[Part I of the series Pondering Pedagogy: Course Design; Read Part II, III, IV, V, VI]

How might one conceive of teaching a university class in Religious Studies?

Many Religious Studies departmental websites will advertise the importance of appreciating religious pluralism or cross-cultural religious literacy. While this is an admirable mission within a proper liberal arts educational program, I think it has limited value when conceiving of how one teaches a course. A concern for cultural or religious literacy guides the content of the course, not necessarily how one teaches it.

Much of my recent ruminations on teaching Religious Studies has come from teaching Rhetoric and Composition for the past several years. Not surprisingly, I was not tasked with teaching my students about writing, as much as I was tasked with teaching them how to write.[1] The focus is on skill acquisition, not mastery of writing trivia. This mindset allowed me to reconceptualize my task as a university teacher of Religious Studies; how can I move away from teaching about Religious Studies to how one does Religious Studies.[2] This is not an easy question to answer, nor is there one answer.

This change in thinking is at both times trivial and non-trivial. It is trivial because instructors will naturally, implicitly or explicitly, model their teaching based on how they do Religious Studies (historians will do it historically; sociologists will do it sociologically, etc.). A class only concerned with content – if that’s even possible – would be nothing more than a performative Wikipedia page, listing off facts as students fastidiously take notes.

Acting as an endless fount of stimulating facts would work well in a world where access to information is more difficult. Not anymore. This is one reason why I dislike advertising Religious Studies courses based purely on religious literacy – simply, learners have plenty of avenues to gain basic competency about different religious outside of the classroom.[3] Scholars of religion may argue that they may assess or curate facts better than Wikipedia (or a comparable source), but I think that misses my main point – we should identify which critical thinking skills students are acquiring as they learn content. Part of this commitment is also to determine the means to adequately assess those skills. [4]

This change in thinking is non-trivial because it forces instructors to honestly consider how to teach more (in my words) “generative” modes of thinking, such as analysis, application, evaluation, or creation (so-called “higher orders” of thinking). This is distinct from what I would consider more consumer modes of thinking, such as remembering or even understanding – surely foundational, but hardly the end product in my opinion.

One potential impasse here is to realize that Religious Studies is defined by its object of study – namely, religion (good luck defining that!) – not its critical theory, methodology, or level of analysis. David Lake and Ann Taves have referred to Area Studies fields, like Religious Studies, to be “raider disciplines” in that borrow theory and methods from other fields, such as History, Psychology, Philosophy, and so forth [see chart below]. While Religious Studies departments are interdisciplinary, individual scholars tend to be taught (or as Foucault would say, “disciplined”) in a singular discipline. I would argue that being aware of our disciplinary training will not only affect the content we chose to teach, but also the critical skills associated with that content.

Figure 1.png

From Ann Taves’ “2010 Presidential Address:
‘Religion’ in the Humanities and
the Humanities in the University” (JAAR 2011)

Because of this implicit and broad commitment to interdisciplinarity, many scholars also highlight the interdisciplinarity of religion to their students. For example, as a historian, in addition to historical documents, I may also assign ethnographic readings to my students, even though I do not teach them the theories and methods associated with ethnography. We may teach with interdisciplinarity, but that does not necessaruly mean we teach multiple disciplinary skills. Nor do I think we should necessarily commit to teaching multiple disciplinary methods, just fully realize and commit to what we do teach.

For example, these concerns were beneficial when I conceived a new survey course on Asian Religious Traditions. Given that Religious Studies is not defined by an overarching methodology, I decided to focus on a theoretical concern that was salient to the study of religion (I would argue it represents a “threshold concept” to the study of religion) – the term “religion” itself. I focused on historical method (looking at texts, objects, and sites), and from that evidence I had students offer their new definition of religion (or defense of an old one), based solely on Asian materials. For me, this addessed the more generative modes of thinking and argumentation, and represented one aspect of what Religious Studies does.

I do not think “disciplinary thinking” is the only way of critical thinking (but it is an important one within the academy), nor do I think that skill acquisition can be so neatly divided between different (non-area studies) disciplines (historians can think philosophically, and vice versa). Part of the reason for these first few posts is to examine what can be attempted within a course on religion when content takes a secondary role to cultivating critical intellectual skills.

Grist for the Mill: While there is a strong pull (by convention!) to begin designing a course by thinking about posssible themes or readings, I’m going to explore what happens when I start by asking: “what skills do I want my students to acquire?” Clearly, this will be modulated by the readings that are actually available (I’m not ready to drop readings altogether!) Also, the “skills” we ask students to cultivate can be quite diverse. As I’ve discussed here, I think the inderdisciplinarity of Religious Studies can allow scholars to easily forget that disciplinary skills – that is, disciplinary methods and theories – may need to be explicitly taught. Thus, I will have to model more of what I want my students to do (“doing religious studies” in the mode of history in my case). This can be easily forgotten when the focus is solely on content.


*This is part of a series where I discuss my evolving thought process on designing a new university course. In practice, this process will result in a syllabus on Japanese Religions. These posts will remain informal and mostly reflective.

[1] I need not digress here, but there are many ways to write academically (e.g. there are different academic genres), and thus I envisioned my role as providing my students a structure to practice their writing and conceive of strategies as to how they could develop their argumentation and style (or voice).

[2] As I will discuss, this is a particularly pertinent question for all Area Studies fields. One astute student essay about his preconceptions of Religious Studies can be found here, note that he though he would simply obtain a “general knowledge about the major religions of the world.” Our field may be determined by content, but that doesn’t mean that we only trade in world trivia.

[3] I would suggest this is potential reason why Religious Studies majors, and indeed many majors in the Humanities, have decreased in public institutions in the past decade.

[4] Multiple Choice exams may be great for assessing retainment of facts, but they remain difficult to construct as a means to asses “higher-order” critical thinking. Assigning papers does not necessarily mitigate this limitation, either. Writing assignment prompts would need to clearly move beyond having students rehearse facts they have learned or could read about elsewhere (ahem, Wikipedia).

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