Religious History Classes Come With Instructions

By January 16, 2012

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?

Article filed under Methodology, Academic Issues Pedagogy


  1. […] Jump to Part 3 […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Oz Behind the Curtain, Part 2 — January 16, 2012 @ 8:35 am

  2. Was it JAAR where Prothero and Orsi fought over epoche? Might be useful for them to read that exchange. Although Orsi’s view predominates, I think Prothero should have some traction in specific circumstances.

    Comment by smb — January 16, 2012 @ 11:38 am

  3. I don’t know widely it’s recognized, but your posts in this series provide an incredibly valuable insight into the kinds of things academics have to think about every day. Thanks very much for these posts.

    Comment by D. Martin — January 16, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

  4. Loving this series.

    While this certainly doesn’t have as much relevance to most classrooms, I’ve found that when I teach Mormon history to a Mormon audience, I have to address the issue of historical change over time in order to prepare them for the progression they’ll see over the semester.

    Comment by Ben P — January 16, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

  5. D. Martin, there’s even more of that in today’s other post, the one on my own blog, which describes in (perhaps nauseating) detail the various levels of academic oversight on courses at my university. I never had to think about any of these things before starting my current job. It is a whole new world and I am trying to help provide the field guide I didn’t have when I entered it! I trust it’s easier and has less red tape at most other places, but I don’t know that for sure.

    Comment by Tona H — January 16, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

  6. My syllabus states “There are two words you are not allowed ever to utter in this room, or write on any paper you bring into this room: ‘cult,’ and ‘brainwash.'”

    Comment by matt b — January 16, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

  7. I learned something very interesting one morning last week just before I woke up. When babies are learning to walk, they sometimes need a finger to grab onto. God provided five fingers: Thus the five major world religions. All of the fingers connect to the same hand.

    Comment by Bradley — January 16, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

  8. Tona, I finally got around to reading this series of posts. Really, really fantastic and useful stuff. Thank you very much.

    Comment by Christopher — January 16, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

  9. Thanks, Tona. These are indeed very helpful.

    Comment by Ryan T. — January 17, 2012 @ 7:54 pm

  10. […] this post comes late in my series about course and syllabus design (you can read part 1, part 2 and part 3 plus a part 3a if you care about the nitty-gritty of governance and assessment). Actually putting […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Oz Behind the Curtain, Part 4: The Syllabus — February 5, 2012 @ 3:51 pm


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