Jake and Elwood Blues are in this African American, probably Baptist church, where James Brown, none other than James Brown, is giving this sermon. And so obviously this clip is overdone for dramatic effect, and there are some interesting problematic stereotypes going on. But, you know, you have the heavens opened. And I think it's—I'm forgetting the brother, John Belushi. I think it's Jake. This light comes from the heavens and strikes him, right? And it's this instance of Jake not having to go through a ritual of baptism in order to enter into a religious community. But there, lo and behold, directly he's receiving God's grace, which gives him this brilliant insight about how they're going to save their orphanage. And this is happening within the context of an African American church, where you have this give and take between the preacher and the congregation. You have this music. And so there are all these things going on in this clip. Technology is also a great way of introducing controversial subjects in a way that is representative of how a general popular cultural audience might think of something. So when I'm talking about religion in the context of slavery, I show various segments from the movie Roots using YouTube. And I obviously give disclaimers about how a slave being whipped is graphic and students can leave the classroom. But, again, it's a way in which the use of video and, in this case, a television show that was shown in all American households some decades ago can really highlight, for my purposes, how certain historical events are thought of in the eyes of a cultural, or popular, a wider popular audience. And in response, you can get students to say, yeah, that's the same way in which I thought of this set of events or processes. And in other cases, you can get students reacting against those things.