This is Part 3 in my series on course & syllabus design (“Oz Behind the Curtain”); here are Part 1 and Part 2. I’ve also posted a Part 3a on governance and alignment, but since it’s kind of technical it’s only on my blog; see here if you want to get into those nitty-gritty details.
All my syllabi have some generalized instructions. I include some boilerplate stuff on every syllabus: use of phone and laptops in class, something about attendance and participation to the effect that just showing up is necessary but not sufficient, something about disability accommodations, and so on.
But for a course that studies religion, somehow, I feel there needs to be something more along the lines of ground rules. These were mine from my last version of the syllabus and although they’re very blunt, I’m thinking of keeping them as is (the reference to the first writing assignment is to a paper that asks for a reflection on one’s own personal religious history).
Things That Must Be Said Up Front
Religious history brings up special considerations for scholars and students, and so there are some ground rules for this course.
1) All religions are true to their believers. All religious rituals, acts, beliefs, and doctrines make sense in context. If something doesn’t make sense to you, then you need more context. Don’t think “how could they believe that?” but instead seek understanding: “Why was this believable to them?” Take statements of religious belief or disbelief at face value (but not necessarily as historical fact).
2) No religious concept should be dismissed as weird, crazy or abnormal. There is no “normal.” You can certainly have your own opinions and personal beliefs about religion, but those don’t belong in our classroom discussion.
3) Except for the first writing assignment, you will approach your scholarship as a historian, rather than as a believer or a skeptic. This is a history class, not a CCD or Sunday School class. While religious doctrines will be discussed, it is never with the intent to prove a religion right or wrong. No one may use our class as a platform for either proselytizing their faith to convert others, or debunking the faith of others to lessen their commitment. Our class is going to be made up of a variety of faiths and degrees of religious involvement which we should all respect.
What do you think? What else would you say that beginning religious history students should know, be aware of, or be cautioned against up front?