What’s in Your Religion Syllabus?: Joshua Patterson

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 Joshua Patterson

Whether they are short or long, the goals we include in our course syllabi project a certain sense of who we are as teachers, and our identities as scholars of religion. Additionally, the statements given on departmental webpages signify particular priorities for that department and are meant to paint a picture of the collective identity of that faculty. As a doctoral student in higher education, with degrees in religious studies, one of the ways that I am researching religious studies in higher education is by analyzing learning goals. There is a strange relationship that exists between the goals we share with our students and those we hold in our own minds, and as I undertook research on learning goals, I knew from my own teaching experience that my own syllabus goals only scratched the surface of the care and intention I had for designing every aspect of my course.

To conduct this research, I began by scrolling through the syllabi collected through a joint project with Wabash and AAR, which is a fantastic resource for teaching and for data on trends in the field. This joint project continues to grow and has collected nearly 1,000 voluntarily submitted religion course syllabi. Currently there are 54 intro course syllabi available. While this is a remarkable resource, for the purpose of research design, I decided to take a more focused approach and use multiple syllabi from intro courses in only four religion departments along with statements from the chair on their webpages.

These learning goals were a petri dish for many of the most controversial topics in the field today. The influence of issues like vocationalization (or the trend to relate humanities coursework to common job skills), theological versus scientific approaches, the world religions paradigm, tension between student and faculty goals, and broad assessment pressures were all readily apparent. Patterns emerged and I was able to tie some of the most hotly debated issues in the field to data points, and test many of the prevailing theories. At a recent conference presentation I shared various graphics that are too clunky for a blog format, however, the following findings were the most fascinating.

First, this work validated the research that Barbara Walvoord conducted for Teaching and Learning in College Introductory Religion Courses. Unsurprisingly the most common goals for students entering religion courses, which center around exploration and development of their own spirituality did not appear as goals for instructors in their syllabi. While this is not shocking, given that the four departments studied were either at public institutions or privates without a strong religious identification, what Walvoord terms the “Great Divide” between student and instructor goals in religion courses is something that merits our attention. We cannot only take advantage of students’ interest in spirituality to maintain enrollment, if we do not consider the implications of those interests on how they learn in our classrooms. Walvoord’s research, along with the work of higher education researchers have shown that while the current generation of students are increasingly not affiliating with a religion, they are increasingly interested in the topic of religion. Additionally, this research has illustrated a desire on the part of students to engage and develop their own spiritual worldviews, despite their non-affiliation. These trends have tremendous implications for higher education and specifically in religion courses, and run counter to the narrative that our discipline is becoming irrelevant in light of the advent of the “nones.” It also means that whether religion professors are willing to engage their students spiritual identities or not, students are exercising their own agency to make their own meaning of what we teach, and as teachers we must decide how we will respond. This conversation among religion scholars will hopefully continue.

Next, certain institutions were more likely to trend towards what some might characterize as a theological approach, but the results would not have been predicted by simply looking at whether the department was at a public institution. This illustrates the continued tension in the field between the more traditional “theological” or developmental teaching approaches, which may (in agnostic form) be in high student demand, to the more theoretical, social scientific, or self-described “academic” approaches to teaching religion in colleges and universities. The distinction between theology and religious studies continues to be a huge concern within the field, and a difficulty with how our departments relate to others across campus. Additionally, while I believe learning goals can give discerning readers hints about the dispositions of departments, there still are not reliable ways to categorize different approaches. This ambiguity makes discussions of the appropriateness of approaches that much more difficult as scholars become more skilled at avoiding being painted into any particular corner.

Finally, the impact of accountability and assessment as a broad trend in higher education is evident in a widespread attention to employment applications and outcomes for religion coursework. In the current Neo-Liberal higher education environment, the discipline of religion is faced with serious debates about how much it will bend toward these vocational pressures, and the risks involved with refusing to “play the game.” Each of the four departmental pages I studied and multiple of the syllabi made explicit statements about the benefits of religion coursework to the modern global workplace. We need to continue to have conversations about the limits of appealing to this impulse and the methodological integrity of our approaches. How can we make our courses practical and applied and maintain academic and theoretical rigor? Several of the syllabi featured in this blog series provide thoughtful examples of engaging this tension. What’s at risk if we do not address popular concerns about job applicability? Many institutions have already seen serious drops in the number of majors, and job concerns for students is a common explanation. In light of these trends, religion departments are seeing more pressures from their institutions, receiving fewer resources, and being forced to rely more on non-tenure track faculty as a response to lower resources. Data from the Humanities Indicators Survey has noted both the decrease in majors, and the increased reliance on non-tenure track faculty.

In addition to these three patterns, the study also revealed that departments have vastly different curricular offerings, structures, and requirements. Even finding an introduction course of similar content to compare across institutions was quite a challenge given the variety of course offerings and major/minor requirements. These differences in offerings and structures warrant their own detailed discussion and debate as all of these factors influence how and what students learn. The Religious Studies Project, a site that puts out both writings and podcasts, has produced a lot of materials concerning the “world religions paradigm.” The prevalence of the paradigm is easily discernable from these data, and future conversations around this topic should continually engage with practices and realities on the ground.

The study utilized many syllabi that were available online as public documents, and there are many more available through the Wabash and AAR syllabus project, but given the vitriolic nature of some of these debates in the field, it has been important to me to protect the identity of the institutions involved. As someone who taught religion courses for several years, I can admit that my learning goals, especially early on, were not detailed or well developed. I have attempted to conduct this research in a way that is sympathetic to the experiences of religion teachers given my own experiences. A religion professor of mine once said that interpreting scripture for an audience is like undressing in public, and I think talking about our learning goals and syllabi can feel the same way. I hope that this work sparks discussion about different approaches within the field, and reminds of us of the key challenges we face as carriers of and advocates for the academic study of religion in colleges and universities.

Josh Patterson is a doctoral candidate at University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education conducting research on the intersection of religion and higher education. Specifically, current work focuses on the discipline of religious studies, its history, current status, and relation to broader conversations around the mission of higher education, liberal arts, and the humanities. Additional projects are exploring the relationship between philanthropy and religious studies, and students’ identity formation during college.

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