What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Vaia Touna

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In this series with the Bulletin, we ask scholars of religion to share with our readers what’s in their religion syllabus, from a new class or a class they’ve taught for years, reflecting on what has worked, what has been modified, and how it has proven useful for covering a particular topic in the study of religion. For other posts in this series, see here

This semester I’m teaching a course entitled “Theorizing Ancient Greek Religion.” The course aims at problematizing common assumptions in the way we approach ancient Greece, and how that relates to the present. One way into this is by looking at the category “religion,” and how it has been used in describing the past.

This is how the course is described in the syllabus:

In the study of religion scholars often talk about ancient religion in general, and, in particular, ancient Greek religion. But there is always a danger of projecting contemporary assumption backward in time—a concern we likely ought to keep in mind when it comes to studying such things as ancient Greek religion. This course therefore examines how the ancient Greek world is described and represented in the present, in museums, social media, scholarly works, etc. and towards what modern effects. We will also be discussing such topics as heritage, tradition, identity formation and nation-states, as they relate to discourses on the ancient Greek past, all in an effort to develop skills for how we study religion and the past.

Deciding what will be included in the syllabus (i.e., readings) and its various components (i.e., assignments) is never an easy process, but one way that I go about making those choices is by thinking of the course like writing an essay, that is, every reading is building towards an argument.

Initially we read Jan Bremmer’s article “Greek Religion [Further Considerations]” from the Encyclopedia of Religion, which serves as our primary data for the course. The rest of the course is designed in a way that will give students the necessary tools, and a critical thinking perspective to return later to analyze Bremmer’s article.

Each day’s class is divided into two sections: (i) theory and (ii) applying it to data.

During the first section students are assigned to read an article (they are also required to write an abstract and have one question regarding the article) that we discuss and analyze in class, for example we read W. J. Mitchell’s “Representation” (1995) [from Critical Terms for Literary Study]; Hayden White’s “The Fiction of Factual Representation” (1985 [1978]) [from Tropics of Discourse]; Brent Nongbri’s “Lost in Translation” (2013) [from Before Religion]; Pierre Bourdieu’s “Identity and Representation” (1992) [from Language and Symbolic Power]; Bruce Lincoln’s “The Politics of Myth” (2014) [from Discourse and the Construction of Society, 2nd Edition]; and Eric Hobsbawm’s “The Social Function of the Past: Some Questions” (1972).

During the second section, each day one student is responsible for presenting a piece of data, something that they have read in a newspaper, a book, etc. and which relates to the past (whether that is ancient Greece or some other culture), and which we then discuss in relation to the article we read during the first part of class that day. That way the article is applied to an example of a student’s choice; both the article and the e.g. serve as small examples where a particular issue is examined. As the class progresses, students are able to see how all of the articles are connected and how they help us in our analysis of the examples students bring in class.

At the end of the course we will revisit Bremmer’s opening article, in hopes that students will be able to identify and analyze in his article some of the issues discussed throughout the course, and generally start understanding that modern discourses about the past (whether we are talking about ancient Greek Religion or the past in general) are closely related to the present, that is, to who is talking, for what purpose, and towards what effect.

During the course we will also have two guest visits: Athanasia Kyriakou an archaeologist from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and member of the scientific team excavating at the archaeological dig in Vergina (Aegae). Kyriakou will be skyping with us from Thessaloniki, Greece, but she will also be visiting our class in March. Our second guest visit is Brent Nongbri, who will skype with us from Aarhus, Denmark, to discuss his book Before Religion (2013), since one of the chapters of the book is among the articles students are assigned to read.

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