Teaching Introduction to Religion: Or How Tupac and Mary Douglas Became Best Friends

By: Cara L. Burnidge

This past year I had the pleasure of teaching an Introduction to Religion course for the first time at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. As a general education course that fulfills both a multicultural and writing-intensive requirement, this class draws in a variety of students across the university. Few students were Religion majors; most probably fell into the category I like to call, in the words of one student, "I'm just here to get my A." After 2 required textbooks, several assigned chapters, and 3,000 written words, it's fair to say many students walked away surprised at the rigor of a course designed around the question, "What is religion?"

Rather than model the course on "World Religions, as some previous instructors had done, I chose to focus on theory and method in Religious Studies. I assigned Russell McCutcheon's Introduction to the Study of Religion and Daniel Pal's Eight Theories of Religion. I find McCutcheon's book especially invaluable because half of its 200 pages are devoted to a glossary of terms and scholars. What McCutcheon provided for an overview of Religious Studies broadly, Pals provided depth to a handful of scholars and theories. Together these books formed the basis of the conversation for the semester. After studying specific theorists, we spent a few weeks reading examples of different methodological approaches to studying religion (ethnographies, histories, textual analyses, etc.) while asking methodological questions (about insiders/outsiders, the legitimacy of violence/intolerance as "true" religion, the role of voice, and the importance of gender, race, and class in examining religious groups). After this foundation had been laid out, I let students loose on a topic of their choice. At first, I encouraged students to look at current events and news sources to "find" discussions of religion and analyze how journalists and pundits evoke religion as a term and approach it as a topic of study. In class we practiced identifying the use of theoretical models, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of those approaches, and considering alternatives. After a week of discussing current evens they were not interested in, I opened the possible case studies up to whatever they wanted. So long as they compared their interest to a theorist we studied, identified a methodological approach likely employed, and analyzed the consequences of the approach, anything was fair game.

For introductory students, new to both the critical study of religion and, for some, college in general, the demand for comprehension of course concepts and application of those concepts was difficult. While some students struggled others flourished, as can be expected in any general education course. The students that struggled typically expected a "content delivery" course in which I supplied knowledge that students memorized temporarily and repeated on an exam. This was not the course they signed up for. The purpose was to provide tools that they could carry with them beyond this course and, hopefully, into their areas of study and career interests. This happened unevenly based on students' skill level entering the course, but one sophomore engineering student--who had not taken any humanities classes heretofore--blew me away with the degree to which he "got it."

Information on this album can be found here
Focusing on Tupac's All Eyez on Me and "Only God Can Judge Me" as his primary focus and using interviews to supplement his claims, this student argued that Tupac most closely resembled Mary Douglas's ideas about social structures and social control. Complete with an analysis of what "keeping it real" might mean, this paper was a home run for the introductory course. More than anything else, I wanted students to be able to read deeply into things they were already interested in rather than attain a certain level of religious "literacy." Some students were more cursory of their connections between their interests and the course concepts, but others, like this case study, exceeded my expectations.

Now that the summer is upon us, I'm working on revamping my syllabi. To that end, I'm interested in learning how others have approached their Introduction to Religion courses. What approaches proved effective for other instructors?  What are the primary learning goals that readers find valuable? What textbooks/readings do RiAH readers find most useful for fostering conversations with students?


Mark T. Edwards said…
"More than anything else, I wanted students to be able to read deeply into things they were already interested in rather than attain a certain level of religious 'literacy'."

Great focus for such a course, Cara, especially given that few of the students were majors. Did any of the students analyze TV or film? Do you watch and analyze anything together as a class?
Thanks, Mark. Most students chose music or film, which did not surprise me given the talented performers in both the Marching 100 and the Visual Arts and Theatre concentrations. What was striking about this student was that he chose something not "obviously" religious as his subject. Others chose artists, films, or bloggers that were known for their religious identities.