What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: T. Nicole Goulet


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 T. Nicole Goulet

Our Religious Studies Department teaches numerous sections of RLST 100: Introduction to Religion, as part of IUP’s Liberal Studies requirement. The course description for the syllabus of record is as follows:

An introduction to the academic study of religion through an examination of various dimensions of religious expression and traditions. Will cover such areas as problems about definition of religion; approaches to the study of religion; the goals, language, and rituals of religion; cases of religious experience; faith, disbelief, and alternatives to religion; religion and the sociocultural context.

I teach this course as an introduction to the methodological and theoretical frameworks that are used to understand and study religion in an academic setting. I do this by parsing out certain themes found in a variety of religions, including myth, ritual, mysticism, and violence. After introducing students to traditional approaches and content, I gradually start calling their attention to the ways thinking seriously about race, class, and gender changes how we understand religious practice. I pay close attention to what I view as lacunae in how religion has historically been studied, but I omit mention of this pedagogical strategy from my syllabus, as students at IUP are hesitant to engage in discussions about religion as a cultural construct.

This is because many students on our campus have not been exposed to different religions, let alone different ideas about religion. They are predominantly white, and from working and lower middle class background. Christianity is typically their only point of reference for understanding what “religion” means, and many see little relevance to understanding other religious traditions, let alone utilizing a critical lens essential to the academic study of religion. For many, perhaps most, knowledge of religion is rooted in devotional practice and personal belief.

I challenge my students’ assumptions about religion from the first day of class. Our first lecture is “What do you know about religion?” They take the PEW Religious Knowledge Quiz (http://www.pewforum.org/quiz/u-s-religious-knowledge/), which serves to show how little students know about the basics of the major world religions, and they work in small groups to answer the following questions:

1) Why do you think IUP has included this Religious Studies course as a Liberal Studies requirement?
2) How does the Religious Studies Liberal Studies requirement contribute to your major?

Specifically, I ask them to brainstorm ideas, and to take creative risks in making connections between their majors, their career goals, and this course.

It turns out that with a little encouragement most students readily recognize the need for Religious Studies as a Liberal Studies requirement. They understand that IUP’s mandate is the promotion of multiculturalism and acceptance of diversity, and that religion is an aspect of that. However, the connections that they make between this course and their degrees are less clear. While students suggest there are practical applications, such as making it easier to work with people different from themselves, they see little connection between critically engaging in representations and cultural constructions of religion, and their future professional lives. That is for the rest of the semester to address.

Nicole Goulet is an Assistant Professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, PA. Her work focuses on religious practice in Hinduism, with attention paid to race, class, and gender.

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