What’s in Your Religion Syllabus? Scholars Give Advice on Where to Start

Image of an arched doorway through a thick hedge, with bright sunlight on the other side and flowers through the doorway and in the foreground.

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.

by Stacie Swain

Every two years, my university department runs a seminar on “professional development” for first- and second-year doctoral students. The seminar includes a section on pedagogy, and one of our assignments is to make a sample syllabus for a teaching dossier. As I worked on the assignment and typed up the formalities, I found myself wondering where to begin the substantive material – the course description, the assignments, weekly themes, perhaps the readings? I put the question out to my social media network: “When you’re making a syllabus, which part do you start with?” I received a range of constructive advice, which the scholars in question have graciously allowed me to compile here.


S. Brent Rodriguez Plate:‪ A good idea! Seriously, for me it’s like writing a book or essay, it’s got to start with an idea, turn into a thesis, and then figure out how to support that thesis.

Russell McCutcheon: Exactly. A course—unless boringly just conveying information, like names of rivers—is an exercise in persuasion and introduction (i.e., moving someone into a new domain). So, of what are you trying to persuade students…? Into what new environment will your course move them? And then what steps are needed…? What topics will facilitate this…? What resources will help you…? What assignments and administered at what points will assist them to practice what you’re teaching and help you assess them…?

Leslie Dorrough Smith: Another way to think of it—if you had to sum up in a sentence or two what you want students to remember from this class, what would that be? Then I think of how to walk them through the argumentation to establish that point, and I structure the course accordingly.

Russell McCutcheon: As Brent wrote, and as Leslie just elaborated, a course is like an essay—it ought to have a thesis, something at stake, of which you want to persuade students, and then, like an essay, each class meeting is a step toward that…

Ian Alexander Cuthbertson: Yes! I start by thinking about the argument I want to make but I also do a bit of what Donovan describes below when I start to think about readings—especially in MA level courses. I also usually begin and end the course by examining the same material (this year I’m teaching a religion in popular culture class and we will begin and end the course analyzing the same five film clips) with the hope that, having taken the course, the argument I’ve been making and their own learning will become apparent when students see this material in a new light.

Warren S. Goldstein:  The one from last year. No point in reinventing the wheel unless you are making a radically new wheel (which sometimes happens).

Richard Newton: The final project.
[Stacie Swain: Does this make it easier to then figure out how you’d equip students to complete the final project?]
Richard: A lot of times. I agree with S. Brent Rodriguez Plate about starting with a good idea. When it comes to teaching, I tend to be able to come up with some pretty solid ideas about final projects without too much effort. Then I work backwards to determine how to equip them to do them in a given amount of time. One way to determine what constitutes a “good idea” is by playing to your own passions and interests. I say teach from what excites you. This post on backward design gets at this idea in some interesting ways.

Kristian Petersen: Yes to backward design. Set objectives you have for students at the end. Then scaffold assignments so they can succeed.

Donovan Schaefer: Building a list of material that I find fascinating, stuff I’m grateful I’ve read and want to keep thinking with. Everything else is connective tissue to provide context/scaffolding for those texts then link them together.

Ken Derry: For what it’s worth (and as it’s apparent from this thread) I don’t think there are (m)any hard and fast rules for how to design a syllabus. A big part of it is figuring out what kind of teacher you are in general, and what kind of teacher you will be (or want to be) for the course in question. Also, the structure of the course can be as important as the content (in some ways more so). A course that’s meandering and exploratory in format might help students feel more comfortable with that approach to learning, and it might help them think of what they would like to learn about as much as what you would like them to learn. A course that includes material that you’re not an expert on might show students that it’s okay to not know everything—you can literally model how to approach new material as you encounter it with them. It’s fine to make a course that’s like an essay, or that’s fully under the instructor’s control (in terms of both structure and content), but in some ways that approach can also reinforce existing social and cultural hierarchies. And so one’s own identity might be something to consider when constructing courses—it makes a difference in all kinds of ways if one is a middle-aged, tenured, white man or a young, precariously employed woman of colour.

Kenneth MacKendrick: Title. Name. Room. Drop date. Office hours. Library location. Disclaimer about email etiquette. Disclaimer about submitting essays by email. Disclaimer about leaving class early. Course Description with bonus marks for reading this far. Revised Course Description (because the description never quite gets it right), Course Objectives, Required Readings, Recommended Readings, Disclaimer about coming to class not prepared to talk about readings, Course Assignments, Lectures.

And I want to second some of what Russell McCutcheon, Leslie Dorrough Smith, and Ken Derry have written. A course should have a thesis or something of a hook. What’s the point? Keeping in mind that NOTHING has to be taught. As the instructor, you’re creating the canon, recreating the canon, challenging the canon. But a course does need a kind of canon, some required readings, so that there is shared ground – always. A course is a course of study, with a beginning that is unsatisfactory and an ending that is unsatisfactory. I tell my students that they’ve been thrown out of a helicopter into the ocean. There’s reading in every direction. You just have to swim. Maybe not the best metaphor, but sinking is a relatable experience for most students. Maybe I should add that the course outline is a lifejacket. Okay, that metaphor has gone on way too long. One thing I’ve started doing with great success is have the students submit their assignments one by one and then, at the end, re-submit all of them as a portfolio. It gets them to think about their writing as a body of work, the course as an ongoing conversation.

Matthew Baldwin: I like a good portfolio. Assuming you have a good idea of the “thesis” to be covered by the course (usually a title and a catalog description is the starting point), I begin with time and work management issues. Having certain ambitions for my time with the students, or in the neoliberal jargon, certain outcomes I hope we can cultivate, I begin by recognizing the limits of the format.

A course is a period of time of instructors and students interacting with each other and course material. It has “economic” limits that are primarily a matter of time. I start with creating a week-by-week map of the semester, and think carefully about how to manage the ebb and flow of energy over the course of the schedule. When do the tests need to happen? When do the papers and drafts need to happen? How much work can be expected day to day? How many topics can be covered?

Having created “spaces” and a suitably restrained and realistic plan for the amount of work that we can do together, I plug in modules of theory and data… actual topics. Always trying to keep these fewer than last time… because last time there wasn’t enough time.

Author’s note: Just a quick expression of gratitude to those who responded to my impromptu query, and for allowing me to reconstruct those responses here.

Stacie Swain is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Victoria. She is interested in discourses on religion, spirituality, and law within Canadian settler colonialism, as well as Indigenous nationhood and ceremonial self-determination within urban spaces and public institutions.

Image by author, Butchart Gardens, Victoria, B.C.

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