Thursday, June 06, 2013

Finishing the hat

What to do about "Theorizing Religion"? It's the course I've taught longest: I brought it with me from Princeton (where it's called "Approaches to the Study of Religion"), turned it from a lecture course to a seminar at Lang, tweaked and updated and tweaked some more. It's also the one course required of all our majors and minors, designed to initiate students in the practice of studying religion academically. For me this has always meant understanding the history and favored categories of our discipline (and other disciplines), and encountering some of the "classic texts" of our field. (Remember the religious studies hat, below?) But the discipline keeps changing, "classic texts" are not just contested in detail but a contested category as a whole, and postmodern/postcolonial/postsecularist perspectives and new media have changed everything. Our students, meanwhile, are mostly not interested in becoming scholars of religion. (A startling number of our recent majors have wound up in seminaries!) And there's always a contingent of students who have studied religion in any form...
So here's what I'm thinking. Alongside the reading responses and some writing assignments designed to let them demonstrate their mastery of the texts and issues, I'll have students do two new assignments which look neither towards the academy nor the glorious religious past. In the first, they'll have to write a brief essay about some current religious event, personality, community or controversy in New York City, building it around an article from a newspaper or magazine and supplementing it also with a little library research. The second will ask them to analyze and assess one of the internet sites which offer supposedly objective information about religion - beliefnet.com, faithology.com, religionfacts.com, etc. - focusing on a particular article or posting, and backing it up with two theorists from our class. That doesn't answer the question of which theorists to include, but I think it'll let us face and discuss the relationship between what scholars of religion do and other discourses and communities of religious inquiry - and let students explore some interests of their own. Act local, think global?

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